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When my dear friend invited me to Taylor Swift’s Stockholm concert, I hesitated for a myriad of reasons. My tastes—anchored in house music and the anthems of my youth—wouldn’t jibe with Taylor’s tunes. I don’t love going to concerts anymore; the lines, the wait, the crowds. Besides, I’ve already seen many of the big artists—Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Avicii, Drake, Lenny Kravitz, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode—so I’m good. I also felt I had outgrown this type of concert experience. My daughter had been a huge Miley Cyrus fan but bypassed the Taylor phase. Above all, I’d be returning to Stockholm from New York on the day of the show. After a week away, my jetlag would kick in; how would I stay awake?

Yet my friend’s persuasive powers are unmatched. She posed three questions that struck a chord: “Jenn, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know why she’s such a cultural phenomenon? Don’t you want to be a part of the conversation?” Her intellectual argument was compelling. Plus, I sort of suffer from FOMO, so I said yes. She set up a WhatsApp Chat with three other girlfriends and proceeded to plan. The outfits. The playlist. The nails. I was editing my manuscript, so my engagement on this chain was sporadic, but I ordered friendship bracelets once I learned this was a trendy symbol among Swifties. 

I realized something was up when I boarded the Stockholm flight at Newark Airport last Thursday. It was booked solid—and not with the usual reserved Swedish passengers I normally see. Instead, it was swarming with Swifties. Mothers and daughters. Besties. Ex-pat Swedes. All united in their devotion to Taylor. The Stockholm concert tickets, slightly more accessible and affordable, had lured them into a seven-hour transatlantic pilgrimage. The flight was buzzing with a different vibe—vibrant, youthful, electric anticipation. When we landed, one of Taylor’s songs filled the cabin, setting the mood. Taylormania had arrived.

I went home, unpacked, and refueled with caffeine. I had googled “Eras Tour” fashion inspo, and there were so many styles—sparkles, Western, Red, folkloric. I shopped my closet and found a silver fringe skirt (last worn on New Year’s Eve ages ago) that seemed Taylor-made (excuse the pun) for the night. At the appointed time, the girls and I met up, admiring each other’s outfits and piling on the friendship bracelets, our curiosity and excitement building.

At Friends Arena, my generous friend had splurged for the Premium package, granting us a smooth passage through the bulging crowd. We enjoyed good food and drinks while waiting for the main event. Sipping Palomas, we surveyed the scene, marveling at its eclectic composition—young, old, girls, boys, women, and men. The creative outfits were a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes. Sequins and feathers put people in a festive mood, and the energy was infectious.

When one of the ushers announced Taylor would soon be taking the stage, my middle-aged self was relieved there wouldn’t be a delay. We found our seats and caught the last song of the opening act, Paramore, a rock band with a cool alternative sound. Soon after, a line of dancers sashayed onto the stage, each carrying a swath of billowing, pastel-hued fabric in the air. They stopped near the end of the runway stage, and Taylor emerged from below on a raised platform like Venus, bedazzled in a sequined bodysuit and boots, mic in hand. It was a visually captivating moment. The fervor crescendoed when she stopped singing and addressed the crowd. It was her debut performance in Stockholm, and she told the sold-out audience how thrilled she was to be here at last. I felt a rush of Swedish pride. The weather was beautiful, and Stockholm was shining on this pre-summer night, the glowing points of light in the arena reflecting the enthusiasm of her fans.

For the next three hours, Taylor Swift serenaded us through her musical ERAS. Surprisingly, I knew more songs than I expected, a testament to how her music has embedded itself into our consciousness. I noted the diversity of Taylor’s backup singers and dancers, along with the comfortable dynamic they exhibited throughout. Everyone looked like they were having fun! As a fashion devotee, I was mesmerized by her costumes, a dazzling display of materials and embellishments that complemented the songs, shimmering and sweeping across the stage. The production was a spectacle of light and sound, each choreographed move seamlessly executed. The wristband with the pulsating light everyone received upon entry glowed and changed colors, a high-tech evolution from the traditional lighters that once flickered at concerts back in the day.

Taylor was the consummate professional, but it didn’t detract from the artistry. Strutting and singing through a 40+ set list, she made it all look effortless. I swayed and sang along when I could. She established a warm rapport with the audience, sprinkling in a few Swedish phrases and conveying her appreciation for the crowd’s support. We were all smitten.

My girlfriends and I left Friends Arena with smiles on our faces, adrift in a sea of Swifties, processing what we had just witnessed and wondering what Taylor would do after the show. Would she go straight to bed? Where was she staying? The weather was so nice, would she go sightseeing? Imagine if we ran into her?!

