“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”
Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.
When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.
Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.
It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.
Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.
Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:
“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”
My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.
A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.
The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.
When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.
I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:
“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”
I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.
Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.
We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.
Feeling slightly uninspired and unsure of what to read next, I’ve been spending the last few days re-reading bits from books I delved into many years ago. I underline and earmark all of my books to death, so it’s easy to notice what I was particularly moved by. Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up,” is truly tremendous. Here, Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this is a true inside look into not only the often lonely life of a comedian, but also a primer on what it’s like to operate as a creative.
While I do tend to re-write lines from books I’ve read, I had, in the fog of having babies and moving countries, forgotten so much of this book. I was especially moved his re-telling of painful childhood experiences, and the role they play in shaping our art:
“…My father muttered something to me, and I responded with a mumbled “What”. He shouted, “You heard me,” thundered up from his chair, pulled his belt out of its loops, and inflicted a beating that seemed never to end. I curled my arms around my body as he stood over me like a titan and delivered the blows. This was the only incident of its kind in our family. My father was never physically abusive toward my mother or sister and he was never again physically extreme with me. However, this beating and his worsening tendency to rages directed at my mother – which I heard in fright through the thin walls of our home – made me resolve, with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me, and for perhaps thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift.
The rest of my childhood, we hardly spoke; there was little he said to me that was not critical, and there was little I said back that was not terse or mumbled. When I graduated from high school, he offered to buy me a tuxedo. I refused because I had learned from him to reject all aid and assistance; he detested extravagance and pleaded with us not to give him gifts. I felt, through a convoluted logic, that in my refusal, I was being a good son. I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo, that I had let him be a dad. Having cut myself off from him, and by association the rest of the family, I was incurring psychological debts that would come due years later in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrongheaded quest for solitude.
I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”
From her seminal 1961 Vogue essay on self-respect (also found in her sublime collection of meditations, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem“), Joan Didion expounds upon the true meaning of knowing who you are (failures and all):
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.
To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
I adore this essay. Here, Zadie Smith sublimely – and funnily – describes the subtle difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure, she writes, is relatively easy to find, instant, and replicable. For Smith, a pleasurable experience is embodied in a pineapple popsicle from a stand on Washington Square, or the ecstasy she experiences people watching on the streets of New York City. Joy, on the other hand, is a more tangled experience in which, Smith says, one can find no pleasure at all, but still need in order to live. To make the point, she writes of her experience in having a child:
“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”
Joy is something you can lose and never regain (consider, as Smith does at the end of the essay, the loss of a partner or a child). It is painful, vulnerable and more often than not completely lacking in pleasure.
A stunning (as always) poem by Kate Tempest. Words below:
He’s in every lover who ever stood alone beneath a window,
In every jealous whispered word,
in every ghost that will not rest.
He’s in every father with a favourite,
Every eye that stops to linger
On what someone else has got, and feels the tightening in their chest.
He’s in every young man growing boastful,
Every worn out elder, drunk all day;
muttering false prophecies and squandering their lot.
He’s there – in every mix-up that spirals far out of control – and never seems to end, even when its beginnings are forgot.
He’s in every girl who ever used her wits. Who ever did her best.
In every vain admirer,
Every passionate, ambitious social climber,
And in every misheard word that ever led to tempers fraying,
Every pawn that moves exactly as the player wants it to,
And still remains convinced that it’s not playing.
He’s in every star crossed lover, in every thought that ever set your teeth on edge, in every breathless hero, stepping closer to the ledge, his is the method in our madness, as pure as the driven snow – his is the hair standing on end, he saw that all that glittered was not gold. He knew we hadn’t slept a wink, and that our hearts were upon our sleeves, and that the beast with two backs had us all upon our knees as we fought fire with fire, he knew that too much of a good thing, can leave you up in arms, the pen is mightier than the sword, still his words seem to sing our names as they strike, and his is the milk of human kindness, warm enough to break the ice – his, the green eyed monster, in a pickle, still, discretion is the better part of valour, his letters with their arms around each others sholuders, swagger towards the ends of their sentences, pleased with what they’ve done, his words are the setting for our stories – he has become a poet who poetics have embedded themselves deep within the fabric of our language, he’s in our mouths, his words have tangled round our own and given rise to expressions so effective in expressing how we feel, we cant imagine how we’d feel without them.
See – he’s less the tights and garters – more the sons demanding answers from the absence of their fathers.
The hot darkness of your last embrace.
He’s in the laughter of the night before, the tightened jaw of the morning after,
He’s in us. Part and parcel of our Royals and our rascals.
He’s more than something taught in classrooms, in language that’s hard to understand,
he’s more than a feeling of inadequacy when we sit for our exams,
He’s in every wise woman, every pitiful villain,
Every great king, every sore loser, every fake tear,
His legacy exists in the life that lives in everything he’s written,
And me, I see him everywhere, he’s my Shakespeare.
