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June 01, 2017 7 min read

Casey Blue James grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and now lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. She studied English and Writing at Yale, and works in Business Development at Penguin Publishing Group. Ever the avid reader, Casey Blue can recommend more than a good book or two — from fictional diversions to politically engaged essays. Here she shares her top recommendations, and lets us tag along through a week in her life, from Manhattan to Queens, enjoying every mom-and-pop along the way.
casey blue james
Casey Blue outside Three Lives & Company.
In her own words:
“I was always a nerd, a bookworm, and kind of a goody goody. I've always been type A. I think in college and in the years since, I've learned how to socialize and let loose and give up trying to be perfect, all while being true to myself and my passions. I have really leaned into my nerdiness. I still care about being responsible, I still get anxious about playing by the rules, and I basically always find something to worry about. But I think you can do those things while having fun. And I think the objects of my concern and nerdiness have also shifted. I'm now passionate about books, politics, art, and music, and not, like, an AP Calculus exam.

‘I stop for coffee at the same bakery every morning. My grandmother instilled in me the value of consumer loyalty. There's really nothing like someone knowing your order. And I love the familiarity.’

Jackson Heights Reading in the garden. Casey Reading
Casey Blue in a frequent outdoor reading spot — the garden of her building in Jackson Heights, Queens.
I work in business development at Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. I graduated from college with a degree in English and a concentration in creative writing — specifically in poetry. In my heart, I have always wanted to work with books and writers, and so I moved to New York City to do whatever it would take to get into book publishing. I lucked out with some wonderful mentors who helped me get there. I started in editorial, eventually transitioning over to business development.
The projects I work on vary. I'm never bored and I’m always learning. I also get to meet a lot of interesting writers, journalists, personalities, and literary heroes. I had the opportunity to meet Zadie Smith after two separate readings, and I was like a deer in headlights both times. She is just the pinnacle of chic and cool. She made a really noble attempt to engage my friend and I in a conversation and I was just kind of frozen in awe.

‘The most meaningful moments are when I get to engage with readers. I love any opportunity to learn more about what readers are enjoying, what they look for in a good book, what their experience is like as a consumer.’

I was in the Writing Concentration in college, and my senior thesis was a collection of poetry. I'd like that part of my identity to resurface a bit more as I grow older and live more experiences worth writing about.
Offices at Penguin Casey Blue Penquin Casey at work
Her office at Penguin Publishing Group is filled with books. The "Hot Dudes Reading" calendar was a cheeky gift from her childhood best friend.
Growing up in Rogers Park in Chicago, I was spoiled when it comes to good mom-and-pop food and a diversity of cultures, languages, neighbors, and businesses. I'm grateful to Jackson Heights for providing the same.

‘The food in Queens really can't be beat, nor can the prices.’

I've been led to some pretty excellent nooks and crannies in Queens. For example, I'd recommend dim sum brunch at Jade Asian in Flushing, rather than waiting three hours for dim sum in Manhattan. There's Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, which is fun for a date — perhaps followed by a visit to the Lemon Ice King. On Sundays, there's an incredible farmer's market a couple blocks from where I live in Jackson Heights. It's right next to the playground where people gather to play soccer, volleyball, basketball, and cricket (sometimes with all 4 sports overlapping each other on the court), so the atmosphere is lively. In addition to the produce vendors, bakers, dairy farmers, butchers, and florists you might expect to find at any farmer's market, you can pick up homemade tamales or an elote. Elotes remind me of summertime in Chicago when I was a kid.
Enjoying a favorite snack - elote at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket.

‘I've got a lot of the world left to see. I wouldn't mind starting with
Tokyo, Marrakesh, or Havana.’

I studied abroad in Argentina and fell in love with Buenos Aires. What a glamorous city. I love the architecture - which is certainly reminiscent of Paris - with the juxtaposition of jacaranda trees. I love the porteña commitment to fun. I love Malbec. I get very nostalgic when I have a steak with chimichurri.
Three Lives Books

Three Lives & Company, in the West Village, is Casey Blue's favorite bookseller in New York. Her other all-time favorite place to buy books is Women & Children First in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.
I always had an inkling I'd move to New York. It has the capacity to wear a person down — the cost, and just the daily grind. But it pays you back in spades if you let it.

