I don’t know what a beach read is either

 

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I would 100% spend all summer on this beach. Illustration by Zac Redden.

In the same way a beach body is the body you have at the beach, a beach read is any book you bring to the beach. 

We’re officially in the middle of summer here in the Mid-Atlantic and I wanted to make sure you all knew this before you head out to the beach or the pool or your backyard or front stoop or apartment balcony with the beverage of your choice and, I hope, a suitable sunblock. 

I read a lot and I have not, in 33 years, figured out what constitutes a “beach read.” Granted, some of those years I didn’t know how to read. Some of the first years I did know how to read, I did not bring books to the literal beach because I was too busy learning to boogie board, seashell hunting, throwing seaweed and dead jellyfish at my brothers, or “accidentally” dropping potato chips for the seagulls. Simpler times. 

Here is an incomplete, unordered list of books I’ve read at the beach (or the pool) to illustrate my point:

  • Inferno by Dante Alighieri
  • Amsterdam by Ian McEwen
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
  • 2666 by Robert Bolaño*
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
  • Making Our Democracy Work by Stephen Breyer
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Of the books on this list, three could be considered traditional “beach reads” based on either fluffiness or devourability—two highly scientific and not at all subjective measurements. An Associate Justice of the Supreme Court breaking down how the Supreme thoroughly fucked up the decision in Korematsu might necessitate a re-reading this week in light of recent similarly terrible decisions, but not everyone wants to read a thorough legal analysis on vacation. Maybe Nina Totenberg…and me, apparently. I’m not doing a good job recommending it, but it’s a solid book. 

Infinite Jest is a particularly terrible book to bring to the beach, based both on its heft and because you’ll also need either a wifi signal or room of a fairly extensive dictionary to look up all of DFW’s five-dollar words (Amanuensis? Really, David? You couldn’t say secretary?) Inferno is actually great. No matter how hot it is where you are it’s still cooler than being repeatedly submerged in boiling blood. The DaVinci Code** was surprisingly difficult, not on its own merit, but because both my mother and grandmother wanted to explain to me how heretical it was and I had to spend the weekend waiting until they were both busy doing other things to read it. For my troubles, I was rewarded with a book that is just OK. Pro-tip: if you want your kids to read something, make it seem more subversive than it actually is. Parental unease over a book (or movie or album) has only ever encouraged me to seek it out. It’s why I own both a Qu’ran and The Exorcist.

I’ve veered off topic (in my defense, I’ve taken the day off and it’s after noon), bring whatever book you want to read on vacation (or your neighborhood pool or your own wherever.) Bringing something you actually want to read with you is the surest way to guarantee you will actually read it. Today, I brought April’s issue of Vogue (which I bought in April but haven’t opened or recycled yet) and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries with me to the pool. I will probably finish Heart Berries later today. The Vogue remains unopened.

*Still haven’t finished this one. Maybe this year?

**The funny thing is, neither said a peep about Brave New World, which has a lot more sex and drugs in it.

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In which I make one more argument for the value of a liberal arts education…

Back when I was an undergrad, all English majors had to take an introduction to the major that, in addition to actual useful information like research strategies and essay structure, afforded the professors in charge of our two concentrations — education and technical writing — the chance to do a little sales pitch. The professor in charge of our technical writing concentration — a certified asshole — thought it was incredibly clever to bring in printouts of job searches for “poet” that only listed fry cooks as a result…because that’s how you become a poet — you apply through Monster.com at any of one of the local poet-ing companies in your area that definitely exist and not just for the purposes of that old man’s tortured joke. Despite his dire warning that those of us who didn’t take his classes would be doomed to making food for other people (a completely respectable career path that seemed to work out just fine for the likes of Anthony Bourdain because you know what makes you a better writer? life experience), I stuck with literature.

The joke about English majors lacking the skills to do anything but handle a fryolator is an old one, like Garrison Keillor-old. During the fours years I spent as an undergrad and the three and a half I spent in grad school (while working full-time despite my lack of business writing certificate, mind you), I got asked a lot what I intended to do with a skill set that tends toward the abstract. It’s not unique to English majors. Pretty much anyone with a liberal arts or humanities degree probably has had to field the same question: “what are you going to do with that?” (I’m going to be a well-rounded person, Aunt Mildred!*)

There is an assumption that certain degrees will get you the “good” job, whatever that is. For certain fields — medicine, engineering, law, etc. — that’s absolutely true. I don’t want someone with a B.A. in political science to give me my annual physical. It’s also true there are technical certifications you could get outside the confines of a traditional four-year institution — mechanics, plumbing, certain computer-related whatnots, etc. — that lead to stable, potentially high-paying careers. But it’s still a mistake to assume that an education at any level only exists to create a workforce, that it’s only a means to an end. It’s the end itself.

They let the biggest nerds sit on stage at graduation.

The author on the day she received the first of her two, apparently useless, liberal arts degrees.

That’s why the Trump administration’s recent announcement of a proposed merger between the Departments of Education and Labor, while totally unsurprising, is particularly problematic (though, by no means the worst thing they’ve done recently.) If the administration’s goal is to make government run more efficiently, I don’t see how this accomplishes that. Neither does Virginia Congressman, Bobby Scott, who the linked article quotes as saying, “the Department of Labor is no more equipped to oversee elementary education policy than the Department of Education is prepared to enforce standards for coal mine safety. The logic behind this proposal is painfully thin.” I don’t think this administration really cares about efficiency when all evidence points to the contrary. If, however, the aim of this proposal is to further cut the Department of Education’s overall budget, remove or defund programs that protect the rights of already marginalized student populations, and undermine the legacy of Title IX, it starts to make a lot more sense.

