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.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson
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
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.
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.
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.”
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