Best nonfiction I read in 2017

I feel like I covered a lot of ideological ground with my nonfiction diet in 2017, but maybe that’s not true; maybe I read the same kind of thing year after year after year. In any event, here are my favorite nonfiction books from 2017.

Simone Weil: An Anthology

1: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles

Perhaps embarrassingly, this was my first encounter with Simone Weil, French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist, a stylish genius who died at the age of 34. This anthology was the perfect introduction to her radical, refreshing mind. Weil’s observations of her own time (as a French Jew in the heat of World War II) strike me as startlingly relevant to our civic life today. It’s energizing and challenging in all the right ways, and I am looking forward to reading her more deeply. My in-laws gave me Gravity and Grace, her first published work, for Christmas, and it’s at the top of my list to tackle in 2018. (Amazon)

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

2: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond

The deserving winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Evicted is a serious, moving accomplishment of ethnography and inquiry into evictions, one of the leading causes of poverty and homelessness. Matthew Desmond’s work spans years and provides an intimate portrait of the men, women, and children struggling to keep their homes in Milwaukee. It is heartbreaking and goading all at once; I read it quickly, like a novel, over the course of a few days. Highly recommended. (Amazon)

Coming Into the Country

3: Coming into the Country, John McPhee

I’ll read John McPhee on any subject. This book, an adventure through Alaska in the 1970s, is a fantastic perspective of the land, its history and politics, and the deeply curious and strong people who inhabit it. (Amazon)

Glass, Irony and God

4: Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson

If I read Anne Carson in any given year, she’ll be on my top 10 list. This is just how it is. A brilliant mix of poetry, essays, and casual philosophy, this book held my breathless attention from start to finish. I think “The Glass Essay” is a masterpiece, even though the certified poets in my life (husband, Celeste) were less than impressed. I will not yield: I’m a Carson fangirl till my dying day. (Amazon)

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

5: In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caren Zucker

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name—and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails—has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present. That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

While there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been—thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved. (Amazon)

Chekhov

6: Chekhov, Henri Troyat

I have loved Anton Chekhov for years, and this biography made me love him even more. His unwavering devotion to showing life as it is, not as we want it to seem, and his sincerely good nature, continue to endear me to him and to his body of work. I am not typically one for biographies, but this one was completely delightful: Henri Troyat writes beautifully and clearly and presents a riveting portrait of the literary genius. I read it quickly, eagerly. (Amazon)

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

7: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

My husband, who is a total gem, gave me this book for Christmas 2016, because Lydia Davis told him to. Davis, Queen of My Heart, was a visiting scholar at the university in our town, and gave a series of lectures, all of which I was unable to attend, because of work duties, and I was devastated. My husband went to all but one of them and took notes for me. When he gave me this book, which I had not previously heard of, he said that in Davis’s talk on writing, she referenced Artful Sentences as a favorite resource. She said she liked to turn to it for examples of the marvelous variety of sentences that could be created and find inspiration therein.

And inspiration abounds! Virginia Tufte is like an industrious scientist of English syntax. She shares more than 1,000 sentences as examples of all the types of good and beautiful ways that one can fashion language, and she divides the book logically by grammatical types. It is a delight and a refreshing study of the gorgeous variety of English. It now sits on my desk at work, and I hope to return to it and read it every year. (Amazon)

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

8: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

A complete delight, in only the way that DFW can be. Sharp, memorable, brilliant, funny essays. It is a pleasure to return to him after taking a few years off; I think he’s the kind of writer whose impact is preserved and amplified if I don’t binge read him. (Amazon)

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

9: Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

They don’t make nonfiction like they used to. Marvelously researched and riveting from start to finish. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. (Amazon)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10: Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

Powerful and extremely relevant. It was a galvanizing pleasure to read her work back to back; I had only ever read snippets before. And of course I am not the first or the last to say that this book, and Audre Lorde’s work in general, is an essential component of the American feminist canon. I was also reading this while reading Adrienne Rich’s collected poems, so I found the interview between them, which is included here, particularly fascinating. We white feminists have a lot to learn from our foremothers of color. It’s a good time to shut up and listen. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, Eleanor Perényi
  2. The Humane Gardener, Nancy Lawson
  3. Hiroshima, John Hersey
  4. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald
  5. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
  6. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller
  7. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  8. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen
  9. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
  10. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles
  11. Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Scott McClanahan
  12. The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood
  13. The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka
  14. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

Previously: Best poetry I read in 2017. Up next: Best fiction I read in 2017.

