Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

Just the weight of God

Clifton Inn
Date night at the Clifton Inn, recently.

After weeks and weeks of rain, a few consecutive days of sunshine feels like being born again.

I am not a particularly emotional person, but I am reminded of the tremendously profound effect of weather on my disposition. I don’t know how people in the British Isles take it year round. (There may be something wrong with British people, it could be said. We lived in London in the summer, which is arguably the best time to live in London, and the Brits we knew complained when it was hot and bright and sunny. They, like swamp aliens, longed for the cold mist and rain and fog!)

All this aside, October has been very good to us. Most notably, we gained our second godson, and we love him so much already. His tiny self and his wonderful parents fill us with great joy.

. . .

I am hopeful about a growing, generalized malaise around the internet and life lived on screens. The world wide web has failed to make us more intelligent, more moral, more peaceful, more charitable. Many seem to be waking up to this reality.

I recently finished Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home, about reading in a digital world. Her warnings and findings are not new or surprising (the internet has ruined our capacity for deep thinking and deep reading), but her focus on children felt particularly chilling. I recommend it, to anyone who loves reading and has found their capacity for it diminishing, and especially to the parents of small children.

A short selection from her book, as a taste of what she covers:

“When you read carefully, you are more able to discern what is true and to add it to what you know. Ralph Waldo Emerson described this aspect of reading in his extraordinary speech ‘The American Scholar’: ‘When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant.’ In reading research, the cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich suggested something similar some time ago about the development of word knowledge. In childhood, he declared, the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer, a phenomenon he called the ‘Matthew Effect’ after a passage in the New Testament. There is also a Matthew-Emerson Effect for background knowledge: those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know.

— Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home

A positive development: After several months of studiously detaching from my phone, I find it less and less interesting. It contains nothing that I really want (and certainly nothing that I need). I still check Instagram once or twice a day and perhaps look at a few emails, but I don’t even really want to be doing that. I’ve deleted the apps that were distracting (Twitter) and kept the main screen limited to simple functions (clock, camera, weather, maps, etc.), which aren’t very interesting anyway. I still have much to regain, by way of attention and mindfulness, but I am feeling freer on the whole.

. . .

Things I cannot resist

  • Sliced cucumber on a plate
  • Watching a dog intently as it trots past me
  • Moonlight on the counter
  • Buying Anne Carson books wherever I spot them
  • Telling Pyrrha how much she sheds
  • Stationery of European origin
  • Linen napkins

. . .

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

— Emily Dickinson (who else?)

How to read in 2018

So many great books.
The screen is an easier choice than the book. (Old photo of a friend’s apartment, circa 2012.)

The internet has ruined deep reading for all of us.

We’ve known this for a while (see: Nicholas Carr, among many others), and yet we keep trying to read books in the real world. I keep trying. As a dedicated reader, I admit that it’s a challenge. Reading requires so much effort at the end of a work day, when I’ve spent eight hours looking at words on a screen.

And still, I believe in the calming, edifying power of the printed word. It is better for our eyes and our brains to read off-screen. We remember more; we think more clearly; we engage with ideas on a deeper level. But it’s so hard to read these days. It’s often so unappealing.

Here are some things that have been working for me lately.

Read these online tips to read offline

(The irony! It is not lost on me.)

  • Prime your brain. Don’t jump straight from your phone or laptop to a novel. It won’t work. The screen will seduce you back to itself. Look at something else for a while: your German shepherd, the turkey buzzards circling over the holler, the pastel horizon, the knob of your front door. Then pick up your book.
  • Keep your phone far away from you. In another room. You cannot leave it at arm’s length on a coffee table or nightstand. You will pick it up and put the book down. Judging people’s curated lives on Instagram is infinitely more appealing to our deadbeat brains than Faulkner. We must remember this.
  • Read as slowly as possible. Our internet-addled brains make us skim text. Online, we’re constantly skating over sentences and barely finishing them. Untrain your digitized brain. Read a sentence as slowly as you can, like you did when you were first learning how to read and sounding out words and thinking about what they meant. (This is especially pleasurable to do with a great stylist, like Nabokov or Cheever. Their sentences stand alone, pure gold on a page.)
  • Read just 20 pages at a time, to see if you can, without interrupting yourself. Then try 20 more. And so on.
  • Also, here’s a freebie: Facebook is evil. It is making you unhappy. And it’s making our country measurably worse. Delete your account as soon as possible. This is the main thing I’m preaching in 2018 (along with the fact that books are still good).

