Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
“When I was fourteen, I made a pilgrimage—to see a dress.” So begins the introduction to Véronique Hyland’s debut Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion from the New Look to Millennial Pink (Harper Collins). The collection of 15 essays examines various fashion motifs—both old and new—and the historical contexts that shape them. Think: the “French girl” aesthetic, the omnipresence of “athleisure,” and the rise of “normcore.”
For several years, Hyland has been writing and thinking about the many ways that our clothes shape us. The Manhattan-based writer and editor is Fashion Features Director at ELLE, where she writes the weekly column Style Points about how fashion intersects with the wider world. She previously held positions as the Fashion News Editor at The Cut, Associate Features Editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and Associate Fashion Editor at WWD. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, W, New York Magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler. In 2016, she coined the term “millennial pink” (read more about that here).
Likes: Strong black loose-leaf tea, anything British, musicals by William Finn and Dave Malloy, short-lived single-topic publications like Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, reading about low-stakes disasters (e.g. the making of Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities.)
The book that:
…made me miss a train stop:
Well, not a train, but I picked up Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women before flying home from a photo shoot in L.A., and the next thing I knew, a flight attendant was informing me that we’d landed twenty minutes ago. Anyone who’s read it will know exactly what I mean!
…made me weep uncontrollably:
When I met the designer and artist Osman Yousefzada, we immediately bonded over books–a kinship that’s been forged in several tearooms since. He was kind enough to send me an early copy of his memoir The Go-Between, which comes out in the U.S. in April. It’s a moving and textured account of growing up as part of the Pashtun community in Birmingham, England, where he finds himself becoming an emissary between worlds: both that of men and women, and that of his community and the world outside it. His recall for details and his ability to make so many figures from his past come to vibrant life is truly astounding; I felt like I was living his life along with him.
…I recommend over and over again:
Insurrecto, a fictional meditation on Filipino history, colonialism and translation by Gina Apostol, who also happens to be my ninth-grade English teacher. Ms. Apostol is not only an experimental novelist who studied with John Barth at Johns Hopkins, her fashion sense is unparalleled – she wore neon boas to class! That definitely made an impression, the idea that you didn’t have to be some penitent in sackcloth and tweed to be serious about writing.
…shaped my worldview:
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction about climate change, but Omar El Akkad’s novel American War was the first thing that truly helped me picture what a worst-case scenario of the future could look like.
…made me rethink a long-held belief:
I’ve always hated winter and still do, but Wintering, by Katherine May, which I read during the harrowing winter of 2020, looks at the power of cold-weather traditions from different cultures and makes an argument for why the season is an opportunity for rest, retreat and communion with nature. I’m not sure I’ll be going for a sauna followed by a bracing roll in the snow à la the Finns anytime soon, but it certainly shifted my thinking a bit.
…I read in one sitting, it was that good:
I Lost My Girlish Laughter by Jane Allen is a fun ’30s Old Hollywood satire that recently got a critical re-appraisal and will fly by like the frames of a Preston Sturges classic.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Isaac Butler’s The Method. As a failed actor, I’m fascinated by Stanislavski and his hold over everyone from Moscow theater actors in the early 1910’s to modern-day Hollywood stars. I’ve always been kind of suspicious of Method acting (in my experience, people mainly use it as an excuse to be annoying) but I’m excited to learn more about its origins.
…made me laugh out loud:
Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing, which is told entirely in Slack chats, so perfectly captured the specific argot of that medium, and went so far with its bizarro premise but managed to deliver.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Besides my own, you mean? I’m kind of astounded that Ling Ma’s fascinating and ultra-topical Severance (not related to the Apple TV show of the same name) hasn’t gotten the small-screen treatment yet. Between its pandemic setting and its supernatural elements, it would make for unbeatable viewing.
…I last bought:
Hangsaman, by Shirley Jackson, at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, New York. A delicious, poisonous chocolate cake of a novel that deserves to be as well-known as her other work.
