"The Stacks" podcast is a favorite destination for forward-thinking book lovers. Every week listeners tune-in to hear Traci Thomas tear through titles, interview popular authors, and dish about her new favorite reads. Her verbiage is unabashedly casual and her insight delightfully academic.
Her reviews are candid. She shares what she thinks, even if it's not a popular opinion. Her wit and delivery help the feedback land like a best friend giving the scoop rather than a lecture from a stuffy critic.
Her passion for non-fiction and social justice makes her voice resonate with a wide audience. She shares what she loves and you can't help but feel it's important. So you listen. A lot of people are listening.
Traci created a book club you actually want to join. Each episode of "The Stacks" leads you deeper into the non-fiction section, a part of the bookstore many are surprised to find themselves excited to explore. Her intelligence, passion, and authenticity generates an undeniable magnetism. People who never considered themselves readers are following Traci's lead.
Her enthusiasm for reading is contagious, but it's her delivery which brings people back each week. It seems the secret ingredient to Traci's success is... Traci.
the fed: When did you become such a vocal advocate for books?
Traci: I always read as a kid. I loved going to the library and finding books. It was just something that fed me. In college I was a theater major and read hundreds and hundreds of plays. I went to school in New York and reading plays on the subway became a ritual for me.
After graduation, I continued to read on the subway and slowly incorporated books back into my routine. However, in 2012 I moved to Los Angeles and stopped reading because there was no more subway.
In 2016, I decided it was time to start again. I missed it. I set a goal to read one book each month for a year. On December 29th I finished my twelfth book and felt like some kind of hero.
“Wow, look at me! Please send me my Nobel Prize.”
In 2017, I decided to read thirteen books but ended up reading twenty-four. I started posting a picture of each book I finished on Instagram and was surprised by the enthusiastic response. People would leave book referrals and other suggestions in the comments.
Towards the end of that year I read “Blood In The Water” by Heather Ann Thompson. It’s an incredible Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. It really blew me away. I wanted to learn more and talk about Attica with other people but nobody I knew had heard about it. Even the members of my family who were alive during that time couldn’t remember the details of the event very well.
I decided to go on the Apple Podcast app and search the title of the book. There were two results. The first podcast felt very pretentious, they spoke about the language of the text and other stuff I wasn’t interested in. The other was a podcast about law. They had the author on as a guest but focused on legal elements of the event. This also was not what I wanted.
That’s when I thought, “Maybe I’ll make a podcast about books.”
I could talk about the kind of books I like. I want to dive into non-fiction about social justice issues but in a way that feels appropriate for someone like me, who just wants to talk about the book and gush a bit.
I want the freedom to say, “Oh my God, that part was so weird,” without worrying someone from the New Yorker is going to mock me because I use descriptive words like nice and cool. I suppose that’s how the “The Stacks” was born.
So, that was 2018. I had a goal to read thirty-six books, started an Instagram account for the podcast in February, and officially launched in April. It’s been building ever since.
Somewhere during this process I became an advocate for books. It didn’t start off that way, it wasn’t my intention but I naturally grew into it as I grew the show.
the fed: The show’s become ear candy for book lovers all over. How are you handling the surging popularity?
Traci: The success of the podcast? Gosh, I don't think about it that way. I started the show two and a half years ago and it's mostly just me. I pretty much do everything and it usually seems like there's more I could be doing. I'm always on my way to the next goal so it doesn’t always feel like success. That just doesn’t feel like the word I would use.
Not to say I take any of it for granted.
the fed: You're developing an undeniable presence. People are aware of “The Stacks." I think your social media presence indicates a robust interest from book enthusiasts.
I also appreciate how you’ve shared the parallels of the show’s popularity and your experience in the Black Lives Matter movement. An element you feel helped propel the awareness of the podcast.
Traci: To date, the show’s had two waves of people joining our world. I initially built the show around a place called “Bookstagram.” In May 2019 I was asked to join “The Lady Gang” which is its own podcast and they have a podcast network. That also made people aware.
After George Floyd was murdered and Breonna Taylor was murdered and Ahmaud Arbery was murdered… I was one of the first to post an anti-racist reading list on my Instagram and bookshop.org page. It featured fifty some odd books I felt people should read.
