If, like me, you have a voice in your head that tells you off for paying attention to your own life, for saving boarding passes and scribbled-upon napkins, for stopping to write love letters in the sand, ignore it.
Happiness and creativity depend on valuing our lives. They depend on listening, watching, recording, remembering. It is easy to envy other people’s lives — so exciting! Such superior children/holidays/houses/jobs/wardrobes/sex lives! Such a torrent of fabulous Instagram photos and witty Facebook status updates. We get so caught up peering through the virtual window of our neighbours’ lives we forget to look at our own. We don’t see the pathos, adventure, and pleasure of our own existence because we’re not looking.
Two years ago I started a keeping a list of all the books I read. It seemed like a self-indulgent tic indicative of an unhealthy level of ego. Or, worse, a pointless exercise (who cares?) My delight in list-making narrowly trumped these niggles. Now a blue virtual post-it on my home screen contains a list of all the books I read in 2016.
The list reminds me not only what I’ve read, but how I read. It is a snapshot of the ebb and flow of time and energy. January 2016 was a book-heavy month, gobbling up a glut of Christmas goodies and biding a lot of time until my second date with the soon-to-be boyfriend. February was a respectable showing. March, the month I spent between London, Dominican Republic and Brussels, I read almost nothing. The next two months were spent in a miserable, unsuccessful attempt to assimilate into a receptionist job at an overrated luxury agrotourismo in Ibiza — it was bad enough I only read a book and a half. Finishing Anna Karenina took me through June. The rest of the year I read in fits and starts. What jumped out, reviewing the list, was how many books I reread. And, with the exception of High Tide in Tucson and Jane Eyre, not just for the second time.
Looking over my top ten rereads reminds me what I value and crave. The books on this list all offer, directly or through illustration, wisdom and encouragement to those trying hard to live by their own lights. From the esoteric musings of the Glass siblings to the tough-love advice of Cheryl Strayed, each book is, in its own way, a tonic. They were rocks in the fast-moving stream of a year where everything changed, stepping stones to a new life.
The summer I was 15 I lived with my older sister and worked at Wendy’s. Every day on my break I hunkered down in store cupboard and read Franny & Zooey. To this day I’m not sure where I got the book, or why it grabbed me. What I do know is I’ve read it somewhere between 30-50 times, can quote entire sections of it verbatim, and reread it at least twice a year. In part it’s the reflection of myself I see in Zooey who says “I’m sick to death of waking up furious every morning and going to bed furious at night”, an echo of my relationship with my siblings in the narrator’s aside that the Glass siblings share a “semantic geometry where the shortest distance between two points is a fullish circle”, or descriptions like, “the Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table in Monte Carlo.” In part, because the wildly verbose, witty, strangely timeless sentences still reveal new flashes of character. The narrator says it is a “compound or multiple love story, pure and complicated” which is a fine description of the writing, too.
Ostensibly a book about writing, Bird by Bird is a wise, funny, heart-rending guide to living life when you don’t fit in a box. The combination of Lamott’s acerbic yet self-deprecating turns of phrase coupled with her palpable compassion is almost unbearable. I cry every time I read it, even though I’ve read it so many times I well up in anticipation. It makes me want to walk around hugging everyone and at the same time makes me want to be a blazing good writer. Every chapter is a gem, but “Jealousy” and “KFKD” are maybe the best things you’ll ever read on, respectively, the eponymous emotion and self-doubt. And her advice about avoiding libel charges is hilarious, priceless, and involves the memorable comparison of a penis to a baby bird in its nest.
This I plucked off a library shelf in Tigard, OR on the strength of the fact that Lady Gaga has a Rilke quote tattooed on her upper arm — it reads in part, “confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write”. The line, it transpires, is from Letters To A Young Poet which is so rich in exquisitely worded wisdom it flays me. Rilke’s advice on sex, solitude, and seeking ones calling is so incisive it takes my breath away. And, as a poet, he makes every word count, crafting artful sentences that blow my mind on both a philosophical and aesthetic basis. I love it so much, I read it aloud and sent the recording as a gift to a friend.
