A list is one thing, but making a map of the books you’ve read often reveals connections between them that you might have missed. (More in Tuesday’s newsletter: “A cluster map of books.”)
A list is one thing, but making a map of the books you’ve read often reveals connections between them that you might have missed. (More in Tuesday’s newsletter: “A cluster map of books.”)
In this week’s Tuesday newsletter, I wrote about my most important rule for reading: “Read at Whim!”
Here are 10 books that helped me through the long summer, listed in the order I read them:
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas
“Let those who are free of Texas enjoy their freedom.” McMurtry’s first book of essays, published in 1968, after his novel, The Last Picture Show. Belongs on the shelf next to Wright’s God Save Texas and other great books about this insane state I happen to live in. (Related reading: The Pirate Gardener.)
Smile: The Story of a Face
“Imperfection is a portal. Whereas perfection and symmetry create distance… imperfection and the messy particular had the power to open the heart.” I loved Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, so I was delighted to read an advance copy of her memoir, which comes out next month. A playwright, McArthur “Genius,” and mother of 3, she writes beautifully about the intertwining of her art and everyday life.
Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles
“Less of a city than a country. Less of a community than a climate. Less of a metropolis than an eighty-eight-city nation-state.” I picked this up because I am fascinated by all things Los Angeles. (I try to get out there to see my friends at least once a year, but it’s been over two years since I’ve seen the Pacific!) LA is one of those cities that everybody has an image of, but I really had to have it explained to me before I could get my head around it…
As an almost-lifelong four-eyes, I love thinking about vision and I love comic stories that take full advantage of the medium, so Dhaliwal’s book about a world in which Cyclopes are a minority group was right up my alley. “I remember saying to a friend, I want to do a book on microaggressions, but that’s, like, so old. Is it even worth doing?” Dhaliwal said in this profile. Lucky for us, she kept going.
Several Short Sentences About Writing
“Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization,” Klinkenborg writes. “Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important? It will have to be you.” This is simply one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read. Up there with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and other classics. (Related reading: “The most important thing you do.”)
Great cover. I read this poetry collection one poem at a time, one poem per meal:
“I wish I had a shed out back…
I don’t mean
some romantic Unabomber
shit, just a shed.”
I am a recording nerd who grew up obsessing over books about The Beatles’ recording sessions, so I tore through the official the Prince archivist’s second volume chronicling the Purple One’s unbelievable output at what was arguably the height of his powers. (Read along with this Spotify playlist!) Tudahl’s volume about the Purple Rain sessions inspired another playlist and made my favorite reads of 2018. I will read as many of these as he puts together.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
These can be lonely times, and this was the right book at the right time for me. Somewhat unclassifiable — my favorite kind of book! — it’s not a traditional comic in panels, but more a kind of illustrated nonfiction essay. Made me want to re-read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and pick up Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. I’m now a big fan of Radtke’s work, and I look forward to reading her first book, Imagine Wanting Only This.
I’d known about Jess’s work for years, but never really spent much time getting to know it in detail. This is a gorgeously-produced collection of the San Francisco collage artist’s work — the fold-out poster and extra booklet reminded me of some of Chris Ware’s book design. Other books about the artist I picked up: Jess: To and From the Printed Page and An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle.
Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light
Alain de Botton once said that the least interesting thing about religion is whether it’s true or not, and I feel that way about Shlain’s thesis that great artists anticipated leaps in physics — sometimes by several centuries. What is thrilling to me as a reader is to watch a sharp mind work through the history of these two fields and juxtapose their developments. (There’s a nice afterword in new editions about how the surgeon came to be a writer.)
* * *
In Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he laments the deterioration of his reading habits due to his time online:
Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Dividing creative work into “deep” and “shallow” seems fairly harmless until you start assigning one more value than the other. There’s a time and place for both.
In my own practice, I often get far more ideas in the “shallow” mode, poking around twitter and skimming articles, than I do in “deep” mode, staring at a blinking Microsoft Word cursor with my noise-canceling headphones on.
That said, my brains feel just as scrambled as anybody’s. But as much as I like to blame my problems on the internet, if you go back a few years, dive a little deeper into history, you find that the sense that life is getting shallower is not just a contemporary phenomenon.
In a recent essay, Hari Kunzru points out that there’s an ancient history of people being worried about the quality of our thought and attention. (Plato, for example, thought writing would cause us to lose our memories.)
“[T]he proliferation of early print publications changed reading habits,” Kunzru writes. “Instead of devoting one’s attention to a small library of precious books, it was now possible to dip into things, to divert oneself…”
Distraction can sometimes be a good thing. In the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot wrote:
Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.
Writers are unique kinds of readers because, for them, reading is rarely an end in itself, but a means of generating more writing.
Emerson, for example, read voraciously, but he read in a way that was useful to him, a way that generated his own writing. In Robert D. Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, he recounts how Emerson skipped and skimmed and sped through books, looking for things to steal, learning to “divine,” books, “to feel those that you want without wasting much time on them.” He told other writers to “turn page after page, keeping the writer’s thoughts before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of.”
