Back in June, I posted the first half of this year’s ‘best of’ reading list, and now that 2017 is coming to a close, I think it’s a good time to post the second half. As I wrote in a recent post, these lists are by no means full of ‘must reads.’ If you try one of these and don’t like it, put it down! My only hope with my book lists is to point the way to some books that (in my opinion) are well worth the read for those who actually want to read them. So with that, I give you my favorite books from the latter half of 2017.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum
A collection of sixteen essays by sixteen writers on why they have remained childless in their lives, it was not at all redundant. Some I could relate to more than others, but mostly I was just thankful to be reading about people like me— people who are the weird ones in the room anytime the topic of having children comes up, people who have to face the pressure and disappointment of almost everyone for a choice we made as we go about our lives. I found it heartening.
“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe. But when I looked around, from what I could tell, this could have been said of a lot of people. It was not that I thought most people were bound to make terrible parents, only that the group that would make ideal parents was surprisingly small—especially given that those who chose to have children far outnumbered those who did not.”
“Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal—and I believe it is—perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity.”
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
Sarton kept this journal over the course of a year while living in the countryside of New Hampshire. She follows the natural seasons and also the changes in her mood and emotional life. Flowers and animals affect her, mostly for the positive, and human interactions often drain her. I felt so connected with her writing– it was the type of journal I keep, much more internal than external. I felt in her a kindred spirit, and I appreciated her honesty about people and solitude/loneliness. (It has to mean something– this I learned after I had read and loved this book– that she and I share a birthday, as well…)
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange– that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'”
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson
Based on a college course Nelson teaches, this book covers various forms of art, artists, and art pieces/performances that allude to or invoke cruelty in some way. It had my mind going so much– I loved how unsure it made me of my own thoughts and inclinations. Is it ok to agree with that quote? Is it bad to disagree? She would present these ideas and opinions of others and then come at them from a completely different angle. It’s how I want to think and see things.
“It is unnerving to realize how much one’s compass or tastes can shift throughout a lifetime, how one’s sense of “okayness” is contingent on a host of factors, including the simple question of whether one is experiencing something for the first or the second time, not to mention the twentieth.”
“So long as we exalt artists as beautiful liars or as the world’s most profound truth-tellers, we remain locked in a moralistic paradigm that doesn’t even begin to engage art’s most exciting provinces.
By virtue of its being multiply sourced, art cannot help but offer up multiple truths. […] Worse still, because of its episodic nature, art offers the passing impression of truth, without the promise that the truth revealed will have any lasting power. For however powerful any given artistic truth might seem, a new, contradictory, or at least adumbrating truth might appear in the next instant, the next installment, the next frame, the next line, the next chapter, the next canvas.”
Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott
Does Anne Lamott ever disappoint? In this book, she covers the familiar topics: grace, living through the difficult moments, surrounding yourself with people who are honest yet loving and humorous. This book was small, but it was good. I copied lines from almost every page into my notes. There were stories from her life I hadn’t read before, and everything she wrote about mercy resonated with how I want to live my life (just as her problems with it resonated with my own flaws and difficulties).
“This is the greatest mercy I know, a loved one hearing and nodding, even if over the phone. Thomas Merton said, ‘No matter how low you may have fallen in your own esteem, bear in mind that if you delve deeply into yourself you will discover holiness there.’ But this is not my experience. I find silt and mental problems. My only hope is to delve deeply into a friend.”
Nothing Twice: Selected Poems by Wislawa Szymborska
This was Szymborska’s first collection of poetry that I actually liked. I highlighted several lines, like this one: ‘Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different. Or a little bit different– which is to say, completely different.’ She is cheeky and clever while appearing naive and simple. I appreciate her commentary on the state of things that is always laced with humor.
“Life, however long, will always be short.
Too short for anything to be added.”
but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like to a redemptive handrail.”
