To ask “What are you reading?” is essentially to ask “How are you becoming? …changing?” since everything we read affects us or our world view in some way or another. While I inherently disagree with those who feel some books should be banned, I will always understand and relate to the reality that books change people. Books offer us new circumstances, ways in which to empathize with those unlike ourselves, and teach us simply the ways that we can be.
In 2016 I have become something else from 2015, and it from the year previous. I have learned the ways of many things, people, and places. While I don’t claim to read all classic literature, canonic literature, or even current New York Times bestsellers, I do know I am better for everything I have read. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve changed this year, and some suggestions for ways in which you might consider seeing how they can change you.
One of the first items I listened to (since this year I started to use Audible in addition to physically reading books) was Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is: Advice for the Young. It is a collection of his speeches to graduating classes, both high school and college, and his advice for transitioning into a productive adult life. What I have taken from this collection is a persistent need to look around and say “Well, isn’t this nice” anytime I see something beautiful, experience a loving moment, or even hear good news about someone I know. Vonnegut says that we must get into the habit of saying “If this isn’t nice, what is?” when we recognize a “nice” moment. I have learned that it is important to name nice moments for what they are and pay them respect in that moment, for once they pass, how often do we remember them? (Note: I think you’ll find yourself saying “This is nice” a lot more than you realize. I say it when there’s no line at the grocery store, the sun shines through the trees in a brilliant way while I’m walking, or my dog decides to lay his little head down on my feet and sleep. It’s all so very nice and a grateful heart, I find, is a happy one.)
Do you do that nasty thing that some people do where you compare your life to what you think it’s supposed to be, then to what it is, and feel guilty about the differences? I used to as well, until I read two books by Glennon Doyle Melton: Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed and Love Warrior. I have never read anything in my life that has made me feel so accepted, so utterly and completely okay about my life. Glennon (since I really do feel that she would be delighted to be on a first name basis with each of her readers) discusses the trials of her life, her eventual acceptance of them, and muses on life as a whole in Carry On. In Love Warrior she recounts the decision to stay or leave her husband after she learned of his infidelity. What I have learned the most from Glennon’s books is that life does not have to be a certain way in order for us to love others, which is especially relevant in my life—in all of our lives. Someone cheats on you and ruins your idea of a perfect marriage? Stand up for yourself, but keep loving anyway; don’t stop. A family member isn’t who you want them to be and doesn’t treat you well? Stand up for yourself, but keep loving anyway; don’t stop. I think you see the pattern here. Glennon’s books have made me become so much more accepting and widened my worldview to what is possible from a tolerant and loving mindset.
Not sure about you, but I do consider myself religious. (If you’re not, no problem! Just skip this paragraph!) While I fall into the Catholic category of the religion Plinko game-of-life, I usually read Christian based books when I find them. This year I read: Walking With Purpose: Seven Priorities That Make Life Work by Lisa Brenninkmeyer, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell, Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation by Matthew Kelly, Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith by Holly Ordway, and Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again by Mike Aquilina. (Until now, I hadn’t really laid them all out there as a list, and it seems as if I’ve read several. This wasn’t so much intentional as necessary. Each of these books was found, read, and ingested because I needed it at the time. Additionally, I have great people in my life that gave me Campbell’s and Aquilina’s books just when I did need them.) I have still had struggles this year with consistently attending church, but I find that I’m a better human when I go, when I read about religion, and when I practice what I believe. It is one thing to go to church often, but it’s entirely different to take it in as a part of one’s life–to read an ingest more than just the Bible, but also others’ understandings of it as well. This understanding has been an important part of my becoming this year. Next year, I hope to do more reading about this history, much akin to Aquilina’s book. The “why” to me is just as important as the “how” when it comes to faith.
This year has been a difficult one in America. In the past I have taught John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, and while I’m not, nor was I, naive enough to think that racisim isn’t still a very real presence in today’s world, I guess I thought that time period—for the most part—had already passed. So wrong. This year I read Counting Descent , a book of poems by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Clint Smith and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not only are both men brilliant, but both do an exceptional job illuminating the stark contrast between what we (white, non-black males and females) think is the reality of their lives and what their lives actually are. I know they are only two in a vast race within America, but they are not the only race which experiences hardship. Whether one agrees with them or not, there is such value in hearing and understanding their stories—all stories. I have learned a great deal from both of these works, for no matter one’s understanding of a current issue (since for us it does seem to be a current issue, regardless of its perpetuation throughout recent history), one must take in others experiences, validate them, give them voice. Without understanding others, for what the heck are we reading? Self-actualization!? Bahaha! Reading makes us better people. If you haven’t read something this year that has made you a better person, try it out for 2017. Mic drop.
