At the end of July, lyrical genius Taylor Swift dropped the ultimate quarantine gift: a new album! If you’ve now memorized every single word to folklore, but you’re in the search for some new words to read (or a Christmas gift for a beloved Swiftie friend), I’ve got you covered: here’s what book you should read next, based on your favorite Folklore song!
(PSA: Pick up these books at your local bookstore, if you can! If you don’t have a local bookstore, consider ordering from the Strand, a brilliant independent bookstore in NYC which recently posted a message about needing customer’s support to stay afloat.)
(Double PSA: If you want even more Taylor Swift in your life, I’m teaching a one-day writing workshop on November 6th based on Taylor’s incredible song-writing skills. Find out more here!)
the 1. – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The 1 is a deceivingly happy-sounding song, isn’t it? Despite its upbeat melody, this song reminisces about a past lover – what would life be like if they were still together? Is there such thing as a “true love” Will they ever know what could’ve been? Americanah, an absolute tour-de-force of a novel, gave me the best answers I know to these questions. It follows Ifemelu and Obinze, who are “are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.” They’re separated for fifteen years, but this novel answers the question “what could’ve been” when they’re reunited in newly democratic Nigeria.
cardigan – Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Just as Cardigan features a woman reminiscing about a past love, Straub’s novel follows three former college bandmates. “Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth. But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch (of sexuality, independence, and the ineffable alchemy of cool) to their own offspring.” This novel captures youthful love – in the moment and years and years later, much like this song. But of course, we know everything when we’re young.
the last great american dynasty – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
“Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love…but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.” The glamorous woman who shocked the public! The scandalous marriage! Very long titles! The connection to the present day, much like Taylor herself! Perfect match.
exile (featuring bon iver) – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
In this duet, Taylor Swift and bon iver sing their separate verses as if exiled form each other. The chorus, “You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defending now? / You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out,” made me think of another story where two people used to share a town in a literal sense. In Brit Bennet’s novel The Vanishing Half, identical twin sisters grow up together in a small, southern Black community. But “many years later, one sister lives with her Black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past.” The twins are exiled from each other by time, distances, and lies, but “the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?”
my tears ricochet – The Book Thief by Mark Zusak
This song has is one of Taylor’s boldest songwriting moves yet: the narrator is speaking to us from beyond the grave! (Okay, the “funeral” and betrayal could also be metaphors for Taylor’s ongoing fight for rights to the songs she wrote, but for the sake of this book recc, let’s take the song literally.) Pair it with a book that makes a similarly bold stylistic choice: The Book Thief, which boasts Death himself as a narrator.
mirrorball – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Things that Mirrorball by Taylor Swift and On Earth by Ocean Vuong have in common: 1. Both make me think about the way we become around the people who want to love us back, acting like mirrorballs, simply reflecting our loved ones back to themselves, until we break ”in a million pieces.” So gorgeous, so brief, which reminds me of how 2. “the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” and 3. both made me cry.
seven – Bink & Gollie by Alison McGhee and Kate DiCamillo
I love seven!! I love stories about childhood friendships!! The characters in “seven” are dealing with family troubles and other difficult subjects, and discuss running away together – read “Bink & Gollie” to imagine what their lives might be like if, in another world, they did. This book follows Bink and Gollie, who live in a super-deluxe treehouse and feast on peanut butter and waffles. They are best friends – or, as they prefer to call each other, adventure-seeking companions. This book and seven are both wonderful odes to the wonder and power of girls’ friendships.
august – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Ughhhhhhh. I want to say that august hurts like a punch to the gut, but the pain isn’t that sudden. August is the long minutes before you go to sleep, slow and lonely and nostalgic and lurching. August is slow-burn sadness. And so is We Are Okay. This stunning, queer, atmospheric novel is a book that understands loneliness unlike any other. These narrators are “living for the hope of it all.”
this is me trying – The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
“In the twilight of a mysterious childhood full of wonder, Billy Argo, boy detective, is brokenhearted to find that his younger sister and crime-solving partner, Caroline, has committed suicide. Ten years later, Billy, age thirty, returns from an extended stay at St. Vitus’ Hospital for the Mentally Ill to discover the world full of unimagi-nable strangeness…along a path laden with hidden clues and codes that dare the reader to help Billy decipher the mysteries he encounters, the boy detective may learn the greatest secret of all: the necessity of the unknown.” Let’s just say that I think Billy Argo would really relate to the lyrics “They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential” and “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here.” Both the song and the book feature burnout narrators down on their luck – but they’re trying.
illicit affairs – Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Taylor’s song chronicles the heartbreak of being the other woman, while “Stag’s Leap” offers the other side of the story: a woman whose husband now loves someone else. This aching and tender collection tells the story of a divorce. As Taylor would say, “it dies and it dies and it dies / A million little times.” And as Sharon Olds would say – ““When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.”
invisible string – Meet Cute (Anthology)
This song is about the cute coincidences of love and life and it makes my heart very warm!!! This is a YA short story collection about people who meet by chance, though often it feels like something bigger…”like all along, there was some invisible string tying youuuuu to MEEEEEEeeeee.” Read this for the same smile you have in your face when you listen to this song.
mad woman – Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Oh look! Taylor Swift and Carmen Maria Machado, two of my absolute favorite writers for very different reasons! This song has a tinge of the surreal in it (“Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn?” and “women like hunting witches, too”) that make me think of Machado’s collection of feminist, queer horror stories. Her prose “bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.” In other words, “no one likes a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / You made her like that.”
epiphany – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
epiphany captures the atrocities of violence, whether that’s a military battle Taylor’s grandfather fought in or the current global pandemic. The exquisite imagery describing unfathomable pain reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, a novel about “a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”
betty – Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki
Betty is a song about teenage love and teenage mistakes. In that spirit (and also in the spirit of the song being embraced by the queer community), try this graphic novel. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking up With Me follows Freddy, who’s dating her dream girl, Laura Dean…except for the fact that Laura Dean is perhaps not as great of a girlfriend as she’d thought. This is a great story of complicated first love, with art as beautiful as a Taylor Swift bridge.
peace – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
“Our coming of age has come and gone / Suddenly this summer it’s clear.” Okay, well, Aristotle and Dante haven’t quite come of age in the beginning of this wonderful novel, but we watch them grow up, The lines “Your integrity makes me seem small / You paint dreamscapes on the wall” made me think of Aristotle and Dante’s relationship – there are many differences between them, but they admire each other so fully for what the other is.
hoax – How to Love the Empty Air by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
This pick was inspired by the lines: “Your faithless love’s the only hoax / I believe in / Don’t want no other shade of blue / But you / No other sadness in the world would do.” What kind of love is so unconditional that in any other circumstances we’d call it a hoax? What kind of love would you want to be sad for? What a devastating thought. For me, it’s a mothers love. This made me think of the heartbreaking poetry collection How to Love the Empty Air, which chronicles the life of the poet in the wake of her mothers death, with incredible lines such as “to elope with this grief, / who is not your enemy, / this grief who maybe now is your best friend. / This grief, who is your husband, / the thing you curl into every night, / falling asleep in its arms…”
bonus track: the lakes – Felicity by Mary Oliver
Nature as muse! Cottage core sapphic vibes! Clever word play! It’s Mary Oliver, just thank me later!