More than that, there is an ideology undergirding this plan that can’t be measured in the same way the value of a liberal arts education can’t be quantified. It is harder to be a bigot the more broadly you read. The more people you meet (in person or through seeking out their stories), the more cultures you encounter, the more philosophies and worldviews you have to take into consideration, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the shared humanity of people who don’t look, worship, speak, or eat like you do. The president and this administration are deeply afraid of living in a country that actually lives up the ideals enshrined in its founding documents. They want to live in the imaginary country of their childhood —mostly white, mostly male, and superficially Christian. Education — a real liberal education — rejects all of that as the default. It scares the shit** out of them.

*I don’t have an Aunt Mildred. To my knowledge, no member of my extended family questioned my academic pursuits. If they did, they didn’t ask me. If they asked my mother, she decided—wisely—to never mention it.

**My mom has previously asked me not to “swear so much” on here (or in life) because she’d like to be able to share some of the things I write with people but can’t because of my trash mouth. Mom, last week the president made a rape joke about a sitting U.S. senator. I’ll be civil when he is.

I have a confession…

Tuesday, I went to the library book sale and left with 12 books. Sure, three of those were art books for Zac and one of the novels I bought I already read last year and loved, rendering it a neutral addition to my physical bookshelf.

 

Sure, I brought bome a bunch of books but look at all the ones I left on the table.

 

I’m not sure there is room in our moderately sized apartment for the additional books. There certainly isn’t much available room where I usually keep my books. A couple months ago, that probably would have made me feel a little guilty.

I don’t feel guilty today.

This was going to be the year I stopped doing this–filling our apartment with more books when I already own so many I need to read. I think this was also supposed to be the year I stopped going to bed at 1am and started drinking enough water every day…maybe that was last year. Either way, I’m not good at doing either consistently.

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on Book Riot reminding me I should feel bad about my bookshelf and should donate its contents.  Instead of giving in this time, I got increasingly annoyed with the writer’s premise (sitting aside the writer’s use of a John Waters quote as a clunky and unnecessary frame): a bookshelf will show you what kind of person you are→ but keeping all those books to yourself is selfish→ donate your books so you aren’t “caging knowledge.”  It isn’t the first time I’ve been presented with this argument and it might make sense if libraries still kept books on chains and if all the books I owned weren’t in relatively wide circulation (I doubt I own anything out of print. Some of the books I own are no longer bound by copyright laws and are actually available for free.) I’m not caging a damn thing. My local prison library charity doesn’t want the books I have. I checked a while back. I (and they) would be better served if I just gave them money to buy what the prisoners need. Most charities would be better served with your cash, not your old, battered copy of War and Peace.

There is a dictatorial strain to this kind of minimalist think piece. It isn’t enough for the writer here to remove the clutter from their own life, they have to try and make you feel bad for not following their lead. Why else consider the personal library in terms of greed and luxury? Not just this post. I’ve read a lot these and most of them, whether they’re about books or clothing or size of the place where you keep those books and clothes,  are at least a little judgmental, if not deliriously so. You should want to clear out your space in order to clear out your mind. You should want to clear out your space to distance yourself from materialism. You should want to clear out your space so you take up less space. On one level, I get it. It’s a lot easier to clean an small empty room but my brain would still go in seven thousand directions in a small empty room. I don’t want my home to look like a hotel room or a safe house. I want my home to look like I live there.   

At first, I wasn’t sure why this post, in particular, bugged me so much. It’s not fundamentally different. I assumed it had to be defensiveness on my part. I had the same reaction to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I ended up clearing out a few bags from my closet and boxes from my bookshelf. I didn’t feel better or worse for having done it. I could probably clear out a box or two right now and forget in a week what I’ve given up…but I don’t want to and I really don’t want to be told I should.

You can see my books from the street outside our apartment. They announce themselves. It took me time and money and paper cuts and student loans to acquire them. A lot of them are used, purchased from dusty shops and library book sales. I sneezed rummaging through stacks and hit my head on low doorways to get these books.  I had to poop in public restrooms. Some of these books are full of my tiny notes. On the front inside cover of a handful these books, my mother has written my name and the date the book was purchased. They are all cataloged so I don’t accidentally buy a second copy of Middlemarch or Middlesex. They all represent a concerted effort on my part, even the ones I haven’t read yet.

 

Recent acquisitions pile waiting on the desk to be entered into the Ever-Expanding Book Spreadsheet. All but the top three are from the library book sale. My neighbors gave away some real winners this year.

 

Maybe that is what’s become so irritating about all of this–minimalism gives the appearance of effortlessness and effortlessness is fucking tiring.

I’m letting go of effortlessness. I’m not effortless. No woman with bangs is. I have to work at just about everything I do. There’s joy in that work, certainly. No one who has ever had the pleasure of disagreeing with me could say I don’t enjoy making my case (except, perhaps, my own mother.) Last year, I taught myself how to crochet. The year before I learned to tap dance. I’ve read books about moss for fun. I delight in the work. But believe me, it was all an effort.

