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.
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
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.”
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
. . .
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—
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—
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
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 (RunawayHorses, 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?”
Mavis Gallant is my latest obsession. (Dear friends had a beautiful baby girl yesterday, whom they named Mavis, and the name feels especially precious right now.) Gallant was a French-Canadian short story writer, and I feel simultaneously alarmed and elated that I had never read her until now. This is always such a pleasurable feeling, to discover a brilliant writer, after decades of reading, whom no one you know has ever told you about. (Anne Carson, I suppose, cannot count as someone I know.) She feels like a private discovery even though I am extremely late to the party.
Here is how Gallant starts her immaculate short story The Wedding Ring:
“On my windowsill is a pack of cards, a bell, a dog’s brush, a book about a girl named Jewel who is a Christian Scientist and won’t let anyone take her temperature, and a white jug holding field flowers. The water in the jug has evaporated; the sand-and-amber flowers seem made of paper. The weather bulletin for the day can be one of several: No sun. A high arched yellow sky. Or, creamy clouds, stillness. Long motionless grass. The earth soaks up the sun. or, the sky is higher than it ever will seem again, and the sun far away and small.”
Her prose has this unbelievably effortless quality to it, and the stories unfold in this strange yet natural way. I have been devouring them at breakfast. I feel a strong urge to buy everything she’s ever done.
. . .
A friend, with her bright-eyed baby on her hip, passed me in church after the service and said, as an opening salvo, “Summer is the best time to be alive.” I lit up, agreed, said something vapid about the food and the heat. I love conversations that start in this way, with a statement instead of a predictable question. And I felt the imperative truth of what she said. If we do not eat the earth’s bounty every night, if we do not walk every morning, the season will pass us by and soon we will descend into the darkness of winter. This is the blessedness and urgency of summer.
. . .
Life is very short and yet happy. My houseplants are suffering. I have had them for many years and just this season, they seem to be waning away, after years of moderate health and growth. The bird’s nest fern hanging over the armchair was so happy in that spot for a year, and now it looks burned and angry. The fiddle-leaf fig just keeps growing taller and taller and has no strength and keeps flopping over, weeping with its large leaves that I perpetually neglect to dust. I need to re-pot the six-year-old jade plants, growing in odd ways out of the cracked yellow urns, but I am lazy. I look at them and think about this every other day: You need my help and I am lazy.
. . .
“I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me,
He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.” — Emily Dickinson
I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.
1. Clarice Lispector
Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.
What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.
There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).
His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.
This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.
Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.
April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.
Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.
There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.
Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:
I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.
Recently, in reading life:
I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.
I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.
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.