Austin Kleon Launches a Creative Book Club with Literati
The Austin-based author discusses his city, his creative pursuit and his new gig
By Aaron Parsley
Summer is almost here — so, what’s on your reading list? Austin Kleon is an author based in Austin, Texas, whose best-sellers include Steal Like an Artist, Show your Work! and Keep Going. If you’re looking for fresh titles that will encourage creativity, inspire joy and induce laughter, he’s an ideal literary curator. Literati, a local start-up for bibliophiles, has invited Kleon to lead a book club called “Read Like an Artist,” which promises “insightful, entertaining, relevant, practical, poignant and engaging books that aim to refuel your creative tank.”
Here’s how Literati works: members pay a fee and use the app to discuss book club selections with each other, authors and other curators. Premium members receive hard copies of the books delivered to their doorsteps. There’s also an option to buy other books at a members-only discount.
Literati launched its book clubs in 2020 with selections from Stephen Curry, Malala Yousafazai, Susan Orlean, Richard Branson and the Joseph Campbell Foundation. This year, Kleon is just one of several curators on Literati’s list that also includes Roxane Gay, Elin Hilderbrand, Kelly McGonigal, Cheryl Strayed, Jesmyn Ward and Atlas Obscura. The new round of book clubs will launch June 1. Visit literati.com for more information.
Tribeza asked Kleon about living and writing in Austin, starting an app-based book club and the first selection on his list, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.
Why did you want to start the “Read Like an Artist” book club?
Well, for one thing, I like reading books a lot more than writing them! I used to work in a public library and I still, in a sense, feel like a librarian: Sharing books I like has been a part of my creative practice ever since I started blogging over 15 years ago, and I always share whatever I’m reading every week in my newsletter. A book club seemed like a natural extension of that urge to share books I love.
Have you been a part of other, more traditional book clubs among friends, family or your social circle? What were they like?
I ran a few book clubs when I worked in the library, but I don’t remember the rules. I was probably just happy if anybody showed up. The closest thing in my life to a book club is my wife and I reading whatever David Sedaris essay is in The New Yorker and snickering and quoting lines to each other.
What makes a book club successful?
I don’t know for sure, but I can’t help feeling that most writer’s groups should be reader’s groups. Good writing comes out of good reading.
Besides books, what do you do in your life when creativity runs dry and you need to fill up the well?
I like to take long walks. Travel — being en route — usually works. In the Before Times, I’d fly somewhere for a gig, or stay home and go to the Blanton or the Ransom Center or go see a movie at the Alamo.
Are you the type of person who always finishes reading a book or the type who isn’t afraid to give up on a book that doesn’t excite you?
My single most important piece of advice for people who want to read more is to stop reading books that aren’t doing anything for you. I quit far more books than I finish, which is, paradoxically, why I finish so many.
Why did you pick How to Do Nothing as the first book of your book club?
It was really easy making a long list of books for the club and really hard to pick one for the launch. It’s like choosing the first song on a mixtape, or the first sentence for a book — you have to set a mood. I wanted to start with a book written by a woman who is a working artist. The club starts in June, so I wanted a book that was deep but could also be read on the beach. I wanted a book that’s a little weird but still accessible and a book that speaks to my belief in the creative power of idleness. A northern winter is for hibernation; a southern summer is for estivation.
What do you love about living in Austin?
The food, primarily. You don’t realize how good the food is until you leave. And not just the fancy restaurants or the food trailers; even the local chain restaurants here are good.
What do you dislike about living in Austin?
The allergies. I used to complain about our summer, until I realized it’s hot pretty much everywhere in the summer. And a lot of those places don’t have Texas-sized air-conditioning.
What are a few of your favorite places to visit in Austin?
Since we’re talking books, here are three solid book -hopping mornings or afternoons for the vaccinated in the After Times:
BookPeople on North Lamar. Have a coffee and browse for a few hours. (Optional: browse the vinyl and the selection of 33 ⅓ Books at Waterloo Records across the street.) Then walk down Shoal Creek to our beautiful civic cathedral, The Austin Public Library. Browse the stacks some more and take in the view on the roof. Afterwards, walk next door to Torchy’s for chips and queso.
South Congress Books: Take your new book to Avenue Barbershop to read while you wait for a cut. Get some candy next door. Then mosey north, window shop a bit and then treat yourself to an Italian sub at Homeslice.
Kinokuniya in the Asian plaza at North Lamar and Airport. Stop at 85 Bakery first for a bubble tea and a sweet. Then buy some pens and notebooks and books. Then grab some sushi or something from the grocery store for dinner.
Austin has changed so much and attracted so many new people in recent years. Do you encounter more or less creativity as the city has changed and grown?
I never felt like Austin was some sort of creative mecca. I just felt like it was a nice place to live, and it’s a place that people visit a lot, so they look you up when they’re in town. I have lots of creative friends here, but I never really felt part of any scene. I was just going to work and coming home and making art and later, when my books took off, taking my kids to the park and writing in the garage.
Most of my favorite Austin artists are weirdos who live in quiet neighborhoods and keep mostly to themselves and do their work and occasionally pop up with their “new thing” before disappearing again. As Austin becomes less and less affordable, fewer of those weirdos will be able to stick around. Many of the people you think of as Austin writers or artists don’t actually live within the city limits, but that’s another story.
Is there a downside to “coaching” creativity? Is everyone coachable when it comes to creativity?
My question is: If everybody becomes a coach, who’s going to play?
How do you define “artistic wilderness?”
I have no idea. I mean, getting lost is part of the gig.
Who was your guide through the wilderness? Who was your creativity coach?
My pandemic guides are all weirdos who know how to stay home and make art. Among the dead: Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Among the living: Mary Ruefle, David Hockney and Lynda Barry.