Woolf’s trenchent analysis of what women writers need is as relevant today as when she delivered the lectures from which it was drawn in 1928. We may have “come a long way, baby” but women are still underpaid, overworked, and too often cut off from the privileges that enrich men’s prospects. Sexism may not be as crude as the beadle who ordered her out of the Oxford library, but it thrives in a thousand insidious ways that women internalise or ignore at their own risk. I also love Woolf’s dazzling prose, which gave us, “one can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
This collection of Strayed’s advice columns written for The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar column breaks my heart wide open. I’m sobbing by the time I get through the second or third letter, whichever it is that is from the women who suffered a late-term miscarriage. It is hard to put my finger exactly on what it is about Tiny Beautiful Things that makes me gasp. Mostly, it’s Strayed’s unflinching willingness to examine the hardest things in her own life. She doesn’t rush through awfulness, or glide past suffering, she stays, unafraid to study it and claim who and what she is in the wake of it. This solipsism is unexpectedly comforting. By inhabiting and sharing her experience she makes it okay to inhabit and unpick my experience. Line by line, she demonstrates the potential for growth and change in every life. If one is willing to embrace an almost Stoic determination to live well by doing what’s right.
In 2015 I committed to memorising a poem per month, and did. Not all of them have remained word-perfect in my head, but it was an incredible experience with language. When you learn something by heart, you discover things. Cadence, repetition, punctuation, imagery all become vivid in an unpredictable way. I didn’t set out to memorise poetry in 2016 but I read a lot of it — including fantastic collections by Jack Gilbert and CP Cavafy. My favourite reread, though, was this slender chapbook by an Oregon writer. She lost her husband to an unexpected heart attack when she was in her 30s with two young children and the grief of that loss reverberates through Endurance. These are poems about learning to live with the worst case, not with resignation but with courage and, ultimately, joy. It’s another one I can’t make it through without tears, but they’re cathartic.
Of all the my rereads, this was the most fun because it was so different from my memory of it. I must have been 12 or 13 when I read Jane Eyre and I was bored witless. Years later, I read Wuthering Heights and hated it, confirming my prejudice against their weird, masochistic and wildly overrated Brontë sisters. Then on a whim I read Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and liked it. And somewhere I heard that Jane Eyre was feminist. So I gave it another shot and fell in love. Bold feminism plus a terrific yarn? Brilliant.
I reread at least one or two of Goldberg’s books each year. Most often Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind, but this time I went for The Long Quiet Highway which is mostly about her study of Zen Buddhism over the years. Which of course means it is about writing, being, meaning, truth, acceptance, and everything else that matters. Writing is Zen; Zen is writing. Whatever we do is meditation if we allow it to be. The subtitle is Waking Up in America which is nearly what I named this blog because that’s what I’m trying to do: wake up in a country I left 16 years ago; figure out what it means to be me in America in 2017, and how to do something good here.
Treasure Island has been a staple of my literary diet since I was 15 or so. I was a precocious reader, but not above devouring whatever I could get my hands on, and this yarn of seafaring and daring-do always hit the spot. Years later, when I moved to Ibiza, I started to think of it as treasure island — a supposed paradise guarded by dead men’s bones and half-crazed exiles. Overly dramatic personal parallels aside, it is a fantastically fun book and an excellent template for writers looking to craft a fast-paced, unforgettable story.
Kingsolver is the most recent addition to my personal pantheon of southern American writers (Carson McCullers, Hunter S Thompson, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, etc etc) and possibly the one I’d Most Like To Meet. Writing implacably reveals character and every word I’ve read of Kingsolver makes me think she is a Good Person, smart as hell, and cracking company on a night out. Her fiction boggles me and this book of essays is one of the finest, sharpest, most humane collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The title essay alone is worth the price of admission; Buster the stranded hermit crab may change your life.
What were your favourite rereads of 2016? Share in the comments or tweet @CilaWarncke