I had a lovely conversation with Costa (@NotThatCosta) about all things books. His TikTok account is one of my favourite to follow to hear some fascinating book reviews and recommendations. Fair to say that after this episode, my 'to be read list' has grown much larger! The books mentioned in this episode includes:
Some of our topics discussed were:
First and foremost, Costa, thank you for agreeing to come on the podcast.
Yeah, no problem. It's a Saturday, I had nothing else on, so...
So the first thing I want to ask you actually is how did you get into reading books and was there any book that ignited your interest?
funny story, I didn't really start reading books until I was like 21. When I was younger, I never really enjoyed reading. I felt like I was forced to at school. So my form tutor made us bring a book in and I would literally have a book open and I would pretend to read it and pick the pages just because I never liked fiction. So I always read newspapers and magazines instead and I liked watching news. But it wasn't until I kind of, after I graduated university, I was actually kind of craving.
the studying aspect. So I started to pick up books I had read parts of for my course and then I just finished them and then kind of snowballed during the pandemic. And a book that really ignited my interest, I think I decided I liked dystopian fiction because I read 1984 by George Orwell and I really enjoyed that book when I was like 15.
I did a module about the psychology of race. And there was a book called Why All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum. And I really enjoyed that book because it kind of took a...
It was almost written like an academic journal. Like there was just a lot of, I like a lot of dates and a lot of evidence when you're kind of talking about a topic, just really thinking about the whole system. And I just thought she put that book together really, really well. And I think it's quite very, it's like very popular and like seminal as a book in America, but it wasn't really something I'd heard of in the UK. But I read it for my course and I really, really enjoyed it. And then I finished the whole book even though I didn't need to. And then that kind of started an interest.
actually reading books and then from there I just started with non-fiction and then worked my way through to fiction after that.
Ah, so what do you look for when it comes to deciding your next read then, Costa?
I have a list of like 200 books on my notes app at this point, and I pick up books from all sorts of places. I have a lot of friends who studied English lit for some reason, and they recommend me books. I had a friend's Goodreads account. He sent me a list of his reading lists, and I copied a bunch of those as well. That was mostly political theory books, so that was kind of a basis. But then I have loads of newsletters that I follow, accounts that I follow that recommend
And then now TikTok is really good for book recommendations. So it's become a thing of just like, I just pick up recommendations wherever I go. And it kind of, it's kind of out of control at this point. But I just, I kind of just look at the blurb. Usually if it's over 500 words, I'll avoid it unless it's really recommended. So if it's like of a decent length, so like less than 400 words, not words, pages even, less than 400 pages, I would like say, I think I can handle that. And then.
I have like a list of themes in like my list is broken up by themes and then technique, like generally if it's a book that is recommended to me and it falls within those categories, I'll give it a try.
Yeah, I noticed that you tend to discuss books that aren't over 400 pages. How come you prefer to read books that are much shorter than the longer kind, for lack of a better term?
I think it's an attention span thing. I don't really have the attention span to be reading books that are like 600 pages. I have a colleague who only reads like Russian literature, like from the early 20th century, that's like a thousand pages or more. And I'm the complete opposite. I like picking up ideas and I find it hard to... I just feel like someone who's a really good writer can articulate their ideas really succinctly.
And if you can't do that, then I kind of am skeptical over what the quality of your writing is going to be. But maybe that's me being overly judgmental because I've read books that are really long and I've really enjoyed them, but I just don't tend to do it very often.
I'll be honest when it comes to me listening to audiobooks.
If they're like 24 hours, I'm more likely not going to listen to it. You know, it's a long, long time, even 17. Like I much prefer the single digit numbers. I can do the double digits. I can do the double digits, but I much prefer the single. I'm like, okay, this one, I can finish this one fairly quickly. And I'm sure, I'm sure whatever it wants to get across within that short space of time, I'll be able to pick it up. But on a lot of occasions.
Yeah, that's a lot.
If it's like more than 12, 14 hours, I just start to switch off quite a bit myself, to be honest, I'm not gonna lie. But what I was gonna say, what I wanted to ask you as well is, how has some of the books you've read contributed, if any way, to a broader understanding of societal and cultural issues?
