My favorite poem of the year is a toss-up between Lao Tzu or this Ron Padgett gem, from his Collected Poems. It’s unfashionable to admit it, but I do own a television, two of them, in fact: one is our old 40″ that lives in our living room, so my boys can watch Daniel Tiger or whatever and leave me and their mother alone for half an hour so we can actually accomplish a simple task like a shower or dinner or just staring into a coffee cup for five minutes, and the other TV is a gigantic 4K monster that I went out and bought at Costco on a whim. It lives in our bedroom, connected to a $5 antenna, and it is beloved. Last night we lied in bed with bourbon and watched My Man Godfrey and Rockford Files and Star Trek and fell asleep. It was heavenly and I am unashamed to admit it.
1) If you give the same book to 100 people, they’ll read 100 different books.
2) We’re constantly changing, rewiring, shedding our old cells, so if you re-read a book, it will be a different book from the one you read before.
Jerry Seinfeld kept photos from the Hubble Space Telescope up on the wall in the Seinfeld writing room. “It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important,” he told Judd Apatow, in Sick in the Head. “You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it.” When Apatow said that sounded depressing, Seinfeld replied, “People always say it makes them feel insignificant, but I don’t find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting.”
This is one of the reasons I look at the moon.
My sons draw all the time, but they don’t seem to care one bit about their drawings after they make them (I envy them), so they leave piles of finished and half-finished drawings everywhere. I go through them and find scraps of construction paper that I want to paste in my notebook. Sometimes I’ll make a collage out of them:
And sometimes I’ll actually use one of the drawings as a writing prompt, like this scribble of the digestive system Owen drew:
In a way, the page becomes a collaboration between us, even though I rarely ask their permission. See also: Orchestrated drawings.
Our two-year-old, Jules, our little caveman, started drawing dozens of skeletons a few days ago, and in response to my posts about them, an Instagram follower commented, “They’re like ancient cave drawings.” I immediately thought of the work of Sylvia Fein, a painter who wrote two really interesting books about children’s artwork: Heidi’s Horse, a record of her daughter’s drawings of horses from the ages of 2 to 17, and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking, which compares children’s drawings to the cave paintings and drawings of our ancestors. The books can be hard to track down, so here are a few examples from First Drawings, below:
I love these books because they honor the work of children’s drawing — their play — by paying close attention to it, and they show how the development of children’s visual thinking echoes the development of our species’ visual thinking. Children do the work of developing powers that we have evolved over thousands of years, all in the span of a decade or two.
I also love these books because they are about intense looking and observation, and they explore their arguments through simple juxtaposition. I know of at least two other books — both favorites of mine — that use this method: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, which compares post-photography painting to medieval pre-optics paintings, and Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten, which compares the art of kindergarteners to the art of modernist artists and architects.
Sylvia Fein is a terrific painter who, to my knowledge, is still working at the age of 98. Here’s a 2014 documentary about her life and work. There’s a wonderful moment when she speaks of discovering working in miniature when her daughter was very little: “I was just in heaven. Everything seemed to go together: my life and my painting.” I’m inspired by the way Fein was able to integrate motherhood and art-making. (Above is my favorite painting of hers, obviously a self-portrait, from 1947, called “Lady With Her Baby.”)
The only thing remotely similar to Fein’s book Heidi’s Horse that I can think of is a 1939 exhibit at the MoMA, Creative Growth, Childhood to Maturity, which showcased the work of Dahlov Ipcar, from the age 3 to 22. (She was, by the way, the first woman with a solo exhibition at MoMA.) Ipcar’s parents, William Zorach and Marguerite Zorach, were both artists, and they saved much of the artwork she made as a young child. The press release of the show outlines a goal very similar to Heidi’s Horse: “it shows the creative growth from infancy to adulthood of an individual who is neither a genius nor a prodigy.”
Ipcar wrote about her unique upbringing in her essay, “My Family, My Life, My Art”:
My parents had always encouraged me to develop my own style of art. They both had undergone conventional art school training, but when they became involved in the modern art movement, they found they had to unlearn everything they had been taught…. They had deliberately left me unschooled in art, wanting to see what would happen if I were left alone to develop in my own way.
Ipcar and Fein share another connection: they both found a way to integrate their life and art-making. It came naturally to Ipcar, who recalled painting in the studio alongside her mother, and later, painting with her own children:
People always ask me how I managed to paint when my two boys were small. My children were a joy to me, and there was no problem working with them around — I just let them play at my feet as I painted. They would even run toy fire engines up and down my easel, but it didn’t bother me.
This is very much what I am attempting here, at the kitchen table, at this very moment, while the two boys draw quietly beside me, long enough for me to press “Publish.”
Several times a day since October, ever since the Halloween decorations went up, my two-year-old son Jules has asked my wife or me to draw him an “x-ray.” (That’s his word for skeleton.) When you draw for him, he hunches over so close to the drawing that you can’t even see your hand. You finish a drawing, then he turns the paper over to the blank side and says, “X-ray?” We’ve drawn hundreds of skeletons for him, over and over and over again. He flat-out refuses to attempt drawing one for himself. Sometimes we’ll be finishing dinner, and he’ll say, “X-ray?” and we’ll shout, “No! No more x-rays! We’re eating!” and he’ll throw a complete fit until one of us relents and draws the skeleton.
Then, yesterday — Christmas morning — totally out of the blue, I look over, and there’s Jules, with a piece of construction paper and his new Slick Stix from his stocking, drawing freaking x-rays like he’s been doing it his whole life:
I was so shocked I just sat there next to him for 15 minutes, watching him draw. And we’re not talking just a few x-rays, we’re talking dozens of x-rays. He’s drawn for hours since Christmas morning, as if seized by some kind of hypergraphia. X-rays, x-rays, x-rays. Here’s a picture of the whole stack of drawings he’s done so far:
What happened? What convinced him it was time? The construction paper and the markers have been there at his disposal for months. Was it that we had visitors in the house for Christmas? I can’t come up with any convincing external factor that might have caused him to finally pick up the marker. He just decided he was ready.