I love reading with my two year old, Leo, all the time. Though as time has gone on, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find great, inspiring books with female characters who aren’t princesses who somehow fall in the safe, strong arms of a brave knight. Many of our favourite books are centred around male heroes (The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Iggy Peck, Architect, Where The Wild Things Are, Stuck), though over time I have found a few (too few) brilliant books with leading female characters. This is an actual issue:
“Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. … More insidiously, children’s books with female protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroine to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.”
While they haven’t been easy to find (certainly not as easy as finding great books with male protagonists), here are a few of our favourites:
The beautiful and heartening story of Rosie Revere – a shy, quiet girl by day who turns into a dazzling inventor of all sorts of machinery by night. She dreams of becoming an engineer, and, throughout the story, faces ridicule when she fails in her effort to build a cheese-powered helicopter (it crashes). Her great-great-aunt Rose though, herself an engineer who built airplanes during WWII, re-assures her that before her helicopter crashed, it flew:
“It crashed. That is true. But first it did just what it needed to do. Before it crashed, Rosie… before that… it flew! Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!”
This is a stunning tale that not only breaks gender stereotypes, but also drives forward a helpful and wise message about the value of failure.
From the collection Ordinary People Change the World comes “I Am Amelia Earhart,” the tremendously invigorating and courageous story of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviation pioneer who, amongst her many record breaking ventures, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This short biographical book starts with Earhart’s childhood, during which her parents encouraged her to “wear dresses and play with dolls,” and discouraged her from “unladylike adventures.” She ignores them though, and moves on to build her own flying contraptions in her backyard. At twenty-three, she meets the aviation pioneer Frank Hawks, who takes her on her first flight. From then on, she decides she wants to fly on her own. In between odd and casual jobs, she buys herself a small airplane and begins training. Though her talent is earned, not given:
“But here’s my secret: I wasn’t a natural. I wasn’t the best pilot. I just worked harder than anyone else.”
The rest of the book chronicles Earhart’s record breaking career, during which she faced endless challenge from people who told her she’d never be able to achieve what she eventually did. Such a gorgeous, informative and entertaining read.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” extolled C.S. Lewis, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” This has never rung truer as I read (first to my son) and then re-read (to myself, countless times), Oliver Jeffers’ stunning and tender illustrated story of what happens when we drown our most painful emotions. In this beautiful book, a little girl loses her curiosity when she encloses her heart in a bottle after the loss of her father, who had, when alive, read to her all sorts of fantastic books about the wonders of the world. As an adult, she re-discovers her wonder when she meets a little girl, who knows how to get her heart out of the bottle. She faces her pain and her curiosity returns. This is a sublime book.
At the end of art class, Vashti sits at her desk staring at a blank sheet of paper, without any idea of what to draw. Her art teacher just asks her to make a mark – any mark – on the paper and observe where it leads. She makes one single dot, after which her teacher asks her to sign the paper. The next day, Vashti finds that her teacher has framed the piece of art, which inspires Vashti to become an artist. Towards the end, Vashti herself is faced with a little boy who doesn’t know how to draw. She asks him to make a mark and see where it takes him, like her previous teacher asked of her. He draws a squiggly line and Vashti asks him to “sign it.” A beautiful fable of self-discovery, serendipity and the creative spirit.
A story with such a big heart. Wordless (so a true picture book in the literal sense), “The Girl and the Bicycle” is a fable about a little girl who covets a new, shiny bicycle. She inspects her piggy bank to find that she doesn’t have enough money to purchase it, so she starts knocking on neighbours’ doors, offering to do their yard-work. Every neighbour other than an old lady rejects her offer. The old woman and the girl begin to work together, developing a heartening friendship along the way. When the girl earns enough money, she runs to back to the shop but finds that the bicycle is gone. She decides to buy her younger brother a tricycle instead. Many lessons are imbued in this story – the value of generosity being the most obvious – but it’s the type of book that reveals more and more with every reading of it.
P.S.: Know any great children’s books with female protagonists? Let me know!
P.P.S: Want to check out what I’m reading with my son? Have a look through his bookshelf.
A beautiful memoir from the guitarist of the epic and pioneering band, Sleater-Kinney. A true deviation from the regular rock ‘n roll story of destruction, this book is a tale of losing, and then finding yourself, in music.
A phenomenal, illuminating read, even if you’re not into poetry. In this collection of ten letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advises a nineteen year old fan on love, truth and how to experience the world around you. Some of my favourite bits:
On loving books:
“A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.”