Well, I think, especially if you, I mean, again, I'd always been aware that like literature and writing and books are like a really important, like, cause for social good in the world. Like that's always been something I've been aware of. Like I used to go to my library as a child all the time. I just didn't read the books, but I was, I enjoyed being in those spaces. I liked going to bookshops even when I was a kid. I just liked being around books. I just liked the kind of limitless of the knowledge and the fact that
books are so abundant. I thought that was really interesting as well. But I think what I'm really into at the moment is like memoirs that kind of place a person within society. I have a few. So like that and like essay collections that also do the same. So on the topic of like length, I like an essay collection. That's like different writers combined because again, it means that you have like
loads of different ideas put into one place, which I quite enjoy the convenience of that. But a really good example of this phenomenon is Natives by Akala. It's a memoir, but it also speaks about history, global history, but kind of centers Akala as an individual within that. And I think that's quite a hard thing to do because I've seen some authors not do it particularly well. And I've covered these on my TikTok page, and some people get really annoyed when I say
the anecdotal and people just talking about their own experiences rather than trying to, I guess, make claims about whole swathes of people in a way that doesn't feel very authentic. But I think natives are by Carla, Emma de Beery, unorthodox by Deborah Fieldman. These books, I think, do a fantastic job of, again, this idea of the personal is political, I'm very interested in.
Just because I think especially growing up in London, you hear so many people's stories and you feel very much part of a society when you're in a big city. So I think that's always shaped my perception of books as well in that way.
Brilliant. Yeah, I really, really enjoyed that. It was by Carla, actually. I listened to all of your book and I read the physicals. Well, that's how much I enjoyed it. He did, yeah. So another question I wanted to ask you is, do you mind sharing an instance where a book has challenged any of your preconceived notions or made you reconsider a particular topic?
Did he narrate the audio book? Oh, nice, okay.
Yes, I'm trying to think of a good example.
it has to be non-fiction it can't be fiction. I think James Baldwin's writing is a good example of kind of challenging like again the idea of an individual who is kind of like
No, could be any, could be any.
living in a way that kind of, I guess, breaking precedent. I think that always challenges me. The idea of you don't actually have to be treading a path that's particularly well trodden. I think especially his work about Paris and the move to Paris and how that kind of shaped him as a writer was really interesting to read about. There's another book, I guess, the books I haven't enjoyed also shaped me. So there's two in particular. One is called
I just think it's a book of two halves, and that's kind of what I speak about. I think the parts about her life are really interesting, and the parts about where it's like half memoir, half nonfiction, and the nonfiction aspects, she doesn't really provide a lot of citations a lot of the time. And I'm very, again, maybe that's just my kind of academic background. I'm very much like, I want evidence, but again, maybe that's kind of also like, problematic in some ways to kind of expect someone to kind of have evidence for things I don't say, because there's reasons why there's not data for certain things. So I think that was challenging to me.
And also there's another book, I read it this year, just wanna make sure I get the right title. Oh, Black Boy by Richard Wright. I think just understanding America more in its wholeness and its totality is challenging because I'm from a very like European, West Asian, British context. So that's my world. So as I think about America, just like the scale of America and American history wasn't something I was really exposed to until quite recently. So I think that's been...
been challenging because it's just a different paradigm to adjust to. But I tried to think I'm like politically, my, my ideals are quite open. I like to be, I like to have my perspectives shaped and challenged quite often. It's quite, it's quite a healthy thing, I think.
Mm-hmm. And are there any specific genres you enjoy more than others, such as history or social commentary and memoirs? Because one thing I did notice is that you don't really post much about self-help books.
That is a good point. I actually have a small list of self-help books in my reading list. I just haven't really read a lot of them, but they are there. I will get to them eventually, I think. I guess I'm quite skeptical over people who write self-help books, to be honest. In the pandemic, my friends, we started a book club. It didn't last long because book clubs never do for some reason. It's like a thing. But I think her name was, her name, Emily something.