The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí by Salvador Dalí
Dalí reveals and confesses to his own megalomania in the introduction, and the rest of the book supports it– but somehow that only endeared him to me. He was ever only entirely himself: antagonistic, alone, experimental, exhibitionist, honest, obsessed, and in love with his wife, Gala. Even how he would always add ‘my best friend’ whenever talking about ‘Mademoiselle Chanel’ was adorable to me. He was against -isms of all kinds, politics in every vein, and being part of a group. I know I’m not like him in most ways, but I do want to be more like him in certain ways, such as thinking for myself at all costs and doing life in my own way no matter what anyone says. (I came to love him so much that I went on to read his Diary of a Genius and even his cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala.)
“In this book I want to dissect one and only one person— myself!— and this living dissection of myself I am performing, not through sadism, or through masochism. I do so through narcissism.”
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
A book in praise of reading and of the effort of returning to reading after drifting away, it spoke to me on so many levels: as a lifelong book-lover; as one who reads quickly rather than slowly, as I should; as one who also believes in reading by Whim rather than by plan or force or status or ‘ought.’ I loved it so much that I wrote a post about it here. I just want to hand the insights and encouragements inside this little book to everyone.
“Thus Rudyard Kipling: ‘One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.’
In such a context of friendship and mutual interest, the making of recommendations is a pleasure. Outside of that, it quickly becomes an onerous (and perhaps pointless) duty, and I don’t like mixing reading with onerous duties. Moreover, in many cases these requests have little to do with actually reading anything, but rather with having read— with the desire to say, ‘Yes, now I can check that one off.'”
“…we should not underestimate what can be accomplished by those who are willing to read more slowly and with greater care.”
Dancer by Colum McCann
This is a novel about the famous (and infamous) Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from Communist Russia to dance around the world and who died at the age of 54 in 1993 from AIDS-related complications. He was beautiful, volatile, charming, mean, hard-working, and hard-playing. Just like he did in Let the Great World Spin, McCann wrote from different characters’ perspectives and voices to tell the story (and the different, but connected, substories). As someone inexplicably fascinated by both ballet and Russia, I was easily drawn into this book.
“Perhaps, then, you should forget everything I have said to you and remember only this: The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur.”
How to Think by Alan Jacobs
This is a relatively small book, but it is filled with so much goodness. It is all about thinking well, which includes being skeptical of your own positions and generous with others, being wary of the pull of the Inner Ring rather than the inclusion of true membership, and resisting reliance on myths/metaphors/trigger words that do the intellectual heavy-lifting for you. There was so much more than that, and I think that everyone who leans in any direction politically/philosophically/religiously would do well to keep the insights in this book in mind during any and every interaction. (It inspired a post I recently wrote here.)
“In particular I’m going to argue that we go astray when we think of our task primarily as “overcoming bias.” For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?”
“The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.”
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
For such a slim volume, it took me so long to finish, mostly because I had to stop at least once per page– and often more than that– to write out an excerpt into my notes. The Stoic principles outlined in every point (the book is basically several lists of life advice the author felt were important to make note of) reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, both in how they are written and what they say. True to the book’s name, these principles are truly worth meditating on and incorporating into daily life: not to be bothered by what happens, to remain kindly disposed to even those who act poorly and do wrong, to examine myself first (and continuously) before examining others. (I compiled the excerpts I really liked in posts on change, facing death, guarding our thoughts, and equanimity.)
“Judge every word and deed that are naturally fit for you, and do not be diverted by words of blame or criticism; if it is good to do or say something, do not consider it unworthy of yourself. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; ignore them and go straight on, following your own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.”
“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”
“It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.”
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
I bought this years ago– maybe even in high school– but put off reading it until now, when I expected to find it terribly written and to finally have an excuse to get rid of it. But I was charmed into rethinking my position: this was actually a hilarious, endearing memoir of an independent-spirited little sprite of a kid and her relationships to the residents in her small hometown (population: 300) of Mooreland, Indiana. Every story was captivating in its own way, and while I’m so glad I decided to pick it up after procrastinating for so long, I’m a little sad I didn’t pick it up earlier.
“I had to lie straight down in the dirt. Oh, my god. This explained so many things. I couldn’t think of any right offhand, but I knew my life was about to become tragically clearer to me.”
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi