Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Horizon, by Barry Lopez

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In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China.

Many of these expeditions are scientific endeavors, where he has joined a team of archeologists to excavate the site of a long-gone indigenous peoples or scientists measuring boreal (ocean bottom) life or another team measuring glacier movement. Sometimes he ventures out for other reasons, such as revisiting the Galápagos Islands or tracing the route of Shackleton’s open-boat journey to Elephant Island.

He weaves in stories of explorers and adventurers, the well-known such as Cook, Darwin, Scott, and the lesser-known such as Ranald MacDonald, Edward Wilson, Lt. Adolphus Greeley. He taps poets, writers, and philosophers for insights and connections.

I’ve taken my time reading this book. It’s so rich! I’ve gone back and reread sections, or paused for a few days to consider what I’ve just read. More than once I’ve picked it up to find him addressing something that was on my mind, as in this paragraph from the section in Antarctica. I had been thinking about various lifespans, and in particular that of rocks.

I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance.

The science is easy to follow, the descriptions gorgeous. Lopez depicts not only the natural world, but the human cultures that have come and gone upon it. What stands out for me is the unhurried accumulation of insights building one upon another, like a coral reef, to create an ethical framework, a structure that can hold the eager quest for knowledge of scientists, the adventurousness of explorers, the communities that care for each other and also the atrocities visited upon innocent people, cultures deliberately or accidentally wiped out, chemical waste dumped in cities and towns.

What are we to make of our current societies, where the drive for profit pushes technology without regard for consequences, where science is undermined by for-profit businesses and their government lackeys? There was much that was wrong in earlier centuries, earlier societies, but can we draw any lessons that could help us today? What is being lost as human cultures and species are obliterated, as glaciers melt into the sea?

And then we set that against the generosity of those who have sought to advance our knowledge, those who have labored to save the remnants of the past, those who have devoted themselves to conserving this world that we have so damaged, of Oates walking out into the night, of Shackleton’s determination to save every one of his crew.

Lopez’s accounts embody the respect for other cultures that many people today strive for. The cultures he explores—especially the lost indigenous cultures like the Thule of the Arctic, the Kaweskar of southern Chile—remind me of the long arc of human history, the coming and going of peoples. One insight I found particularly helpful was about communicating with “members of a culture that had experienced the brutal force of colonial intrusion. I knew the only right gift to offer people in these situations is to listen, to be attentive.”

The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings. I will be reading and rereading this book for years to come.

Have you read a book that increased your knowledge of the natural world and challenged your philosophies?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of DuBois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to DuBois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what DuBois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by DuBois? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.

The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte

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Whyte is an English poet who has brought poetry to the corporate world to nurture the creativity needed in today’s fast-paced markets. I enjoyed his later book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, which I read as I entered retirement. This early (1994) book, subtitled Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, lays out his premise for combining the two worlds.

The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation. The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter.

He speaks of “a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that might be [italics the author’s].”

Failure is not only an option; it’s a necessary part of an honest life. If we are too busy being invisible, hiding our true selves in fear of ridicule or a false step, then we are not bringing our full capability to our work.

Using stories, myths, and poetry to illustrate the path, Whyte brings new meaning to even well-known lines. He uses imagery of swords and starlings, of fire and—yes—a fish to awaken our imagination and draw us in. Whyte asks us to bring our soul’s journey into our day-to-day work life.

Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience of the world. Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door.

This is no how-to book with a checklist of easy steps. It is an exploration of the complex ecology of our own self and our place in the world. It asks us to hold contradictory ideas and goals, to find our own balance.

Instead of giving answers, Whyte asks questions, including many in the User’s Guide at the end of the book. For me, an inveterate manager, one of the most challenging asks what would it be like to fully experience your life instead of trying to manage it?

I’ve also enjoyed his poetry in collections such as The House of Belonging, with the overlap between his prose and poetry increasing my appreciation for both.

Although I no longer work in the corporate world, I found much here that is still relevant to my work as a writer. I would love to pull together a study group to work through the ideas in this book.

What book have you read that has posed intriguing and compelling questions for you?

“The Tower”, by Andrew O’Hagan

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I subscribed to the London Review of Books for the book reviews. I liked that they were longer than the couple of paragraphs usually allotted to a book review, and that they often placed the book in the context of the author’s oeuvre. Sometimes the long-form reviews told too much of the story, but that wasn’t a deterrence if I was truly interested in the book. I also became adept at skipping over those parts.

