Earlier this week, our 44th president posted his summer reading list: five books he’s read and particularly enjoyed this summer. I loved it—not the books themselves because I’ve read exactly zero of them but the fact that he had a list, the fact that he’s read something over the last three months, or over any three months, something other than Putin Picture Books or IHOP’s deliver-to-toilet online menu or the Late Night Skinemax TV Guide For When Melania’s Not Home.
And like with anything Barack has said or done or emoted since 2008, I felt called to action and made my own list—only after first dusting up on some life-affirming Barack videos.
My summer reading list also has five—five categories, that is. Barack’s list has three novels, one memoir, and one deliciously passive aggressively named work of nonfiction, Factfulness. And because what I read is only about 18% fiction, instead of the 60% fiction represented on his list, I wanted to redistribute the list and include one of each genre: biography, essay collection, fiction, general nonfiction, and e-writing, which, yes, for sure warrants its own BOOK category here because it’s 2018, and there’s so much good, substantive, online writing.
Here’s to books, Michelle’s husband, and the Cambridge Public Library:
BIOGRAPHY: Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell — David Yaffe
For years, the only thing I knew about Joni Mitchell was that she was that old, folksy singer who sings that super sad song during that super sad scene in Love Actually with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. So, this book was a wonderful entry into all things Joni—her songwriting process, her Little House on the Prairie childhood, her extracurricular activities during the 60s and 70s…
ESSAYS: The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir — Anne Fadiman
In May 2012, my big sister, Molly, said there was an epic student commencement speech at Yale by a classmate she vaguely knew. A week later, that epic, viral speaker, Marina Keegan, was killed in a car crash, and, two years after that, her classmates and teachers compiled all her best essays and short stories into a book, The Opposite of Loneliness. Also in the book— and the book’s namesake—is the graduation speech itself. Also also in the book is a preface written by one of Keegan’s mentors and writing professors at Yale, Anne Fadiman. I immediately liked both Keegan’s tender, funny voice and Fadiman’s reaction to Keegan’s tender, funny voice:
Many of my students sound forty years old. They are articulate but derivative, their own voices muffled by their desire to skip over their current age and experience, which they fear trivial, and land on some version of polished adulthood without passing Go. Marina was twenty-one and sounded twenty-one: a brainy twenty-one, a twenty-one who knew her way around the English language, a twenty-one who understood that there were few subjects better than being young and uncertain and and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.
I’ve since read two of Fadiman’s books, Ex Libris and this, The Wine Lover’s Daughter—both great, the latter recommended by good pal, Mark and something I read in one sitting in Porter Square Books last Saturday.
FICTION: Empire Falls — Richard Russo
*hipster nonfiction student alert*
I usually read fiction to fall asleep, which is and isn’t an insult to fiction: it’s usually a slow burn with a sometimes big pay-off that, for me and my temperament, lends itself well to dozing off. But every so often, about once or twice a year, a novel levels me with The Three Big Hs: raw, not heavy-handed Humanity, dry to not-so-dry Humor, and Honesty towards a world I don’t live in (here, it’s blue-collar malaise in inland Maine in the early 2000s). Russo’s a literary giant—the sprawling character depth and breadth, the dialogue, the actual syntax and rhythm:
Just because things happen slow doesn’t mean you’ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness, aware that speed was trump. “Slow” works in an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare, which conceals the central fact, that no matter how slow things go, you’ll always be slower.
GENERAL NONFICTION: Why Buddhism Is True — Robert Wright
Come for the wisdom and the gentle, meditative teachings. Nama-stay for the super clean prose:
Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point.
Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.
E- WRITING: CONFERENCE ROOM, FIVE MINUTES — Ten Illustrated Essays About The Office, “a digital packet for a paperless world ” — Shea Serrano
I read this last month and thought, you know, jealousy’s not a great look, but I’m a teensie bit jealous I didn’t write this. For non-Office diehards, the whole project is a huge headache and is as weird as it is completely inessential. For Office diehards, it’s as nourishing as it is unprecedentedly thorough, an exhaustive Inside Baseball exploration of Dunder Mifflin. It’s also just beautiful to look at:
In the last few years, Shea Serrano’s become an internet CULT hero: first getting his start at Grantland (while still teaching middle school science!), writing about hoops and movies then publishing the aptly named Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Question Asked, Answered in 2017, which noted book-enthusiast, Barack Obama, included on his year-end favorite book list (!!!).
HONORABLE MENTION E-WRITING: Drew Magary’s annual series on Deadspin, “Why Your Team Sucks,” a hilarious and hilariously scathing takedown of every NFL team. Because sometimes, all you want to do is just sit back, grab some Trader Joe’s kettle corn, and watch Drew Magary—a more volatile, left-leaning Jim Gaffigan—make the world burn/point out where and why the world is burning:
On the Oakland Raiders (my personal favorite):
The one good thing the Raiders have done this century is take Gruden out of the broadcasting booth. I’m overjoyed. My Monday nights just got 75 percent quieter, and I live with three children.
He’s an insufferable idiot, and he was hired strictly as a limp marketing scheme for the Vegas move. The Raiders’ fanbase will soon consist entirely of people who wear flip flops to steakhouses, and Jon Gruden is the ideal ambassador to that demographic.