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Emma Roberts on Belletrist, Joan Didion, and Why Now Is the Right Time to Pick Up a Good Book

Janelle Okwodu

Social isolation is the new normal, and as half the world spends its days indoors, many have been seeking out ways to keep themselves entwined and upbeat during a difficult time. While it’s tempting to finally binge your way through the Criterion Collection or get lost in the new Dua Lipa album, there’s nothing as transportive as a good book. Literature offers an unmatched escape, and its ability to educate, uplift, and inspire has never been more valuable. That's something Emma Roberts—actor and co-founder of literary recommendations site Belletrist—understands.

An avid reader, Roberts channeled her hobby into an online community of likeminded subscribers. Though social media and the unifying power of the internet have shaped Belletrist’s success, the project kicked off 12 years ago thanks to snail mail. “My best friend Karah [Preiss] lived in New York, and I lived in LA, and so we’d always be sending each other books in the mail and writing little notes on them,” Roberts says over the phone from Los Angeles. “It just became the center of our friendship, exchanging recommendations and discussing them. We have similar tastes, but we’re also very different, so there was this nice blend of having so much in common and yet still being able to learn from each other.”

Years later, when Roberts began to share what books she was reading on Instagram, she noticed how engaged her audience was during the discussions around each title. “Those posts were getting a lot of comments and interactions. People would reach out to me and be like, ‘Hey, I just read the book you just posted. What’s next?’ Or, ‘What else can you recommend that you haven’t posted?’” she says. “I just knew something was there.” The lack of recommendation platforms dedicated to the millennial book-loving audience also played a role in the site’s creation. “I also felt something was missing as far as a place that recommends things that I’d want to read,” says Roberts. “Most people don’t have time to be poring through several lists to figure out what to read. We wanted to create a place where it was easy to find things that you know you’re going to like.”

Photo: Courtesy Emma Roberts

Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook served as the inaugural pick, its exploration of America’s two-pronged culture, as seen through Didion’s eyes, beginning things on a high note. First introduced to the author’s work while filming in New York, Roberts immediately felt a connection to Didion’s prose. “I remember a friend of a friend just handed me Play It as It Lays. I started reading it and couldn’t stop. I finished it in a day and was so blown away by her writing, and that feeling of discovering a voice that speaks to you,” she says. “I just devoured everything she wrote. I can read her short stories a hundred times. I read the essay on self-respect that she wrote for Vogue a few times a year and I’ve sent it to all my friends.” To her credit, Didion even agreed to be Belletrist’s first author interview. “I thought it was so kind that she did that, we didn’t have any followers at that time. We hadn’t even put up our official Instagram page,” says Roberts. “It made us feel special, for her to support two young women who are just trying to share stories with the world, and it gave us a solid foundation to start our community with.”

The joy that comes with discovery is one thing that Roberts hopes all of Belletrist’s readers will experience, whether they’re picking up a novel from a buzzy new author or dusting off a classic. “You don’t have to be the best reader or read the most—you just need that sense of curiosity and to want to be introduced to new stories that you might not have read otherwise,” she says. "It's a joy in my life when I give people Joan Didion books because I get excited for them. I know they have something to look forward to."

Here, the actor shares her choices for the best reads of the moment.

Recollections of My Non-existence by Rebecca Solnit

“I’m almost finished with Rebecca Solnit’s new book, and it has completely blown my mind. I’m her biggest fan as it is. I always love to reread and give as a gift A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I find something different in it every time, and it never ceases to inspire me in different ways. I always recommend her work and this one is her memoir.”

Recollections of My Non-existence

$21.93.00, Amazon

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Make it Scream, Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison

“This blew my mind. There is a short story about reincarnation that is so fascinating and such a delicious read. That was another one that I was sending to all my friends, and they would all pick up the phone and call me, saying, ‘We need to talk about that story.’”

Make It Scream, Make It Burn

$13.99.00, Amazon

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Life of the Party by Olivia Gatwood

“I love to follow Olivia Gatwood on Instagram as well, and I highly recommend her work. Life of the Party is an incredible collection of poetry. Right now is a good time to mix up your reading and step outside your comfort zone. I’ve been trying to read all different kinds of books—memoirs, short stories, poetry.”

Life of the Party: Poems

$6.99.00, Amazon

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The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

“These are two I return to a few times each year, especially if I’m traveling. I’ll usually bring a copy of one or both and revisit the short stories because they feel so comforting to me because I’ve read them so much. Joan writes with such a sense of nostalgia and has a perspective, that it’s such a joy to read—especially if you are homesick in a new place. I always buy new copies of those books and have them on my bedside if I’m filming somewhere new.”

The White Album

$9.99.00, Amazon

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

$9.19.00, Amazon

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The Shining by Stephen King and Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

“When I was doing American Horror Story, I got really into horror and thrillers. I read Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and I became so obsessed with it. If you haven’t read The Shining, I recommend it, because everyone I’ve recommended this to thinks they know the full story because they’ve seen the movie, but the book is fascinating and adds so much to the plot.”

Shutter Island

$15.19.00, Amazon

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The Shining

$7.65.00, Amazon

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Writers and Lovers by Lily King

“This is our pick for April, and it’s just fantastic. It just came out, and it is such a Belletrist book that we had to choose it for the month. That is one that I’m very excited to discuss with everyone.”

Writers & Lovers

$16.2.00, Amazon

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The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

“Ariel was one of the first people we interviewed for Belletrist. We went to her book signing at The Strand, and she was kind enough to speak with us afterward. When I read the book, I canceled dinner plans two nights in a row to finish it. My friends would call, and I’d say ‘I can’t make it, I have to finish this book.’ They thought I was joking! I just found it to be the most beautiful and original memoir. I love her so much.”

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir

$10.89.00, Amazon

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Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

“Another fantastic memoir, and one that I blew through in a day and a half. It’s riveting and thought-provoking. The way she writes, it makes you want to write, or at least that’s what it did for me. The moment I finished reading, I wanted to pick up a pen and write.”

Land of Enchantment

$13.33.00, Amazon

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Originally Appeared on Vogue