This list went as viral as a book list could go that’s not from the New York Times. It was shared over 2,500 times and thousands of people were clicking it. Then I started seeing more anti-racist reading lists go up. I think other people were having that same impulse as me,“What can I do? What should I do?”
The thing I knew best was books. So I created something to make myself and others feel better. The popularity of my post brought waves of people to my social media pages. Within a few months I got over forty thousand new followers on Instagram.
I recently shared via Instagram my recognition that much of the show’s success has come because other Black people were murdered. That's a tricky thing to navigate. I think it’s part of the reason why I don't like to call it success.
My intention is not to capitalize on the death of other people. That’s not what the show is or who I am.
On the flip side, I understand I’m part of a movement made of many Black people. Much of the work we do is focused on creating opportunities for people like me. People who are prepared to share resources, knowledge, and understanding with the world. Unfortunately, the way Black people often get their voices heard is through tragedy.
This is not to say my work isn't valid or wasn't valid before. For example, I had Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on the show in the Fall of 2019, before a lot of people knew of him.
I try to remind myself when I feel frustrated or feel like I'm being used because I'm Black, that I've actually been doing this work and I've been lifting these voices and these are my people. I make the show for myself and for people like me and it's great other people get something out of it too.
The show hasn’t changed. If you go back a few months on the show, we were talking about Philando Castille. So, the show is still the show and America is still America, which allows me to talk about this stuff all the time.
the fed: It's important for folks to have a place to lean into and find resources to help process the insanity. I feel “The Stacks” continues to serve as a helpful resource for people who strive to be anti-racist allies and for people looking for a voice they can relate to.
Standing in your success, standing in your intelligence, standing in your vibrancy and joy is so valuable in any situation and especially valuable now. We have no control over what unfolds out there other than what we contribute to and your contributions really matter. So, thanks.
Traci: Thank you.
the fed: Okay, I’m gonna shift gears a bit.
What book or books changed you? Like, you weren’t the same after reading them.
Traci: The book that always comes to mind is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. It's about the great migration of Black folks from the south to the north and west from 1917 to 1970. It’s one of the most incredible books I've ever read.
What was transformative for me about this specific book is actually quite personal. My dad and his family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1930’s. I never understood this was part of a much bigger movement and moment for Black people in America.
The book follows three people who leave the south. One from Florida, one from Louisiana, and I believe one from Georgia. They head to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
I learned what my family did was part of a bigger picture. For example, the reason folks from Louisiana ended up in California and the west coast was because the train lines. That's why you see a lot of folks from Louisiana in Texas and in the west. But people from Florida ended up almost overwhelmingly in New York and DC. Whereas people from places in the middle like Mississippi, ended up in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit.
I never thought there was a reason why so many of my Black friends’ families were Creole or from New Orleans but turns out I'm actually part of a much bigger story of a Black community in America. To realize that was transformative for me.
the fed: That’s beautiful.
In your opinion, are there books you've seen people go crazy for that you felt were over-rated?
Traci: Man, I can list several… but I pretty much hate every book. I’m a tough critic. And it’s not to say the books I would list don’t have value in them, it’s just I don’t think they’re good overall. And, some I think are deeply harmful.
For example, the one that pops into my head first, is Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Talking To Strangers.” It's really problematic. He talks about police violence against Black people. He talks about date rape. He talks about all these things and does a really bad job. I feel he relies on his “Malcom Gladwell-ness”… which has become a profitable brand.
Gladwell is in a category with folks like Bill Mar and Michael Moore. They became famous for work that was really good and thoughtful and creative. Then, I think they often run out of steam and rely on their name. Much of their later work seems mediocre.
I've actually read every single Gladwell book and I listened to the first three or four seasons of his podcast but I’ve notice a decline in his critical thinking. To me, his arguments aren't as good. He’s very famous and has name recognition, so people naturally think his perspective is really smart.
But in “Talking To Strangers,” he doesn't ever define what a stranger is, which you think would be helpful for an argument about how people relate with strangers. For example, he says that Churchill and Hitler were strangers because they met once or twice, but then he also says this woman who was a spy was a stranger to her co-workers of five years. That's not a stranger.