As is so often the case with parenting, you do the same Sisyphean, seemingly meaningless task over and over again, wondering when the heck it will add up to anything. And then, one day, often without warning or fanfare, the meaning arrives, and you still can’t believe it.
Christmas in Texas is full of single panel cartoons like his one.
In the December 23 entry from Tape For The Turn of the Year, A.R. Ammons writes, “release us from mental / prisons / into the actual / fact, the mere / occurrence—the touched, tasted, heard, seen.” For many, Christmas is a spiritual time, but it’s also a sensual time, of food, music, lights. It’s a mistake, I think, to elevate one over the other. The spirit and the senses are not disconnected. They are a two-way street.
I read so many good books this year, but here are 15 favorites:
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death
Earlier this year Postman’s son Andrew wrote an op-ed with the title, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 — it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Lao Tzu & Ursula K. Le Guin, Tao Te Ching
Every one of these poems reads like a subtweet of the president. Le Guin’s footnotes are great, too: In response to “having a lot of things, a lot of money: / shameless theives. / Surely their way / isn’t the way,” she writes, “So much for capitalism.”)
David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
An imaginative, extremely readable book of short stories. I read at the very beginning of the year and it has stuck with me. (I think about these two afterlives a lot.)
Tove Jansson, The Summer Book
All of Jansson’s work makes me want to move to Finland and live on an island. Less fanciful than my beloved Moomin comics, these stories have an undercurrent of sorrow to them. Really gorgeous book.
Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life
There’s been a lot of anti-Thoreau sentiment in the past years (heck, Kathryn Schulz published an article in the New Yorker called “Pond Scum”), and I didn’t even think I liked Thoreau, but Walls does a beautiful job of painting a portrait of a writer who was deeply rooted in and connected to his place, who tried his best to carve out a “deliberate” life for himself. (Pair it with NYRB’s reader edition of Thoreau’s journal, which I’ve been reading daily.)
Tamara Shopsin, Arbitrary Stupid Goal
Certainly my favorite book cover of the year, the graphic designer’s memoir drops you right into a kid’s eye view of 1970s Greenwich Village. With it’s chunked sections and hand-drawn illustrations, it gave me the same kind of quick, skippy joy I get when reading Vonnegut.
Stefan Zweig, Montaigne
Zweig wrote this before his suicide, while exiled in Brazil during World War II. To get Montaigne, Zweig said, “you should not be too young, too deprived of experience and life’s deceptions, and it is precisely a generation like ours, cast by fate into the cataract of the world’s turmoil, to whom the freedom and consistency of his thought conveys the most precious aid.”
Alan Jacobs, How To Think
I read this book twice: first, when Alan asked for a blurb, and second, when I offered to interview him at Bookpeople upon its publication. It’s a brisk, 150-page plea for sanity. Alan is a rare writer: one who not only genuinely loves to write books, but also genuinely loves teaching.
Sarah Manguso, 300 Arguments
I had a couple of magical Manguso readings this year: On a summer trip to San Francisco, I bought this in the morning at Christopher’s Books in Potrero, and then read most of it later that afternoon in the Yerba Buena Gardens. Later in the year, I found a used copy of Ongoingness: The End of A Diary in a market in Antigua, Guatemala, and read that in one sitting, too.
Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist
I’ve been watching The Room for years, and I first read Bissell on the subject in Magic Hours. This was a total behind-the-scenes trip, and it is no surprise to me that the movie based on it has gotten great reviews. (I still haven’t seen it.)
Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye
A short, brilliant book about film editing that has quite a few lessons for writers, too. (It would make an excellent companion to Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.) I first read about Murch in Lawrence Weschler’s book about his adventures in astrophysics, Waves Passing In The Night, which I picked randomly off my local library’s New Arrivals shelf.
Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten
This is not only a beautifully produced illustrated history of Friedrich Froebel’s institution, it also presents a compelling case that kindergarten influenced the origins of abstract art and modern architecture. (The juxtaposition of children’s art with paintings and blueprints reminds me of David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge.)
Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
I learned about this 1937 bestseller while reading Will Schwalbe’s Books For Living. It’s basically a book about the ancient Chinese art of chilling out and living a good life. (One thing: If you pick it up, just skip chapter 8 and Lin Yutang’s sexist views.) The book celebrates other writers who got me through the year — Thoreau, Whitman, Lao Tzu. I find it fitting that the only other person I knew who’d ever read it was the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who said in 2010, “If you read 1 book this year… make it this… no words to describe.)
David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
I read this one, then I read his collected diaries, Theft By Finding, and then I read the visual compendium, which might have even been the most interesting of the three books, but I’m listing this one because it’s hilarious, although with the interstitial fiction bits, it’s sort of like one of those classic 90s hip-hop albums where you skip the “skit” tracks.
Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company
I love reading and thinking about Los Angeles, and I love writing that’s smart and trashy, so I liked this a lot.
Okay, jeez, it was a good reading year, so here are 15 more:
- Ian Svenonius, Censorship Now!!
- Warren Craghead, TrumpTrump: Volume 1
- Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
- Tim Kreider, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
- Damon Krukowski, The New Analog
- George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
- Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers
- Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, How To Read Nancy
- David Rakoff, Half Empty
- Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life
- Ellen Ullman, Life In Code
- William Finnegan, Barbarian Days
- Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (read out loud with my son, Owen)
- Roberts & Kastner, eds., Nina Katchadourian: Curiouser
Phew! If you need them, here are some tips for reading more.