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Cătălina Penciu, Food Blogger and Photographer, Talks About Books and Reading Habits

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Catalina PenciuCătălina Penciu is a travel, food styling and food photography blogger. Cătălina describes herself as an engineer from 9 to 5 and a cook, photographer, writer and traveler after 5.

Her passion for algebra got her into the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications and Information Technology at the Politehnica University in Bucharest and she now works in Project Management for Telecom projects. She also has a side gig working as a technical writer for US patent applications.

Her creative part broke through several years ago and eventually led to an Instagram account filled with food photographs. She also started a monthly newsletter about food (it’s in Romanian language). A foodie since childhood, for the past 10 years she has been reading, experimenting and tasting everything connected to food. Food photography and traveling soon followed naturally and everything has been all about these ever since. She doesn’t remember how many countries she’s visited. but is able to recall everything she tasted in each place.

Keep on reading our interview with Cătălina and find out what are her favorite books, what book significantly improved her writing and what she thinks is the key to make time for reading.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

I’m a huge fan of personal stories and biographies. Everything from classics (Anne Frank’s Diary) to biographies with a touch of fiction (Lying on the Couch by Irvin D. Yalom), and of course, with a touch of gastronomy (Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain or Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters). I can’t forget The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and all the humor in Nora Ephron‘s stories. It’s rather clear I really cannot choose just one favorite.

Business-wise, my goal for this year is to improve my collection and my mindset, but my favorite so far has been David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

My current obsession is John McPhee. He’s a creative nonfiction wizard, and as soon as I got my hands on Draft No. 4, where he explains quite vividly how he chooses the structure of his stories, I was hooked. He even mentions creating an entire article based on a spiral-like diagram structure, before even starting to actually write the piece.

Ever since, I pay so much more attention to the structure of my writings and try to include as much advice as I can into crafting better stories.

PS: If Draft No. 4 sounds a bit too boring, McPhee also wrote a beautiful book called Oranges, about the citrus groves in California; how oranges are grown, taken care of, transformed into the famous juice we all know and love. It’s a piece written for the New Yorker in the 60s, but it’s still as much alive today.

What books had the biggest impact on you? Perhaps changed the way you see things or dramatically changed your career path.

I think the books that had the biggest impact on me were the ones I would have never picked myself. I always try to get out of my comfort zone when choosing new books, and I always try to follow recommendations from people very different than me. It’s how I got my hands on Saramago and all his dystopias, for example.

What five books would you recommend to young people interested in your career path & why?

That’s a really tough question to answer. I don’t really believe in career paths, just in opportunities that rise on the side of the ones you already chose. I currently work in Project Management for Telecom projects, have a side gig working as a technical writer for US patent applications, a growing passion for food photography and crafting food stories with an impact. What worked for me was diversity: reading different books, from different authors, in different fields and a lot (and I mean, A LOT) of amazing (and often quite long) articles (HBR, The New Yorker, Medium, blogs, etc).

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? What format do you prefer?

I don’t have a reading schedule and there are times when I cannot even focus on standing still for 5 minutes and read something. And there are other times when I can read a book in one sitting, or spend hours on various articles. I never read more than one book at the same time, I feel it keeps me from diving deep into any of the two. I read articles both on desktop and mobile but will prefer real books anytime over reading devices (although I do like the lightweight feeling of having the entire library on my Kindle).

How do you make time for reading?

There’s no such thing as not enough time, there’s just different priorities. If I want to read, I always make time for it.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

My high school literature teacher always insisted to read all books with a pencil in hand, and that’s how I read all the books in my twenties. I rarely do that now, but rather count on mental notes to keep track of the most important or impressive stuff. I feel that if I’d continued to take notes on everything I read so far, it would had become quite overwhelming.

How do you choose what books to read next?

Recommendations are my MO. From friends, interviews, lists, references I came across in what I am currently reading.

Do you prioritize books recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I tend to prioritize books recommended by people who read a lot, and in different fields of expertise. I don’t have just one go-to person, it’s more of a mix of recommendations and articles I come across reading other articles. Down the rabbit hole works like a charm 🙂

Since 2014 you’re running a monthly book club with friends. I’m curious to find out more about it. How did your life look like back when you started it? What were your reasons for starting it, what expectations you had in mind? Were there any unexpected outcomes?

This is actually a funny story. I came to this book club idea after reading an article on EscapeTheCity about two entrepreneurs whose lives changed completely (both in terms of personal and business paths) after joining a book club. At the time, I really wanted to share all the feelings new books gave me, and I always bored all my friends with long stories and comments. I posted the article on my Facebook page, along with the question Who’s in? and found out there were more people like me than I imagined. I didn’t expect it to last, I gathered ever since that keeping people’s enthusiasm high on the long run is a really tough job and trying to trick them into reading and joining the call against their will not work. But I was lucky to find a couple of amazing people who loved reading and talking about it just as much as I did, and they helped me keep the enthusiasm going even in hard times. We try to read one book/month (which we choose in a poll, based on everybody’s recommendations), and then set up a Skype call to talk about it (we’re currently spread all across Europe, so Skype is the best and easiest choice).

What I learned from starting a book club and trying to keep it alive for the last 4 years is that people have very different drives, and sometimes their internal motivation to do or not do something depends on things wider than what you can reach. That being consistent is key to everything. And that speaking up will always give you a better outcome than choosing not to.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women. It’s not my first Murakami, so I kind of know what to expect, but I really hope I can stand still and finish it after a long and busy phase when I couldn’t read as much as I wanted to.

Links where you can follow Cătălina or find out more about her projects:

All books mentioned by Cătălina in our interview:

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