My admiration and respect for artists is boundless, and Taylor Swift’s passion for her craft is palpable. Her reflections on composing music through the pandemic resonated with me, as I, too, felt the urge to create amidst the chaos. Watching her perform, I pondered the talent, discipline, focus, and dedication required to achieve such heights of success—the capacity to tune out the noise and negativity and simply engage in the act of creation. It is nothing short of impressive—and inspiring.

This adventure reaffirmed my belief in the artist’s journey: to embrace new experiences with an open mind and an open heart. Though initially reluctant, this concert is now etched in my memory. I’m grateful that my friend was so convincing—and my wristband is still flashing its twinkling, radiant light.

I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. Reading was my refuge as a young girl who often felt like an outsider—an immigrant kid, unsporty, artsy… Books connected me to characters with similar experiences, exposed me to new adventures, and provided the perfect escape. Television and the playground never stood a chance next to a good book.

However, does being a lifelong bookworm and working writer breed readers?

I regularly read to my young children, made family inspo trips to the bookstore, and gifted books for birthdays and holidays. Not to mention publishing three novels where they were mentioned in the acknowledgments, including one dedicated to them! But once the smartphone era kicked in, I faced heavy competition from social media, YouTube, and Netflix. My kids' interests seemed more visual than literary. They loved book-to-screen adaptations like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Percy Jackson but did not seek out the source material. Along with their rigorous high school courseloads and reading assignments, I understood they might want to detox with sports, music, or a series. Nevertheless, I did wonder if I had given birth to bibliophobes? Did my writerly moodiness turn them off books? Surely, I wasn’t alone in observing that Gen Z (those born in the mid-90s to early-mid 2000s) seemed to have a lukewarm relationship with reading.

I was surprised to learn that what I had noticed in my children—and heard anecdotally from other parents—did not correspond with the data. According to a December 2022 Wattpad report, 55% of Gen Z respondents read once a week or more, 40% read every day, and 79% choose books based on diversity and representation. While 67% read for fun on their phones, they still have a romantic affinity to physical print books and proudly support independent bookstores, libraries, and indie authors. Add BookTok, where they discover and share new titles—generating bestsellers by Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry—and Gen Z put my critique to shame.

Scratching my head, I wondered what was going on with my kids.

Well, it seems like it was a question of timing.

My daughter, Yasmine, graduated from college last year. She studied at a university with an intense Core Curriculum and wholeheartedly embraced the literary and philosophical texts, producing essays and reflections on everything from The Odyssey to The Souls of Black Folk. Once Yasmine began working full-time, she realized she missed the intellectual stimulation. She also wanted relief from her devices and sought a diversion besides screen scrolling for her daily subway ride and lunch break. Following a friend’s suggestion, she read My Year of Rest and Relaxation and then followed up with Nightbitch.

I’ve read neither, but I enjoyed hearing her impassioned take on these buzzy titles. It was obvious to me she had caught the book bug, so I lent her one of my recent favorites, Yellowface. She tore through it, and I wanted to do a happy dance when she remarked that she finally understood my author angst. It took a work of fiction for my struggles to be finally seen! I passed along The Idea of You, and we obsessed over this steamy love story. I couldn’t stop—wouldn’t stop— pressing a new book between her palms or secretly packing The Guest and Cleopatra and Frankenstein into her suitcase. For Christmas, I went into full library-mom mode and curated a gift set with contemporary titles from Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney, among other stellar authors. Many of these novels center on young adults (Gen Zs like Yasmine and millennials) finding their way in life. I love it when Yasmine sends me photos of herself with a book or tells me about her progress. I even sent her to a recent launch event for Tia Williams’ A Love Song for Ricki Wilde and wasn’t surprised when she came back gushing after sharing a few words and a photo with the author. That’s the wondrous alchemy of books.

I encouraged Yasmine to form a Book Club with her college friends; she loved the idea. Who doesn’t like talking over wine and cheese? But more importantly, a reading group fosters candor and connection. Over the years, I’ve had some of the most profound conversations at my various book clubs. Our enthusiasm for reading and a desire for deeper discussions outside the quotidian cracked our protective shells, enabling us to open up in a safe literary space.

I'm relishing this new book bond with my daughter. It has added another dimension to our close relationship, and we can discuss these stories from different perspectives based on our ages and personal experiences. I also think it will make her a stronger beta reader for my future novels, haha! Kidding aside, books are magic because they are not judgemental. They patiently wait for us to come to them. They don’t care if it takes months or years. Books can be the most powerful when they’re read when we need them most, not when we are pressured to read them. Reading invites us to slow down and absorb rather than mindlessly devour content. Words on a page spark our imagination and let us join the story as we interpret the characters and themes.

