In the relatively small world of horse racing media, there are some rare gems producing content that is different than anything else that’s out there. One such gem is Diana Hurlburt’s Readers Up, an email newsletter that doesn’t cover racing news or deal with handicapping or wagering. Every month (or so) Diana sends out an email where she goes deep on a single book that deals with horse racing in one way or another. Fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, Diana’s only rule is the book has to be located in or around the sport of horse racing. A librarian by trade, she’s no stranger to books, and she’s as avid a racing fan as there is to be found. Her newsletter is a real treat to lovers of racing and literature and racing literature. Her newsletter is really worth subscribing to, but she’s also a fascinating person with a unique and valuable perspective on horse racing and media, as you’ll see in this conversation we recently had about Readers Up and the sport of horse racing.
Before we get into Readers Up, tell me who you are. Where are you from, what do you do, and what got you interested in the sport of horse racing?
Hi! I'm Diana, and I'm a librarian from Florida, although I currently live in the heart of New York racing country. I also do a lot of writing in my spare time, both fiction and non; books were, quite properly, my gateway into horse racing. I decided to write a novel about a female jockey, realized I didn't know anything about what I wanted to write about, checked out what my local library had available, and promptly plummeted into obsession. “Duel for the Crown” and “Three Strides Before the Wire” were two of the books that really hooked my interest, although I haven't gotten around to re-reading them for Readers Up yet!
When you say plummeted into obsession, give us a better sense of what you mean. I mean I feel like I read a lot of racing literature, but I get the feeling you’re on a whole different level than most of us.
Well, I venture that most people who weren't raised in an atmosphere of racing enthusiasm don't start reading Paulick Report religiously in their adulthood. When I want to know about something, I really want to know about it. Since books are my stock in trade, I decided to read everything I could find – and also realized that some of the books I'd loved as a kid (Weird Horse Girl ™) had actually been my first introduction to Thoroughbreds. I'm not a professional academic, although I work in a college library, but the lens I use for most entertainment and media tends to pretty academic. So exploring racing through scholarly and pop writing felt most natural.
How do you go about choosing the titles you write about for Reader's Up?
When I decided to start up the newsletter (almost a year ago!), I compiled a master list of titles I either wanted to revisit or that I'd been meaning to read but hadn't gotten around to. Of course, as I've read, the list has only grown; new books like “Merindah Park” and “Out of the Clouds” came out this year, readers sent me recommendations, and I've bought books in used stores like Saratoga's Lyric Ballad, so my to-read shelf grows regularly. I try to mix things up between fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes attempt to connect the book I choose to something in current racing news.
I can relate to the growing to-read shelf. It's a source of constant anxiety in my life. Here's your chance to brag a little – how many books do you manage to read every month?
Based on my Goodreads stats, I read about five books a month, with "books" typically including novels, non-fiction, poetry, and collected comics or graphic novels. This is down significantly from my college years, and I certainly read far more when I was a kid! When I started the newsletter, I thought it would be doable to write two editions per month, but the last several months have had one book each (which is probably more to the readers' tastes, too). There are just so many books in the world!
As a fellow Goodreads user, I have to say I don't agree with the inclusion of comics in people's stats. I know they call them comic "books," but come on.
I figure a collected edition of five issues of a comic, or a graphic novel that's designed to be one narrative, count as books!
Do you have an example of a book you've chosen for Readers Up that was connected to racing news?
Volume #8, “Headless Horsemen” by Jim Squires, ended up dovetailing sadly well with racing news that month: Santa Anita Park's spate of catastrophic breakdowns this past spring. On a lighter note, I examined two essays about Saratoga history and culture during July, the meet's opening month, this summer.
What are some of the books currently on your to-read list?
A couple of upcoming titles for the newsletter include “The Scorpio Races” by Maggie Stiefvater (fiction, re-read) and “Rough Magic” by Lara Prior-Palmer (nonfiction, new). Also on my nightstand are “The Dalkey Archive” by Flann O'Brien and “The 33 1/3 B-Sides,” a collection of music essays.
It's always a treat when you get a chance to chat with the authors of the books in Readers Up. Can you tell me how you go about reaching out to them and arranging those interviews? Do they ever have any reaction or comment about your newsletter? I would imagine it's something they don't often see.
One of the appealing things about racing is that, for a pro sport (and for better or worse), it's a small world. It's super easy to make friends, meet luminaries, and get up close to the horses and connections. So it often ends up that reaching out to authors with new books coming up is pretty straightforward; we have something in common, I get to ask nosy questions, and they get a small amount of extra free publicity.
Has the newsletter helped you make any contact with any of your heroes? Any authors you've kept in touch with?
I like to think Natalie Keller Reinert, author of a number of equestrian series, is a friend, and Jennifer Kelly, author of “Sir Barton,” is another research- and culture-minded enthusiast I'd love to chat with in person. As for heroes, I'd love to pick Gary West's brain when I get around to a “Ride to Win” re-read (RIP Bob Fortus), but I'll probably be too shy to ask!