And when you come across something that seems worth stealing in a text, one way to absorb it and really extract the meaning of it is to copy it out by hand.
Here’s Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street, saying that reading is like flying over a road in an airplane and copying is like walking it on foot:
The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front. Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.
Benjamin used a land metaphor there, but in her introduction to Illuminations, Hannah Arendt used a sea metaphor to describe Benjamin’s method of appropriation, or building up texts using quotations:
Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate it the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even… everlasting…
Which reminds me: yesterday during an interview, someone called me a “minor poet.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I’m an extremely minor poet.”
“No, no, no,” they said. “A MINER, like a coal miner, digging for the poem in a text.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “That, too.”
We had a good laugh.
* * *
More reading: “The fishes of thought.”
Every month I’ll chose a book from an eclectic mix of creative nonfiction, novels, artist memoirs, comics, and more, all of which speak to living a more creative life.
You can choose to get the books mailed to you in a handsome package each month, or pick a digital-only, buy your own book option. Either option gets you access to the Literati app, where our discussion will happen.
The fun begins on June 1st, but you can sign up now.
(Unfortunately, only people in the US can sign up right now. Literati tells me they’re working on international memberships. If you have any more questions, please contact Literati!)
My first pick for the club is How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
It was really hard picking the launch book! Like choosing a first song on a mixtape, or the first sentence for a book — you have to set the tone. I wanted a book written by a woman who’s a working artist. The club starts in June, so I wanted a book that was deep, but could also be read on the beach. I wanted a book that’s a little weird but still accessible and I wanted a book that speaks to my belief in the creative power of idleness. (A northern Winter is for hibernation, a southern summer is for estivation.)
When I watched Odell’s original talk in 2017, I knew it could be a good book, but the book took off in a big way. Readers were loving it and sharing it and it was selling well by word-of-mouth, but then Obama named it one of his favorite books of 2019, and eight months after publication it finally hit the NYTimes bestseller list. (For the record, it was on my 2019 list, too.)
A bit of trivia: How To Do Nothing came out in April 2019, the same time that my book Keep Going came out. Jenny and I crossed paths at the very beginnings of our book tours in a morning talk show green room in Portland. We took this selfie together:
Anyways, I like reading books a lot more than I like writing books, so a book club seemed like a great idea.
Books are my creative fuel, and reading is at the very heart of my practice as a writer and an artist. Not many people know this, but I used to work the reference desk in a public library. In many ways, I still feel like a librarian: a big part of the joy of my work is pointing my readers “upstream” to the books I love.
I hope the books I choose will be both useful and beautiful, but most importantly, I hope these books will be fun to read.
I firmly believe that reading should be fun.
(And, again, if you have any questions, please contact Literati!)
“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your shit.”
I posted this innocuous photo of our living room bookshelves the other day and people started asking me all kinds of questions, like, “How do you organize your books?” (I don’t) and “What’s the book you gift the most?”
Sacrilegious for someone of my profession to say, maybe, but I don’t like giving people books unless they’re 1) books they’ve asked for 2) really nice editions of books they already love. Otherwise, it feels like giving someone work. “Did you read that book I gave you yet?!?” (You, though, you should buy lots of my books and gift them indiscriminately. Ha!)
Reading a book requires, by today’s dismal standards, an enormous investment of time and attention, and the writer either honors that investment or suffers the consequences. (As Vonnegut told us, a writer has to be “a good date.”)
In the first major interview with legendary comedy writer John Swartzwelder, “sage of The Simpsons,” he says:
Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.
But if you know you have to honor the reader’s time and attention with “good” work, how do you ever get the guts to sit down and write?
That is the whole trouble.
Swartzwelder suggests working with time, and the overnight magic of put it in the drawer, and walk out the door:
I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
As the interviewer, Mike Sacks, summarized the method: “Create an imperfect world and then improve it.”
Okay, now I’m off to make something bad that I will fix later!
William James said that our stream of consciousness, “like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.”
I wonder if our reading life — that is, for those of us who read to write — isn’t like a bird’s life, too.
Swoops and perches.
“Like most writers, I don’t educate myself sequentially,” says the poet Gary Snyder, “but more like a hawk or eagle always circling and finding things that might have been overlooked.”
In Emerson: Mind on Fire, Robert Richardson writes that Ralph Waldo Emerson read “like a hawk sliding on the wind over a marsh, alert for what he could use.” Emerson read to “nourish and to stimulate his own thought.”
“The glance reveals what the gaze obscures,” Emerson wrote. “Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you.”
Here is an idea I love that may or may not be true:
Some books have a centripetal force— they suck you in from other books.
Some books have a centrifugal force — they spin you out to other books.
Moby-Dick, for example, is a book whose force seems to me centripetal: after being pointed to it by other books, I found myself returning to it, again and again. It sucks me in.
The Writer’s Map, on the other hand, a glorious current read of mine, is a book whose force feels centrifugal: two chapters in, and I already have a long list of books and to chase down. It spins me out.
