33 best books for expecting parents

I read about 70 books about birth and babies while pregnant, even though everyone told me not to read anything.

These people, clearly, did not know me well. Telling me not to read something is a surefire way to move a book to the top of my reading list. Furthermore, what a wild season of life to tell me not to read things. Why would I not read about one of the most significant undertakings of my moderately young life?

Having done this all of this reading and heeded none of these warnings, I now understand the intent behind this caution: There is a TON of fear-mongering around pregnancy and birth, and I am glad I stayed away from that (as best I could). In sum, womenfolk: Don’t let people scare you about pregnancy and birth. (Also, don’t let health care providers patronize you.)

With that caveat, having read about 60 books, here are the 33 that are worth your time and unlikely to cause paroxysms of fear and stress, if there is a wee babe on the horizon.

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Best 8 books on birth and pregnancy

  1. Active Birth, Janet Balaskas. Clearly explained advice on how to move well while laboring. It is an older book from the UK, and not as widely read or mentioned in these parts, but I’m so glad I found a used copy. Excellent advice, with helpful images and descriptions.
  2. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin. Read it for the happy birth stories! Even if you don’t go the hippie/drug-free route, it’s just lovely to read about births that are joyful occasions—and to discover all of the manifold, various, and beautiful ways that babies come into the world. Ina May will help you relax. This is the main thing that I wanted someone to do for me, as a first-timer contemplating birth: Someone help me relax. Ina May is that saintly someone.
  3. Expecting Better, Emily Oster. This rational book was one of the only things that helped me calm down during my anxiety-ridden first trimester. Highly recommended.
  4. Real Food for Pregnancy, Lily Nichols. Comprehensive and somewhat urgent; I wish I had read it at the start of my pregnancy instead of toward the end! Nichols presents an evidence-based approach to nutrition for pregnant women, avoiding much of the tired fear-mongering that’s present in so much common advice for American women (e.g., paranoia over raw eggs, soft cheese, seafood, etc.) and instead prioritizing health through whole, natural foods (with some interesting additions, at least for American eaters, like her high praise for organ meats, bone broth, eggs, and seaweed).
  5. Nurture, Erica Chidi Cohen. Read this instead of the dreadful What to Expect. This is the calming, clear, modern overview of all pregnancy and birth-related matters that you want to leaf through and use as a reference throughout your nine months.
  6. Birth Matters, Ina May Gaskin. More of a manifesto, and likely a contributing factor into why I decided to have home births (in 2019 and 2021), but it’s a holistic, woman-and-baby-centric text, decrying much of the institutional, overly medicalized trends in American obstetrics.
  7. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn, Penny Simkin. Another great, clear, non-hysterical guide to these nine months and the bleary newborn months that follow.
  8. Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke. Admittedly, I don’t think I used any of these meditative practices while giving birth, but they sounded so nice! A more mentally strong woman may derive more active benefit from these practices. Still, I enjoyed knowing about the power of the brain over sensations of pain.

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Best 8 books on motherhood/postpartum life

  1. The First Forty Days, Heng Ou. A beautiful book that encourages women to follow the Chinese tradition of resting and staying in for 40 days after birth: eating rich, nourishing foods; resting; snuggling with your baby; and being pampered. A much wiser and better approach to the postpartum period than the typical American Instagram mom, who likes to brag about how she ran a bunch of errands immediately after giving birth.
  2. Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, Ina May Gaskin. I found this to be so much better and less judgmental than the La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which assumes that all women are stay-at-home moms who wouldn’t dare leave their baby alone for even a moment.
  3. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott. Wry, sarcastic, and heartwarming memoir of raising a baby boy as a single mom.
  4. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg. Beautiful little essays from the Italian-Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg, who is wise and elegant and comforting all at once.
  5. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen. A perfect little book to read in those bleary postpartum days, because it’s charming and episodic. You can easily pick it up between feeds. Galchen’s observations of motherhood are the perfect blend of sweet without being sentimental.
  6. Daybook, Anne Truitt. The diary of a talented American sculptor, who finds time to care for her children while also creating art. Encouraging to those of us who have other interests outside of child-rearing.
  7. Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich. A strident series of essays from my favorite second-wave feminist.
  8. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell. Another humorous memoir that would be a fun, lighthearted book after having a baby of your own.

