My 15 Favourite Books of 2015

bookshelf-egan16bk1
Jennifer Egan’s Illustrated Bookshelf

 

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

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.”

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland

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.” 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

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.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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).

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

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.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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.” 

Staring at the Sun by Irvin D. Yalom

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. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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.

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

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.” 

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

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.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

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.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

A phenomenal novel about art, motherhood, marriage and loss. You will feel like you’ll never encounter anything like it again.

On The Shortness of Life by Seneca

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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Nora Ephron on the pleasures of reading.

“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.”

 

What I’m Reading (& rereading).

In mid 2015, with the end of an over three year long book project, I decided that I would read more. Lots and lots more. While books have always been a fixture in my life, the intensity of their presence has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. I realised, during times when I wasn’t reading much, that I didn’t enjoy life without books. Reading makes me happier and more alert to the world around me.

To keep track of what I’m reading, I’ll update this list as I go along. I’ll be sharing more elaborate thoughts on the books on this blog (sometimes), and sharing a few in Marginalia, a monthly (ish) newsletter.

2017:

Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (with my son)

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The Gifts of Reading by Robert Mcfarlane

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (reading copy, out in June 2017)

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe (reading copy, out in April 2017)

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson

2016:

On Reading, Writing and Living with Books

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Andrew George

Dubliners by James Joyce

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcom

The Art of Reading by Damon Young

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Stoner by John Edward Williams

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Matilda by Roald Dahl

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

M Train by Patti Smith

2015:

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein:

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.

The White Album by Joan Didion

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

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.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland:

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.” 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh:

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.

When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know She is Not Playing with Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life by Saul Frampton

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion:

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).

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

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.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell:

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.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

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.” 

Staring at the Sun by Irvin D. Yalom:

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. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion:

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.

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer:

Finished this delightful, 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.” 

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman by Nora Ephron:

Impossible not love Nora Ephron. As funny as she is profound, this book of essays (on hating your neck, living in New York, parenting, illness, reading and more) is the kind of book you never want to finish. This thought, on reading, struck a chord: “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.”

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh:

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.

Where I Lived, And What I Lived For by Henry David Thoreau:

A lovely, short excerpt from Thoreau’s longer work on his time living near Walden Pond. This small Penguin Great Ideas book includes only a few chapters, though it is bustling with timeless insight, strengthening my desire to read the whole work. There’s a treasure trove of quotable lines on many aspects of modern life: the ills of fashion trends, owning a large home, reading the news, technology. My favourite line, which can, in my opinion, be applied to some aspects of technology today: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distracts our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…”

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin:

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.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill:

A phenomenal novel about art, motherhood, marriage and loss. You will feel like you’ll never encounter anything like it again.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca:

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.”

Want to keep up with what I’m reading? Sign up to my newsletter, Marginalia.

Zadie Smith’s golden rules for writers.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.”All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

From The Guardian’s Zadie Smith’s rules for writers. I also love the stunning, unforgettable talk she gave on the first story she ever told.

David Foster Wallace’s creative nonfiction syllabus

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

 

Just because I’m on a David Foster Wallace trip (the best kind), here’s the syllabus he gave out to his creative nonfiction students at Pomona College in Spring 2008. Found in the beautiful treasure trove that is The David Foster Wallace Reader.

Love this bit in particular:

“This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing.”

Pomona College
English 183D Spring, 2008

Logistics

Wednesdays, 7:00–10:00, Crookshank 207
Inst: David Wallace
Inst. Office, Phone, and Email: Crookshank 101, 607-8357, ocapmycap@ca.rr.com
Inst. Office Hours: Wed., 6:00–7:00, Th., 3:00–4:00, and by appointment.

Description of Class

English 183D is a workshop course in creative nonfiction, which term denotes a broad category of prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on. The term’s constituent words suggest a conceptual axis on which these sorts of prose works lie. As nonfiction, the works are connected to actual states of affairs in the world, are “true” to some reliable extent. If, for example, a certain event is alleged to have occurred, it must really have occurred; if a proposition is asserted, the reader expects some proof of (or argument for) its accuracy. At the same time, the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel. An advantage of the workshop format is that it will allow you to hear what twelve reasonably intelligent adults have been induced to think and feel about each essay you write for the course.