It's not really self-help, it's more about sexual liberation, but it's directed at like... people have vaginas, which isn't me, so I guess it kind of went over my head. But there were some aspects about, again, the idea of pleasure and what that is. It's quite interesting. Emmeline Nagoski is her name, so she writes a lot. I guess that's kind of self-help, and I thought that, again, I don't really read that drama very often, so that was a good observation on your part. I don't.
I think, yeah, so I have like, one of my cousins is really into like motivational speakers and self-help and that kind of stuff. I managed an 18 year old placement student at work recently, and he was really into like motivational speakers. He did his like EPQ on Arnold Schwarzenegger doing this like amazing, like really influential, like motivational speech that he does a lot of those speak engagements. I was just like, that is a whole world and that's completely beyond me. It's not something I'm really engaged in.
But yeah, I do have a list of self-help. It's so little, it has five books on it. But I am interested in immersing myself in that world a little bit more, because I think it's definitely a blind spot for me.
Are they popular books or are they the lesser known ones? What would you say?
I don't know. I think one is quite well known. It's called On Connection by Kate Tempest, who's like a really well-known poet. I think Kate Tempest was nominated for the Mercury Prize for one of her albums before, so I think she's quite well known. And then, yeah, I don't know. Again, I kind of add books without putting much research. I literally look on their kind of, the blurb online. I'm like, does this sound like it's interesting? Does it have a nice cover? It's really important as well.
I'm very shallow and if the book has an ugly cover I think that's also why I don't really a lot of fantasy because I think fantasy books tend to have a really horrible cover which puts me off. Yeah it's so tacky it's like do you know like heavy metal kind of albums they're just like who designed this? I'm quite design focused I like something to look nice a bit shallow but so yeah there's five books I can share that list with you off the call you can tell me if the things you've heard of because I get the impression that you like that kind of thing.
Mm-hmm. Heh, heh, heh.
Yeah, they've got gold and silver stuff all around it and that. Yeah.
No, it's just an observation I had, but it's not my bag at all, I'm not gonna lie. Nah.
I thought you'd be like, I thought you were kind of all about it. And I was like, okay, well, now I feel bad. But again, I'm open to kind of seeing if there's anything there for me. I just don't think there is because I'm kind of, I've quite good. I think I've quite like a, I've quite, I'm quite a motivated person. I don't think I need an, some author to tell me to be motivated.
Yeah, I just feel as though there's only so many ways someone can tell you to be motivated as well. I feel like after you've read one, you've kind of got the gist of all of them personally. I think I read one and I was like, okay, this is great. Like you take away like five or six quotes from it. You can live by those five or six quotes. And, you know, I feel as though you can move forward from that. Affirmation is quite powerful, I feel, but constantly having to read it from one person and then another person and then another person, it's just...
Sometimes it dilutes the message sometimes I feel but that's my opinion
Yeah, I feel like to some extent I'm sceptical about that drama because I feel like it's like innately a cash grab and quite exploitative. But then it makes me think surely every kind of nonfiction literature is a cash grab if that makes sense. If you're trying to sell an idea of like the world, that's also a cash grab. But then that's probably a lot more nuanced to that. But I think also if it's self-help, I need it to acknowledge that capitalism is not great and that climate change is like a happening thing.
So I feel like it's easy, especially like a lot of like business development books. I read a few of those for work. I don't talk about them very often because they're not very interesting, but I read them for work because it's like part of my job to read about that kind of stuff, like product development and things like that. And I feel like they kind of, it's from a very pro capitalist place. And I think it's interesting to talk about business in so much detail and not acknowledge how like life's just life destroying, like financial hardship. And when you
businesses fail and that kind of stuff. The externalities, as it's called in economics, the fact that's not discussed from my understanding is very bizarre. So if there's a book out there that is self-help that acknowledges about being resilient and thriving in the face of these challenges, I think I would be interested in that because I think that's something that's important for people.
If one of the five books that you have on your shortlist is one of them, let me know so I could check it out myself then.
I'll let you know when I eventually get to them. I think On Connection is really, I think it's like 100 pages. Because Kate Tempest is a poet, I think, generally her books are quite short. So maybe I'll start there and work my way down.