*There may be some great books about fatherhood, but I didn’t read any! Dads, feel free to chime in.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Best 7 books on the history and culture of parenting

  1. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. Reading this history of how Americans have defined childhood was so helpful and orienting, especially when I contemplated where many of my deeply held beliefs about parenting came from.
  2. Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig. Delightful. Jennifer Traig presents a lighthearted—and yet thoroughly researched—account of parenting through the ages. Smart and sarcastic and informative.
  3. The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, Richard Weissbourd. A Harvard psychology professor’s perspective on how American parents are messing up their kids by trying to be their friends.
  4. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte. Not uplifting! Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling overwhelmed, all day, every day.
  5. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior. The most compelling argument, which Senior cites from an American historian: We have no parenting folkways, and so we are always muddling around, trying every trend and suggestion, when it comes to childrearing.
  6. To the End of June, Cris Beam. A chastening account of the dire straits of the U.S. foster care system.
  7. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley. A quick and thought-provoking book that looks closely at South Korea and Finland’s public schools and considers why U.S. schools lag so far behind.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

Best 10 books on baby raising

  1. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, Kim John Payne. Sage, calm, and inspiring. We still have so much to learn about raising little people, but this book has served as a beacon. I plan to return to it over and over again, like a liturgy, in the hopes that it will continue to inform my parenting.
  2. Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy, Kim West. The title says it all. (Given to us by our life-changing doula!)
  3. Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, Emily Oster. Calming and reassuring, much like Expecting Better. Emily Oster puts many early parenting fears to rest with her clear-headed analysis. (I also love her Substack ParentData, which I read religiously.)
  4. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman. Our movement goals for our family in a nutshell! Also introduced to Katy Bowman by our aforementioned doula. Very inspiring and important.
  5. Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman. People have lots of opinions on this book, but I think it’s just great parenting advice, from start to finish. Non, je ne regrette rien!
  6. Montessori from the Start, Paula Polk Lillard. I really appreciated this book in the early days of babyhood, and it encouraged me to make many different decisions about how we interacted with our firstborn and set up our home for him. There’s also a lot of overlap with the Montessori baby-rearing philosophy and the natural movement ideas from Bowman, as mentioned above. Our second-born also gets the benefit of being looked after in a bonafide Montessori classroom, which is so lovely.
  7. Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv. Terrifying and extremely motivating book that urges you to get your kids outside.
  8. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon. I mean, of course I was going to read aloud to my babies, but this book made me even more firm in my dedication to the practice.
  9. Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina. Helpful, readable survey of what we know about how children’s brains develop and how we can help them flourish. Medina confirms research I’ve encountered elsewhere (e.g., have conversations with your infant; don’t tell your kid that she’s smart but rather that she worked hard; the best parenting style combines clear boundaries with gentle, consistent discipline, etc.) The book is broader than the title suggests and also offers practical, compassionate advice on how to fortify your marriage, your sex life, and your general sanity as you embark on parenthood.
  10. Baby-Led Weaning, Tracey Murkett and Gil Rapley. Instead of pureed baby food and rice cereal, we followed this method of giving babies real, whole food to start with—and honestly, it’s not really a “method,” because it’s what parents always did until companies invented baby food. It worked so well with Moses, and he’s a great eater at 2.5. Fingers crossed that this method will also work with Felix.

What am I missing? What have you read and loved on the subject of bringing babies into the world?

Not the center of the universe

I was talking recently with some writer friends about the lost art of omniscient narration. Today, they said, if you submit fiction to an MFA program that’s in third person, it’s considered shocking, avant-garde. Almost everything now is wrapped in a first-person perspective. Even articles that may have once been written as straightforward journalism are peppered with “I,” centered in the author’s voice.

We invest so much, as 21st-century readers, in the identity of the speaker. 

In our cultural moment, flooded with an endless stream of media, it has become imperative to know who the writer is, where they went to school, what they look like, and how they vote. Because we’re confronted with so much text all day long, it seems efficient to make snap judgments about an author’s biography before we invest in reading a piece. When a writer puts herself into the story, too, we perceive this as a credentialing, comforting gesture. We demand to know some surface-level facts about the author before we will deign to hear her story. 

I may be a naïve, old-fashioned English major, but I miss the detached writing of bygone eras. Returning to the omniscient voices of Tolstoy, Flaubert, or George Eliot is deeply refreshing to me. I yearn for the austere, deliberate journalism of decades past, written by the likes of John McPhee or the Pulitzer Prize–winning power couple Susan and Neil Sheehan, who would not dare to insert themselves into the stories they were relaying.