…has the best title:
I recently spied a book at Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown, MA called Memoirs of a Public Baby. I think that one qualifies (and I’m mad that title is taken!)
…has the best opening line:
It’s tough to beat the chutzpah of Rousseau’s The Confessions: “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator.” OK, my guy!!
…I’ve re-read the most:
I’m not a big re-reader, or re-experiencer of things. I don’t usually watch movies more than once, or even return to the same destinations. I just think life is too short, and you’ve gotta keep it moving. That said, I always go back to a book that didn’t get enough attention, in my view. Hilary Thayer Hamman’s Anthropology of an American Girl, which the author originally self-published, was then picked up by Spiegel & Grau. It’s a coming-of-age novel that does that impossible thing: feels like real life, while simultaneously being as high-stakes as the best fiction.
…I consider literary comfort food:
Anything by Edmund Crispin, who wrote a series of mysteries about Oxford don Gervase Fen. The Moving Toyshop is a favorite.
…makes me feel seen:
Marathon city walks complete with lots of people-watching are my favorite (read: only) form of exercise, so Teju Cole’s Open City, which is about a fellow New York flâneur, made me feel less like a weirdo for engaging in this hobby.
…features the most beautiful book jacket:
Persephone Books in London re-issues titles by women that have been overlooked, and they have the most beautiful sleek seal-gray jackets with interiors in these stunning patterns. The last time I was there, I bought E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.
…everyone should read, because it will make you appreciate everything you read afterward:
I’m not a fan of books that attempt to explain “how fiction works” because I would rather be transported and not analyze it to death. This is also why I didn’t major in English. But I’ll make an exception for George Saunders because A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which is based on a popular class he teaches at Syracuse University, is a close reading of what Marc Maron would call my “guys” (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol) that helps illuminate the craft of telling a story. I’m admittedly a Russian literature freak, but I think anyone who enjoys fiction would get a lot out of it.
…I could only have discovered at:
Blenheim Hill Books in Hobart, NY (upstate New York’s fabled “book town”) recently re-opened after suffering a devastating fire, and I can’t wait to go back. Owners Barbara Balliet and Cheryl Clarke have such a carefully curated yet wide-ranging selection, and it’s where I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man, an absorbing unpacking of the “independent outdoorsman” trope. (Did I make a dedicated trip up there on my birthday and bring a literal fishing net to carry my book-spoils in? Not no.)
…fills me with hope:
Any of Annie Dillard’s writing. Holy the Firm is one of those books that excels at revelation density: so many epiphanies packed into only about 75 pages.
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are two of my favorite writers, and I’ve pretty much burned through their work and all the writing about them, so I was looking for a new stylish literary noir author. I initially dismissed Ross Macdonald because the covers of his books can look kind of pulpy. Do not make this mistake! They are excellent: California-cool wry martinis with lines that make you sit up straighter, like this one from The Barbarous Coast: “A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.” A lot of cool people are in my corner here: Eudora Welty was so besotted with Macdonald that they ended up exchanging hundreds of letters, he helped Warren Zevon get clean and Zevon later dedicated an album to him, and supposedly the Coen brothers are adapting The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
…I’d want signed by the author:
Well, if that would entail bringing the author back from the dead, then John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, because I have a lot to ask him about!
…taught me this Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:
The last letter in the English alphabet wasn’t always “Z,” it was “&.” From Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
Oh, I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, well before it was asked here.
Bookstore: Blackwell’s in Oxford. I went on a trip there once, after London Fashion Week, where all I did was visit libraries and historic sites on campus. Hot tip: if you sweet-talk the guard at University College, he’ll let you sneak into the Shelley memorial. I’d then finish up my day at this 143-year-old bookstore, parking my carcass in The Norrington Room, the famous basement area with three miles of books. Every day they closed at 6 p.m. (England!) and would have to politely kick me out. (For the record, I did buy many books from them throughout this stint, I didn’t just use it as an Airbnb!)
Library: Either the Bodleian at Oxford (those in the know call it “The Bod”) or the National Library of Victoria in Melbourne.
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