Expenses

There are no required textbooks 1 and I will provide free Xeroxes of all outside readings. You will, however, be responsible for making [12] high-quality, single-sided copies of each essay you distribute for workshop discussion. I may also ask some students to produce [12] copies of some other document or exercise.

Total Writing Workload for Class

(1) Let’s say 24-39 pages of finished, high-quality nonfiction.

(2) A one-to-three-page letter of response to each one of your colleagues’ essays — figure 30-35 letters total.

(3) A couple letters of response, for practice, on selected published essays.

(4) Additional individual exercises, rewrites, or other work assigned at your instructor’s discretion.

Class Rules & Procedures

(1) For obvious reasons, you’re required to attend every class. An absence will be excused only under extraordinary circumstances. Having more than one excused absence, and any unexcused ones at all, will result in a lowered final grade. After the first two weeks, chronic or flagrant tardiness will count as an unexcused absence.

(2) All assigned work needs to be totally completed by the time class starts.

(3) All the essays that you turn in must be written specifically for this course. You may not submit any work that was substantively begun before 15 January 2008.

(4) You need to have a special pocket-folder that’s just for English 183D. This folder will function as your class portfolio, which must contain copies of all assigned work for the course (see (9) and (10) below). Please bring your portfolio to each class; and please put your name, the date, and some kind of rudimentary header on each piece of work therein.

(5) English 183D is to be a safe and serious critical venue. You should treat each peer’s essay-drafts as confidential documents. No one outside this class gets to read them or know anything about them — not roommates, not mutual friends, not distant email buddies. If you discuss peers’ essays with each other outside class, you must do so in a maximally private and respectful way.

(6) With a cap of twelve enrolled students, there is room in our workshop schedule for everyone to have three separate slots, and for each class meeting to comprise discussions of three different essays. This is a good number. Occasionally, though, a student will want to submit more than three pieces, or maybe two longer essays rather than three medium ones, etc. This is not impossible, but it makes for tricky scheduling — you need to confer with me individually (and soon) if you wish to submit something other than the normal three pieces.

(7) Once you sign up for a certain slot in the workshop rotation, that slot is yours. You can change or trade only with the whole class’s permission. So please choose with care. We will fill out the first portion of the workshop schedule tonight and the remainder on 2 February.

(8) All workshop essays are to be distributed the week before the class in which they’re to be discussed. There are two options here. Let’s say you sign up to have an essay workshopped on Wed., 12 March. Either you can bring [12] copies to class for distribution on Wed., 5 March, or you can place the copies in the special E183D box outside my office door by 4:00 p.m. on Thurs., 6 March. But 4:00 p.m. on the Thursday before your assigned slot is the deadline. Don’t be late. There are no “extensions” in workshop-type classes; your deadlines are obligations to [12] other adults. Finish editing and revising far enough ahead of time that you can accommodate computer or printer snafus.

(9) This class operates on the belief that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writing a lot and receiving detailed criticism but also by becoming a more sophisticated and articulate critic of other writers’ work. You are thus required to read each of your colleagues’ essays at least twice, making helpful and specific comments on the manuscript copy wherever appropriate. 2 You will then compose a one-to-three-page letter to the essay’s author, communicating your sense of the draft’s strengths and weaknesses and making clear, specific suggestions for revision. At the top of each letter, please put your name, the author’s name, the essay’s title, and the date. Make a hard copy of each and every letter of response you write. Staple the original letter to your marked-up copy of the essay, so that at discussion’s end they can all be returned to the author for private perusal. Place the copy of your letter in your class portfolio.

David Foster Wallace on how to live a compassionate life.

Marginalia (noun): notes written in the margins of a text.

In June 2015, I decided that I wanted to read more. Lots more. Marginalia is where I share my thoughts on the books that I have read. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial. One book per newsletter. Monthly (ish).


Welcome to this little newsletter. I hope it finds a place in your hearts and minds.

Now that I’m on other side of a massive and long project, I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for a long while: read. I am obsessed with books. They make me happier and help me to pay better attention to the world around me.

Being human is difficult; living a rich and meaningful life is even more challenging. Not having as many tools in my kit as I’d like, I’m taking some time to read and gain from the wisdom of others. These others are most likely dead, more accomplished and way smarter than me.

I don’t have a system for what book I’ll read or when I’ll read it. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial.