Some morning it takes a lot to get out of bed. Some nights, it takes even more to settle down and get into it. Does the stack of books by my bed make it easier to sleep at night? I have no idea but it’s something to throw at an intruder. I have no idea what a minimalist could grab during a home invasion. The one giant monstera plant they own is probably too heavy and too expensive to lob. Me? I still have my first field hockey stick.

It’s silly to let a 500-word essay on a book site rile me up this much, even if it was an infuriating 500 words. Maybe this should be the year I stop caring about stuff like this (I’m still trying for the hydration…seltzer water counts, right?) I’m just going to be the woman with too many striped shirts and more books than she can possibly read. If you’re cool about it and never mention what I nightmare they’d be to pack, I might lend you one of them. But I am going to ask for it back. It’s mine.

February Update: 1,996 pages

I read nine books in February.

Nine. I only read four in January and I had three more days for reading. I do not know how this happened. I don’t feel like I’ve been reading more this month. That’s 1,996 pages, not including the last chuck of Grant I listened to after the beginning of the month. Unabridged audiobooks count. I spent 48 hours with that book. Don’t tell me I didn’t read it. We’re bonded. We vacuumed together. Grant and Sherman beat back Confederate forces at Shiloh while I attacked the grout in my bathroom—victories of slightly different magnitudes. We cooked together. We sat in traffic together. We ate a sandwich on the banks of the Mississippi together. I can’t do any of that with a physical book or an e-reader. I’ve tried. It gets messy.

I don’t know how I had time to do much of anything else, but I did. Zac and I went downtown on an incredibly cold and wet Sunday to look at Sylvia Plath’s hair:

I got lost (or rather lost everyone I was with) wandering through the stacks at Capitol Hill Books:img_7611-1

I did at least ten minutes of yoga every single day (I’ve been on a streak since January 1. I barely manage to brush my hair every day so this is a big deal for me.)

On the last day of the month, I chopped off all my hair. All in all, not so bad.

Best book I read this month: To The Lighthouse.

Progress towards my reading goals for the year: While only one of the books I read was written by a man, every single writer was white. I didn’t read any poetry or short story collections and I still don’t know what my behemoth book for the year will be. Of the 14 books I’ve read this year, only two are from my physical collection (Libby is making it too easy for me to just pull ebooks from the library.) Taking into account the two books I bought, and I’m really close to zero change in the overall number of unread books on my shelf. Clearly, I’ve taken this challenge to heart.

Right now, I am trying one last time to make it through Frankenstein. I don’t know what my hang up is with this book. I got rid of my own copy years ago and had to get this one from the library (I was there to pay a fine but they called to me. I only checked out three books and if I can’t finish them in another two weeks, I’m going to take them back. No renewals. See? I can set boundaries. I’m an adult.) I want to want to read this book and should be able to finish it quickly. It’s really short and the language isn’t overly complicated. If I don’t finish it by next weekend, I’m moving on.

Spoiler Alert: They do go to the lighthouse

I finished To The Lighthouse on Sunday night (or Monday morning if we are being completely honest with one another) and I do not think I would be able to satisfactorily recount its plot to anyone interested in reading Virginia for the first time and do anything but discourage them (please don’t be discouraged.) I can’t really remember what happened in Mrs. Dalloway either, except that she bought flowers herself and there was also a dinner party scene. Septimius Smith hurled himself out of a window sometime during the evening.

What would I tell someone about To The Lighthouse? In the first section of the novel, the Ramsays and their guests do not go to the lighthouse. In the second section, most of the characters you’ve met in the first section are dead. You know this because the house tells you so. This section—Time Passes—is told from the point of view of the house itself during the ten years between the first and third sections of the novel. World War I has taken place and the house, a vacation home in the Hebrides, doesn’t know what to call the conflict but a “downpouring of immense darkness”—describing it throughout like an oncoming storm. The house has the right idea. Reading this section, it’s not difficult to see why Woolf filled her pockets with rocks in 1941 and waded out into the middle of the Ouse to drown. How could you do anything else, seeing what was coming having known what already happened? [NOTE: I’m doing the thing I hate here. I hate it when readers make a writer’s work about her life. For this reason, I hate most analysis of Sylvia Plath. I promise this is secondary. I’m not doing it to tidy up the work or explain it away or make it less of a work of art.]

The remaining characters, Mr. Ramsay and two of his remaining adult children, Cam and James, finally make it to the lighthouse in the third section and their returning houseguest, Lily Briscoe, finally finishes a painting she’s been thinking about painting for a decade. None of this is what the book is about but most people want a plot summary when they ask “what’s it about?” about a book you’re reading.

No one reads Woolf’s novels for the plot. No one reads modernist literature for the plot. Quick, what’s the plot of Ulysses? Exactly.

If someone were to ask me what To The Lighthouse is about, I would tell them it is about the ways in which we need and are needed. Mr. Ramsay, a philosophy professor needs his wife’s emotional support while he struggles to complete his next work, afraid his genius has left him. Their young son, James, hates his father for interrupting his time with his mother—hate as pure as only a small child can produce [NOTE: in my copy, whoever owned it before me has written “Freudian” in the margins of this exchange. There are two notes in the novel not written by me and they both refer to Freud. I would like to know who owned this book before me.] James needs his mother to himself. A wish that can’t possibly be fulfilled with seven siblings, a needy father, and houseguests. James would also like to go to the lighthouse, but the weather is bad and Mr. Ramsay says no. Elsewhere, Mrs. Ramsay wants a moment alone after all the children have gone to bed when she does not need to think about anyone but herself. She would like to give the illusion of sitting in a room and knitting, but really she in her head entirely with herself. Girl, wouldn’t we all (see again: eight kids, that husband, and guests)…She also wants dinner to go well and maybe for Lily Briscoe to settle down. Lily would like to paint rather than get married.

