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Elsa Toland, '25

By the Book

Elsa Toland sitting on the grass with a book nearby

Elsa Toland (she/her) is a junior at Swarthmore, pursuing a major in History and a minor in Mathematics. She's been passionate about both history and reading since she was small. On campus, she works to support these interests through her work as an archivist assistant for the Peace Collection, an editor for the undergraduate history journal, and the librarian for Psi Phi's 3000-book science fiction collection. She's also the president of Swarthmore's Swing Dance Club. In her free time, she bakes, knits, crochets, gardens, writes, dances, and sometimes gets enough sleep.

What are you reading these days? I recently finished To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, a fantastic historical fiction set in Alaska in the late 19th century. It's beautifully written through a series of diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters, and other media, which make the settings and the story feel vividly real. I would highly recommend it! Also, I'm about to start reading Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which is the second book in the Locked Tomb series. The first book in the series broke my heart, but my friends insist Harrow the Ninth is worth the read. Wish me luck!

Describe your favorite place to read on campus: I love to read and do work on the cherry border in the springtime, given that the weather is warm enough. There's something magical about being surrounded by all those pink flowers. (I may spend more time watching the cherry trees than actually getting work done.)

Is there a book you've read multiple times? Oh, so many! Good books are like familiar friends, and I often find it comforting to dive back into stories I know. I've reread Six of Crows and its sequel plenty of times. The Fountains of Silence by Ruth Sepetys is another one I'm very fond of—it's a historical fiction novel set in Franco's Spain.

Is there a book you pretend to have read? I did not read Portrait of the Artist in high school. I was supposed to read Portrait of the Artist in high school. Don't tell my A.P. Literature teacher.

What's the latest book you could not finish even though you thought you should? I recently stopped partway through Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I normally love her writing, but this one just didn't pull me in.

What's your favorite reading genre? That's a close race between fantasy and historical fiction. I guess I should say science fiction, given that I'm the librarian for Psi Phi's library, but these two always had a strong hold on my soul.

What book do you recommend most often? That depends on the person I'm recommending it to! One book I often recommend is The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. It's the first in a delightful speculative fiction trilogy, and while it's written for a slightly younger age group (think early teens), the world-building is more creative than in many books I've read. The series takes place in an alternative Earth that has fractured into different time periods — Boston is in the 19th century, Europe is in the Middle Ages, Central America is in the future — and the main character is a mapmaker who travels between them. I think it deserves more attention!

What's the best movie adaptation of a book you've read? The TV-show adaptation of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (on Amazon Prime) is one of my favorite shows I've watched this year. (No spoilers here!) It's a side-by-side tale of a murder-mystery book and a mystery involving the author. One of my favorite devices is the repetition of actors: the mystery-book author based characters off of his acquaintances, so those characters are played by the same actors. It's a great use of medium, and it really makes it feel like we're watching the main character imagine the story play out.

What book made an early impact on you and why? When I was about four or five, I read practically all of the different American Girl series. Each one is a set of six books about a fictional girl living in some era of American history. My favorite was Felicity, who lived in Williamsburg right before the American Revolution. These books single-handedly kickstarted my love for history. I'm now a history major, so I'd say these had a fairly big impact!