Here are 10 books that helped me through the spring, listed in the order I read them:
Have you heard of the Beatles? They were pretty good. This is probably the best book about the band I’ve ever read. I love how saucy MacDonald gets: of “A Day in the Life,” arguably the high point of their achievement, he writes, “More nonsense has been written about this recording than anything else The Beatles produced.” Of Paul’s granny music: “If any single recording shows why The Beatles broke up, it is MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER.” A highlight for me is when MacDonald points out that how many of the big British bands of the sixties were made up of kids who went to art school. (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, etc.) You could blow up the chronology stuffed in the back and make another book out of it.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands
edited by Huw Lewis-Jones
A downright gorgeous book. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with maps and even started my own collection of imaginary maps way back in 2008. If I’d have owned this book when I was doing my undergrad thesis, who knows, maybe I’d be a novelist? The Writer’s Map would pair well with Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer.
The Order of Time
Beautifully written — which really means it was beautifully translated from the Italian by husband/wife team Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. I found out while writing this post that Segre died unexpectedly this year. Rovelli said, “They not only captured perfectly my meaning but they could completely render the feeling and sound of my Italian — and improve it, because their English language is remarkably beautiful and rich.” (I also read the couple’s translation of Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.)
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Another book about time, specifically, an exploration of Judaism as a religion obsessed with the architecture of time. As the rabbi explains, each Sabbath is a kind of a mini-eternity — something to look forward to. I picked this up after reading Beth Pickens’ Make Your Art No Matter What, and the two books together influenced me to rethink how I go about my weekends.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire
Robert D. Richardson
The great reading project of my spring was reading Richardson’s trilogy of biographies: Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (so good which was so good Annie Dillard wrote him a fan letter and they wound up getting married), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (which I swear reads in spots like he was showing off for his new partner), and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. (I also read his short biography of his mentor, the biographer Walter Jackson Bate.) Emerson is my favorite of the three and set me on a path of rethinking my indexing and filing systems. If you’re new to Richardson’s work, I might start with First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.
The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live
Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky
This is a book I found while picking through my wife’s shelf of architecture books. It was partly inspired by two of my all-time favorite books — How Buildings Learn and A Pattern Language — and it has a very simple but strong premise: when it comes to houses, the quality of the space is more important than the quantity of the square footage. (Our family lives in a small 1949 bungalow, so the idea obviously appeals.) Before you buy a new house or remodel, give it a read.
Conversations of Goethe
Johann Peter Eckermann
This was a favorite book of Emerson and some of the other transcendentalists. Eckermann was 31 when he met the 74-year-old Goethe, and this book is a record of their conversations over nine years. Like many old books, this book is a great reminder that human beings have always been hilarious — I love how Eckermann will ask a question and Goethe goes into these long monologues that read almost stand-up routines. “The truth must be repeated over and over,” Goethe said. “My merit is, that I have found it also, that I have said it again, and that I have striven to bring the truth once more into a confused world.”
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is one of my favorite books about art and motherhood, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to read her followup. (Both could go on my list of good books you could finish in an afternoon.) The book was written before the pandemic, but it contains a brilliant sentence that sums it up: “And then it is another day and another and another but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.” (Try to get the hardcover with a jacket by John Gall.)
How to Take Smart Notes
Several people recommended this to me after my post about indexing and file systems. Not sure if I’ll go for a full Zettelkasten or not, but it’s one of the better books I’ve read about writing. (I really wish I’d read it in college.) Like a book it’s influenced by, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, it’s deeper and more Zen than you might expect. Ahrens’ insight is simple, but huge: if you arrange your writing and reading life correctly, you never really have to stare at a blank page or start from scratch.
Wendy, Master of Art
I feel like you can’t go wrong with a good sendup of art school. Anybody who went is like, Oh god, this is too real, and anybody who didn’t can laugh and feel smug. The only comic book I read this spring, which makes me want to go out and catch up with everything I’ve missed.
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As a bonus, here are some pictures and sound I enjoyed…
Music: the new Pharaoh Sanders record was wonderful, Vikingur Olaffson made me fall in love with “Bruyères” on the piano, and while I’ve loved Violator since college when my drawing teacher played it on repeat, Depeche Mode 101 turned me into a huge fan of the band.
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