…is Woolf Lily? I’m not supposed to ask this question. People who have gone to graduate school are not supposed to suggest one of the main characters is really just a stand-in for the author…even if Stephen Dedalus is definitely James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway is Frederic Henry. I know Woolf loved to throw a good dinner party and I’m sure she understood Mr. Ramsay’s fear that one might be out of good books…but she’s definitely Lily, right? Certainly, Lily’s impulse to create, even if the painting ends up forgotten in an attic, even if Charles Tansley stands behind her—too close—and tells her women can’t paint, can’t write. Why else would he have said they cannot write when Lily is not writing? These passages with Lily alternately fretting about her work and declaring herself an artist have the tone of an artist’s statement. She is telling herself who she is as an artist, even before she paints. The novel ends when she completes her painting. The last line, “I have had my vision.” She gets the moment, in a way, Mrs. Ramsay longed for. She helps Woolf get what she wants too.

This novel is preoccupied with legacy—Mr. Ramsay’s, Mrs. Ramsay’s, Lily’s—- with what passes and is left behind. The house is forgotten for a decade. Characters die (really, millions upon millions of people died in the decade between the novel’s first and third parts.) Other characters disappear (of the Ramsays six remaining children, only Cam and James are mentioned in the third section of the novel.) When Mrs. Ramsay, spooning out a second helping of bouef en daube for William Bankes, she looks at her family, husband, and guests quietly eating and feels at peace—

there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change…Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

Of course, we know it does not. The dinner party ends. The war comes.

Mrs. Ramsay opens that passage before ladling soup and asks herself “But what have I done with my life?” Lily echoes her at the end of the novel, asking,

what is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here.’ Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was the nature of the revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing[.]

The perfect boeuf en daube on a rainy day in which no one goes to the lighthouse must qualify as a match in the dark. Order and pleasure in a day on which no one really gets what they want otherwise. That evening exists for the characters still alive a decade later. Lily seems to think Mrs. Ramsay’s legacy was her children—her use of sphere here is telling, Woolf reminding the reader of 19th-century notions of domesticity and a woman’s supposed place. Woolf avoids that sphere (except to write about it) and so does Lily (except to paint it.)

The novel isn’t a simple rejection of domesticity. It’s not a diatribe. Mrs. Ramsay is portrayed lovingly by Woolf and loved by Lily. But Lily ultimately makes her own life as she makes her own art for herself. “I have had my vision” she says at the end of the novel. Not a vision. My vision. Woolf, the writer, bought a printing press with her husband in order to remove the commercial stumbling blocks to publication. Without the restraint of needing to appease as publisher, Woolf was free to experiment. She had her vision too.

I worried throughout reading that I didn’t have the mental energy for Woolf. It’s easy to be exhausted right now. I would have to re-read sections. There’s no skimming a modernist. This isn’t a book you read in snippets, waiting in line or for a few minutes before bed. The prose is clear, but not straightforward. It requires something of you. I can’t remember the last book made me work this hard—The Female Man, perhaps. But the book isn’t forbidding. I don’t want to warn you off of it. It’s a good book. You should read it. You just have to want to do the work. This book is worth the work.

Making my bookshelves resemble my brain.

 

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The bookshelf in progress. While it was still light out.

 

A couple weeks ago, I pulled every book off my shelves. I do this from time to time. (I did it yesterday with my clothes. A therapist has suggested this is a coping mechanism, but a perfectly safe and non-destructive one.) Usually, I put everything back in the same basic order—moving a handful of books to a pile to donate or recycle or read next. Usually, I separate out the fiction, poetry, plays, and put each back on the shelf in alphabetical order by author then I break the non-fiction down by subject—I have a lot of books on literary theory and feminism and only two that could be properly called science. I own more than one book about women in Puritan New England. Mostly, I do this to do something on a day I cannot sit still. That morning, I’d already done about a half-hour of yoga and gone for a run. The apartment was clean and my laundry was done. This is about when a normal person would sit down and watch all the Harry Potter movies or read a book. Some days that’s exactly what I might have done but I couldn’t. Instead, I made another cup of coffee and I pulled everything down. But I didn’t just throw everything back on the shelf in alphabetical order this time.

After moving books from pile to pile around the living room for a couple hours, I put the books I own about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in a pile with their poetry. The Confidence Man and The Scarlet Letter got stacked with The Whale, a novel premised on the theory that Melville and Hawthorne were lovers. Frederick Douglass, Emerson, and Thoreau made it on that shelf too. So did Eric Foner and Lincoln in the Bardo. I shelved Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea with Madwoman in the Attic and then put all the other books by 19th-century women writers I own next to them. Margaret Atwood is all over the wall—Canadian writers, environmental dystopia (along with one of my two “science” books, novels that use a dramatic drop in the birth rate as a plot point (I have three of those.)  Steinbeck gets his own section. So does Joyce. Poe ends up in Horror, but I could have just as easily grouped him in Southern Fiction. Shelving all the Americans together means Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway get a lot closer (that could get uncomfortable for Lauren Groff and Dashiell Hammett.) Some of the categories are easy—short story collections, science fiction, Russian literature. Some, like the aforementioned section of speculative fiction where no one can get pregnant, only makes sense if you think like me.