I’m a slow reader and a slow thinker. I spend a long time consuming information, and an even longer time digesting it. During the time of reflection, I copy the passages I loved on note cards, which I then file thematically in a massive box. This is called a “Commonplace Book.” The point is to have the ability to retrieve the note cards at appropriate times later in life. When someone close to you passes away, you can explore everything you’ve read on grief and loss. When you fall in love, or feel lonely, or need to laugh, you dig out the cards related to those experiences.

Books and parts of books take on different meanings when read at different points in my life. I don’t like to recommend ways of doing things too strongly, and I don’t want to hold on onto any ideas too firmly. Different methods work for different people at different moments. For now, this practice works for me.

So, here’s the purpose of this newsletter: Once a month (ish, sometimes more frequently), I’ll pick one of these note cards and share it. I will also share a bit about where it comes from, what it means to me, and why I think it’s important. These will be elaborations on thoughts I’ve written on the margins of books as I’ve traveled through them: my marginalia.

Below you’ll find the first issue. I hope you enjoy it.

Kyra

P.S.: I would love to hear what you write on the margins of books. Mind sharing?

P.P.S: A massive thank you to Nico Luchsinger and Sam McNerney, who both helped me crystallise the idea for this newsletter. You are wonderful humans.

“You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.  Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace

Only three years before David Foster Wallace committed suicide, he delivered one of the greatest, most profound commencement speeches of all time. In This Is Water, delivered to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, Wallace answered some fundamental questions: How do we overcome unconscious thought and action? How do we lead a compassionate life? How do we construct meaning from experience? This was the only ever time Wallace spoke publicly about his views on human nature, and it became such a classic that it was published posthumously as a beautiful manifesto titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. The essay in its entirety is one of the most life-altering pieces I have ever come across; the sort of thing I wanted everybody I knew to read or listen to as a matter of urgency.

I had to stop myself from underlining almost the entire thing, though the text on the notecard nearly made my heart stop. What do we unconsciously worship? If it isn’t just something obvious, like religion, what are we valuing? And, more importantly, how does what we worship affect our lives? The danger is less in the worshipping itself and more in the unconscious nature in which we take part in the act:

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

Noticing the water is hard work. Waking up to what I’m thinking about and how I’m thinking about it is one of the hardest mental exercises I’ve ever tried. Much of the time, I’m automatically applying a perspective to things that happen in my life without even noticing that application. And sometimes, I’m making decisions without questioning the values those decisions are attached to, or what I’m worshipping in the making of those decisions. This is obviously normal, we are wired to act in these unmindful ways. Paying attention is tremendously difficult, and it takes a lot of will and practice. Gaining the ability to be truly awake however can often be a matter of life-or-death:

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in…the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” 

Wallace uses an every day experience we all go through to illustrate how we get to choose what we see and how we see it: the infuriating after-work trip to the supermarket. I’d struggle to count the times I have stood behind dozens of people in a supermarket queue, silently berating each and every one of them for being in my way, internally enraged at their glacial paces, wallowing in the sorrow of how tired and over-worked I am, thinking what a big waste of my time standing in this queue is, wondering why these people won’t just hurry up so that I can get home, eat dinner, and call it day. We’ve all felt this way. But that’s just one story. You can choose to tell another:

“…petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.” 

Instead of succumbing to our deceptively inescapable inclination to make the supermarket experience all about ourselves, we can notice a kinder and more compassionate story:

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” 

In the end, David Foster Wallace succumbed to his mind, that terrible master that has plagued so many. His suicide a mere three years later renders his advice as timeless and cosmic as it is tragic.

Thank you for reading.

Kyra

Living The Questions

In 1999, when he was twenty years old, Duane Jackson was sent to prison for trafficking drugs from England to the United States. Ten years since his arrest, and a two and half year stint locked up, Duane has started, grown, and successfully sold his own business. By 2013, his company, KashFlow (a cloud based accounting software business) was employing 40 people, bringing in £2m a year in revenue, and providing its accounting services to around 20,000 start ups.

How did he do it? Drawing on his passion for coding, and his life experiences in both children’s homes and prison, he cultivated a persistence and hustle that drove him forward.

In this podcast, a former drug trafficker changes the direction of his life and becomes an early pioneer of the tech world.

For more of Duane’s story, get your hands on a copy of his excellent book, Four Thousand Days: My Journey From Prison To Business Success.

“I SEE YOU, HEART.”

This episode of Radiolab is just…wow. Two stunning stories of heart, awe, curiosity and wonder. Will make you want to live in this world.