Okay. Another question I wanted to ask you, Kosta, is, is there a book that you often find yourself referencing or recommending to others because of how insightful it is?
I think Natives by Carlo is a good example. There's another one that's kind of similar, called Don't Touch My Hair by Emma Daburi. Because again, it does that thing of like, basically taking on the entire world and like centuries of history, but also connecting it to one individual. I just love that when it's done well. But then there's another book that I want to talk about that's completely different. It's called Municipal Dreams.
by, I'll get his name. He actually wrote, so he used to write a blog about housing by John, John Borton, I think his name is. And it basically is just like the history of social housing from like the origins of it to the present day. I'm very interested in housing. I'm like a housing campaigner on the side. I've been for like eight years now. I mean, I'm not very good at it because I haven't built any houses yet, but.
I've been doing housing work for quite a while and I'm just obsessed with housing. So this book has a really foundational text for me, even though I read it quite a lot later into me actually doing campaigning. And again, I think we're at a point in British society where we're actually slowly starting to re-evaluate our perceptions of social housing. And it's about time.
Slowly but surely, hopefully. Yeah, slowly but surely. That's a topic that's quite close to me as well, housing, or working housing. So, yeah, yeah. But yeah, another question I want to ask you actually, Costa, is do you mind sharing a nonfiction book that completely changed your perspective on a certain topic? And how did it influence your thinking?
Oh, okay, great, I didn't know that.
Let me find a good example.
Okay, so one of the first non-fiction books I ever read was called The Extreme Centre by Tarek Ali. I read this when I was like 16, I think, and it's basically a big attack on the Labour Party, but not just the Labour Party, the idea of being a centrist in general. And at the time,
I had joined the Labour Party because I was in sixth form and I wanted to put on my UCAS application. It wasn't because I was a staunch Labour supporter, but I wanted it for my UCAS. It just seemed like an easy thing to do. And it was just like, basically, again, this is a pre-Brexit book as well. And it's basically like, this is why being a centrist is damaging. And this is the kind of repercussions of it. I can't say if it's an amazing book because I read it 10 years ago now, almost.
But it really did kind of, it was my introduction to a more kind of radical out of the box way of thinking about politics. And I think I really needed that because it did kind of start this chain reaction in how I engaged in politics from there on. And it didn't really put me off. It actually made me want to like immerse myself in politics. And I think it's quite top of mind for me because I'm now again, re-evaluating my relationship with politics in my mid twenties. So.
I will say that it's a good book, especially if you're speaking about young people in general, I think that's a really good starting point. It's really easy to read. It's probably aged quite well, even though it's quite old now, by modern standards, but definitely worth reading if you're interested in understanding centrism as a concept.
I think I don't want to butcher the phrase. You might be able to quote a bit of the Niacan, but I think Margaret Thatcher said something along the lines of one of the greatest things she'd done was having someone like Tony Blair come in and forcing labor to change essentially, because they've more or less became a center left for lack of a better term party at the time. And I mean, we could all see how that's gone, I guess.
Yeah, wow. I don't know much about Thatcher to be honest, besides like, the impact on housing. Oh yeah, that too. I mean, there's one of the most... Again, I think it's interesting. I didn't expect to go down the Thatcher rabbit hole, but when you think about how impactful Margaret Thatcher was, it does...
I was going to say taking away the milk from the kids.
Again, it's a reminder of how important politics is and how much it impacts our day-to-day lives. I feel like a lot of people don't realize how much politicians and politics changes our lives. And Margaret Thatcher definitely did in a lot of ways. But yeah, I do think that's a good example. Again, it's very British in context, but definitely a lot of transferable things for Western democracy.
Another question I want to talk to you actually is, I feel, I feel, correct me if I'm wrong here, but I feel as though you toe the line quite closely when it comes to reading both non-fiction and fiction books. So I want to talk to you if you have a preference and if not, which do you prefer consuming or you know what positives do you find in consuming both?