When I was very young, I arranged books on my shelf by height. I don’t know why I did it—to hide my chaos under a veil of order, however false— but I remember staring at the tops of two spines trying to figure out which of these two approximately identical books was taller. One summer, I put everything on the shelf by color, but I lost a lot of books because I couldn’t remember what color the spine was. I lost books on my shelf when I put everything in alphabetical order. I started keeping a list of all the books I own on my phone because I so frequently bought duplicates. I don’t think in height or color or the alphabet. I think in ideas. That sounds inane but I remember stories and concepts and conversations. It’s harder for me to remember in images unless those images tell me a story or point me in a particular direction. This way of making connections served me well in graduate school and is less effective when I am at the grocery store by myself and without a list. When I was writing a paper, I’d start pulling plot points and theories out of my head to coalesce into a thesis about masculinity and drag and ways of passing in Middle Eastern and North African literature or compulsory motherhood and whiteness in The Handmaid’s Tale and how that was mirrored in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential platform. When I’m getting ready to go out, I will start to tell myself a story about the woman wearing my clothes—She’s a French ex-pat who doesn’t understand why American women own so many cardigans. She’s my old elementary school art teacher—complete with the flowered smock and wooden clogs. She is vastly overdressed for this safari. (That said, I didn’t fundamentally rearrange my closet. Everything is still organized by category and color.)

I know where everything is now—the books I’ve read and the (many) I still need to read—because my shelves look more like the inside of my brain. I might actually make some progress on the Unread Shelf Project now (only two of the nine books I’ve read this year belong to me and I just gave one of them to the library.) New books coming in can’t immediately get shelved in this new system. I will have to read a lot of them first to know where they belong. I don’t know what I will do in a couple months when I get this feeling again. Hopefully, I’ll just go for a run instead.

 

I may have overestimated how much I wanted to read Russian literature in 2017

 

art by Zachery Redden

Art by Zachery Redden

 

This year’s syllabus was a colossal failure. I never cracked open a book about Islam or an epic fantasy or an urban fantasy. I did start a book about the Holocaust and the Grant biography I am about halfway through does touch on Reconstruction. By May, I abandoned the list altogether. Looking at it now, I only accidentally completed some tasks because they were in categories I tend to read anyway. That’s fine with me. I still had a decent reading year. As of December 31st, I’ve read 51 books—better than some years, not as good as others. The goal of the syllabus was to keep me out of a book rut and, more importantly, to get me to read more broadly —whether that meant genres I’d previously avoided, books I’d deemed too intimidating to tackle outside an academic setting, or people underrepresented on my shelves. Looking back at the books I actually read this year, I expected to see a lot of “escapist” reads and they’re certainly there. I listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audio. I read a fair amount of historical romance, but significantly less than I read the year before. I still sought out challenging, difficult work. Lincoln in the Bardo and The Female Man both defy regular narrative structure. Tell Me How It Ends explores the migrant experience using the questions asked of unaccompanied children facing deportation. I listened to Sherman Alexie recount his complex relationship with his mother and Roxane Gay chronicle her complex relationship with her own body.* By the time I got around to reading Human Acts and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wasn’t thinking about checking boxes. I tracked down the Hamid because of the story’s narrative structure and I read Kang because I’d loved The Vegetarian. Looking back through my reading year, it was profoundly female but still very white. This is a problem I will probably continue to have but I am going to keep trying to course-correct.

I’m not doing this again next year. I don’t have specific quotas or particular books to check off a long list. I’m not going to worry about reading regionally. I think (I hope) I can read broadly without checking boxes if I just remain mindful. I plan to keep a physical book journal to help with that (one of the problems with averaging a book a week is that sometimes I forget I’ve read a book. I hope writing down my thoughts as I muddle along will alleviate that.) The syllabus, for all its strengths, focuses on breadth over depth. Doing a deep dive into the works of Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich doesn’t undermine the ultimate goal of my reading life—to live lives outside of my own—but I can’t follow a whim if I am worried about checking every box on an arbitrary syllabus. The syllabus helped me change the way I think about the books I read and it got me reading more when I wasn’t reading enough. It’s a valuable tool if you’re at all concerned about your own reading habits but I don’t think I need it right now.