Over the couple of decades I’ve been reading the LRB, I’ve been a little dismayed at the increasing number of political essays they’ve been including. Sometimes I skip over them, but others have been useful in delivering in-depth portraits and histories of what is going on in the rest of the world, sadly neglected these days in U.S. news sources.

Still, I was surprised to find that an entire issue (Volume 40, Number 11, 7 June 2018) was devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’d heard of the fire, of course. Managed by the local council, London’s Grenfell Tower provided high-rise low-income housing. On 14 June 2017, safety measures intended to isolate fire failed, and a fire in one apartment quickly spread through the 24-story tower. Firefighters were unable to contain the blaze, and 72 people died.

Accusations came thick and fast. Most people blamed the council, saying that they only cared about the predominantly wealthy neighborhood and not the poorer people, especially those in the tower. Some residents had been complaining for years about various problems and, as a result, the council had conducted a major renovation, completed the previous year, 2016, that among other things installed new windows and a new composite cladding on the exterior of the building.

In England, local councils provide some of the functions of local government. Elected councilors are responsible for overseeing things like education, libraries, social services, waste collection, and housing; but hire contractors to actually perform the work.

O’Hagan’s piece, researched intensively for a year, tells the story of some of the people who lived there. With six flats on 23 of the floors, you would think people would be strangers to each other, but as resident Alison Moses says, “‘It’s a funny little community . . . Everybody knows everybody, at least by sight.’” It was also a remarkably multicultural community. O’Hagan says, “There was scarcely any floor on which more than two families were born in the same country.”

I found the individual stories which make up the bulk of the article fascinating: their backgrounds, their joy and pride in their homes in Grenfell. But what really struck me about this piece was the political fallout.

Activist groups immediately blamed the council, claiming that they had cut costs by having defective cladding installed; they hadn’t responded to tenant complaints, and they did nothing to help tenants during and after the fire. These cries were taken up by the media swarming the site and quickly became the dominant story about the fire. However, when O’Hagan interviewed these activists, they provided pages of accusations, but no actual proof.

When he interviewed council members, he found that they were on the ground immediately and in force, setting up shelters and getting people there. As one council officer said,

We were organising food, transport, data and donations, as well as accommodation. Our staff were in all day. And we had all gone home that Wednesday night exhausted and switched on the television news to learn that we hadn’t done anything.

The problem was that they hadn’t identified themselves as council, their philosophy being to just get the job done and not make a fuss about it. As a result, no one realised who they were. A senior council officer said,

The first full day after the fire, a survivor was being interviewed by somebody in the media, sitting beside one of our social workers who had been with her since she escaped The media were keen to press her about the council. “The council don’t care,” the woman said. “They’re not doing anything.”

And at the end of the interview the social worker turned and looked at her. “Why did you say that?” she asked. “I’ve been with you since the beginning.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “But you’re not from the council, are you?”

Similarly, the issue of the cladding—the culprit in the spread of the fire—was hardly the council’s fault. It is not their job to verify it met safety standards; that had been privatised to a company that “both recommends the standards and tests them in the marketplace, while also being entwined with many of the companies whose products they are testing.” The blame lies with the lack of industry regulations, the lack of independent testing, and the contractor’s omission of a fire safety inspection—it turns out the cladding had been tested “on a desktop, but never properly in situ.” Also, this cladding was already in common use, installed on many other low-income housing around the country.

The government, eager to distance themselves from the catastrophe, put the blame on the council as well. They made things worse by promising the public things that they knew the council couldn’t deliver.

I could go on, but the chilling thing for me, in this era of fake news and hollowed-out journalism, is how quickly a false story can become “the truth”, not just among the chanting crowds who ignore right-wing politicians’ lies, but among progressives as well. We need responsible journalism more than ever. And we need to attend to our social reputation, the only thing the council neglected. Your reputation is everything, as my mother used to say.

How can we best manage our reputation in this age of social media and devolved journalism?

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

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An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

Home, Edited by Sharon Sloan Fiffer and Steve Fiffer

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A friend gave me this enjoyable collection of essays, subtitled American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own. Each author takes a room as a starting point for remembering: the porch, the hallway, the dining room, the closet, and so on.

