If you’re looking for book recommendations, Gemma Janes’ the gal to talk to. She’s a model, with Jagger-esque bone structure and blue saucer eyes, and at 17 and dropped out of high school to pursue her career. But she picked up where school left off by reading. When Gemma read a great book, she’d post about it on Instagram—soon enough, she was fielding asks for life-changing book reccs (the brilliant, non-obvious things that seem to get left out of curricula) from IRL and digital friends alike. “More and more people became interested, so I wrote to different publishers asking if I could buy 300 books per month to send,” she explains. Eventually, that turned into a project called Sendb00ks. “In order for it to still feel personal, I started to ask different female artists to pick one book they love and would recommend to everyone they know.” Each month, Gemma and her team disseminate one book, with an exclusive cover redesigned by the artist who chose it, to Sendb00ks’ subscriber lists alongside an essay and a link to a podcast.
A book isn’t the sexiest gift, but it is a particularly thoughtful one. “If you have access to books, which most people do, you can learn so much about different cultures and people, and stay curious,” says Gemma compellingly. Plus, they’re so easy to send. Mail one to your friend, your mom, your brother, your partner… all of Gemma’s picks, right this way.
Strange Pilgrims is Sendb00ks’ parcel of the month, chosen by artist Zora Sicher. “Her design for the cover has two planes colliding in the sky,” says Gemma, which was likely inspired by one of the short stories inside called “Sleeping Beauty on the Airplane.” “While sitting next to a sleeping woman on an airplane, Marquez kind of falls in love with her, and throughout the flight imagines their life together. Zora once read the story aloud to her best friend Lua, who is also pictured on her sleeve.” Gemma adds that she’s “sure everybody recognizes the feeling, while commuting in the early morning next to a sleeper,” and because the stories are bite-sized, they’re very accessible for short spurts of reading on public transit. “The other stories in the book have his incredible touch of magical realism, which is nice to lift yourself out of a potentially mundane Christmas season.”
Gemma calls this book “a springboard,” and “definitely the most informative book [she] read this year.” She recommends it for anybody, but somebody who’s interested in the news but wants to put topical events into greater context would likely appreciate it the most. Laing explores what it means to have a body in the world, and touches on the fascinating lives of inspirational women like Nina Simone and artist Agnes Martin who struggled with the constructs of their bodies. “More specifically,” adds Gemma, “the limitations that their bodies gave them in the world.” And in the final pages, she asks the reader to “Imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear.” In Gemma’s words: “I could not put it down, and when I did I was talking about it.” Not only is it thought-inspiring, it’s also gripping and easy to stick to, which some political books are not.
Gemma’s personal crusade? “Get these diaries into the hands of all the men we know.” While she notes that Anaïs Nin also writes great erotic short stories in a small book called Little Birds, which can be fun to gift a partner, her diaries are the star of the show. “She has so much sensitivity and wisdom, and is very honest to herself. Her writing helps us to understand more clearly how we feel about the world and ourselves—she just gets it.” The diaries span her whole life, over a course of seven volumes. Your boyfriend or brother might not have bought this for himself, which is exactly why you should.
“This is a great book to give to someone who’s been struggling with the isolation of the pandemic, or finding it difficult to come back into society,” says Gemma. It was penned by artist and writer Etel Adan, who died very recently (and wrote this book when she was 95 years old). Adan spends a lot of the book musing about solitude. It doesn’t have a plot (with characters and drama) per se, but that doesn’t mean it’s not captivating—a quote to convince you: “You know, sunsets are violently beautiful, I would say that they are so by definition, but there are lights, not even colorful in the habitual sense, lights elemental, mercurial, silvery, sulfurous, copper-made, that make us stop, then lose balance, make us open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one. I wait for those lights, I know some of you do too, wherever you are, I mean when you are standing by an ocean, alone, within the calmness of your spirit. Be planetary.” Gemma says that reading it “feels like watching the sea.”
“I was given this book last year, but I forgot that I had it until recently. I was trying to do some work when I picked it up—it was an amazing distraction because it’s very fragmentary.” Gemma explains that the book is sort of like a fragmentary diary, with Davey walking around New York, making observations, and taking references from the books she’s reading. “She’s so intelligent, and even though each entry is quite light and entertaining, they’re full of so much information that it becomes an incredible learning experience as well.” You can pick it up in the middle, you can pick it up at the end… “It’s nice to read when you’re kind of distracted by other things,” adds Gemma, which makes it a way more fulfilling alternative to social media doom scrolling.
Your friendly neighborhood teenager knows about Harry Potter and Twilight, and there’s a wealth of YA recommendations on BookTok these days too. But if they’re ready for something more elevated, try gifting them Steppenwolf—it’s a classic, but won’t be part of their school curriculum. “Most of my friends read this book when they were like 17, and continued to talk about it for the next three years in every conversation with their friends.” Gemma explains that the book (“which is the kind that can inspire a spiritual awakening”) is all about the choices you make and the many different personalities that exist in a person. “There is one part where the protagonist is in front of several doors, and they’re all different things he can choose for his life—like constant joy, or trust from everyone. He has to choose which door to take.” Any curious teenager—or even adult!—will get hooked.
What book to choose for somebody who…er… doesn’t like to read? The literary big guns: a book so gripping that they can’t possibly put it down, with a well-known writer and not too many pages. “More and more people are discovering the incredible Harlem born novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin following the escalating violence and racial inequality in America,” says Gemma. But this book doesn’t talk about race—it talks about the love between two men. “It’s set in Paris, and it’s just beautiful, raw and real. It grips you from the first page until the end. Plus, it’s a very short book—a novella.” She feels confident that it’s the right book to get any person into reading again. “And then they’ll want to read Another Country, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time…” You get the gist.
Photo via ITG