Just kidding, I gotta pick the mic back up because I’m not done yet. (Side note: Another book that helped me understand others was a collection of NPR’s StoryCorps testimonials. Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps by Dave Isay will also give you insight into the lives of many, many people and how they are coping with the world. An excellent read.)
I love to read memoirs. In past years, I’ve read Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Sophia Amoruso, Mindy Kailing, Josh Sundquist, Lena Dunham, etc. Clearly strong women figures are my go-to, but I like them all. There’s something about hearing from others about their life experiences that always makes me feel better about the way I struggle in my own. (And I do recommend hearing them by listening to them read their audio books; it’s definitely a different experience.) I love hearing real stories, not just seeing glimmering social media pages with glaring contrasts to my own. This year I read a few that fall into this category, and all could not be more different from each other. To start, I read Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, a very left-leaning collection of essays about being a larger woman in today’s world, additionally in a field—writing—dominated mostly by men. I learned from this that I need to speak up and, frankly, that I am no where near as funny as she is. I read this book partially at our city’s aquatic center, and I really did feel that I might have scared people, cackling the way I was. “Don’t mind me! I’m just sitting here alone at a pool laughing hysterically and trying not to pee! Carry on, all!”…yeah, something like that. Next, I listened to Walter Whit…er… Bryan Cranston’s memoir A Life in Parts, which was hilarious and insightful. From him I learned that life can be a hodgepodge of experiences and occurrences, and it really can still turn out to be exactly what you’d always dreamed, if not better. Next, I read beloved poet Mary Oliver’s collection of essays Upstream. She further validated my intense desire to live in the woods and experience being outside Every Single Day. Her writings on nature, life, her favorite authors… the book was truly a treat, and her insights: invaluable. I, too, now want to build my own one-room, shabby house for $3.58. (Yes! That happened!) Finally, I’m closing out the year by listening to Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between. First, I loved Gilmore Girls, and when I found out I was going to have my son insanely young, naive as it may be, I really did think “Hey, maybe I can be as awesome as Lorelai Gilmore!” (Side note: I do think I am just as awesome as she is, so I am thankful for her as a mental reference, fictional though she may be.) From this book I am learning that life really is a crazy ride and sometimes actors are just as human as all the rest of us. This I learned from her discussion of auditioning for a part while she sang a song about “slapping the bass” but pronounced it like the fish instead of the instrument. Amen, sister. Keep on slapping that fish… it makes me happy, and I love hearing you discuss it.
And now, to close, I leave you with my favorite fictional reads of 2016. These are books that, yes, I learned from, but more importantly I also simply enjoyed. Reading is a testament to learning and improving our humanity, but they’re also a great source of pleasure. Sarah Kay’s book of poetry No Matter the Wreckage is one of the most touching and relatable books I’ve ever read; it was beautiful both in words and meaning. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was, in addition to reviving a wonderful writer’s voice, a great lesson in what our parents aren’t: perfect. I loved that Atticus had flaws, certain characters had passed away, and the book wasn’t finished; at the end of the day, that’s a perfect metaphor for life, too. Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1) was easily one of the oddest reads I’ve had in awhile, but I think that’s why I liked it. It was weird, harkened both The Martian and Transformers a bit, and I enjoyed its contrast to most of the fiction I read. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch BLEW MY MIND. There’s no other way to put it. Read my review here for more information, but know this is my favorite read this year. If you like mystery and second guessing literally every prediction you’ll ever make while reading, have a go with The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware—it was insanity incarnate. Loved it. Set in an area where I grew up, Arrowood by Laura McHugh was a good story and a nice look at a place I know very well. I enjoyed it greatly.
I read a lot of other things, too, but frankly this is already becoming a novel itself. In what ways have you ‘became’ this year? How have your books changed you? Philosophical question: Do the books really change you if you don’t notice the change? 😉