Reading ourselves awake

Image via Unsplash/Karim Ghantous

 

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.


I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine

My Desert Island Library

Illustration by Jane Mount, from Ideal Bookshelf https://www.idealbookshelf.com/

 

Cast ashore on the proverbial desert island, I’d for sure need a bookshelf. These are the books I can read and re-read over and over again (in no particular order):

Stoner by John Williams

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Walk by Robert Walser

The Complete Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor

Dubliners by James Joyce

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

(Subject to change, always).

 

“I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo, that I had let him be a dad”: Steve Martin on childhood pain, art, and being a son

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.”

My 16 Favourite Books of 2016

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dubliners by James Joyce

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Stoner by John Edward Williams

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

Joan Didion on self-respect

joandidion

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.”

Five Brilliant Children’s Books With Girl Protagonists

rosiereverereading
Rosie Revere, Engineer

 

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:

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beattie:

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.

I Am Amelia Earhart by Brad Meltzer:

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.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers:

“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.

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds:

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.

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett:

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.

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.

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