On the benefits of living with mystery:
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
An interesting and illuminating cultural look at loneliness. Part of the School of Life’s stunning “toolkit for life” series, British author Sara Maitland writes on the benefits of going solo. This book is an important take down of one of society’s most unhelpful stories: that people who choose to be alone are doomed to a life full of misery. Through this book I also discovered other writers I fell in love with, particularly Alice Koller, who penned this gem: “Being solitary is being alone well: being luxuriously immersed in doing things of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others.”
Tore through this in a few hours. So, so good. A few essays are absolutely laugh out loud hilarious (particularly one involving a wild and demented goose), and others are profound in that way only Allie Brosh can be (her pieces on depression represent one of the most human views on the topic I’ve ever encountered). Honestly, this book is perfect.
A stunningly written collection of meditations on a rich and wide array of topics, from John Wayne, to growing up in California, Joan Baez, Hollywood and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. I enjoyed every essay more than I thought I would, due probably to Didion’s uncanny ability to make any topic interesting. Two particular pieces though stood out for me, and have been struggling to get them out of my mind since I finished the book: On Keeping A Notebook(a beautiful reflection on the benefits of writing things down) and On Self-Respect(a brave, illuminating essay on the importance of knowing who you are).
Already having been a huge fan of Marquez, I was ecstatic when I found a used copy of a slim yet sublime collection of his short stories. While rummaging through tomes at a local used book stall, I stumbled upon this little volume I knew nothing of, began to read and was naturally hooked from the very first sentence. Titled Strange Pilgrims because of the long, wayward method in which the stories came to life, in this collection you’ll find fables of love, death, loneliness and the nagging power of the past.
The question of “how to live” completely obsessed Renaissance writers, but no one tackled it with such brilliance as Michel de Montaigne, a government worker, nobleman, and winegrower who lived in southwestern France from 1533 to 1592. He is considered the creator of the essay – the art of self-reflection on paper. And in the twenty years that he wrote his famous “essays” (107 of them), Montaigne covered everything from the existential to the mundane: how to endure the loss of a loved one, the benefits of thumbs, how to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to dress. In this biography, writer and philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell chronicles Montaigne’s life through the answering of one question: how do you live? A truly enlightening, mind-expanding read on not just the man’s life, but on death and the art of living.
By far the best book of practical philosophy I have ever encountered, I’ve picked it up countless of times since I first read it over a year ago.Written by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, “Meditations” is a collection his private thoughts and ideas on how to be present, humble, and self-disciplined. Shelved in “books for life.”
An encouraging and compassionate approach to our mortality. While it’s marketed as a primer on how to deal with death anxiety, to me this work is much more about how to live rather than how to die. It completely shifted my perspective on the choices we get to make every day: what we value, the stories we tell, how we spend our time. One question Yalom asks has never left my mind: If you were asked whether you would live your life all over again, would you? While the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death imbues us with life.
Written in the only way Didion really knows how: hauntingly. This is a difficult book to get through, not because of the way in which it is written (it is a joy to travel through her sentences), but rather because of its topic. Written after her husband’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir recounting how she handled the loss of her partner. It is an exceptional meditation on grief (a topic, Didion notes, strangely absent in literature), love and the vicissitudes of fortune. One reviewer said he couldn’t imagine dying without this book. That is exactly how I feel.
Finished this slim yet meaningful book in one sitting. Pico Iyer, the celebrated travel writer, extolls on the benefits of stillness, presence and finding the time to reflect on our human experience. I have yet to find a better description of stillness and it’s role in creating a rich and meaningful life: “To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you to see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armour, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger. If it does have benefits, they lie within some invisible account with a high interest rate, but very long-term yields, to be drawn upon at that moment, surely inevitable, when a doctor walks into your room, shaking his head, or another car veers in front of yours, and all you have to draw upon is what you’ve collected in your deeper moments.”
This book is tremendous. A weighty tome (nearly 800 pages), it’s the truest inside look into the heart and mind of an artist. In his letters to his younger brother Theo (who supported Vincent throughout his entire life as a painter), Van Gogh reveals his views on love, art, creativity and what it means to be not only a good artist, but a good human being. What I found most astounding was just how hard Van Gogh worked to develop his talent as an artist. While he did seem to have a natural ability to observe the world that lay before him (his descriptions of scenery are as almost vivid as his paintings), Van Gogh spent years learning the techniques of both drawing and painting, becoming better as time passed. It wasn’t until he moved to the South of France, quite late in his short but prolific career (and where he was influenced by the already growing Impressionist movement), when he began to produce the paintings we know him for today.
A brilliant, touching and unforgettable memoir by one of the world’s most loved comedians. This book is so tremendous. Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this book is an inside look into not only the life of a comedian, but also a primer on life as a creative.
The simplest, most life-altering message I have ever come across: life is long if you know how to use it. In the Roman philosopher’s 2,000 year old mind stretching meditation on time you’ll find a profound and essential message:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
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“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”