I only have 6 guidelines for reading in 2018:

  1. Read one big (scary) book. This year, I didn’t read any of the books I’ve been putting off for one reason or another. I try to tackle one behemoth a year, but I didn’t in 2017. I have a few contenders already on my shelf: 100 Years of Solitude, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Underworld, 2666, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Any of them would be an accomplishment…or I could finally get around to Tolstoy, but probably not.
  2. Read more books by people who are not like me. I am college-educated, straight, white lady from the east coast. There are a lot of writers like me. I like seeing where I fit, but you can’t just do that by mirroring your own experience. Reading things by people who aren’t me could mean taking into account an author’s gender or race or sexual orientation or political ideology or religion (or lack thereof) or home state or home country. I don’t get to travel much, but I can read.
  3. Read fewer books by men. I’ve read 10 books by men this year. Seven of those men were white and from the US. Most of my education was spent reading books by white men from the US. I don’t think I’ll be missing out if I never get around to The Corrections.
  4. Read more poetry and short stories. I don’t know when I stopped actively seeking out new poetry, but I only read one collection this year (milk & honey.) I did not read any short stories. There was a time when my reading was almost exclusively poetry and short fiction.
  5. Read more books about writing. I tried unsuccessfully to kickstart my own writing habit throughout this year. Maybe it’s time to go back to school, so to speak.
  6. Read books I already own. The Japanese word, tsundoku, describes the tendency to buy books and allow them to pile up in one’s house, unread. I have 678 books right now. I have not read 361 of them. This number doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should, but it is a little surprising (I guess I borrow more books from the library than I thought?) I know I bought a lot of books this year because I buy books, bath bombs, and face masks when I am stressed or anxious. I maintain this is better than buying a lot of candy or drinking to excess but it still results in a fair amount of clutter and a lighter wallet. I’m not going to stop buying books in 2018, I know better than to make that pledge. I’m not going to stop checking out books from the library either because I am fairly certain patronage numbers are taken into account when allocating money to the library and I like my libraries funded, but I am going to make a concerted effort to clear out some of my backlog. I’m not very good at getting rid of books (I actually like to look at the piles), but I cleared up some space on the shelves today (I was never going to read Pillars of the Earth or the Sagas of the Icelanders.) I’m even taking the books to Goodwill and not the local used bookstore where they’d invariably be exchanged for more books. After helping my mom clean and reorganize her bookshelves last week and telling her repeatedly that she had to cull her stacks if she expected everything to fit on the shelf, I can’t very well let mine go to pot. It would be hypocritical and I’d never hear the end of it.

2017 Reading Syllabus, final tally:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi: Female Man by Joanna Russ
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
    • Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
    • Living Middle Eastern Author: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
    • Living Asian Author: by Han Kang
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness:
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust:
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection: milk & honey by rupi kaur
    • a STEM book

*In the last couple years, I started listening to memoirs when they are read by the author. I cannot recommend this practice enough.

Echoing Roxane Gay, Maybe We Should Put Men in Rice…

Last week, while out of town for work, I accidentally struck up a conversation with a man behind me in line to get coffee. I am a person who requires coffee before coffee and had just a few minutes before my co-worker would meet me in front of the lobby and we’d take a shuttle to the convention center serving as our office for the week. I did not mean to talk to this man but I am my mother’s daughter and sometimes I cannot stop myself from being friendly. I would rather not be. It’s much safer for women to be polite, but distant. The conversation was innocuous and I left with my coffee, sat down at a nearby table, and waited for my co-worker. When the man I’d just talked to walked by my table, I worried he’d want to continue our chat—it had been about our mutual addiction to caffeine and the times we’d both tried to quit. I was worried that my friendliness had been seen as transactional. I was worried my male co-worker would be late coming down from his hotel room. I worried the man wouldn’t leave me alone if I continued to be polite out of a sense of self-preservation. I worried no one would come to my aid even if my male co-worker showed up. He might not want to get involved. My male co-worker is much smaller than that man. My male co-worker is smaller than me. I also worried because I’m actually more likely to be attacked by my male co-worker if we are alone together. Familiarity and friendliness make me less safe.  All of this took place in my head the 15 seconds it took the man to walk by my table, nod at me, and go on his way. I could have spent those 15 seconds more productively if I didn’t have to constantly negotiate my own survival.

I’m telling you this story because nothing happened. The man walked by, my co-worker arrived, we left for the convention center. You don’t have the right to the stories where something did happen. I don’t really want to tell you the stories about things that almost happened, mostly because there is just too many of them—an adult man stopping me at a bookstore in high school because he wants to know if I would like a boyfriend when I am still young enough that I had never had a boyfriend. Boys, and then men, taking advantage of any crowded space (a high school hallway between classes, a concert when I am standing next to one of my brothers, a bar during a hockey game, a metro car.) Any number of men from any number of cars from the time I was about 13 until just this morning when I went out for a run.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the allegations against Al Franken anymore than I’m shocked Roy Moore approached so many girls at the man he was allegedly banned from it. I was disappointed in Franken, certainly. But I know better than to think a history of public support for women precludes reprehensible behavior. Anymore, I am skeptical of men who are too quick to volunteer themselves as public feminists. I have to wonder if their support is transactional too. I have to wonder what it’s like to be in a room alone with them. Having said that, the solution isn’t in Mike Pence’s self-imposed isolation from all women to whom he is not currently married. It still assumes what school dress codes assume about the female body, even in prepubescence—that it is too tempting to be near. It assumes the female body is corrupting and men have no self-control. It makes female bodies simultaneously powerless and all-powerful while absolving men of any responsibility for their own actions. Every woman you know has been made to feel like her body is responsible for someone else’s actions. I’m reminded of an interview Louis C.K. gave on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was still the host. Louis says that comedians and feminists are natural enemies. Stewart nods his head in agreement. This was back when only Gawker was running stories about the allegations against Louis and they were blind items that did not mention him by name. It was before Stewart expressed shock that Louis might masturbate in front of an unwilling woman. I don’t have the luxury of shock anymore. There are jokes I used to tell and jokes I used to laugh at that I don’t anymore because there is something about being a woman in the world that erodes your sense of humor. I started to see these jokes a way for men to gauge what they could get away with with me. They wanted to know if I was a cool girl, if I’d be accommodating. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a bitch. I am definitely a bitch. When I realized I was the means by which men were absolving themselves, their jokes got less funny. When Al Franken mimed groping a sleeping woman’s breasts (after forcibly kissing her when she was awake), someone took a picture. He was posing for people who probably laughed and were not thinking about exposing him later. They didn’t expose him. The woman did.

Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s been impossible to pretend I live in a country that values women. Hell, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump after any number of stories came out about his own history of sexual violence, probably because they know (whether they say it or not) it’s much easier to be white in this country than it is to be a woman. Being a woman means you are always responsible, despite lacking real autonomy. When I meet new people, I have to wonder if they voted for him. I have to take the time to evaluate whether the person with whom I am interacting values women so little they were willing to vote for a man like Donald Trump. It takes up my time and my energy. I resent the added work. Getting coffee in the morning is already exhausting enough.

In which I am very bad at relaxing…again.

All of the books I read over summer breaks in middle and high school dried to a mild wave along the bottom edge. Magazine ink transferred to the underside of my wrist, my forehead or, at least once, my stomach when I was finally allowed to wear a two-piece. I pretty thoroughly trashed a copy of The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood*, resting it against my thighs and stomach, covered in sweat and sunblock and chlorine. The back cover puckered and peeled off, but I didn’t take any steps to protect the book. I don’t have it anymore. I finished it at some point during the summer and set it on the shelf. Eventually, it had to be recycled. It was in no state to be given away. Even the books from back then I’ve kept I couldn’t reasonably hand off to anyone new. Jane Eyre, pressed for years on a packed shelf, still curls a bit…just a bit. I read most of that book working in the snack bar for my brother after he had to get stitches in his foot. I didn’t do a lot of swimming that week. I drank Dr. Pepper and ate packet after packet of ToastChee Crackers and read.

I spent hours at the pool in the summer, with friends but often enough without them. I’d throw a book, a towel, and my Walkman in a backpack and head out. Most of the time, I remembered to bring sunblock but the tan lines that peaked out from under tee shirts were usually still visible in school pictures in October. By August, the exposed parts of my body were a dense network of freckles. I wasn’t worried about sunburns or skin cancer or even having to buy a different shade of foundation.

On Tuesday, Zac and I went down to the pool and I lasted about 45 minutes. Not even long enough to reapply sunblock (except I did reapply it to my shoulders, shins, and feet.) I swam around until the whistle blew, then hopped out and toweled off. I judiciously held my library book away from my thighs and my stomach, but the sun reappeared and my shoulders got hot. All the umbrellas had been appropriated by much more diligent pool-goers who’d arrived when it opened. I don’t know when our pool opens. I see these women when I’m walking Bagel. They have dedicated pool bags and wear short caftans like they are going somewhere much fancier than an apartment complex pool. I’d just emptied out my regular tote bag and threw on mesh shorts and an old tee shirt. I don’t even have a beach towel anymore. I should probably get a beach towel. These women are all very good at doing nothing. Some of them didn’t even get in the water while I was there. It didn’t look like they’d been in the water that day. Some of them had books or were there with friends. Some of them had just lain down and not gotten back up again. I watched them the way my pets sometimes watch me while I read or sit at the computer. It’s probably why I didn’t make much headway in my book.

I spent hours at the pool growing up doing exactly what those women were doing—nothing. I did nothing in the pool and then I got out during breaks and I did nothing until the whistle blew again. I did nothing while absent-mindedly singing along to Jane’s Addiction and the Toadies playing over the pool intercom. The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably got so gnarly-looking because it didn’t always leave my backpack. Sometimes it just got shoved further down when I restored my soggy towel and biked back home to get ready for ballet. If it rained, I did nothing at home.

On Tuesday, I lasted 45 minutes. I came home, ran a load of laundry and re-read an article on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The Times had changed the title from earlier in the day and I didn’t notice until a couple paragraphs in that I’d already read it once. We took Bagel to the dog park when the rain stopped, then I gave her a bath after dinner. I think I fell asleep sometime after midnight. I couldn’t sleep and had started watching a David Attenborough special on Netflix. Aphids reproduce asexually. Platypi were originally thought to be a hoax. This was all nothing too, but it doesn’t luxuriate the way a poolside nap does. Even the late-night Netflix in bed was less treat than prescription.

I don’t bring up any of this looking for correction. I know me. I’m never going to enjoy the pool again the way I did when I was 12 or 14 or 15. That kid was perfectly content to listen to Fiona Apple’s first album over and over. She’d borrowed it from her older brother when he wasn’t home and copied it to a cassette. She didn’t have bills. She’d barely had her period. She wasn’t even all that worried that she might get to the end of the summer without having completed the assigned reading. I still haven’t finished Cold Mountain. I sprained my ankle the summer that was required and still managed to avoid finishing it. I think I read Fight Club, The Exorcist, and Guerrilla Warfare instead. I still have that copy of Guerrilla Warfare. I highlighted the instructions for building a tank trap to mess with my mom, but I don’t think she thought to check. I know she found that copy of The Exorcist. It disappeared from under my bed and we never discussed it.