As my own writing suggests, however, it is far easier to place ourselves at the centers of the stories we tell. But what would it take for us to remove ourselves from the narrative? What is lost if we keep insisting that our point of view is the only way a story can be told?

To take a cue from Tolstoy, we lose the great benefit of exploring other perspectives. Consider how much less rich and gloriously multifaceted War and Peace would have been if Tolstoy had written it in first person. We’d only ever hear Natasha’s thoughts from a drawing room, which would frustratingly limit our grasp of the created universe. 

If we are so invested in storytelling from our exclusive vantage point, we grow blind to the ideas and motivations of others. Perhaps we ought to practice detaching ourselves more often: to consider that other stories, especially those that diverge from our own, might be just as worthy. 

Maybe my thoughts aren’t the fulcrum of the known world. Maybe other people have tales to tell too. Maybe I could be a vessel for other voices, if I could put myself aside for just a moment.

From this week’s issue of Story Matters

. . .

“Surely this is just the theme with which we began: the way an environment of high informational density produces people of low personal density. A world that seems to give us infinite choice actually makes choice nearly impossible: the informational context chooses for us. And what that means—Rousseau brings us something new here, something essential—is that our web of information determines what we love. Thus Saint-Preux: from day to day, ‘I cannot be sure what I will love.’”

— Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread With the Dead

. . .

Moses turned 2 on Mother’s Day, fittingly, and he seems to become more and more like a kid every day. Still has no idea what’s coming in a few months, that his charmed, solipsistic life is about to be totally upended by a little baby. It’ll be good for him (for all of us, I hope).

I will appeal to this

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I love fall in our neighborhood.

In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.

I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.

As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.

I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.

Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?

Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.

Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.

I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.

And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.

Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.

I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.

I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.

In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.

. . .

It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)

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Sumptuous destitution

Our dear friend Kyo came to visit for the weekend, which was a real delight, as he always brings a lot of levity and thoughtfulness to every conversation. One of my favorite conversations oriented around this Emily Dickinson poem, which he shared with us:

In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy —
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity —

It comes, without a consternation —
Dissolves — the same —
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution —
Without a Name —

Profane it by a search — we cannot
It has no home —
Nor we who having once inhaled it —
Thereafter roam.

It has been rolling around in my mind all weekend — the fluctuating, dissolving nature of mundane joys. I have been thinking of these vanishing delights as I light the beeswax candles or repaint the grout on the bathroom floor or pick up Moses in the morning from his crib.

Perhaps it is fruitless to dissect or name these pleasures, as Dickinson suggests, or even to try to replicate them. They come and go as they please, and we’re left in that ineffable state, resting in our sumptuous destitution. As summer burns away and fall approaches, I find that I am more mindful of these domestic, everyday joys. It shall soon be time to stay in the dull, reportless places, and yet even there, we are experiencing the richness and fullness of life.

moses-blenheim
Kyo, Guion, and Moses at Blenheim Vineyards.

The poem hits me strongly because of autumn, but also because of baby.

Now, in month four with Moses, I sense a return to old ways and old pleasures. I didn’t think I’d feel this way in those traumatic early days. I kind of felt ruined, if I’m being honest. And now, things are forever different, of course — gone are the days of spiriting away to a restaurant on a whim! Ne’er shall we leave the house without a tremendous amount of infant paraphernalia! — but the small activities that buoyed the spirits are now capable of being rediscovered. Such as: Painting one’s toenails. Reading a book. Making oatmeal the slow way. Writing words down in a notebook.

Yesterday, for the first time since Moses was born, Guion and I enjoyed one of our “quiet nights” — a screen-free evening for reading and writing. In our recent childless days, we used to enshrine them in our week. These evenings are much harder to come by since we’ve added this little person to our home, but I felt last night how deeply I have missed and needed them. I read a little of Nell Zink’s new novel, Doxology, and tried to get through John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara but couldn’t (it’s almost too lyrical) and felt a vast pleasure wash over me. The days with Moses are full and heartwarming, but the evenings without him can be also (especially now that he’s sleeping through the night!).