What inspired you to start this project? Why an email newsletter? What were your expectations for how this would go? As someone who also has an email newsletter, I’m always curious about other people’s experiences. And, of course, any advice about how to do a better job.
Like a lot of people of a certain age, I mourn the passing of Google Reader and regularly updated blogs. Twitter and the tweet-thread don't serve the same purpose, and neither do they have the same sort of intimacy (immediacy, sure). I occasionally blog in the old-fashioned sense about current racing items, but I thought a newsletter would serve a couple of purposes: it would be a monthly writing goal to hold myself to; it would prompt me to seek out and continually read on the topic; and it would be easy on readers in terms of access, rather than having to seek out a link to a blog post they might have missed or favorite a tweet-thread and then lose it among their other million faves.
I also like email newsletters because – at least initially – they resisted monetization. I resent the day I'll have to eventually move to Substack because TinyLetter is no longer supported, but I never intend to charge for this newsletter. I like the feeling of talking to a specific slice of racing enthusiasts, rather than attempting to appeal to the entire swath. Because of this newsletter's particular lens (and lack of interest in betting), I don't see it going wide. It's best as a subscription library and reading record. I receive messages now and then, people mentioning that they've read a book I'm talking about, or plan to. That's all I want – engagement with the existing body of racetrack literature and impetus for publishers to keep acquiring new racing books.
I subscribe to a number of newsletters, only one of which is written by someone I don't know personally, and I really do read all of them! Some are more journalistic, like yours, and some are records of what people are eating and reading and listening to; some have a particular conceit, like diary entries from a particular day decades in the past. They all feel like gifts, every time they arrive in my inbox.
I agree that email feels more intimate. I read something recently about how the current email newsletter craze was started by women and how women are particularly adept at the form. I also subscribe to quite a few, and unlike longform stuff I find on Twitter and the like, which gets sent to a “to read” file I get to when I have time and a cup of coffee, the email newsletters get read on demand as soon as I get them, sometimes on my phone standing outside or wherever I happen to be. I treat them like actual emails, even though they’re anything but.
Can you recommend any good racing related emails?
Oddly, the only racing newsletter I subscribe to is John Cherwa's, which is associated with the Los Angeles Times and is very California-centric. Although that's useful to me, considering my extreme East Coast bias, and he usually comments on some aspect of the larger sport as well. I would class yours as racing-adjacent. Off the top of my head, I can think of more industry/enthusiast podcasts and columns than newsletters.
You mentioned that you’re not a bettor and you don’t write about the gambling side of the sport. I almost exclusively focus on that side of things, since that’s how I arrived at the sport. But since I’ve been writing about racing I’ve met you and a number of others who couldn’t care less about betting and some of you and your ilk have become my favorite people I’ve met in the racetrack world. I wonder if you can talk about what brought you to racing and how you see the game. Many people think focusing on the horseplayer is the way to “save” racing but I am not sure that the horseplayer is the only or even the best audience that the sport can appeal to. And the books you write about and your perspective on the sport seems to back that view up.
As far as horseplaying goes, I think betting is and will remain the natural entry point into the sport for a majority of fans. It seems that most fans who grew up with a parent or grandparent involved in the sport become familiar with horseplaying as a norm at an early age, and it's certainly the quickest route to feeling like you're a part of things, whether through gratification or commiseration with the fans around you. I have the Xpressbet app on my phone and I do some handicapping on big days or if a horse I like is making an appearance, but there's no emotional component to it for me and I don't find much thrill in winning (being right is another question). Virtually every other aspect of the sport is far more compelling, and from what I've observed, racing often sells itself short in terms of interest. It's inherently fascinating, especially for social-science types; there's history, cultural norms, fashion and jargon, architecture. Fans can participate with very little money and effort, depending on where they live – once I'd read a few books and decided to embrace the spiral, I decided a visit to Tampa Bay Downs was next on the to-do list. But by then I'd lived in two cities with racetracks and racing had never been on my radar, either because I wasn't paying attention or because no one was marketing to me.
The books I gravitate toward examine human elements or slices of history through racing's lens, which makes the sport feel integral to American culture. So far, engaging with racing from this angle is pretty rewarding.
Want to close by teasing the next edition of the newsletter? Maybe any other plugs you want to make?
November's newsletter, fittingly, will be centered around “The Scorpio Races.” A young adult contemporary fantasy based on legends of Celtic water horses, this book features a horse race with exceedingly high stakes: life and death. I loved “The Scorpio Races” on first read several years ago, and I can't wait to revisit it. If you're also a fan or you'd like to read along, my thoughts should arrive around the third week of November. You can sign up to read them here: www.tinyletter.com/readersup