I try to read a lot. I’m not always very good about actually writing—which isn’t great when you’re trying to think of yourself as a writer. So, partly to compensate and mostly because I enjoy it, I read. It’s like doing research for writing. After all, it’s not as though MFA programs existed a hundred years ago. Writers figured out how to write poems and short stories and novels somehow anyways. More likely than not by reading poems and short stories and novels.
This past year, I read 100 new books. I also reread another nine—the entire Anne of Green Gables series. I use Goodreads to help me keep track of what I’m reading, what I’ve already read, and what I want to read. At the beginning of every year, you can set a reading goal or challenge for yourself on the site. For a little while now, I’ve set that goal as one hundred books.
At the end of 2015, I looked back over my reading for the year. I was a bit surprised by which books stuck with me and which ones have already faded somewhat away. I’ve decided to write a bit about five books that have stayed with me.
Side note about my reading habits: I take quotes from everything I read. It’s become a compulsion. If a line resonates with me, seems particularly lovely or sad or affecting, I write it down.
1. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I read this back in February and yet it’s the book I first think about when I consider everything I’ve read this year. I remember how it surprised me. I won’t get into a plot summary because you can find that easily enough on the internet. I’ll just say that I found it hopeful. It made me feel like life was full of wonders to discover—not to stumble across in the course of living, but to actively discover. To set out in search of. And that doing that was enough to create a fulfilling existence. The books delves into science and the spiritual without making judgments about either. It’s about the inexplicable in the world we live in as well as in human nature. It made me see life as not long but very short and very precious. Most of us know this already—but it can be easy to forget.
"After a few moments, she stumbled forth with this statement: 'Where there is life, George, there is still hope. Death is so terribly final. It will come soon enough to us all. I would hesitate to wish it hastened upon anyone.'"
"'I think you are marvelous,' Alma corrected. 'I think you are the most marvelous person I have ever met, who is still alive. You make me feel glad that I am still here, to meet somebody like you.'"
"'You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others—why they may dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion…but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach over, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.'"
2. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
I read The Cider House Rules in 2014. I’d seen the movie ages ago and decided to finally get around to the novel. I loved it. It’s a sprawling epic set in the (relatively) modern world. After that taste of Irving, I decided to read A Prayer for Owen Meany. It wasn’t quite as good, but still memorable. The book seemed like a strange embodiment of love and grief—what it is to live a meaningful life in the face of adversity. Why a large part of living life is caring about other people, about much more than just yourself.
"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part."
3. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I read this book about a week before my dad died. It struck a chord with me at the time I read it. I was already anticipating grief; you can’t help anticipating grief when your dad has stage IV lung cancer. It then struck a stronger chord after my dad died. The overwhelming experience of grief. The puzzle that is piecing your life back together when someone you care about dies. The not really wanting to put it all back together.
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be 'healing.' A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to 'get through it,' rise to the occasion, exhibit the 'strength' that invariable gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."
"I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.
In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic."
4. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I like fantasy novels. I read quite a lot of them. This one started off like a fairytale and then expanded outward from there. I could really appreciate both the world I was presented with and the writing. That’s not always the case with fantasy. Sometime the world is fantastic enough, but the writing feels crude. Other times, the writing is whimsical and lovely but the plot and characters are far from mesmerizing.
"And I wasn't old enough to be wise, so I loved her more, not less, because I knew she would be taken from me soon."
5. Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips
A frenetic encompassing collection of poems. My favorite collection of contemporary poetry that I read this year—though I didn’t read as many as I’d have liked. The poems explore the contradictions we all face—ugliness and beauty, hope and despair, truth and deceit—and how they exist simultaneously. The world is a beautiful and awful place.
"…didn't intimacy mean courtesy,
once, and force mean power? I'll shout the starlings
loose from the pines again. I swim the field—stitches
everywhere, your body everywhere, blue cornflowers."
- "Since You Ask"
- "Capella: I"
- "From the Land Called Near-Is-Far"
light must wed the dark, eventually, and the dark
mean silence. I disagree. Touch not the crown— Don't touch me—"
- "By Force"
I’ve come to the (unsurprising) conclusion that I like sprawling emotion. I like big declarations of feeling. I don’t react very strongly to contained and intellectualized emotion. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t really know what to make of it. I’m a fairly logical person, but in my literature I want something messier. I want sorrow or joy that’s not just examined but confronted. It just feels more honest to me.