So I don't use the story graph, but it's basically an independent version of Goodreads, which I switched to this year, I think, or maybe last year. But basically, it has data, like graphs, of your reading habits. And my fiction to nonfiction ratio is basically 50-50 at this point. I make a point of going fiction, nonfiction, fiction, nonfiction in the books I read. And then I technically count poetry as
non-fiction in that, which is probably wrong. But that's another thing. Yeah, and I do have a preference, but it's changed. I used to prefer non-fiction and now I'm a slightly more fiction because I think I want a bit more escapism now and my reading habits have changed. And because I read at night, I don't always want to be reading a really heavy historical book. I mean, I was going to use an example like books about the history of the Kurdish people, but that's actually on my reading list. I definitely want to read that.
But it's like, again, it's not an easy read, like when you're in bed, like just about to go to sleep at like nine o'clock at night. But I love nonfiction. I just feel like.
I think I just, I'm in the honeymoon phase of fiction because I didn't like it for so much of my life and now in the last five years I've, not even, no, yeah, I would say five years I've actually realised that I like fiction because I found the right fiction for me so I'm still on that journey I think but it is very 50-50 like if you ask me tomorrow I'll probably have a different answer.
There's some fiction books that I found can depict real life better than any nonfiction book can in some instances, like it really resonates with you. So I definitely hear what you're saying in that in that aspect as well, Costa. Another question I was going to ask you actually is I've noticed that you go into like independent bookshops and comment on them as well. What ignited this interest in yours in doing this, Costa?
So, well, I mentioned earlier, I just love bookshops in general. Although when I was younger, I don't know if you know South London too, but I used to go in the week of Cent and Croydon, there's a bookshop called... They had a Waterstones, I don't know if it's still there, I haven't been in a while, but they had a really nice Waterstones when I was there, when I was a kid. And they also had a bookshop called The Works, which was like...
the pound land of bookshops basically, my dad would always take me there and I'll just, I hated it. I don't know, I just, I felt like it cheapened books. Even as someone who didn't read books, I was like, I felt offended that you had all these like, ITV presenters, autobiographies, like on the clearance rack for like a pound. I was just like, I don't wanna be in here. But, and I'll just escape to the water stones. But yeah, I've just loved the kind of, the space of a bookshop. Even though it's like, obviously like a retail space, it feels quite, it reminds me of like a library. It feels quite.
you can, it's somewhere you can actually like loiter and not have to buy something, which is quite nice in public space. But post pandemic, I started making lists of not just root books I want to read, but also like places in London I wanted to visit. And then a way of kind of anchoring me to that place would be like, here are the places to eat, here are the parks, here are the galleries, here are the bookshops. So I started like making a list of all the independent bookshops I could find in London. And then it made me kind of want to go to these areas.
So I started collecting those and that's kind of how that stream of my video started. It was just I wanted to see all these bookshops and then I'll just make a point of buying a book or two to support that bookshop when I'm there, which I've really enjoyed. And it's nice to see people kind of discovering new bookshops because of TikTok in general. It's kind of a bit of a contrast to what you think TikTok is like.
Definitely, absolutely. Lastly, Kostar, what I wanted to ask you as well is, is there any books you recommend anyone to read? If they wanna get into reading, so to speak, or just in general, like a book that you really enjoy, then you'd wanna recommend that someone should read.
I have so many. I guess a recent one, a lot of the ones I've already mentioned. So there are so many. I think Crying in H-mark by Michelle Zornar is a really, really good, as a book that's really popular, is a book that I kind of, I understand, but it's also really heavy. So if you want something a bit lighter...
One of my TikTok friends, Kimberly McIntosh, published a book recently that I really, really enjoyed. It was really funny and it's called Black Girl No Magic. And it's another kind of essay collection, but it's also got comedic elements, almost skits, but in a book. I just think it is also really short, it's really creative and it felt quite fresh in terms of the way it was put together. So I recommend that book. And also, if someone doesn't like reading, I can imagine them getting into...
that book and then that kind of being a gateway into other people's. I like the idea that you have these people who aren't authors, who are giving book deals these days. I feel like that's something that's quite, it feels like quite a new phenomenon to me. Which I like to see. I think it's good to, I think anyone can and should write a book. I think, I don't know, I don't think it should be this elitist thing now. And I don't think it is anymore.