Books I’m reading

… or have been reading lately:

Reader, Come Home, by Maryann Wolf
I loved this. Pulled me in, made me think, changed how I’m approaching a number of things in my life, including reading (prior blog post). I’m glad and thankful I read this, and that means I’m also glad and grateful it exists. Just outstanding.

Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan
Sort of a (dark) fairy tale or magic realism, sort of an unreliable narrator, sort of an indictment of the early convict years in Tasmania, sort of fantastical, with metaphorical beasts and fish and men…. I recognized that it was literarily worthy but it never fully pullled me in. Perhaps this was along the lines of “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”? Or perhaps it just wasn’t my taste.

The City and the Mountains, by Eca de Queros
The second time I’ve read this. A book with a message, arguably a morality tale, and I usually don’t love those – but this was so engaging that not only did I read it once, I kept it around and years later (ie last week) read it again. And I liked it just as much. The second time reading it, it seemed even more relevant than the first: this time I’ve been to rural Spain, which yes is not Portugal, and it’s a hundred years later, but at least the physical landscape isn’t too far away; and this time I’m thinking a lot about information and distraction and overwhelm and the tradeoffs of things coming in vs being or doing (or not-doing) oneself. All that makes it sound boring or dry, but really it’s just fun. It’s also a peaceful and calming sort of thing to read before bed, even during a tumultuous week.

The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth
I think I’m about done reading books about productivity. There was nothing wrong with this one, but I keep falling back to the ones I really love (18 Minutes; The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck; Getting Things Done.) That said, a few insights worth noting:

  • Doing things is itself a habit or a muscle. Do stuff and it gets easier to do stuff.
  • The stuff that makes us crazy when other people do it is probably stuff we do ourselves (else we likely wouldn’t even notice when others do it).
  • Let go of concerns and/or tackle any given problem from a different angle by up-leveling the problem itself. Rephrased: ask “why” like a two year old and then answer that question instead.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
I’m just a little way into this. It’s beautiful and wonderful and I love it and I’m so glad I’m reading it.

The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas
Just a little way into this one too. This is the second book by Thomas that I’ve read. Like the first (Our Tragic Universe) it’s both totally engaging and sneakily intellectual. In spite of that, I keep picking it up and putting it down and losing momentum – which I think is more about the number of books I’m currently reading and/or the amount of chaos in my life right now. So I am likely going to put it down more thoroughly for a while, and then start over.

F*ck Feelings, by Michael Bennett
I picked this up to look at in a bookstore because it had an amusing title and a bright yellow cover (yep, totally judging book by cover). I read a couple of pages and grinned at the book. It was just nice to read something that was both about how a) sometimes life is difficult and b) sometimes (often!) the thing to do is just get on with it anyway. Plus I have kind of a standing joke with a friend about how perhaps feelings are overrated, and what one needs to do is think things through rationally, and why do other people not get this?! And I often feel a sneaking kind of respect for the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ and dry humor approach to life that one finds in the more stereotypical bits of British humor. So, this was appealing. Then I read a couple of pages and felt better. Oh, the irony. There’s good odds I’ll read the rest of it, perhaps in tiny doses as required to deal with chaos.

New Selected Poems, by Les Murray
Because poetry is necessary, and Les Murray is great. I’m reading this one or two poems at a time, and at that rate it will take me a while to finish. I’m good with that. Things I like about Les Murray’s poetry: the sense of landscape and space and how specific it is. Also the use of such a wide variety of words, arranged in such a wide variety of ways.

And that’s all! For now, at any rate.

One week different

For the past week I’ve done almost everything differently. I haven’t been online. I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t cooked dinner. I haven’t seen friends. I haven’t worked in the garden. I expected to go to New York, but didn’t. I’ve driven out to the beach twice in the afternoon, and once to the nearby Japanese garden. I’ve read two books, one on paper and another on my ereader. I’ve gone to four doctor appointments. I’ve taken half a dozen naps. I haven’t checked the news.

One of the books I read was Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore in the beach town I’d driven out to. Reader offered the only accurate description I’ve ever come across of how it feels to me to really read, deeply, all-in, surroundingly. I used to say that good reading wasn’t about seeing or thinking individual words; I was there, watching, present. The description the author gave in this book was the first and only thing I’ve read that made me think someone else would know exactly what I meant by that.

So that pulled me in. And I had time: not a lot of mental energy, true, but time. I’d set my email autoreply to indicate that I wouldn’t be answering email. I’d declined meetings. It seemed pointless to check much of anything online, and since the whole point of the week was recuperating, there was nothing much else I was trying to do. I read the book. I read it on paper, page by page, and because the author had me hooked with that description, I trusted what else she might have to say: after all, this is a person who gets it.

Summary: we read differently when we read to skim, to summarize, to hunt for information than when we read deeply. We read differently on a screen than we do on paper. We read differently when we read in volume rather than when we read to read. These differences aren’t subjective or maybe; they’re measurable and visible in everything from brain scans to how we move our eyes across text.