‘It blows my mind that I could eat at a different restaurant and see a new show or exhibit every day of my life, and I'd never exhaust the options.’

In the city, the bar at I Sodi has been my go-to for years, when I'm taking myself on a date, or if I want an intimate conversation with a friend. The food is spectacular, the bar itself is stunning, and I love the bartenders. In my next life, I'd love to be a chef. I'm so impressed by chefs, and fascinated by their lives. I read Ruth Reichl's memoir Garlic and Sapphires, about when she was a New York Times food critic. That sounded like a pretty dreamy job, too.

Pasta and cocktails while sitting at the bar at I Sodi is a cherished ritual.
I'm grateful and saddened that, these days, hardly a single conversation can go by without a lamentation of the state of politics in this country. You can't really discuss pop culture or even trivial topics like what kind of leggings you want to buy without thinking about implication anymore. It's exhausting, but I think it's a good sign. People are trying to be thoughtful and are feeling fired up.
I'm even happy to discover how great Teen Vogue has become under the leadership of Elaine Welteroth. I received a copy of the "Smart Girls" issue in the mail, assumed it was an error (to my knowledge, I hadn't subscribed), and almost recycled it as junk. Then I did a double take when I flipped through it. It was before I realized who Welteroth was and the kind of progressive content they've been publishing. They're woke as hell! The focus on activism, the openness about sexuality and love and gender, the support of artists and designers of color... count me in.

‘Lately I've been feeling the urgent need to read books that tackle current events and have something meaningful to contribute to the larger "cultural conversation."’

Some recommendations:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - an imaginative and poetic novel which meditates on the global refugee crisis, by one of my favorite authors.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond - journalistic nonfiction about poverty and the politics and reality of housing in Milwaukee. It's set there but is really a case study of what happens in many other cities. This should be required reading for everyone in the United States.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson - a memoir by a lawyer who has spent his life and career advocating for underserved communities and clients, including many people on death row who never received a fair trial when they were first convicted. The book made me cry throughout, but I finished it feeling very inspired and hopeful that people like Stevenson exist.

In Casey Blue's bedroom: a collection of books and a poster with an oft-repeated quote from her father, recently brought to a protest in Manhattan.

‘Because I often feel like we're on the brink of apocalypse (a new sensation for a lifelong optimist!), I also feel compelled to read classics - old and new - that have stood the test of time.’

Some recommendations:

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison - I always turn to Morrison when I feel unmoored, so I finally just read this. It's of course brilliant.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith - I love this for perfectly re-imagining a classic novel of manners in the modern age.

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri - Read this one for clarity of language and sharpness of image.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid - A novel written in the second person and poking fun at the self-help genre — both aspects of which would typically have turned me off, but I'm so glad I took the plunge! It's a rags to riches story about dreams, ambition, and love. Super romantic. I don't know a single person who's read this and not loved it. If I haven't sold you yet, it's less than 200 pages and you could read it in one sitting.

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc - A mind-blowing piece of nonfiction, based on 11 years worth of very involved reporting in the Bronx, that reads like an epic novel.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - Take your time with this one. It's worth it.

Giovanni’s Roomby James Baldwin - I remember reading this one in the library one night in college and underlining about half the book. My margin notes say things like "wow" and "OMG" - it's a stunner.

Middlemarch by George Eliot - I think people are intimidated or turned off by this one, and I don't blame them! But if you're up for the challenge, it offers an incredible portrait of early 19th-century science, medicine, law, culture, art, and manners.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - One of the few books I'd happily re-read throughout my life. The plot twists! The pangs of young love! Miss Havisham's crazy-ass old mansion! Dickens's writing is rich with detail and is amusing even when he's being dark.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - The O.G. true crime story. Read it and then watch the movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, to get the backstory on how it was reported.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Funny, sharp, heartbreaking.

Inspired by her family's roots in activism, political and civic engagement have always been important to Casey Blue. She recently ran a half marathon in support of the International Rescue Committee. She is a member of the Association of Young Americans, which provides free political engagement tools to young people, and the New York Public Library Young Lions program, which supports the Library's Book Fund to ensure free access to books and resources for all New Yorkers. She’s also an ardent advocate and supporter of Planned Parenthood and the NYC organization Girls Write Now, which produces workshops and mentoring programs, connecting girls with professional women writers.