If I hadn’t spent last Tuesday reading about ICBMs, I would have spent the day reading about healthcare or the Russia investigation or just feeling bad because I need to vacuum and I forgot to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer and if it sits too long, I’m just going to have to wash it again and if I’m just going to start wasting water, I might as well not turn off the shower when I shave or deep condition either.

I’ll go back to the pool. Not today, though, it’s raining and I really do need to vacuum. But I’ll go soon. I might get a fun towel first.

May Update: Abandon all hope…

It’s almost June and I have crossed off exactly one requirement on my reading syllabus. It’s safe to assume I might not get this done this year. According to Goodreads, I am, at 15 books, four books behind schedule if I am going to get through 50 books this year. Four of those books are the Harry Potter series on audio. Not included on that list is Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which I’ve been re-reading on nights I cannot fall asleep. This isn’t to say I haven’t been reading. I have subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. I catch myself reading the same articles in the morning Post that I read online the night before (yes, I get the daily paper in print. I also have a landline, recently purchased stamps, have bar soap in my shower, and write longhand in cursive. I am an old millennial.)

This isn’t the sort of reading I enjoy. It’s not the sort of reading I should really do before bed or having my blood pressure taken.  This is the sort of reading that makes me check the time stamp at the top of an article before skimming it for the fifth or sixth time for new information about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s the sort of reading I measure out in hash marks, thinking that counting out the number of times I check Twitter or that stupid news widget to the left of my home screen might convince me to just keep the phone in the other room. So far, it has not worked. Neither has turning off notifications. The other day I went for a short run only to notice the flag of the local parochial school at half-mast. I stopped my run to check the Washington Post app. I checked the Times and Twitter for good measure. I still don’t know why the flag was at half-mast.

Even now, I’m getting a little itchy and my chest is hot. When I am done writing this sentence, I will check my phone again…

President Trump asked senior intelligence officials to deny collusion between the campaign and Russia. Sounds about right for a Monday evening.* Right now, I can’t muster the energy to be appropriately horrified or even surprised. Tomorrow, there will probably be another story about the president attempting to quash the Russia investigations in a way only a routinely guilty party might. It may be the country’s good fortune that he appears to be at least as incompetent as he is nefarious.

But this sort of reading—skimming article after article in an effort to better understand what “throw-weight” means or the distinction between ballistic missiles categories or how Robert Mueller’s role as “special counsel” is not as secure from Trump administration meddling as Ken Starr’s role as “independent counsel” was from the Clinton administration because a statute has lapsed—isn’t reading. I am not served by knowing what I know, at least not in the manner in which I am learning it.

“[R]eading as a means of understanding and resistance” was an excellent idea on January 1st, when I hadn’t started doing this. I wasn’t tired yet. Right now, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and The Federalist Papers are all sitting unread on the stack of books I keep next to my reading chair. I’m probably not getting around to The Painted Bird or On The Beach anytime soon. I can’t seem to get through more than a chapter or two of Lincoln in the Bardo before dozing off at night and Alyssa Mastromonaco’s memoir of her time in the Obama administration is due back to the library in a few days. I haven’t even cracked the spine yet.**

What I’ve been doing looks enough like reading that I can trick myself into thinking it is. It’s not surprising I don’t have the patience or energy for book-length reading. I’ve only exercised that muscle 15 times this year. Almost everything is harder the less you do it. The not-quite-reading I have been doing feels enough like reading that I don’t even always realize I’ve set aside my book for my phone until I’ve already read a couple articles.

Saturday, I largely did not check my phone. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t keep busy with an endless series of chores that feel like being productive but are not. Instead, I sewed a pillow and two foot stools my dog will no doubt claim as her own within a week. It took me hours and I screwed up spooling the bobbin three times before I figured out what I was doing wrong. They all look fine from far if you don’t pay very close attention to the finishing and I am fairly certain the one I filled with bean bag balls only has one small hole that needs fixing. I didn’t check the news most of the day because I cannot sew one-handed and sewing machines are loud enough to drown out a lot of thought. I played old episodes of The Simpsons in the background to drown out the rest of them. In a lot of ways, sewing’s probably a better hobby for me to have right now. I’m not good enough at it that I can get away with not paying particular attention to what I am doing. It takes two hands. Unlike writing, I know when a pillow is finished.

I want to read. Abandoning the syllabus doesn’t stop me from reading, but it frees me from spending more time thinking about Russia. I’ll finish the Saunders soon, and the Mastromonaco. I might even get to the Snyder—it’s a very short book—but I don’t see myself getting around to anything by Masha Gessen in the immediate future. I may never get around to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel about radiation from a nuclear war reaching the shores of Austrailia. But I have a bunch of poly-fill left, and some vintage fabric and notions my mom gave me still in the Woodward and Lothrop’s bag (the bag also included a photocopied handout from LaLeche League because my mother rarely throws anything away.) Maybe I’ll even make a dress or two if I can find a simple enough pattern—I’m not ready for sleeves, darts, or zippers yet. An apron. I’ll make myself a new apron. Mine all have cake stains on them.

*I wrote this bit before news broke about the explosion at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I’ve actively chosen not to write about it because, while it’s easy to speculate, I have no idea what happened yet and I’m not going to make the deaths of kids at a concert about my anxieties. That would be indecent.

*I don’t really do that to library books.