(Upon copying the text of the poem, I’m also reminded that Anne Carson has played with it in Men in the Off Hours, splicing Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson with some thoughts on the way we read women. Have you a little chest to put the Alive in? Dickinson! What a bone-chilling genius! I have come off the weekend convinced that we do not talk about her nearly enough and feel that I need to read the giant tome of her complete poems daily, like a liturgy.)

. . .

Obligatory baby photo: Enjoying his first flight! Visiting dearly beloved (and missed) friends in Chicago.

moses-plane

Everything that has been excluded

Christmas cards
Christmas cards going out, from years past.

I’m always thinking about reading, but I have been thinking about it in a more targeted way lately, as it pertains to my job as a content strategist/designer.

In Journey Group’s publication on Medium, I decided to make the case for preserving deep reading online: Digital Readers Deserve Better.

. . .

My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.

As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.

. . .

“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”

— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

. . .

With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.

Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.

Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.

Mystical confluence

Typical winter scene.

Winter is a season to light candles and be grateful. It is a time to argue about whether we should get a little Christmas tree (him: for, me: against; he’s been winning the past few years), to go to bed early with great gusto, to read heavy books that never look appealing during the summer, and to make as many fires in the fireplace during the week as we can muster.

I loathe the cold, but I am happy about the season.

. . .

Guion and I have a term for a phenomenon that occurs when you are reading or otherwise consuming content across a variety of media, produced by very different people, in different eras or genres — and then they suddenly start communicating with each other or referencing the same specific thing.

It’s one of my favorite experiences. I started calling it “mystical confluence,” and now we like to share our encounters with each other. For example, you’re reading a history of table manners and a strange Anne Carson poem, and then they both suddenly reference Lazarus being raised from the dead. Or you’re listening to Joanna Newsom and reading an account of medieval cosmology, and now they’re both talking about meteors. Mystical confluence is deeply enjoyable. It always makes me feel that (1) the world is very small, and (2) we are all eminently connected, in ways that we often cannot fathom.

. . .

“The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.”

— Christ, quoted in the Gospel of Thomas

. . .

Qualities that I increasingly appreciate in other people, as I age

  • Conversational graces
  • The ability to set a table properly
  • Disinterest in the news cycle
  • Rejection of small talk
  • Capacity to disagree politely but honestly
  • Eschewing the use of phones at the table
  • Handwriting

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?)

Murmuration

Ash Lawn Highland
James Monroe at Ash Lawn Highland, recently.

This morning, while I waited for water to boil for tea, I watched a tremendous current of starlings fly just above the tree line in our backyard. Pyrrha stood on the back deck and seemed to be watching them too. They flew in a seemingly endless stream from the west. I imagined they were all communicating to each other about the hurricane, cheerfully fleeing en masse, and I wondered where they were going. What refuge do hundreds of starlings seek?

. . .

Even though we will see some flooding and minor wind and nothing much worse, the hurricane has produced this low level of dread in me. We will be completely fine, unlike many in our beloved home state of North Carolina, and so it feels almost callous to worry, when we have so little to worry about. But my hum of anxiety serves to reinforce the main thing I have learned from the past year: Never, ever read the news. The news is engineered to ratchet up your anxiety. This is the only thing to remember.

. . .

I am finally tackling David Copperfield, which I want to talk about because I harbor such a general distaste for Dickens. (Bleak House was pretty good, but I can hardly stand the rest of it.) To my surprise, I am 200 pages in and quite enjoying myself. It’s pleasant to read something that isn’t my typical moody, postmodern fictional fare; it’s nice to meet a character and read the author’s description of his face and know instantly, Oh, this is a villain because he has a dark brow and cleft chin! Or oh, this is an angel! She has glossy blonde hair! It’s pleasing to feel like you can predict almost everything that is about to happen. You shall shortly be orphaned! Your stepfather will continue to terrorize you! You shall be beaten by the headmaster! You will work full-time in a dismal place even though you are only 10 years old! It’s fun. I admit it.

. . .

I have also felt a revival of interest in poetry. I think it’s because of the anticipation of fall; I always want to read poetry in the fall. I have started Passing Through by Stanley Kunitz, and I can already tell I’m going to be a fan.

. . .

“I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun. Large minds, abutting too close on swelling souls. And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world. Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world.” — Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow

At home, in Charlottesville

Home sweet home #charlottesville
Sunset in Charlottesville (2014).

On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.

We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.

. . .

If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.

. . .

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star