Over the past day, I’ve found myself thinking about my relationship with books. There’s a give and take implicit in choosing the word relationship. Books give me windows into other ways of thinking from cyborg Cinderella to a natural history of earthworms through a social history of the Memphis civil rights movement. Those are the books I’ve read parts of today (Cinder, The Earth Moved, and An Unseen Light if you’re interested). My interests are wide ranging; my pace is a frequent cause for comment. In return, I give books an audience. When I choose them, I give their authors’ words life. Without readers, books are bound paper. With readers, they contain multitudes.
Lately, I’ve been on a reading jag. Part of it is because I’m anxious about things that are coming up and reading is a way to occupy the parts of my brain that would otherwise go spinning off in less pleasant directions. Part of it is because I started listening to audiobooks on dog walks. We walk 5 times a week; that’s a lot of time to listen. I also find pleasure in books in a way that I don’t find in my phone. I’d rather read for an hour before bed than spend it on the internet. I sleep better that way.
I read once the kids have gone to bed. I read at work. I read in snatched moments when the kids want to be left alone to devise their own worlds without mommy’s adult brain interfering. I close the book when they ask me to play too. I strive for balance. I never want my drive to read to overwhelm my urge to actively live. I also don’t see those desires as being in conflict.
50 books have come through my life this year. They cross genres and lengths and styles. They’ve brought with them multitudes.
It’s been a year since I posted here. Despite starting a writing group (that has morphed into the lowest obligation book club imaginable), I haven’t done much writing at all. What I have been doing is reading, which has been even more reckless than usual–jumping from sociological studies of how race and class influence southern identity to YA novels that take 18 hours to finish to fiction by my personal literary heroes (Lauren Groff, I’m looking at you).
There are so many things that are about to happen. Which, as those of you with chronic anxiety know, is one of the worst states of being. That which is about to occur is so much scarier than that which is occurring. All these projects and deadlines and life events converge in September and October. I can do so little about them now, except prepare by making lists and DIYing a pickle barrel (for work–seriously). What I can do is read and sink into vast oceans of words that take the other thoughts away.
I’m beginning the draft of this post on February 22 with the hope that I will not be pregnant much longer. My girl is full term, and I would really like to bring her into this world sooner rather than later. I’m occupying some of my waiting time with reading, but mostly I spend spare moments sleeping. I wish I could bank these naps, but instead I’ll settle for getting them where I can. [UPDATE: Nope, it’s Leap Day, and I’m still pregnant. So very pregnant.]
- Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian
- So I heard this story on NPR in January about Dr. Christian, big history and education. My first thought was, “Wow, that’s exactly how our story line for the new permanent exhibits are organized.” I told my boss, and what has followed has been two months of reading, talking, philosophizing and writing about how this well-articulated paradigm melds with what we were already planning. In general terms, this method examines how natural and human history are intertwined into one larger narrative. Big history is also about asking questions along the story line and being upfront about the tentative nature of some answers. Taking a long view of the past also makes it possible to confront questions of race, gender and class within the development of larger systems. It was a geeky discovery that got us re-fired up about a project many years in the making.
- The Farm on the Roof: What the Brooklyn Grange Taught Us about Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business by Anastasia Cole Plakias
- I read this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Plakias takes her readers on an enlightening tour of what it takes to start a profitable business in an unlikely location. While the story line of the book clearly focuses on urban farming, she also lays out practical advice on beginning any type of small business. I especially appreciated that she addressed how Brooklyn Grange has changed to accommodate economic realities without losing its focus on being a 3P (people, planet and profit) enterprise deeply rooted in their local community.
- 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
- A book about jazz and difficult people and unfortunate situations. Also about family and the past and how we move forward. It was a good read.
- The Outside World by Tova Mirvis
- I loved Mirvis’ first book–The Ladies Auxiliary–so I jumped at a chance to buy this one at a book sale. Like her debut novel, The Outside World deals with questions of identity and religion. What I enjoyed most about this book is the complexity she gave her characters. She allowed everyone who was willing to change to do so. Some of them grew towards each other, others moved away. Mirvis may have set her novel within an insular Orthodox Jewish world, but her characters and their desires struck me as intrinsically true regardless of the outside worlds they inhabited.
- Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations by Stephen Weil
- This book is a solid 26 years old and features several essays about different aspects of museum work. I read it because I use some of Weil’s pieces when I teach museum studies and I wanted to see if there were any in this book that would be good for undergraduates. It was also an exercise in historiography and being a well-read professional.
For all but the last weekend of this month, it was too cold to be outside. However, it was perfect to lay my hugely pregnant self down on a couch, cover up with a blanket and escape into books.
- Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
- My LibraryThing secret Santa sent me this book, which arrived on Christmas Eve. I have done SantaThing twice, and each time my Santa has picked out a book that I never would have found on my own but that I truly enjoyed. Saunders is a phenomenal writer, and his short stories feel complete regardless of their page length. The characters are complex and have to ask and answer hard questions, frequently in disturbing circumstances.
- The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Holland
- We’re working on a new permanent exhibit about evolution, the tree of life and phylogenetics. It’s complicated and fascinating. My boss is the one doing the hard research, and I read this book so that I will be able to be a good editor as the drafting begins. Incidentally, the fact that I get to read books about evolutionary biology makes my job even better.
- Run by Ann Patchett
- Run is a novel about adoption and family secrets. I usually love Patchett’s books, but I had a difficult time getting invested in this story.
- Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
- This book was my first time reading Anna Quindlen, and I anticipate that there will be more of her books in my future. The first half of the book struck me as a cozy story about a likeable family–one that shared many similarities to my own. The second half hit me like a punch in the gut, and I stayed up way too late to see how it would end.
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
- My friend Rachel loans me young adult novels after she reads them. While I’m a fan of YA fiction, I also need to intersperse it with other genres. Rachel makes sure that the best ones she reads make their way onto my radar. The format of this novel was unusual. A teenager receives thirteen audio cassettes recorded by a classmate who recently committed suicide. The narration alternates between her voice on the tapes and his thoughts about what he is hearing. It is fantastic.
- ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins
- I received a copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. McKay Jenkins offers us a frankly horrifying look at the toxins that surround us daily. Jenkins demonstrates through exhaustive research that chemicals are an ever-present reality in our homes, offices, cleaning supplies, toys, lawns and drinking water. While the author does an exemplary job showing how the problem developed and the havoc that it can wreak on human health, there is a dearth of practical solutions to limit personal chemical exposure. He does make some suggestions, but, ultimately, the reader is left with the understanding that while there is clearly a problem, a solution is far from certain. It did make me think about where the things I buy come from and to look for product that are phthalate- and paraben-free.
- Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen
- The travel literature sub-genre makes me happy so when I found this book in my neighborhood Little Free Library, I grabbed it. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly interesting read. I am not as well read as the author so a lot of her observations about locations featured in English literature did not resonate with me. Except for 221B Baker Street. That one I got.
- The Circle by Dave Eggers
- I could not stop reading this book, and since I finished it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. If you’re familiar with Dave Eggers, you know that he is an author who makes you think about the larger implications of his stories. In The Circle, a woman begins working for a social networking company (like a mixture of Facebook and Google on crack) that is steadily taking over how people worldwide communicate, purchase goods and think. As I read, it struck me how bizarre it was that characters were giving over so much of their autonomy and sense of self to a company. Then it struck me that while the conditions Eggers established were far-fetched, the implications of where social media is taking us were not. It raises questions about privacy and memory that I believe are far from settled in our current digital age.
- Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler
- I found this one in my neighborhood Little Free Library. Frankly, I’m not ever sure of what to make of Chelsea Handler. Sometimes her material makes me laugh out loud; other times her jokes fall incredibly flat. This book was what I expected–frequently funny, always irreverent.
In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, I’m not reading as much these days. I’m in my third trimester, and everything, including reading, takes more effort. Any moment when I’m not building block towers, at the museum, supervising crayon time or cooking meals, I try to sleep. My girl is growing fast, making her momma (more) ungainly in the process.
- The Empire of Tea by Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane
- I love drinking tea. It makes cold nights more comfortable and grading papers manageable. I found this book on a discount rack and decided that it fit in well with my desire for tea, history and cheap books. Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and his mother Iris is a retired tea plantation manager’s wife, which gives them unique perspectives on the topic. Their story of tea blends together science, history and anthropology while focusing mainly on the Assam region of India. I like reading about the British Raj, but I do wish they would have spent more pages talking about the role of tea in other parts of Asia.
- Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South by G. Wayne Dowdy
- I’m rounding out the year with another book from work. As a general rule, I do not seek out political history books because I find them dull. However, another of my general operating procedures is to read as much as possible about the period I am researching. This book deals with the years 1948-1968, which falls squarely within the scope of the exhibits I am writing. Dowdy compiled good information that adds complexity to my understanding of the city during these decades. Frankly, reading this book makes Memphis’ current political climate seem downright tame.
By my rough count, I’ve read 63 books this year, not including the countless number of kids books I read aloud. It’s a respectable number–nowhere near my peak, but not too shabby when I take into account everything else that happened in 2015, which notably includes raising a toddler and growing a baby.
Part of the reason that I make it a point to read often is so that my son, and soon my daughter, can see me enjoying books. I want to raise readers. Readers can be entertained anywhere, they can explore new ideas and test theories, and I have found that they are generally interesting people who are capable of having great conversations. The best advice I have ever been given is to develop the ability to speak genuinely and intelligently with anybody about a topic that interests them. Sometimes that means knowing a lot about a subject and sometimes it just means knowing how to ask thoughtful questions. I took that advice seriously and realized that being broad in my reading choices is the best way to develop those skills. This year’s books included history, science, literary fiction, young adult novels, architecture, material culture, food, mystery, essays and memoirs. I loved some of them, worked my way through others and stopped reading a few that I just did not enjoy.
I believe that reading makes me a more interesting person. The mental space to encounter new ideas and explore old ideas in unique ways makes me a more thoughtful person. The ability to do something for myself definitely makes me a better mother.
There are a few things that I know for sure about what 2016 will bring. Our family will gain a new member and many sleepless nights. The toddler will grow faster than I realize and learn new things constantly. My children and I will read together. And I will read alone to keep a sense of myself. Because in my continually changing reality, books will remain a constant.
I love October. It’s the perfect month for getting cozy under a blanket with a book while drinking a hot mug of tea. Heavenly, actually.
- Specials by Scott Westerfeld
- Specials is the third book in Westerfeld’s Uglies series. My best friends and I have a thing for young adult dystopian literature, and we pass series among ourselves as we discover them. It’s our thing, and the fact that we are squarely in the realm of “adults” now does little to dissuade us. I enjoyed reading the rest of Tally’s story, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the fourth book just as much.
- A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash
- And here we have another book that I read at the museum. One of the gallery redesigns that I am working on is about Memphis street life from 1915-1930. The background for this period is squarely found in the Memphis race riots of May 1866 and the Radical Reconstruction decade that followed (as well as the yellow fever epidemic). I knew the riots happened and that they were important in the city’s history, but I didn’t realize how much the issue of whiteness–who was and wasn’t white–came into play. Several members of the mob who attacked the black population were Irish, and Ash does an excellent job teasing out why that matters. If you like local history or are interested in Reconstruction, this book is an excellent addition to the historiography.
- Seriously, You Have to Eat by Adam Mansbach
- I received this children’s book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Mansbach writes what many parents find themselves saying on a daily basis. The humorous take on a regular frustration was welcome, and my toddler enjoyed hearing the book read. Some of the rhymes are forced, but I enjoyed the spirit of the book nonetheless.
- Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
- I found this short collection of essays in my neighborhood Little Free Library. The one I liked the most was about “compulsive proofreading,” which I am guilty of doing. It’s partially an occupational hazard and mostly because I like catching written mistakes. Her reflections on books and reading also reminded me of the importance of being unashamed of your literary choices. Eclectic reading habits make for interesting readers.
- Architecture: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Ballantyne
- Another read for the museum. I’m working on panels about the mansion’s architecture and found myself in need of a very short primer.
- A Widow for One Year by John Irving
- John Irving is an interesting writer. I always know that a twist is coming, but his genius lies in not letting you know when it is going to happen or how completely you will have been misled.
- Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
- Rowell is the author I am most excited to have found this year. Her stories are fun and well written without trying to hard. This book was about wizards and gave me some Hogwarts nostalgia while being completely its own universe and story. What’s not to like?