reading when you are crumbling

I’m not sure what to say about this year’s life as a reader. Looking back at my list, the books from the first half of the year seem so long ago—I could’ve sworn I read Mohsin Hamed’s Exit West a couple of years ago (was it even out then?) and haven’t I always been worrying about Julie Buntin’s Marlena? It’s partly that those books stuck into me and wound themselves around me in ways that feel like I’ve been carrying them forever.

But it’s also this year. This year is too long. There’s too much in it. We all joke about this—the Tuesday afternoon tweets saying “I can’t believe it’s Friday already!” But it’s not really a joke. There’s the Friday afternoon news dumps, the revelations day after day about some shocking, previously unthinkable thing happening, the radical cracking of what so many people (wrongly) thought were the safe foundations of democracy and global community. I literally had to google when the mass shooting happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida because it seemed unfathomable it was this year. (It was this year. It was Valentine’s Day 2018. The March for Our Lives was this year. All those teenagers trying to lead us into a better future, marching and working and crying and talking—all of that was this year.)

It was a too-long year for me personally, too. I started off the year exhausted and unsettled and that just got worse and worse until it all broke at the end of the summer and I figured out how to take steps to make my life into something that will feel stronger. I look at February and it feels like a lifetime ago; July was me and not-me. I spent the late summer and fall dealing with memories of sexual assault, I spent days marching and crying and tweeting all of this to the world. I made the decision to live with my emotions more out in the open, which is the opposite of my lifetime of it’s-all-totally-fine instincts. It’s not all totally fine. It’s not okay and we shouldn’t be pretending it is. And so I try to put that into action, and it means both that I have shed so many burdens but that I am also feeling raw and exposed and not entirely sure of how my emotions work.

the full list of books

books read in 2018

My reading this year was all about this turmoil. Like last year, it was hard to know what to read almost every time I started a new book. I thought briefly that I could do a lot of reading 20th-century classics I’d missed—and I longed to be reading those and got a lot of recommendations of what to read, but then in August my brain broke and I could only read easy things. Only what’s easy? If it’s easy for you, is it easy for me? At a friend’s suggestion I read Connie Willis’s All Clear books but while I couldn’t stop reading them, they also made me worry endlessly and weep in anxiety: would everything turn out okay? would everyone get to where they belong? what is home anyway?

I was prone to weeping while reading this year. I almost couldn’t see the words on the page making my way through Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing; I hope you’re already read it. If not, I highly recommend doing so, just beware. Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation is another about the struggle of making a family—an entirely different struggle than that Ward’s characters face, but equally powerfully written and tear-inducing. I didn’t cry during Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which has the most realistic depiction I’ve read of the push-pull of attachment-claustrophobia of mothering a small child, but I’m not sure why. Maybe my tears had dried up by that point?

Some of the strongest books for me were ones in which, by sheer force of will, the lead character pulls herself out of the disabling troubles from her horrible past and into a healthier future. Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black seems so innocuous at first, but don’t be fooled; it will gut-punch you. I went back and read Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy again because I wanted to see another way of handling that pattern. Both are hard to read and both end in a place that make you think healing and good things are possible and that we have the strength within us to do what we need to do.

A less traumatic version of this narrative is Heather Abel’s The Optimistic Decade. Remember Reagan and fears about nuclear arms and, if you were an ardent lefty, the despair of trying to figure out how to make people listen to you when they were so hellbent on not? Add in a teenage girl who is trying to figure out how to grow up and you’ve got a narrative about how to find optimism and activism in times when they seem impossible to reconcile with the world around you.

If I have a hope for 2019, for me and for all of us, it’s that: may we find the strength that is inside of us and bring it to the work so badly needed of repairing the world.

3 thoughts on “reading when you are crumbling

  1. Thank you for this. I always enjoy your lists. If I may ask, which translation of Don Quixote were you reading?

    1. It’s the Edith Grossman. Someone on twitter recommended it to me–was it you? I’ve never read any DQ before, so am enjoying it, though slowly…..

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