He goes on to reference the Stanford Rape Case, where he accurately states the perpetrator and the victim were strangers, because they were. They met that night. I guess I feel that he’s gotten sloppy.
That’s an example of a book that I'm against morally, but then there's other books I just think aren't that good. I don’t particularly care for a lot of the Jenna Bush Hager Book Club picks. On the surface it appears she’s very committed to diversity but I think most of the “diverse” books she picks are actually rather stereotypical and not that great.
the fed: How are you reading so much?
Traci: I don't speed read or read very fast for that matter. I just read a lot. I spend a lot of my day reading. I have twin babies, so they obvious take a lot of my time and energy. But I try to read in the morning for an hour and at night for an hour. I try to squeeze in pages here and there throughout the day.
I also listen to audio books. That helps. I don't love audio books and my taste is very specific. It has to be non-fiction, preferably read by the author, and under twelve hours. But yeah, I just spend a lot of time reading is the truth. I devote more of my day to it than the average person.
the fed: We’re gonna do a few rapid fire questions. We love these because they often lead to deeper conversations. Is that okay?
the fed: What did you have for breakfast today?
Traci: Tea. I don’t eat breakfast usually.
the fed: On a scale of one to ten, how weird are you?
Traci: Eight. No, seven. People probably think they’re weirder than they actually are.
the fed: What makes you smile the most?
Traci: One of my twins has this great nose crinkle right now when he’s laughing… but also when he cries. I really like it.
the fed: Any pet peeves?
Traci: I hate when people send an email asking you to do something but fail to give you all the information in the initial email.
“Hey, there’s a great opportunity we think you’d love. Are you interested?”
Can you just let me know what the opportunity is so I can let you know? Don’t try to tease me on an ask. Just ask. So yeah, that’s up on my list.
the fed: I was going to ask what you do in your spare time but I think I know what that is.
Traci: We watch a lot of sports and I like to cook.
the fed: What’s your favorite meal to cook?
Traci: It’s less about what my favorite meal to cook is and more about what my favorite meal to eat is… because that’s what I’ll be cooking. Ha! The answer is usually grilled cheese. I love carbs and cheese. Pasta is always good.
the fed: Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Traci: I think that I am… or at least I like to think that I am joyful, straight forward, and loyal.
the fed: What’s your favorite time of day?
Traci: Bath time. I love a bath… when I can get one. It’s where I get a lot of reading done.
the fed: What’s the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Traci: I’ve been given so much advice, it’s hard to say. One of my favorite people, who’s also an author I’ve had on the podcast is Shea Serrano. He always says, “Someone has to do it, so it might as well be you.” It’s a way of saying, “Fuck you!” to Imposter Syndrome. He’s always saying really empowering things in fun silly ways.
There’s another woman Tracy Clayton who co-hosted the podcast “Another Round” with Heben Nigatu for Buzzfeed. They used to say, “God, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” I translate this to: “Someone’s gonna get paid to do this job, it might as well be me.”
the fed: Straight Up.
What’s one thing you wish you knew at nineteen?
Traci: That you don’t have to have a career.
the fed: I think you’re my life coach.
Traci: I’ve come across a lot of white supremacy and toxic patriarchy as I set out to grow this brand. Many have this fear of doing something wrong. This fear can stop you from taking the next step forward. It benefits the people in power and no one else.
But, this fear isn’t an accident. It’s by design.
I have to remind myself it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to be told no. I’ve been told no so many times, what do I care if I hear it again? It doesn’t mean I have to stop. It just means I get to try again.
To believe you have to get it right or know everything before you begin is a myth designed to stop you from trying.
the fed: Wow. That’s some wisdom.
Is there anything I should ask you that I haven’t yet?
Traci: I don’t know.
the fed: Perfect answer.
Traci Thomas hosts "The Stacks" podcast. Learn more about Traci, the show, and explore her reading suggestions by visiting her website: www.thestackspodcast.com.
Click here to follow "The Stacks" on Instagram. @thestackspod
Jesse Brune-Horan is a celebrity chef and happy living expert. His lifestyle expertise has been featured on multiple media platforms including Bravo TV, The Food Network & OWN. In 2020 he founded, thefedcollective.com.