Here are 10 books that helped me through the fall, listed in the order I read them:
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer
The fall started off with the Delta spike in Texas and my kids home from school, so I took a lot more solo walks and listened to audiobooks, which is something I rarely do. (For a taste of whether you’ll enjoy Kimmerer’s voice, check out her On Being episode.) A major theme of my reading this year was the tragic divorce between the arts and sciences and how much they need each other and how much real scientists and artists have in common. (At one point in school, Kimmerer is told by a botany advisor, “If you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”)
Short stories on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcasts
What I much prefer to audiobooks is listening to short stories on my walks. A good short story can pack more of a punch than a whole book. For example: I’ve read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” a few times, but hearing it read by novelist Anne Enright in her Irish added a whole new layer. I listened to a ton of Joy Williams stories: on The Writer’s Voice you can hear her read “The Fellow,” “Stuff,” and “Chaunt,” and on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast you can hear Dana Spiotta read “Chicken Hill” and Colin Barrett read “Stuff.” Basically, if you add up all the episodes I listened to, it’d make a really good anthology, so I’m counting it as a book…
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image
I read Shlain’s Art & Physics in the summer, and what I said for that book goes for this one: I really don’t care as much whether Shlain’s major thesis is true (that alphabetic literacy in a culture rewires the brain and gives rise to misogyny) as much as I like the way he moves through history, and the way he sets up pairs of opposites with each chapter. There are a ton of connections between Shlain’s work and Iain McGilchrist’s work (see below). I read both of their (thick) books in paperback while floating around my pool (it’s warm enough here to float, if not swim, until November or so) and taking the occasional nap.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
As he did with The Antidote, one of my favorite reads of 2013, Burkeman is able to pull off this great magic trick of writing a self-help book that not only transcends its genre, it also pokes the eye of the genre in which it’s supposed to exist. (This trick was a big influence on my book, Show Your Work!, which is the first time I consciously wrote a book knowing it’d be shelved in self-help.) It’s very hard to pull off. I’d also like to point out that Burkeman takes time in between his books, and works through a lot of ideas in his column and great newsletter, which I think leads to much richer work. (For a taste of the book, see my post, “The Principles of Patience.”)
The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture
I picked this up after a reader suggested it fit in well with my interest in narrative shape and ideas about scenius and collaboration in Show Your Work! Not only was it a great suggestion, but if I do a new edition of that book, I will probably bring in some of Carriger’s ideas for the “Tell Good Stories” chapter. Put simply: in contrast to Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” The Heroine’s Journey is a narrative in which our protagonist, rather than violently slashing through conflict and ending up alone, builds alliances and friendships leading to a happy ending shared with others. Carriger’s ideas fit in perfectly with my ideas about The Comedy of Survival. One teaching of Carriger’s is that you can be of any gender and be a Hero or Heroine, and I think it’d do all creative people a world of good to start thinking of their journey in terms of the Heroine, not the Hero. (Another good book I read this fall dealing with alternate narrative shapes is Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode.)
I’m particularly taken with Heraclitus’s idea of the harmony of tensions:
The cosmos works
by harmony of tensions,
like the lyre and bow.
Even a soul submerged in sleep
is hard at work, and helps
make something of the world
Haiku-like wisdom and mystery from 2,500 years ago. My cup of tea.
“All souls are limited in the circles of their own understanding.” This is my book of the year. Just a stunning read. A historical fiction that manages to illuminate contemporary issues. (Telling the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson would put it.) I started the book around when Daylight Savings began and my clock and schedule got all messed up. It’s the perfect book to read when you’re up at weird hours, like a sleepy nun. (I drew a fantastic lecture about how Groff put the book together.) Can’t wait to read her other books.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
I have been meaning to read this book for over a decade. I first purchased it in 2010 after hearing Lynda Barry sing its praises. I balked at its heft and its length and its Bible-thin pages and sold the hardcover at some point before a move. Then I bought the paperback one day at Bookpeople after reading Leonard Shlain’s work. It took me two months to finish because I found it hard to read more than 10 pages in a day. It’s one of those books that you find out later has a cult following, because once you read it, it’s hard not to see the world through its lens.
Imagine Wanting Only This
I read Radtke’s Seek You in the summer. She is doing something really interesting in these books: not just graphic memoir, but also graphic reporting/essay-ing. The drawing in this book is just a bit stiffer than Seek You, but it works, and reminds me how much comics is just as much about graphic design as it is drawing. Keep your eye on Radtke: She’s 2/2 now, batting a thousand.
My first Erdrich book, but definitely not my last. I picked it up knowing nothing about it, and for maybe half the book had no idea where it was going. I just liked being on the ride. It’s a novel about ghosts and bookstores and the pandemic. I didn’t plan it, but it seems right that the fall started with a book about indigenous wisdom and ended with a book about indigenous wisdom.
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