For more from this yearly series, see Best Books.

The best piety is to enjoy

Garden in June
Bee enjoying a daylily in my front yard.

For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.

We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.

I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.

The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.

For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.

“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”

I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.

“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”

— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot

I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”

That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.

And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.

Happy Tuesday!

10 best books I read this winter

Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.

The Complete Stories

01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector

The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Stories with deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories

02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams

No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilege is dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.

War and Peace

03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

04. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

A Streetcar Named Desire

05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:  Essays and Arguments

06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.

Giovanni's Room

07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

08. Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan

They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style

09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte

Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences when she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde

A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.

It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

How to read a book

133/365If you own the book, bracket thought-provoking or beautiful passages with your favorite Japanese pen. Write the page number of the passage on the last blank page of the book, in a column, for future reference. You will then be able to pluck the book from your shelves during a dinner party and annoy/bore your guests with the passage when you judiciously drop it into conversation.

If you are borrowing the book, flag thought-provoking or beautiful passages with those plasticky flags you hoarded and then stole from your old job. Record the quotes in your Google doc before you have to return it to the library or to your friend, and remove all the flags.

Remove the dust jacket of all hardback books and neatly, gently slide it into your nightstand, lest you forget it. Forget about this dust jacket when you re-shelve the book.

If you are sitting down for a heavy reading session of multiple books, read 20 pages at a time from each book. Arrange the books in a stack next to you by alternating genres (fiction, nonfiction, fiction, nonfiction), lest your stamina begins to flag. This alternating pattern will hold your interest for some time, until a fatal interruption arrives.

If other humans are not home, read aloud from fussy passages. Sometimes, if you are feeling very bold, you will read with accents, preferably a stilted approximation of high-class British (think: Woolf’s watery, unbearably snooty dialect) or a very poor French accent.

Use bookmarks that are composed of a sturdy cardstock. Receipts and other thin tissue-like papers simply will not do. Bookmarks are often cast-offs from calligraphy projects gone wrong, and sometimes they contain obscene statements you have written on them in the throes of a bad job. Never use the bookmark to take notes, because it will be used with other books in its short lifetime, and these notes will be a distraction to you.

Always peep at the author photo and make a judgment about the author’s personality based on looking at this photo for four or five seconds. Judge especially harshly modern authors who elect to have their photos in black and white and who are making a particularly hard, erudite scowl at the camera.

Write down words you don’t know in your Moleskine notebook. Look them up later. If you look them up now on your phone, you will never go back to your book; you will get sucked into an Instagram sinkhole and never emerge.

Always read with a pen nearby. If you do not have one nearby, you will invariably need one, according to the laws of nature, and have to get up and go stomping around the house to find one, which will disrupt your flow in such a way that you may never sit down again for the rest of the day.

It is best to read by a window during the day and to not use a lamp. Read until the light goes dim in the sky. Then, you may sit in the faded blue chair under the lamp and cross your legs on the faded blue ottoman covered with faux fur and wait for Eden to bring you a slimy ball. She will endeavor to drop it right in your lap and smear the pages with drool. She will not rest until you engage her. She hates it when you read.

Never read the foreword. The only instance in which it is appropriate to read a foreword is if it is written by a famous author you already love and trust, like Eudora Welty or Guy Davenport or Annie Proulx. Otherwise, you will find the foreword irritating and if it is bad, it will color your opinions for the rest of your time with the book.