I have been thinking about these things as I begin a new year of reading. I’m reducing my personal goal a bit this year, so I can devote some more time to writing projects, but I have noticed how difficult it has been for me to focus on books. I feel like my reading brain is getting weaker, and it concerns me greatly. Hence, these tips.

Here’s to renewed vigor and to a year that is increasingly spent offline.

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.

Ravenous

Wildflower bed growth
Wildflowers, and some weeds, coming up in the front yard.

Guion turns 27 today! What a wonderful husband! (What a nice birthday gift if his Kickstarter got funded! Hint, hint…)

These days, I can’t read enough to feel satiated. All I ever want to do is read. (I’ve read 82 books since January, and this still doesn’t feel like enough.) I want to travel just so that I can have extra time to read while moving about on various forms of transportation. I am on a first-name basis with the public librarians, because I am in there at least once or twice a week, picking up holds. Some of them don’t even ask me what I want when I approach the counter; they just scan my card and go look for my books, handing them to me wordlessly, unamused. I resent calligraphy jobs now, because they suck up my free time, and I can’t read and practice calligraphy simultaneously, to my dismay. I really just want to be alone with my books.

It is easy for me to forget that people have worldviews that are different from mine. This is a consequence of my naivete and my predilection to cultivate a community that shares my broad base of opinions on how the world works. I watched about two minutes of FOX News while in my hotel room in Boston, and I felt like I was watching some broadcast from outer space. All I could think was, Who do they think they are talking to? Is there anyone listening? (Yes, apparently a large swath of America.)

Summer is upon us, and the dogs get more easily worn out by short walks or fetch sessions. This is one of the great benefits of summer. We are waiting on Eden to mature, but people say that working-line shepherds don’t truly calm down until they are at least 3 or 4. Delightful. She turns 1 on July 5, though, so just a few more years…

Same view (Belmont)
View of Belmont.

One of my constant life dilemmas is how much I would love to go to grad school but how there is no useful degree I can think of getting. I’d love to get an English MA, but if there is one thing the world does not need more of, it’s English MAs. They are a particularly unbearable breed. But I would love to join their ranks. I’ve thought about getting a degree in animal behavior, but you apparently have to know something about science for that. I also think about getting a degree in Japanese literature, but I’d have to live in Japan to achieve even mild fluency, and I really like living in Virginia, with my husband and my dogs. So. No grad school for me? That makes me sad.

Books I will be reading soon:

  • A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill
  • Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez
  • Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
  • The Stories of Paul Bowles
  • The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
  • Monsieur Proust, Celeste Albaret

A copy editor’s daydream

It’s easy to get lost in the microcosm of your job and think that the rest of the world should be operating within your work-day paradigms. Today, for instance, I was editing an extremely poorly written blog post, and instead of whistling while I worked and cheerfully improving the piece, my to-author queries just started getting more and more touchy; I was enraged that such a person could exist, someone with such a paltry ability to form a solid sentence! With such little knowledge of punctuation and the difference between an em- and en-dash!

So I had to stop. Put it away. Breathe. Realize that I live in a weird, underground world that is detached from most people’s everyday reality. A world in which editors obsess over language precision and the correctness of a word for hours. A world in which you strive not to betray an author’s trust by changing a comma. A world in which, if our jobs are done well, no reader even thinks of our existence.

Dutch braid, attempt no. 1. #braidselfieBeing a copy editor makes you super-attuned (almost presciently) to detail, but it also makes you an ass. I don’t know why a knowledge of grammar makes people self-righteous, but being a copy editor is a fast track to unbearable party behavior. Guion can’t go out to dinner without me making snide remarks about apostrophes and how most people think “portobella” or “portabella” is the correct name of the mushroom “portobello.” I’ll launch into a tidy tirade if you talk about how your English teacher told you that two spaces belong between every sentence. It’s amazing that I have any friends at all.

Because it’s a hard thing to turn off, this editing nature. I’ve been reading a memoir by a stroke survivor, and instead of thinking, Wow, this woman is amazing, and she has overcome so much, all I can think is, Couldn’t she afford an editor? What is this run-on nonsense? What is the deal with these double spaces between sentences?

