Stacey Abrams about books

These periodic columns about well-known authors and their relationships with books can be absolute gems — like this one.

Credit…Jillian Tamaki

May 7, 2021

Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician and romance writer, whose latest novel is the thriller “While Justice Sleeps,” recommends “Master of the Senate,” by Robert Caro: “It is a seminal work on the nature of power, the limits of the presidency and the awesome demands politics make on the soul.”

What books are on your night stand?

I read several genres at once, rotating through as the mood strikes me. My long read right now is “The Coldest Winter,” by David Halberstam. My sibling book club picked “Ring Shout,” by P. Djeli Clark, which is paced wonderfully so it will not be over too soon (but luckily before our call). A recent discussion with my niece reminded me how much I love fairy tales of all kinds, so I decided to dive into “Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monsters and Magic.”

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I had it a few weeks ago. Georgia’s mercurial weather shifted from an unreasonable 48 degrees to a balmy 75 degrees over the weekend. Knowing how soon it could be 25 degrees or 89 degrees, I filled my water bottle, poured myself a glass of Martinelli’s apple juice, and picked up “Black Sun,” by Rebecca Roanhorse. Soon, I was outside on the patio in the springtime, midafternoon, with my feet up on the ottoman and my reading glasses perched on my nose.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“What’s Bred in the Bone,” by Robertson Davies, is a novel about a man whose life contained much more than the surface would suggest, including espionage and angels. Davies was a distinguished Canadian author, and this is Book 2 of his Cornish Trilogy (“The Rebel Angels” and “The Lyre of Orpheus” are first and third). I usually recommend the book to folks who ask me for a good book list. Rarely has anyone heard of him or the novel, which is a shame.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures, or comfort reads?

No, I appreciate good writing and strong storytelling — whether the book is a serial killer thriller or a philosopher’s biography. When I began publishing, I wrote under the pen name Selena Montgomery for my romantic suspense novels. I started publishing just as Google became a “thing” in our world. At the same time my first novel was being released, I had also published my masterwork on the operational dissonance in the unrelated business income tax. I made the very reasonable assumption that someone looking for romance would not trust a tax policy wonk. I’ve been privileged to write in romance, thriller, leadership and politics. Nothing that tells a good story should ever cause chagrin.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

I am the second of six children, and we grew up in a house of books. Our mom was a librarian and our parents would take us to the public library every summer to stock up on entertainment. When one of my siblings faced a difficult time, we created the book club as a place to escape and to connect. Getting to understand one another as adults through our book picks and the conversations we have has been an unexpected delight, and I am mildly afraid of them sometimes …

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The tragic misunderstanding is a familiar trope, but when done well, the device can rip your heart out. I despise novels that try to manipulate the reader by refusing to solve obvious misapprehensions. If I find myself yelling at the protagonist to just tell her, or for the dupe to simply read the letter he dropped, then I’m likely to put the book down and walk away. But when the writer has crafted a sincere or, better yet, sly confusion, the ensuing tragedy and its ultimate reveal are gut-wrenching. Two of my favorites writers who do this well are Elizabeth Lowell and Pearl Cleage.

Which books got you hooked on romance?

“Jane Eyre” was the first romance I ever read, full of tortured souls and broken people. Then my older sister introduced me to the wonderful world of Harlequin romances, which arrived in a four-pack every month.

How do you organize your books?

Fiction on one side of the shelves (poetry, classics, general fiction, romance, thrillers, comic books, etc.) and nonfiction on the other side (political biography, general biography, history, science, social science and so on). My mother began her career as a college librarian before becoming a United Methodist minister. I was raised on the Dewey Decimal System and believe in its innate charms.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus.” In order to be an effective leader, I work hard to understand the theories, beliefs and dreams of those who differ from me. I also learn best by contrasting my sense of leadership with others who seem to be my antithesis in style or substance.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card. I recognize the challenges with Card’s personal beliefs, but long before I learned of them, I read “Ender’s Game” and then every other book he’d penned. Controversial writers and even their divisive writings can compel others to abandon or disclaim them. I approach reading as I do my public service: trying to create space for forgiveness and grace, while never letting go of my own moral code.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious, avid and unpretentious are probably the best descriptors. Because I had access to an entire library from the time I learned to read, I consumed a wide range of books. Among my favorites are “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears,” by Verna Aardema, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster, “Silas Marner,” by George Eliot, Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and “Helen Keller: The Story of My Life.”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Master of the Senate,” by Robert Caro — it is a seminal work on the nature of power, the limits of the presidency and the awesome demands politics make on the soul.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Colson Whitehead, Charles Dickens and Octavia Butler — fascinating writers who carved out their own dominions in literature and who, in wholly unique fashion, changed writing for the rest of us.

What books do you think best capture your own political principles?

“Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire, to understand my commitment to engaging and centering the disadvantaged and marginalized in my politics, entrepreneurship and activism. The In Death series, by J. D. Robb, centers on a broken, brilliant detective who has to learn to reconcile her core morality with the accommodations we must make if others are going to be included in the process. “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro, describes how bureaucracy and power can create beauty, function and opportunity while also serving as a reminder of the casual cruelty of racism, classism and rank arrogance. “Down the Line,” by Bayard Rustin, written by the man who helped design and execute the March on Washington and so much of the architecture of the civil rights movement, is a meditation on leadership and vision and how to sublimate your personal ambitions to a larger objective. “Prophet of Innovation,” by Thomas K. McGraw, which is the biography of a conservative economist who grappled with the cycles of progress and destruction in our economy, an ever-present challenge for anyone who wants to be effective in politics.

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