My only real New Year’s goal this year was to read more books. I wanted to do less screen-reading and more paperback perusing. I wanted to lower my Netflix-To-Book Ratio. And I wasn’t willing to watch less Netflix, so I decided to get a library card (The Office, Parks and Rec, and Better Call Saul aren’t gonna watch themselves, people).
I now go to the library once or twice a week to load up. And each trip’s essentially the same: I find two or three books that tug at me that day, read a bunch, then scan the library for old ladies so I can give fake spoilers for the books they’re reading:
You won’t BELIEVE who did it. I never saw it coming.
*puts down Cooking with Martha Stewart* I’ll just have to keep reading to find out.
Other than Martha Stewart’s cookbook, here are some of my favorite books so far this year (and favorite passages from them):
The Art of Memoir — Mary Karr, the godmother of the 21st century memoir/poet/Syracuse MFA professor/iconic graduation speaker (quick tangent: Syracuse’s grad program has two of, maybe, the five best writers in the country on their faculty between her and George Saunders—which isn’t unlike the Golden State Warriors having Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in the same lineup). For any reading nerds, writing nerds, fans of beautiful, thoughtful sentences—read this.
One great side effect of my own work is how often strangers skip the small talk to confide the more turbulent patches of their lives. It’s an odd phenomenon that I have never not been moved by such a tale. And I’m not that compassionate or generous, either.
Even somebody I might not otherwise care for can compel my attention when speaking out of hard-felt experience and self-knowledge. On airplanes, we’ve all been stranded next to some chatty, perfectly nice but duller-than-a-rubber-knife human being, and we’ve all faked sleep to escape the chatter. Yet when travelers’ anonymity permits said bore to speak out of some profoundly felt experience, I often find myself riveted by the confessions of somebody I’d otherwise dread spending even a five-minute elevator ride with. That person’s living, breathing inner expression, which (when told with heart and candor) includes some parcels of radical suffering and joy. It always captures me.
At the time I came across A Childhood, I was an academically uncredentialed former redneck Texan trying to pass myself off as a poet in hyperliterary Cambridge. It helped to guide me out from my biggest psychological hidey-holes. Reading A Childhood, I found the courage to tell the stories I‘d been amassing my whole life. I include so much of him here to underscore how mysterious a single influence can be if he shares a novice’s foibles. Were I tattoo-getting individual, I’d owe him some fleshy real estate.
Having gone through the profound discomfort of writing from personal history, I don’t think most writers amble into this arena to cash in on some grisly past, nor to settle scores, nor to jack up every hangnail into a battlefield amputation. Truth summons them, as it summons the best novelists and poets.
All Over But The Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg (Thanks, Mac, for the recommendation)
Every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shell that carries it.
Passion is something you really don’t miss, after it has cooled. It is like looking at an empty bottle on the side of the road and thinking, “Boy, I wish I had a Coke.” The loves you miss are the ones that go away when they are still warm, even hot, to the touch.
It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.
There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers (a brilliant weirdo who, according to my wise friend, Ann, “is great but needs an editor”)
I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it’s hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so – this has always been my dream – so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while children sleep.
We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, we have given someone something, that, like a primitive person fearing that a photographer will steal his soul, we identify our secrets, our past and their blotches, with our identity, that revealing our habits or losses or deeds somehow makes one less of oneself.
Everything that was broken has forgotten its brokenness. I live now in a sky-house, through every window the sun. Every day has something in it whose name is Forever.
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (I’ve read this once a year for the last three years. It’s remarkable. And profoundly important.)
I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.
Reading does a lot of things. It slows us down. It makes us less restless. It builds empathy. It broadens our perspective. It forces us to be receptive to different opinions. It allows our mind to travel. It connects us. It helps us snooze better.
I’m super grateful for books. I carry non-fiction in my backpack wherever I go, and I keep fiction by my bed. I read on the subway, at breakfast, in line at Chipotle. I’m always open to suggestions. Fire away!
I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.—Ta-Nehisi Coates