Many of my coworkers say that they can’t read for pleasure anymore because of this curse. Or, if they do read, they can only turn to the lowest common denominator fiction (e.g., Nelson DeMille), fiction that requires only a marginal part of your brain.

I don’t want to resort to that, but I admit that reading Proust was a heck of a lot harder than it might have been if I’d had a different profession. Or Faulkner. Or Woolf. Or any of the writers that I deeply love and admire. Since Infinite Jest, fiction has been much harder on me. I gravitate toward nonfiction now. I don’t even read the short stories in the New Yorker; they don’t interest me. I don’t know if this turn away from fiction can be blamed on my handful of years spent editing or on David Foster Wallace, but something significant in my reading life has shifted.

I miss stories, but I crave knowledge. I want to know about everything. Reading 100 books a year doesn’t seem like enough. It’s a foolish endeavor, to want to know everything, but it’s never felt like a vain striving. Rather, I’d like to class it with Annie Dillard’s deep curiosity about the universe, spanning from the vast Milky Way all the way down to the mystical formation of a butterfly in its chrysalis. I want to know about all of these things, and I want to be able to tell these stories.

Goat moth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t pretend to have Dillard’s level of beautiful, boundless curiosity, but I can aspire to it. To know, to have precision, to be curious; I think of these as developing attributes of my small life as a copy editor.

I have, perhaps, always been this way; it’s just now that I’m realizing that my love of being a copy editor has fit perfectly within my natural design. Being a good editor means knowing right from wrong; valuing precision; internalizing arcane details of our complex and often nonsensical language; memorizing rules; ably recalling information about history, politics, and culture; possessing all of this knowledge and holding it at the ready, on a precipice of your brain.

I learned to read when I was 3; I enjoyed being sent to time-out because it meant I could stay in my room and read; I read straight through our set of encyclopedias when I was 7 or 8 (remember when you had physical encyclopedias? An alphabetized set that probably lived in your parent’s basement?). When I got to “D,” my mother had to explain the birds and the bees to me earlier than she expected, because I was confused as to why a woman would use a diaphragm during something called “intercourse.” I memorized the names of exotic animals and thought of them as my invisible companions. (Guion and I have been watching David Attenborough’s fabulous documentary series, “The Life of Mammals,” and every episode brings me this childlike glee when I can successfully identify an unusual animal. A tapir! A pangolin! A dik-dik! Heaven!)

As a child, I wanted all of the information (a history, a theory, a flood), and a large part of me still does.

I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013

I read 125 books in 2013, down somewhat from last year. But as far as I can tell, here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read.

1. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about this marvelous little book, but the critical thing is that it saved me. I felt like I could keep believing in Christianity after reading Wiman’s memoir of faith. So, if you’re ever in a place like me and find yourself deep in doubt and ennui, turn to Wiman. He has some beautifully perfect and powerful things to say about being a modern believer in an ancient religion.

2. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Topping out at about 1,000 pages, Far from the Tree was my Big Tome of the year. The fact that I, a childless person, so enjoyed this book about parents and children speaks to Andrew Solomon’s gift as a writer and storyteller. The book is also riveting and frightening to me, as a childless person, but Solomon writes with honest hope about what he calls “horizontal relationships” between parents and children — that is, children who differ markedly from their parents (e.g., parents to kids who are transgender, deaf, or autistic; have dwarfism or Down syndrome; are criminals, etc.). Solomon spent 10 years researching this book, and his meticulous attention to his subjects is filled with grace and understanding. Each chapter tackles a separate identity and how those parents and children have learned to live and love through their differences. It’s a momentous book on a rarely discussed topic.

3. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness

This completely charming, intelligent, and engrossing little book is for everyone. Provided that you’ve ever lived inside a structure or been enchanted by the form of a building, Alain de Botton has some words for you. Why is it that we are attracted to beautiful buildings? Why, as he asks, do we feel different inside a McDonald’s than inside the Westminster Cathedral? This is a beautiful, thoughtful foray into the theoretical ramifications of architecture, and I want to read it all over again right now.

4. Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead

Yes, I feel a few years behind the John Jeremiah Sullivan craze, and I am embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to read it, but maybe I should say that it was worth the wait? This is an ideal collection of essays: deeply funny, honest, and far-reaching. Plainly, Sullivan is just a great writer. Favorite essays: His experience at Creation, the giant Christian rock festival (“Christian music is the only music industry that has excellence-proofed itself”); the essay about his brother’s “resurrection” after being electrocuted; and the essay about caring for “the last Confederate,” Mr. Lytle. They’re all good; they’re all perfect; they’re all delightful; you should go get a copy of this book right now.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

If I’m being perfectly honest with you, I’ve never been much interested in foreign poverty narratives. You know what I’m talking about: Those sentimental books by non-native writers about the noble, angelic people trapped in desperate poverty in the Third World. For these reasons, I didn’t really want to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A white journalist writes about life in a Mumbai slum? Sounds like it’s going to be out-of-touch and cheesy. But this book is so far from that — which is probably why it has garnered such widespread acclaim. Katherine Boo spends several years living with and researching the people of Annawadi, a specific Mumbai slum, and produces this book, which reads like a thrilling novel with a complex array of characters. The best part about this book, though, is that Boo displays real life with real people in Annawadi. These are people as complicated as any of us; no one is purely good or purely evil. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so refreshing to read, and it vitalized this small, difficult part of India in my mind.

6. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

This year, I read this book for the second time as part of my church book club. I’m an ardent Annie Dillard fan, so even though this memoir wasn’t new to me, I had to include it on this list: It’s just that good. I first read this book when I was 15, and reading it again at 25 left me with such a different impression. Instead of being pulled in by the stories of childhood adventure and discovery, as I was before, this year I was more entranced by her careful portrayal of the nuanced pain and beauty of growing up and the intricate process of figuring out who you really are. Dillard has such a fertile, curious mind; she’ll always be a writer that I turn to year in and year out.

7. How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Artists and writers love to portray death in all sorts of romantic and eloquent images and phrases, but what is it really like to die? Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland wants to tell you, in this little book, his classic account of what happens to our bodies at the end of our lives. It is rare that we get to hear about death from someone who is actually in the business of living and dying, and Nuland writes with unsentimental clarity and precision. Recommended, because it’s going to happen to you and me one of these days.

8. Overdressed, by Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book does for the fashion industry what Michael Pollan and his ilk did for the food industry. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline researches the dark side of the cheap fashion business, which comprises the vast majority of the clothes that are purchased in the United States. A dramatic shift has occurred in the way that Americans consume clothing. Much like food, we now spend more money on clothes than ever before and have far bigger wardrobes than we actually need, and yet the clothes are vastly poorer quality. We see clothes as disposable items, which has created a powerful fashion industry that is unethical, wasteful, and unsustainable. I do believe that Overdressed is a book that every clothes-consuming American should read. It’ll change the way you think about what you wear.

9. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Finishing the book Delusions of Gender really took the wind out of my sails. Rather than making me proud to be a woman — o, the happy, beleaguered sex! — the barrage of studies and debunked gender myths has only made me more dejected, more frustrated, more hopeless. Gender roles and stereotypes are all so ingrained. You are already disadvantaged in the workplace, in math and in science, in general living and everyday safety by having been unfortunate enough to have been born a woman. That’s all you had to do to lose, just be born.

And yet, while reading the book, I was filled with a frantic, Sisyphean energy to do all of these things:

  • Stand up taller!
  • Make eye contact with men!
  • Take a math class!
  • Benchpress something! (Is that a thing? Is that what you call it?)
  • Study for and take the GRE!
  • Have a baby girl just so I can NOT buy her anything pink!
  • Write a children’s book with a female lead! (And with a boy character who is nurturing and gentle and needs to be saved, like Peeta.)
  • Punch a wall!

Which just made me feel more tired and more despondent. We still live in a country in which women live in fear of men on a daily basis — a feeling that most men would be hard-pressed to even sympathize with. It’s a sad state of affairs. But Fine’s book explores the ways that we’ve been misled to think that men and women are “hardwired” to act in certain ways. Rather, we’ve all been insidiously cultured to act in certain ways — even from the womb. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great book, even if you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.

10. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf, and I love when she’s in love. Most famous people’s letters are desperately boring, but Vita and Virginia couldn’t be boring if they tried. Recommended even for those who only have a passing interest in Woolf.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Deborah Needleman
  2. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
  3. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  4. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  5. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas
  6. American Sphinx, Thomas J. Ellis
  7. The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson

Up next: Best 10 fiction (novels, poetry, and plays) books I read in 2013.