Maybe because this was a week of different, maybe because I was primed to pay attention, maybe because I’ve felt my own reading brain slipping, the ideas in the book hit home. I tried what Wolf said she’d tried: focused, forced attention. I read and re-read until I got it. I fought my way through long sentences without letting nuance slip past (I found a couple of places I think Wolf’s editor could have improved things, but that’s meaningful too). A couple of chapters were less personally meaningful to me than others, but I read them deeply anyway. I held internal arguments with myself about what might be missing: this is a recipe for reading more deeply as taught to children, but what about the rest of us? are we sure that children are more distractable than adults? how do we handle the volume of things we might read, or feel we’re expected to read, professionally or personally? if one reasonable goal is a bilateral approach to reading modes, when does truly lightweight skimming make sense? (And as I write this, I remember: being taught to skim, as a skill, sometime in middle school. There’s a certain irony to that, but maybe also a certain hope: can we learn to choose how we read? And I remember my mother telling me about how her reading changed in law school, and how it changed again after that.)

As the week went on, I started experimenting more specifically. I aimed for less rapidity, fewer things, and more depth. I aimed for stillness, for letting my mind do nothing much at all. I checked email less often, and when I did, I wrote back to the friends who’d sent messages asking if I were okay. I uninstalled a couple of apps from my phone. In the doctor’s office while waiting for the optometrist to come in, I simply sat.

I’ve also been reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan, on my ereader, and up to about three quarters of the way through I hadn’t really seen the point of it. It’s violent and gruesome and yes the early penal colony days in Australia were awful, but. I haven’t been able to see it, to see the story in the book the way I sometimes (and in the past, nearly always) see the stories in books.

Then sometime around Thursday evening, a switch flipped, and I was there. Twopenny Sal was dancing around a fire, ochre painted on her face, shadows leaping too against the night sky – and that image is as vivid as anything I can imagine. I finished reading Book of Fish this morning, and everything through to the end – I was there. (It’s still never going to be my favorite book, but that’s fine, and a different story.)

Last night I picked up The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. I’d gone to see Kingsnorth give a talk, a few months back, and the whole idea of this book just pulls me in. The surreality of it; the slip into a new language; the sense of a landscape I both know and don’t. Every few months I’ve picked it up and thought, is this what I’m going to read next? and every few months I’ve put it back on the shelf.

This time, I took it down to the couch and dove in. It’s beautiful and misty and wonderful and even in this, my week of how-is-it-possible-to-feel-this-tired, the scenes and the place and the people are clear. I am so glad I waited to read it.

So where does all this leave me?

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, my brain started feeling more clear.

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, I started feeling like I could think again, in a way I haven’t felt like I could think in quite some time.

I don’t quite know what’s next, but I am unwilling to give this up. I’m planning a few things to keep it going: less lightweight information, and if that means I use the gaps between things for exactly nothing specific, that’s fine; more breaks between meetings; more paper, both for thinking through projects and for reading; fewer apps; less checking the news; more one thing at a time; more choosiness and more depth in reading. If this forces me to do fewer things overall – okay. It feels like a really good trade.

It also feels like the best side effect I can imagine of coming down with shingles. A year from now, I think and hope this is what I’ll remember when I look back at this time.

Library

It is years since I’ve spent much time in a library. Growing up, libraries were a weekly – or several times per week? – affair, and cross-town too, as my parents drove me far and wide, from my hometown to the next town over, and the next town over after that, in search of the next book in whatever series I was reading, or a new section of children’s or young adult books I hadn’t yet devoured. And ‘devour’ really is the right word. The quantity and variety of books I brought home was limited mainly by the length of my arms: I had learned early that the easiest way to deal with a precarious stack was to hold it carefully with both hands beneath, and then wedge it under my chin.

I don’t know when my frequencing of libraries changed. It wasn’t college; college was all libraries all the time. It wasn’t really post-college either. In Los Angeles and later the Bay Area, I made pilgrimages to UCLA librairies, Berkeley, Stanford, the local public libraries … but in recent years, it’s tapered off. I read just as much or more as I ever did, but the time I spend in public, at public desks, reading or writing or dreaming, has altered.

But a few weeks back, I took a class on essay writing. It took place on one of the upper floors of San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute. I’d never even been in the building previously; the library is membership only, I don’t exactly live nearby or spend much extra time in the city, and I’d never even seriously looked into it. But. That afternoon in the class, I felt the weight and age of the building around me; after the class, I peeked in the window of the reading room. Architectually it’s like Gold Rush meets City Beautiful, east coast done on a dime-sized budget in the west. The building feels solid, with high windows with single pane glass and wooden frames. From the view through the stairwell landing into the reading room I could see both comfortable lounge chairs and deep-set shelving stacks.

In college, I used to hide in the stacks to work. The ceilings were low, the lights were on a timer, and there were always student myths that either a serial killer or several stray couples having sex could be found back there, if only you went deep enough. The elevators were tiny, and creaked as if about to fall through the building. The stairs echoed with every footstep. The silence felt like a preservative, a moment or solution for statis. The air smelled comfortably of the heat of decaying paper, ancient ink, and glue. When I needed to procrastinate I’d read old back issues of fashion magazines from the 1920s; when I didn’t, I’d find an empty desk surrounded by books, no windows, and get down to work. I’ve missed those stacks for years.

And so today, here I am, new-minted membership to the Mechanics’ in hand (or, more literally, in handbag). I’m sitting in an old wooden chair at an old wooden desk. The stacks extend to my left and the lounge chairs lounge on the other side of the room. Light drifts in through those high ancient (by California standards) windows, extended and evened out by flourescents two stories overhead. I’m typing.

It feels strange and familiar, all at once.