This structure is similar to a writing exercise I use in my memoir classes. I invite the participants to think about a room in their house, perhaps the living room or their bedroom. Then I ask them to stand in the center and mentally do a 360° turn around it, noting the pieces of furniture, the various objects on them, the pillows, the curtains, the pictures on the wall. Select one and tell the story of how it came into your life.

From there, I say, follow the trail of memories. Writing a memoir is like being one of those clowns pulling a silk handkerchief from your sleeve. It’s attached to another handkerchief, and that to another, and you keep pulling and pulling until you have a huge heap of linked hankies. Memories work that way. Once you start pulling on one, you’d be surprised how much it brings along with it, a bit at a time or all at once.

Here, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recollection of his childhood living room brings with it the solidarity of seeing any person of color on television—each siting was an event to be yelled out to the neighborhood. And then the television brings the drama of the Civil Rights Movement into their lives: watching the news “to see what ‘Dr. King and dem’ were doing”, watching black children walking up to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Alex Kotlowitz uses “The Boys’ Room” to describe his relationship with his brother. It is a place apart in the first-floor apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The boys make forts and play at war. They raise hamsters, gerbils and turtle doves. They wrestle and box, all without adult intervention. Through all their fighting, though, there is a thread of caring and protection. They watch out for each other in little ways and big.

Given the allusion to Virginia Woolf, I expected these brief memoir pieces to relate somehow to the author’s writing life. The introduction by Sharon Sloan Fiffer does, relating how she would hide on the sixth stair down to listen to her parents and sometimes her older brother talk and argue as grown-ups do when the little ones are in bed. Then she relays these stories to her five-year-older next-door neighbor Nora. Trying to keep the older girl interested and therefore willing to let Sharon hang around, she learns when to tighten up a story and when to embroider it. She hones her comedic timing. Most of all, she learns to listen, not just to her parents and brother to gather material, but also to Nora, her audience to see how her story is going over.

The other essays don’t seem to go in this direction, but it doesn’t matter. They are heartfelt and true. They tell stories of other times and places. Most of all they tell about the families with whom we share these spaces, the love that lurks in every corner, and the memories that bind us together.

Look around your home and select one object. How did it come into your life, and what does it mean to you?

Life Work, by Donald Hall

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This slim book is part memoir, part meditation on the role of work in our lives from Donald Hall, who died this week. He and his wife Jane Kenyon moved from Michigan to his grandparents’ farm in 1975, giving up stable teaching jobs for the uncertain income of freelance writers.

Like Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” where he describes his father digging in the garden outside the window where Heaney sits writing, Hall compares his beloved work laboring with words to the more physical work of his grandparents. One thing he finds in common is that they do different tasks all day, unlike those who labor at repetitive jobs.

Hall gives us engrossing accounts of this grandfather’s work in the fields and barn and his grandmother’s work in garden and kitchen. He himself moves from one poem to another, one prose piece to another. He runs errands and handles the myriad tasks associated with the business of being a writer.

Writers are often asked about their routine. When do you write? Where and for how long? Do you write longhand or on the computer? Hall gives us answers to these questions, for both good days and bad days.

More importantly he addresses the bigger questions. What are you going to do? What do you dream of doing? What would be an authentic life for you? As Mary Oliver says in “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What his work and his grandparents’ work have in common is that they induce a particular state of mind. Asked by novelist Gurcharan Dar what contentment is, Hall answers, “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.” It is Dar who comes up with a term for this state: absorbedness.

Leisure or a life dedicated to enjoyment is ultimately not fulfilling. As John Fowles noted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the curse of the Victorian upper class was boredom. With no work to do, both men and women often entertained themselves to death—or near-death—through gambling, drugs, overeating, imagined illnesses, and so on.

Absorbedness is an answer to the question Fowles raises: When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

When asked by Hall about the secret of life, Henry Moore answered, “‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!'”

Hall’s meditations on work are sprinkled among accounts of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, his travels with Jane, the birth of grandchildren, the recurrence of his cancer, and his preparations for his possible death during surgery for that cancer.

I’m reminded of the Canadian film Last Night which follows several people on what will be their last night since everyone knows the world will end at midnight. The choices different characters make are funny and sad. Do you simply sit in despair waiting for midnight? Do you riot, or drink, or fulfill a longheld ambition to have sex with your high school French teacher?

I asked my son what he would choose for his last night. He described what was then a typical Sunday for us: sitting around the fire together reading and taking turns working the crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hall describes his best day as one filled with work and loving moments with Jane.

What would your best day look like?