2014 was the year I re-discovered reading just for the delight of reading. I finally began to think of books as whole experiences — tied to my mood and life circumstance — rather than just tasks that need to be fulfilled. For years, particularly while I was working full-time, I thought of books as just objects that served a very specific utility: the acquisition of knowledge.
In November of last year, I had my son, Leo, and everything (and I mean everything!) changed. I decided to take a year off (that didn’t go very well, but I digress) to care for him. In between managing impending breakdowns, food fights, and scooping up lots and lots of poop, I managed to get quite a lot of reading done. Often, I would just put Leo on the sling, pick up whichever book I was reading, and read out loud. I believe this practice not only kept my sanity, but also turned my son into a feminist (I read a lot of amazing feminist work).
Anyway, these are my favourite reads of the year, in no particular order:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Jay Fowler
This book is perfect. A funny, irreverent, and kind narrator you’ll want to listen to all day, every day. Can’t say much about the story without giving the twist away. The experience of reading this book was difficult and enjoyable all at the same time — I could relate to it in so many ways, often not in the best.
It exploded in my chest.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
I’m not surprised I read this book without a pause. It was funny, as you would expect, but it was also thoughtful and, at many points, heartbreakingly sad. I wish I could have read this book when I was 12 and struggling to understand what being a “girl” even meant.
I guess one thing that really stuck out for me was Dunham’s description of her struggles with anxiety and panic. Just drives home the point that you can do big and important things even when you’re feeling anxious.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Not technically a book, but the text version of a talk the author gave at TEDxEuston in London. I would consider this necessary reading (or listening) for anybody, but particularly parents (of kids of either gender, not just girls!). In this story, Ngozi Adichie writes about how destructive — and limiting — the idea of gender is. It dictates how you should be rather than honour what you are. I couldn’t agree more.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
If I had to pick 1 favourite, it would certainly be this one. It is, obviously, hilarious. But it’s also so useful, and honest, and often sad. I see myself going back to this book over and over again throughout my life.
There’s one particular essay on motherhood that is absolutely brilliant. As a new working mum, I find I that I not only doubt my choices, but also unfavourably compare them to those of other mums. Poehler has a great saying for this: “Good for her. Not for me.”
Another bit I can’t stop thinking about is something she writes about success and creativity. She talks about how it’s hard work and not hard talk that gets you anywhere (“Talking about the thing is not the thing. Doing the thing is the thing,” she writes), but being creative isn’t about wanting things badly, it’s about ambivalence. It’s about doing the work because you enjoy it, not in search of getting anywhere in particular. The moment people see how bad you want it, she says, they don’t want to give it to you. So true.
Honestly, I love this book.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
A phenomenal story of writing, success, lies, anger. I already love Meg Wolitzer, and this gorgeous book only heightened my love for her. It’s a wonderful look into the “role” of a wife, what culture says it should be, and, in my opinion, how to smash it. It captured me from the moment I began to read it:
“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”
This woman was born to write.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A friend suggested I read this book and, honestly, I can demarcate my life before I read it, and after. I was infatuated with the book’s main characters, the smart, funny, witty and strong-willed Ifemelu, and her kind, quiet and confident high school boyfriend, Obinze. Ifemelu emigrates from Nigeria to the United States, leaving Obinze behind. In the US, she starts and writes a successful blog about race from the perspective of a “Non American Black.” Obinze moves to England, and later back to Nigeria, where Ifemelu also ends up. It’s a fascinating love story full of real, complex and loveable characters who wrestle with race, immigration, sex, gender, and depression.
Adichie is a phenomenal writer with an enviable ability to not only observe what most don’t see, but also communicate it in such a stunningly clear way.
The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
Read this without a pause while my son had an epic four and half hour nap. A book of essays written by a psychoanalyst, all based on real patients whose stories haunted me for months.
There’s one particular story in there that I really, really loved. The essay, titled “How can praise can cause a loss of confidence,” is about how, while well meaning, parents should not praise their child’s ability:
“Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?”
I’ve read about this idea several times already (here’s a good piece from the New Yorker), so it seems to thankfully be gaining lots of ground. The book on it (which I read and liked) is called Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, written by the psychologist leading this research, Carol S. Dweck.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I can’t handle how good this book is.
I won’t be able to find words to describe just how beautifully written it is — so vivid you often feel like you’re there, watching everything that happened to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
It radically changed the way I think about ingenuity, bravery, hard work and companionship. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about this book and what I learned from it. Gist: creativity is about being courageous.
I love you, Patti Smith.
Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace
If I could meet anybody, it would be David Foster Wallace. The world is much poorer without him in it.
He’s written so many things I’ve fallen in love with it. But this is one I can recite from memory:
“…Our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home … That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward — we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.”
There are so many great essays in this book, but my favourite is “Consider the Lobster,” which you can actually read here.
This one also reminded me of a gem I fell in love with last year, Jonathan Franzen’s book of essays, Farther Away. There are two excellent and very touching essays about David Foster Wallace, one in particular about his suicide. It also contains one of my favourite essays ever, an epic commencement speech Franzen gave at Kenyon College about why pain won’t kill you. I go back to it over and over again.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
I’m super late to this party, I know. I’d read and loved Zadie Smith’s short stories so I decided to take the plunge and try White Teeth. I don’t know what I loved more, the story or its telling. It’s a wonderful tale about being an immigrant, race, love, and, at least to me, how perspectives and characteristics are passed down from generation to generation.
And here’s another piece— by the same author — which I can’t stop thinking about: “Storytelling Is A Magical, Ruthless Discipline.” It’s actually a speech, which you can watch here. The bit where she relays how her ability to see stories everywhere heightened once she had children really spoke to me, considering I have been reading, and very much enjoying, several children’s books every day:
“For the first time since childhood I am back in the realm of stories and storybooks — three stories read out loud to a four year old, every night, on pain of death — and this practice has reawakened in me something I thought I’d misplaced a long time ago, on book tour, perhaps, or in the back row of a university lecture hall. This feeling of narrative possibility and wonder — this idea that every person is a world.”
She is a phenomenal woman.
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
I can’t live without this book. I read it several times this year and I quote it like crazy. Each little chapter begins with a rule (my favourite, “Write the book you want to read”) and then goes through some ideas about creativity which run totally counter to everything you’ve ever heard.
One major lesson I took from it is about where inspiration comes from. Kleon suggests that creativity, of course, comes from stealing. It emerges from trying to adopt the way your heroes see the world. But because of our inability, as human beings, to make perfect copies, we fail in our imitation of our idols. But it’s within that shortcoming — somewhere in the gap between us and them — that we find our own thing.
Kleon quotes Conan O’Brien:
“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
He recommends you pick a few people you admire (earlier this year, I chose David Foster Wallace, Picasso, Ira Glass, Zadie Smith, and Patti Smith). You read things by them and about them, then you choose people they admire. Slowly and over time, you build a sort of creativity family tree, with all of these amazing people as branches. Soon, Kleon says, you can start fashionion your own little branch.
I have this particular page etched in my mind.
So amazing. Read it now. Trust me.
Here’s a virtual book shelf of everything I’ve read and am reading.