What I’m Reading: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

The last time I read a book for hours straight was in middle school. The book was Harry Potter and the Something or Other. After that things got kind of weird. My attention span got shorter while my book collection grew larger. I was always hunting for a great book, but seldom came across one that could keep me enthralled like books did back then, before I discovered the internet and magazines.

I became a hoarder; rather than reading good books I collected them, and a favorite pastime (still is, actually) became scanning book reviews and checking ratings on Amazon, continually adding to my already insurmountable “wish list” 99% of which is comprised of books (the remaining 1% is devoted to skin care products, most of which I will probably also never get around to, because I’ve only got one face).

My cousin D is a self-proclaimed “Amazon Slut”, his drug of choice being electronics. Once, visiting his otherwise very homey condo strewn with empty cardboard boxes bearing the thick black smile, I wondered why a man should need so many devices. Well, that was before I realized Amazon could bowl a man (and a reading girl) over with its plethora of choice. Anything you want, in dozens if not hundreds, and with reliable-ish reviews to boot. Let’s just say if I didn’t live with my parents and had endless square footage and bookshelves, I’d be the girl who read perched atop a mountain of Amazon boxes. I’m still an ardent patron of bookstores, but sometimes, when you’re too lazy to drive/walk out, Amazon is kind of the next best thing (cue: a thousand independent bookstore owners sobbing).

ANYWAY, ode to Amazon completely unintended – but I had seen Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken everywhere: advertised in magazines and newspapers as well as prominently displayed in bookstores, big chain and independent alike. But dude, that cover. I was like, “Um…not interested.”

You know how the whole online shopping thing works now: you (often unknowingly) tell omniscient algorithms what you “like” and they send their telepathic cyber-slaves scurrying out to find more things that suit your taste. Amazon works in the same way and Hillenbrand’s book relentlessly showed up in all of my “suggested for you” and “if you liked this _______, you will probably also like ______lists. First, (and I realized how completely wrong I was until I finished Unbroken), I always thought I disliked war stories. Second, Hillenbrand’s first book, Seabiscuit, was also something my tastes ignored, despite my tendency to go for national bestsellers. Third, Unbroken is a big fat book and there’s nothing more soul-crushing for a self-proclaimed “reader” than starting a big fat book and realizing that you’ll never finish it because it’s too boring. And too fat.

Well. I finally clicked on the little icon one evening (I think I had just finished watching all of “Dexter: Season 4”) and read the reviews. Over four thousand positive reviews for a book with such a boring cover? My eyebrows shot up and I went into spoiler alert mode, careful to jump over anything that would give the plot or story away. I had zero idea who Louis Zamperini was but I just read about people gushing and gushing about Zamperini’s obstacles (and my GOD were they obstacles) and how Hillenbrand tells the story like a pro. Nonfiction book that reads like a heart-pounding thriller? I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out.” I bought it, forgot about it, was mildly surprised when the book showed up at my doorstep a few days later, flipped through it, and top-shelved it with all my other unread fat books. In my heart, I sort of regretted buying it.

Fast forward six or seven months. Back from two brain dead months in Asia, I was greeted by a giant stack of unread fashion/beauty/travel/news magazines on my desk. I start going through them. After a half dozen issues of lipsticks and fashions I can’t afford I think, “Okay, need to read something more substantive. (I will never cast magazines off as insubstantial. They are, on the right day and time exactly what I need sometimes).” I start a few novels but can’t get into them and I realize I want to read about something real. Maybe it’s because I’m out of touch with reality or whatever (shut up, you working folks), but I see Unbroken languishing on my shelf, startlingly new compared to the rest of my second hand tomes and reach up for it.

I start the first page standing up at my desk, then the second, and before I realize I’ve read twenty pages standing up, not unlike I would have in a bookstore. (Cue: that one time I read Brokeback Mountain standing in the middle of Taipei’s Eslite bookstore and started crying). Then I do something I haven’t done since middle school: I take the book to the living room, turn on the lamp and sit down on one of the chairs by the window. I sit there until dinner time, after which I resume my spot, then carry the book with me into bed and… well, the rest is Betty’s reading history. I laughed out loud, cried, laughed out loud some more, then sobbed. You and I both know only the best life stories stir up that much emotion, and only the best writers can bring it out of a reader who would otherwise have no attachment to her subject. It is one book I’ll never stop recommending to people.

So… if you’re looking for a good book, take it from someone who’s read many but not finished most – Unbroken is, to borrow erudite words from one of my best friends who is the most voracious reader I know, amaze-balls. 

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