As for my son, he’s busy with statistics and finance classes, but I couldn’t help gifting him narrative non-fiction books by Michael Lewis, Walter Isaacson, Ben Mezrich, and Daymond John. The complicated characters and business drama sometimes surpass fiction! But there’s no obligation; he may read them now, later, or discover other titles. However, I’m confident that the magnetic pull of reading-for-pleasure will subtly work its spell...





Do you remember when you first learned how to read? That transformative light bulb moment when you recognized the letters and could sound out the words intelligibly? When the words that emerged from your tiny lips represented something you understood? When the sequence of words taught you something new or transported you to another place? And how about when you learned how to write? Your little fingers grasping a pencil and forming letters? It felt like magic!

Or, at least, it did to me.

I was never a sporty kid. I was also a bit shy and never quite felt part of “the gang.” So, when I learned to read at five, a whole new universe opened for me. So much so that I preferred to escape in a book rather than play outside at recess with my classmates. The local library became my second home, and I checked out at least a dozen books at a time. Judy Blume was my favorite author. As a teenager, I devoured magazines and read the New York Times every day, discovering new people, places, and things. My imagination ran wild, and I began writing poems, short stories, and eventually a novel or two or three or four!

The ability to read and write made this all possible. It’s probably a skill that all of us in this room are very fortunate—and privileged—to take for granted. However, literacy challenges persist around the globe. For example, the pandemic disrupted education and learning opportunities for many, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Seven hundred sixty-three million adults and young people still lack basic literacy skills. Two-thirds of them are women.

Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), once said:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

Annan gave this speech on International Literacy Day in 1997. Still, the number I shared with you shows that we still have a long way to go in achieving the global commitment of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of the United Nations.

This year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies,” highlights literacy’s importance in addressing the challenges of our rapidly changing world, such as climate change, digital transformation, health crises, and social inequalities.

Here are some other interesting facts. The literacy rate of a country is the percentage of people aged 15 who can read and write. Many of us in this room are foreigners who moved to Sweden and learned to read, write, and speak the language, giving us invaluable advantages professionally and personally in this society. Literacy is a priority in Sweden, which boasts a 99% literacy rate. However, two of our Nordic neighbors, Finland and Norway, have achieved 100%, so we can still improve 😊! With the immigration and integration challenges facing Sweden, Swedish-language literacy is more important than ever to foster inclusion and open the doors of opportunity for newcomers.

It should be noted that European countries have the highest literacy rates, while sub-Saharan Africa (Niger 19%) and the Middle East (Afghanistan 38%) have the lowest literacy rates. Poverty, lack of access to education, and cultural norms prioritizing traditional practices over formal education contribute to this disparity. Educational systems are also underfunded and understaffed, leading to a shortage of qualified teachers and limited resources for students. Countries facing political instability and conflict hinder their ability to provide education for their citizens. Low literacy rates have significant global ramifications in addition to social and economic consequences, hampering a country's progress and restricting individuals’ ability to access better-paying jobs, participate fully in society, and make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

Literacy is often thought of in its most simplistic sense—the ability to read and write. But literacy is so much more than that. It also involves understanding, analyzing, using, and engaging with information. These are critical skills in the age of increasing economic competition, dwindling resources, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology such as AI.

The benefits of literacy cannot be overstated. It lifts individuals out of poverty and enriches their lives. It creates opportunities for people to develop skills to help them provide for themselves and their families. Literacy also improves the development of the wider community, facilitates employment, and allows the wider economy and society to thrive. It encourages free speech and protects democracy. Moreover, it reduces infant mortality rates and directly affects an individual’s physical and mental health.

Perhaps most relevant to the IWIB community, being literate empowers women and girls, breaking the cycle of illiteracy and improving self-esteem, enabling them to become economically productive and independent. A mother’s reading level is the highest predictor of their child’s future academic success, outweighing family or neighborhood income factors. Women’s literacy is a counterpoint to the socio-economic challenges that might otherwise curb academic potential.

I want to finish by reiterating that LITERACY IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT. It empowers individuals, communities, and societies to achieve their goals and aspirations. Furthermore, literacy cannot be taken away from you; it can be improved but never removed. Literacy is our unique superpower!

· Please share your memories of learning how to read and/or what literacy means to you.

· What are some challenges to literacy in the age of smartphones and technology?

· Please share your thoughts about what we can do individually and as a society to

promote literacy.

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