Reading makes me feel alive. Earlier today I looked over the books I’ve read this year and while it was nice to mentally revisit many of them, what I noticed most was how few there actually were and that since November, I hadn’t actually finished a single book. Ali Smith’s Artful is the last book I read start to finish. (It’s excellent, by the way—delicate, clever, surprising.) Overall, I read far fewer books in 2016 compared to other recent years and wish that weren’t so. But there it is.
Luckily, my list of essays and short stories this month has done what I’d hoped it would do—I’m reading again. Indiscriminately, messily, chaotically. All kinds of writers, essays and stories from different decades, even centuries. It’s marvelous and has my brain moving in all sorts of directions. A welcome relief from the news cycle.
I mentioned Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water” in my last post and I doubt anything else I read this month will compare, but several of the essays/stories have been excellent. Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) is a discovery. How have I never read her before? Her essay “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” made me laugh out loud (her descriptions of people are a delight) but it also had me cringing (her honesty about the human thrill for violence); I will be looking for more of her work. And “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was fascinating—two writers, one male, one female, and the dynamic between them. Writerly ambitions, public reception, poverty, etc. It definitely made me curious to read more of her work, of which there is plenty. I found this last story in a collection called Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. An inspiring secondhand bookshop find.
Yesterday I read James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” This comes from his collection published in the early 1960s, and while the essay is devastatingly good, it’s also depressing. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it feels as though only the specific details he uses to make his point have changed. America is still a deeply divided country and the same tools are used to maintain the affluence of a few at the expense of the many. Reading Baldwin is a pure pleasure, though. His non-fiction is as vibrant and animated as his fiction.
I’m also now reading three different books: Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (Ivan Morris translation) and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’m surprised to be reading so much non-fiction as I don’t usually gravitate in this direction, but these three books are wonderful to dip in and out of, and they couldn’t be more different. An example of three books most decidedly NOT speaking to each other, which suits me fine right now.
Skyfaring is a distraction, but an intriguing and entertaining one. A way to look at the world from a different perspective, and one I will never personally experience. Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot with an unmistakable passion for flying. He writes about what it’s like to crisscross the world at such a great height, and he writes gracefully.
The Pillow Book is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels quaint and archaic, because it is, but it is also fragmented and eccentric in a very modern way. Shonagon is wickedly funny in terms of telling stories and relating “court” life, but she’s also quietly attentive to nature, to people, to life. Her lists are a delight:
30. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past
Dried hollyhock. the objects used during the Display of the Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.
It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.
Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.
Her lists of Hateful Things or Depressing Things are genuinely funny. But she also writes about events or meetings, conversations and anecdotes. There is something silly and superficial about her book—in its discussions of court life and good manners and the like—but it has a serious heart and she is wonderfully sharp in her observations, poetic in her approach.
Finally, I will finish Gillian Rose’s collection of essays Love’s Work this evening and write more about it later. It is fierce. I love it.