You will only be able to read for about 10 minutes on your side before falling asleep in your bed. If you must read in bed, you must prop pillows up on the headboard and read sitting up, with the book on your knees. In this posture, you may read for hours on end. You will always want to read at least five pages of some book after having sex. If you do not have a book nearby after sex, you will have to go find one, and this will ruin the pleasant mood.

Avoid reading books with ugly design. Never ever read a mass-market paperback, not even if it’s the only book on a six-hour flight. Never ever read a book with a cover that shows the actors in the film adaptation. Never ever read a book that has tiny margins or Times New Roman as the primary typeface.

Stop writing things in books. You will be embarrassed by the old books you have that are filled with your high-school-era marginalia, because your husband will confront you with them when he finally gets around to reading that classic novel, and he will poke fun at you, in a loving way, but you are still embarrassed because you thought you were rather clever at the time and now you realize that you were just a moony teen with too much time on her hands and this will shatter your sense of self in a way that feels uncomfortable right after dinner.

Best books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

Habits of a habitual reader

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Routines, habits, tics of an obsessive reader:*

*Noted not as recommendations for anyone else but rather for personal reflection on the cherished idiosyncrasies of my gravely, gravely Type-A self…

  • To mark passages worth remembering and writing down: In books I own, I make small brackets with a pen and note the page number on the last page of the book, often with a one- or two-word description of the passage. In library books, I use sticky plastic flags with a clear tab to mark a passage. The clear sticky tab is somehow very important to me; a normal sticky note won’t do.
  • I am in the library weekly and am on a first-name basis with the front-desk librarians. I always put books on hold; I never browse. I have never had an overdue book in the five years that I have lived here.
  • As soon as I add a new book to our library, I stamp the colophon with a rubber stamp that I had made, of my handwriting, that says “EX LIBRIS / Abby and Guion.” Eden has decided that this stamp is hers, and she has tried to eat it twice. Guion glued it back together, but it isn’t the same.
  • I am a bit precious with books as physical objects. I will yell at anyone who breaks a spine, bends a cover, or creases a page.
  • Books I am planning to read soon live in my nightstand; everything else is appropriately filed on the shelves (alphabetized by author surname within proper genre).
  • For the past two years, I have kept a running Google doc with reading notes, complemented by my physical notebook. I start a new doc for each year.
  • I have about two dozen reading lists (e.g., Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Nobel laureates, Francine Prose and Mary Karr’s lists of books to be read immediately, etc.) on Google Drive, which I revisit from time to time.
  • One book perpetually lives on my nightstand and and two or three reside in the kitchen, for meal-time reading.
the ones that got away: oct.
The little independent bookstore I worked at in high school.

What are some of your habits while reading?

On having and holding books

Edith Wharton & puppy.
Edith Wharton and one of her many tiny dogs.

Those who really care for books are seldom content to restrict them to the library, for nothing adds more to the charm of a drawing room than a well-designed bookcase: an expanse of beautiful bindings is as decorative as a fine tapestry.

— Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, 1897

Edith Wharton's library at The Mount. Photo by John Bessler from Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms: Architecture, Interiors, Gardens by Theresa Craig.
Wharton’s library at The Mount. Photo by John Bessler.

Edith Wharton knew a thing or two about books and about interior design, so I’m inclined to take her word on this one.

Despite my previously declared feelings about clutter, I have never regarded piles of books as “clutter.” Books are both beautiful and functional, and they are necessary inhabitants of every room. (*Book storage is my primary beef with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo suggests that you only keep about 15 books and that you store them in a closet, behind doors, which is utter barbarism to me.)

I’m very sensitive about bookshelves, too, which is perhaps why it took us months to find a solution for all of the books that are stacked in the basement. We found a perfect, narrow, rickety, white bookshelf at the Habitat store for the living room.

Quiet, simple home
Rickety white shelf on left.

For the basement, we bought this round bookshelf from World Market, which I love.

Latest furniture acquisition #nevertoomanybookshelves
Round bookshelf in basement.

And then last year, my dad and Guion built this wonderful platform bed for the guest room, which features built-in bookshelves underneath.

Guest bedroom redo
Platform bed with built-in bookshelves; handiwork of husband and father.

But we are getting to the point where we will need more bookshelves. We are running out of room to store the books appropriately, and it’s making me antsy and breathless.

In that vein, I am very particular about the organization of books on shelves. One of the biggest fights of our marriage was over the placement of our books and the organizational system that we would follow. (Celeste witnessed the whole thing; she can attest to our joint fervor over book storage. In the end, we reached a compromise that married my desire for strict organizational rules and his love of spontaneous displays of beloved titles.)

In my strongly held opinion, books should be easily found and accessible. Although I appreciate the aesthetic merits of a color-coded bookshelf, know that I’m going to judge you pretty hard for it. Color-coded bookshelves only tell me one thing: You don’t actually read (or further reference) any of these books, because books are not easily recalled or located by the colors of their spines.

That said, I’m all for celebrating the physical beauty of books. If you’re not in the habit of reading or referencing books you own, by all means, color-code your shelves. Because books are, in themselves, quite beautiful, and so I understand the aesthetic appeal of a color-coded shelf. I think this is why I’ve never been too frightened by the e-book revolution. Yes, big-brand bookstores are shuttering all across the country, but I believe that people will still hold onto their real books, because books are physically beautiful. Kindles are not.

There is great pleasure in displaying books in the home, and a room without books in it has always felt empty and soulless to me.

How do you display your books? Do you follow a system, or do you throw caution to the wind with book organization?

On the particular joys of used books

133/365
Two beloved and heavily annotated books of mine. Photo circa spring 2010.

I know I am not alone in this sentiment, but I hold used books in high esteem, often preferring them above brand-new editions. The remnants of past readers feel very special to me. I spend a good deal of time wondering about the book’s former owners, searching for vestigial clues to their identities. I read every annotation, every inscription, every book plate. I wonder if Carol and Judith ended their friendship, and that’s why Judith gave away her copy of The Stone Diaries to the library book sale. I admire John and Betty Connors’s gilt-edged, pre-printed Ex Libris sticker and wonder if we would have enjoyed their company at dinner. I muse about names and dates and symbols. I assess the handwriting, trying to ascertain the age or sex of the reader.

I once bought a very heavily and angrily annotated copy of Walden, clearly worked over by a high-school student. The student did not hold Thoreau in high regard, but he/she did seem to have read the whole book, because there were grumpy little notes and excessive underlining from start to finish. I found myself almost more interested in what the student had to say than Thoreau.

While in college, I bought a beautifully bound, royal-blue old hardback copy of Carl Sandburg’s poems on a whim at The Bookshop. I don’t even like Carl Sandburg that much. When I got home and thumbed through the volume, out dropped a photograph. And not just any photograph: It was a small rectangle, curling at the edges, displaying the Old Well and a thoroughly ivy-covered building (possibly Old East). Dated 1915. What an unexpected treasure! I framed that little photograph and it now hangs in the bedroom with the Carolina blue walls.

Importantly, The Bookshop was where I initiated my college romances. True to form, while perusing its musty shelves, I grew uncommonly animated and flirtatious, as if spouting allusions at a quick clip was the best way to cause someone to fall in love with me. I still remember conversations I had and the books I was jealously guarding in my arms when I had them. I even remember what I was wearing on these particular quasi-dates. I found Lydia Davis’s hardback translation of Swann’s Way there, back in the dark and creepy clearance section, and felt it to be a Sign from God that I had to finally read Proust, under the auspices of budding love.

Books for getting cozy with your dark mood

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

10 books:

  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
  • The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Some Ether, Nick Flynn
  • Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
  • We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
  • Othello, William Shakespeare
  • Song and Dance: Poems, Alan Shapiro
  • The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men