01 // Books Will Save You: Reflections On 2016, and What I Read

2016 was full of upheaval for everyone

At the macro scale, we saw the rise to power of president-elect Trump and his merry band of billionaires. Brexit happened, if only on paper. War in Syria continues, on the ground. The refugee crisis in Europe dominated headlines, then faded like newsprint left too long in the sun. David Bowie died; so did Zaha Hadid, Gwen Ifill, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, Janet Reno, Franca Sozzani, and many more whom I consider true influencers - public figures who shaped my, and many others', concept of the world.

At the micro scale, my 2016 was momentous. I left Austin, began working in Los Angeles, won a fellowship and admission to graduate schools, finished my thesis, graduated in absentia in May, fell in love with the beach and life in LA, escaped to the woods and mountains of Northern California, rejoined academia in September, fell seriously ill, and managed to make it to the holidays - and back to the beach - in one piece, however bedraggled. 

2016 was anything but constant. So it's not surprising that I've developed a deep-seated need for self-discipline, routine, and tradition - creating constancy in my self, since it has been so lacking in my surroundings. And it's even less surprising that in the tumult of moving, graduating, and tentatively entering the adult world, I turned to books for wisdom, comfort, and old-fashioned escapism.  

Curious about my own reading habits (meta-curious?), I started keeping a reading log. It's nothing fancy -- a simple Google Form that populates an equally simple spreadsheet. Absent from the list are the legions of long-form articles I've read, though I've decided to start tracking those too.

I have no strong religious tradition, but my fervor for introspection approaches the rapturous around New Year's. So I'm sharing my complete reading list here - plus a brief analysis, picks and pans, and my 2017 reading resolutions.

Read in 2016

Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante
The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante
The Shepherd's Life, James Rebanks
Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Shrill - Notes From a Loud Woman, Lindy West
The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros
Dear Mr. You, Mary Louise Parker
The Red Notebook, Paul Auster
The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
Essays, E.B. White
Missing Men - A Memoir, Joyce Johnson
Barbarian Days, William Finnegan


White, Western authors dominated my 2016 reading. My list was well balanced in terms of author gender. Nonfiction, including memoirs and essays, seemed more appealing last year; my life changed in many and real ways, and one way I learned to handle those changes was to read about how others had done so.


Essays, E.B. White

I read White's essays over a few days in late September, in the stillness of Northern California's redwood forests, where I was camping with two good friends. In the late afternoons, pleasantly worn out by a day of hiking, we would get our chips and salsa from the bear-proof container and our books from our tents, and sprawl in utter contentment on benches and in hammocks, with an hour or two to while away before we needed to build a fire.

This may have been the ideal setting to read White; he is so distinctively engaged in his world - whether New York or the farm - that I was inspired to pay even closer attention to my own environment, to appreciate all that was going on around me. My favorites of the essays included in this collection are The Years of Wonder and The Geese.

Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Solnit's essays are essential reading, especially in the age of President-elect Trump and the larger societal trends that he represents. Start with the titular one, Men Explain Things to Me, reprinted at Guernica and excerpted below. I guarantee that you won't be able to stop. 

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless–for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.

Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

I am fascinated by how people do what they do - from how they think about their work to the minute details of their days. Anne Lamott offers insight into both in this writers' manual, all in a voice filled with warmth and authority and that particular crinkly-eyed quality of an old friend. I'm not a person who usually finds great meaning in quotes, but the following one has haunted me since I first read it.

You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward.

The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery

The central question of Montgomery's book is how to understand an intelligence - that of the octopus - so alien to our own. Her scientific approach to octopuses struck me in particular: she considers and writes about her emotional responses to the mollusks alongside other indicators, rather than disregarding or omitting them. Also great for the fun fact that the correct plural form of octopus is octopuses, not octopi; Montgomery explains that as the word comes from Greek, the Latin suffix -i is not appropriate.


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
My unbridled passion for the beach has never extended to surfing, so perhaps I was not the target audience for Finnegan's admittedly surf-centric memoir. Nevertheless, how a book so desperately in need of good editing could win its author a Pulitzer Prize eludes me.

The first third of the 450-page tome, covering Finnegan's youth, hums along nicely. The wheels come off as Finnegan ages and stops paying attention to people, even the ones who seem most significant to him - partners in surfing and in life. As Dwight Garner wrote in his New York Times review,

“Barbarian Days” reminds you, though, that not being able to find fault with something isn’t the same as loving it. This is a very long book with excellent things in it, but it can be like watching a brooding film that’s mostly fine cinematography. The characters (including Mr. Finnegan) only rarely squeak to life. 

Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, Lindy West
I found that West's essays were more exposition than an attempt to understand. This is perhaps because in writing them, West was trying to make others understand, not understand things for herself, which is the origin and end point of a good essay to me. I bristled at the Guardian reviewer who criticized West's and other collections as artless self-exposure rather than feminist writing, but I now find myself in agreement. Contrast with Rebecca Solnit's collection Men Explain Things to Me.

I doubt 2017 will prove any less of an adventure. Luckily, by taking note of interesting titles from reviews and recommendations, I'm already equipped with a provisional list of books to keep me company along the way. 

To Read in 2017

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimar McBride
The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
Future Sex, Emily Witt
The Tusk That Did the Damage, Tania James
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf
Measures of Expatriation, Vahni Capildeo
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Ice Diaries - An Antarctic Memoir, Jean McNeil
For Two Thousand Years, Mihail Sebastian
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams
Upstream, Mary Oliver
Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich
Selection Day, Aravind Adiga
The Way to the Spring - Life and Death in Palestine, Ben Ehrenreich