Both kinds of books can be extremely valuable to the reader, and I don’t think one kind is necessarily better than the other. I’m also not sure that these forces are objectively observed. One reader’s centripetal book could be another’s centrifugal, and vice versa. It’s also possible that a book can both suck you in and spin you out.
This, by the way, is not an original theory of mine. I first heard it from my friend Matt Thomas, over a decade ago. “Good movies, I find, are centrifugal,” he once tweeted. “That is, they spin you out—to other movies, ideas, art, people.” He’s also tweeted that he finds Facebook centripetal (it sucks you in) and Twitter centrifugal (it spins you out).
I asked Matt where he got this idea, of media with centripetal and centrifugal forces, and he pointed me to Susan Douglas’s book about radio, Listening In. I searched the whole book and only found this reference:
“Listening, argues one researcher on perception, “is centripetal; it pulls you into the world. Looking is centrifugal; it separates you from the world.”
(This passage speaks to Murray Schafer on sound, but that’s for another blog post.)
Again, I don’t want to place a value judgment on a book based on its centripetal or centrifugal force, but I do think that a centrifugal book can be of lesser quality and still retain its value, as its value is found in the things it spins you out to.
Matt suggested to me that there’s a third category of work: the work that doesn’t spin you at all, the work that doesn’t move you in any direction, the work that barely has any force to it.
These books are to be avoided.
“We are fed by what we attend to.”
[W]hen I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
In Francis Bacon’s essay, “On Studies,” he wrote:
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
(In The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs notes that this passage isn’t about being snobby, really, it’s just about the knowledge that you won’t be able to read everything — the buffet is too big! — so sometimes you need to sample or nibble. And while we’re on the subject of eating books, I feel it’s worth noting that Alan also wrote a book called Breaking Bread With The Dead.)
In Waiting For God, Simone Weil wrote:
…as far as possible I do not read anything except for that which I am hungry in the moment, when I am hungry for it, and then I do not read… I eat.
When I was in middle school, my English teacher had us copy Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem” into our notebooks (note my misattribution):
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
Later, I found Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.There is no happiness like mine.I have been eating poetry.
In his memoir, Life Itself, Roger Ebert wrote about how he couldn’t eat any more due to his cancer treatment. He said he didn’t miss eating food as much as conversation at the dinner table.
“Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”
Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that a school in Massachusetts has banned teaching The Odyssey and other “classics.” My friend Alan Jacobs, who wrote a whole book about the importance of connecting to the past through old books (but not a defense of the classics), wrote:
My take on this is simple: It is better for a good book not to be taught at all than be taught by the people quoted in that article. Yes! — do, please, refuse to teach Shakespeare, Homer, Hawthorne, whoever. Wag your admonitory finger at them. Let them be cast aside, let them be scorned and mocked. Let them be samizdat. Let them be forbidden fruit.
They will find their readers. They always have — long, long before anyone thought to teach them in schools — and they always will.
I have this romantic vision of some young, unknown artist, somewhere, either now or in the future, binging on the forbidden fruits of our past — all the taboo books and movies you’re not supposed to read or watch or talk about because they’re not appropriate or correct or they were made by the wrong people — and stealing all the right moves from them, the stuff that other young artists won’t get exposed to because they don’t teach it in school or put it on reading lists, and mashing those good bits all together into something new that blows our minds. This artist might not even do it intentionally, but rather, out of ignorance — because they don’t know any “better,” and they don’t have anybody telling them what’s worthy of their attention. I don’t know where they’re supposed to find these materials — hopefully in a library — but maybe they’ll discover them in a trash heap like Wall-E.
It’s happened before. Ever since reading his short stories last October, I have thought a lot about Ray Bradbury, who didn’t have anybody telling him what not to read:
Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself. He read the books that he wanted to — from masterpieces to junk. Then he began to write children’s literature, which is to say, pulp science fiction and fantasy. But he mixed in elements from the realist tradition.
Then something amazing happened. In a 10-year period, Bradbury wrote seven books that changed both American literature and popular culture. They were mostly collections of short stories. Only two were true novels. In these books, for the first time in American literature, an author brought the subtlety and psychological insight of literary fiction into science fiction without losing the genre’s imaginative zest. Bradbury also crafted a particular tone, a mix of bitterness and sweetness that the genre had never seen before.
I’m thinking, too, of someone like Patricia Lockwood, one of the more original voices out there, who never went to college.
I have long felt that your own education is as much about the order in which you come into contact with things as anything else:
…it’s not just the holes, but the order you fill them in. For instance, if you read the canon straight through, from Homer to McCarthy (or whoever), how original would the connections in your mind be? Better to start with one author you love, who speaks to you, and move in every direction, backwards, forwards, sideways…the juxtapositions you see and the connections you make in your brain will be more unique.
For example: Did you know that Herman Melville didn’t read Shakespeare until he was 30 years old? That’s why we have Moby-Dick.
And now we try to teach it to 15-year-olds…
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