Hello lovely people,
Marginalia is, once again, back. There is an explanation for my recent – and long – silence: in May 2019, I began my studies to retrain as a High School English and History teacher. While I have for many years known that this is the path I want to travel, the decision to finally embark on it was difficult, riddled with anxiety at the unknown of it all: the discomfort of learning something new; the real possibility of not being very good at it; and the highly likely risk that I’d become that annoying mature student – relishing a second chance at university – who wants to learn as much as it is humanly possible. The first half of my studies, however, were heavenly. There is such surprising comfort in being an amateur at this juncture in your life: in becoming that much more aware of what you don’t know, you begin to notice all of those aspects of your existence that the deadening effects of habit have dulled. While it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect year, it felt like a privilege to spend weeks reading about a book, and then sitting down to write about it.
I do hope you all had a wonderful year. What did you love last year? Please let me know!
1. Because I was so knackered at the end of the day, I did watch quite a bit of television last year. After the obligatory ten year gap, I re-watched The Wire, which is even better than I remembered. I had to press pause countless of times to yell out: “Every word! Every word on this show is poetry!” The fourth season, like the last time I watched it, blew me apart. I thoroughly enjoyed and was very moved by the second season of Fleabag, which, in my opinion, beautifully shows us how the world can open up when you let people see you. While I know Ricky Gervais is controversial, I loved his most recent show, After Life. It is a gorgeous, and much needed, retort against the cynicism that so many of us struggle not get caught up with. Finally, I adored Nick Hornby’s new show, State of the Union; it’s a funny and witty exploration of marriage and the compromises it requires.
2. On the podcast front: I crushed hard on Radiolab’s new spin-off podcast about Dolly Parton, “Dolly Parton’s America“; The New York Times’ three-chapter story on the fascinating royal family of Oudh, based on this excellent piece; and “The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps,” which does exactly what it says on the tin.
3. Early this year, our family suffered a great loss, and I have been finding comfort in the writing of others: Jill Lepore made me cry with her piece on the loss of her best friend; Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” always comforts with its moving yet surgical approach to grief; and Denise Riley, who lost her son, wields language to create something stunning out of such horror in “Time Lived, Without Its Flow” (which was just re-issued by Picador, with a gorgeous introduction by Max Porter).
4. While I read fewer novels this year, I was forced – because of my studies – to read very deeply. I read and wrote about Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” which I think is – next to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – my favourite ever book. There is something about Virginia Woolf, and this book, that just transforms. It is about the melancholy of unfulfilled longing; of the epistemological impossibility of truly knowing another; of the impermanence of it all. Even its form evokes melancholy; in its transitions from one centre of consciousness to another, the reader is left always suspended, always longing for more, always wanting and not having.
“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
5. Along with “To the Lighthouse,” I also wrote about Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which deserves a read at least once every year. What a genius book, one which uses language to unearth those wilfully forgotten aspects of history that must be honoured. And oh, is a Toni Morrison rabbit hole glorious: her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture; her short, yet awesome piece on work in The New Yorker; and the whole of “Playing in the Dark,” her brilliant collection of literary criticism.
7. I read three of Jane Austen’s novels: “Northanger Abbey”; “Sense and Sensibility”; and “Pride and Prejudice,” and each felt so brilliantly current in its critique of the costs of constantly needing to socialise. On this note, I loved this piece: Is Jane Austen the Antidote to Social Media Overload?” Yes, yes she is.
8. Kathryn Schultz makes a great case for not seeing book-buying as a luxury. It’s an absolute and total necessity.
9. Late last year, I had the complete privilege to hear Zadie Smith speak (I later hyperventilated in front of her as she signed my enormous pile of books). Her piece on the value of reading fiction, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” is probably the best thing I read all year.
10. As always, a random quote from my Commonplace Book, in a letter to his son, Ted Hughes meditates on our inner child:
When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. . . . But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.