I read everything I can get my hands on. OK, I don’t read much poetry. My bad. I do like hearing it recited though. One of the few benefits of coronavirus sheltering has been the extra reading time it affords me.

My favorite reading experience is to read a good novel alongside a good nonfiction book, especially if the two complement each other in some interesting way, elevating both. I’ve come to think of these fact/fiction combinations along the lines of a good food and wine pairing. Without sounding too much like TV’s wine snob Frazier Crane, the well-matched reading experience offers subtle notes of toasty oak with a chewy tannin finish; a piquant blend of celebration and cerebration. OK, that sounds just like Frazier. But you get the point.

Here’s some examples of inspired book pairings that make for a delicious (mental) meal:

Try reading James Shapiro’s “Shakespeare in a Divided America” with Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Any Shakespeare play will do, but “JC” is a nice match, as one of Shapiro’s chapters focuses on a 2016 outdoor staging of that play in New York City in which Caesar looks just like Donald Trump. You can imagine the right-wing’s outrage, considering the despotic leader’s bloody fate at the hands of a group of conspiratorial senators. Et tu Biden?

Equally satisfying, pair “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson’s best-selling examination of Winston Churchill’s leadership at the start of WWII with Ken Follett’s page-turning novel “Eye of the Needle.” The latter follows the exploits of a deep-cover Nazi spy who learns the true location of the Allied Force’s planned D-Day attack and gets stopped from relaying his discovery to Hitler by a brave, sex-starved, island-dwelling woman. Got your attention?

“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is a captivating piece of fiction by Kim Michele Richardson about the Blue People of Kentucky (no kidding, they’re blue) and the Works Progress Administration’s rural library project during the Great Depression. It pairs well with J.D. Vance’s popular, albeit controversial, memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” The novel’s protagonist delivers books via mule to poor people living in the “hollers” – very inspirational. Vance’s book examines poverty, illiteracy and drug abuse rampant among Appalachian country folk from the perspective of an ambitious backwoods kid who escapes via the Marines and Yale University.

There’s no “red wine with beef, white wine with fish” pretense here. If your fiction and nonfiction choices “taste” good together, cognitively speaking, it’s all good. Pull up a comfortable reading chair to the table and feast. I like to read fiction in the morning with coffee and a clear head, and nonfiction at night with wine and a fuzzy head. Simply adjust your reading schedule (and drinking preferences) to your own personal taste buds and biorhythms.

When you get the hang of this, you can rip through a lot of books and be better informed and well entertained to boot. Just as cookery and oenology go together, a well-paired reading experience serves up food for thought.


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