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Turning pages

Posted 3:53 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Jonathan Majak is a library cataloger. “All the books that come into this library have to go through me whether in reference or stacks. You see such a wide variety of things you didn’t even know existed. I love that. I get to see what I want to get around to reading.”

UWL employee reads 101 books in 106 days, learning lessons about life

Murphy Library Employee Jonathan Majak read 101 books in just 106 days. What began as a humorous suggestion in a staff meeting quickly evolved into a full-fledged project aimed at promoting the library's leisure reading section. 

“Everything worthwhile I’ve done in my life started with the phrase, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if …’” Majak says, reflecting on his ambitious endeavor. True to his word, he embarked on this literary journey, spending his evenings immersed in books, from science fiction to romance, and writing reviews for each one on the Murphy Library Fine Print blog.  

Majak’s efforts put a spotlight on the Murphy Library’s leisure reading section, an often-overlooked treasure trove of about 200 books located at the entrance of the library’s coffee shop, Murphy’s Mug. Unlike the academic texts that populate most of the library, this section is dedicated purely to enjoyment. It offers a wide range of popular books, continuously refreshed, accessible to anyone with a university ID card. Alumni and the general public can also read the books. See details below. 

With each new cover opened, Majak says his own story evolved. The books helped him navigate grief, uphold his sobriety, and reflect on his changing opinions through the years. 

Majak is releasing all of his reviews as the summer months commence, a prime time for kicking back with a good book. Below he shares his top pick from the pile and the lessons he’s learned along the way. 

The cliché is true: you cannot judge a book by its cover. 

Majak encourages readers to try a book that is outside their typical reading wheelhouse, even if only to see what all the fuss is about. He recalls the dread he felt before reading a popular cover, Marie Condo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up.”  But, by the end of the book, he blocked of his entire weekend off to follow the book’s step-by-step instructions to tidy up his apartment. 

Re-reading books later in life is a good practice in introspection …  

Majak had read some of the books in the section more than 20 years prior as an English major.  “How I related to them when 19 is different from how I relate at 41,” he says. “You live life and insights open up.” Where initially characters seemed far-fetched and too fictitious, today he could empathize and understand them more fully. "I read Ernest Hemingway’s 'The Sun Also Rises' in college, and, at that time, I thought of it as just some boring story about some messy rich people. Reading it again at 40, I appreciated it was a story about trauma and loss and also about messy rich people."

His favorite book was … 

“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel. The book covers 500 years of time in under 300 pages. He calls the book, about living through a pandemic, both funny and sad. He stayed up until midnight because he had to know how it ended. The book also surprised him as he thought he hated science fiction.   

“It makes you want to investigate your biases,” he says. “It makes you wonder what else am I cutting myself off from in the world that I might enjoy.” 

Never read the back cover first … 

Majak advises to never read the back cover of a book first. He likes to enter a book blind, just as a student might as they pull it off the shelf for the first time. With only the books’ genre, cover art and title, he will form his own first impressions. “It’s like making an impulse purchase at the grocery store. You grab something just to try it out,” he explains. “The backs of these books can give away so much… sometimes even a central plot twist.” 

There is no such thing as 'the right book' 

Majak says when he asks people about the latest book they’re reading, he typically gets an excited response or terrified look. “People project morality onto what they are reading, and they don’t need to,” says Majak. “All books have value and some just speak to you.” 

An example is Colleen Hoover’s romance and young adult fiction, which are nearly always checked out.  

A book a day really isn’t that much …  

Majak says reading a book a day isn’t all that much if you make the time for it. It didn’t feel like a stretch as he steered clear of the 1,000 pagers and made sure he had shorter reads lined up for week days and longer ones for the weekends. 

“At the same time that people would spend watching Netflix, you could be reading a book,” he says. “If you make time for it, it’s not that bad.” 

Reading isn’t an escape 

Majak thought his ambitious reading venture might help him escape feelings of grief about the death of a close friend. But he said the opposite occurred. He found death and grief continually brought up in almost every book. What he didn’t expect was that the process of examining those feelings through reading was therapeutic. 

“This leisure reading project became grief counselor. I had to confront all of these things I was dealing with,” he says.  “We call it leisure reading, but that doesn’t mean these books don’t have depth, value or artistic merit.” 

All the time I would have spent in a bar, I spent reading books.  

Majak says his reading project also served as a way to occupy himself as he worked to maintain his sobriety. Not long after starting his job at UWL, he fell into depression and turned to drinking again after having gotten sober during the pandemic’s lockdown. “Coming to work at a place where everyone has a master’s degree … I felt out of my depth,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll go do happy hour. I’m good at that.’” 

When he started the project he had been sober for several months and a book a day was a positive place to put his energy instead of drinking. 

“I wouldn’t have had the patience for this project if I hadn’t been sober,” he says. “Reading all these books seems like a lot of work, but I enjoyed it.” 

Majak is now over a year sober.  

I am a fundamentally different person than when I started … 

Majak says after finishing the 101 books, he felt “more a part of the world.” Although reading is a solitary act, it helped him feel more a part of the community as he connected with others about the books.  During the project, he would go downtown, and friends would ask number book he was on. “The project took on a life of its own,” he says. “It opened me up to a whole new world. It became easier to meet people because I had an ice breaker.” 

“I hope this project is something people can use as a springboard for their own life,” he says. 

About the leisure reading section

In his position, Majak sees the full life cycle of a books. He loves to see them used, and develop their own stories filled with people’s old notes, coasters, movie tickets tucked inside. “These books have had lives,” he says.

Murphy Library’s Leisure Reading Section started in 2001. The section provides reading material to library patrons that is not strictly academic. Continually refreshed, the section aims to provide current popular literature titles, the types of books you would find scrolling through a New York Times bestseller list.  

Visit Murphy Library

Murphy Library, located at 1631 Pine St, La Crosse, is open to the general public.

Anyone in the community is welcome to visit Murphy Library. The library provides in-house computer access to electronic resource collections with several dedicated computer workstations, as well as access to many physical collections, such as the leisure reading collection.  

Check out books from Murphy 

UWL faculty, staff and students can check out items with an Eagle ID. Community members and UWL alumni can also check out items by purchasing a borrower's card at the Circulation Help Desk. Checkouts are limited to ten items at a time. To sign up for a card, you will need: 

  • Driver’s license or other state ID 
  • Wisconsin or Minnesota (Winona, Houston, Wabasha counties only) public library card 
  • One-time fee of $25 for Wisconsin residents or $50 for Minnesota residents. Information must be updated every two years. 


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