This year’s December invites the mixed emotions that often accompany the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. After three years in Berkeley, James and I have moved 50 miles north to Sonoma County. Our new home sits quietly on a short stretch of land, a far cry from our tiny Berkeley studio, which a friend once generously called the “quintessential in-your-20s apartment.”
I’m curious to discover a new day-to-day, to begin tracing familiar routes and establishing go-to spots. Of course, what is a 50-mile move? I have made much farther leaps, over land and sea, in the past. But having moved so many times while growing up, I’ve learned that once you have a day-to-day, once you’re immersed in any kind of familiar, it doesn’t really matter how many cities, states or countries you’ve crossed. Where you come from always feels far away. Besides, if our lives are simply made up of the various random items that fill every 24-hour window, then indeed the smallest of changes can result in the entirely new. Through all of the bittersweet emotions wrapped up in moving, logic never fails, and logic says every experience only informs the next, and I’m very eager to see how informative this new one is.
As I reflect on 2015, one of my biggest regrets surfaces when I realize how many books I missed this year. What did 2015 in books look like, feel like? The single perk of a largely unproductive year in reading, that is, the perk of waiting until December to survey the year’s offering in books, is that major honors like the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award have already been bestowed. The winners and finalists are promised to be the very best of all that was published in 2015, albeit in the United States, and I’m putting some faith in that. I’m using this and this as guides for the year’s final to-read list. It’s time to catch up! Better late than never, I hope.
“When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over. Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar – an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects – with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night – I got from one day to the next.”
So Long, See You Tomorrow, p. 9–10
By William Maxwell
I suspect that my absence here means far more to me than it does to anyone else. Given this, I will say that the absence is felt strongly. I’m not sure what combination of life’s variables motivates this right here, but figuring that out is a top priority of mine. After starting and stopping too many books and then failing to choose any book at all, I was desperate for a straightforward recommendation from a reliable source; I’m skeptical of must-read lists, best-sellers receive far too much attention, and randomly browsing a bookstore rarely yields results. In late October, while scanning my own bookshelf with hands on hips for the nth time, I glimpsed An Uncommon Education and thought, I’ll ask Elizabeth Percer. She had proved exceptionally kind when I contacted her for a Q&A last year, so I thought I would test my luck again. Nevertheless, I was surprised to not only receive a swift response, but one that also reads like this:
“I’m so sorry to hear that you’re in a book rut. Sometimes it’s good to let our fields go fallow. Walk around, read things other than books. Imagine the book you wish you could read, and tell people about it.”
Elizabeth ends her email with exactly the kind of recommendation that I was looking for: a single title and its author (So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell). I’ve since finished the book but I’m continuously re-reading it, settling in and opening to a random page, as if testing how much I remember. I love reaching the point in a book where no matter which page I flip to, I’m so familiar with the story that I can carry on without a hitch. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a simple story made rich by the details and emotions, much like our own lives. Books often have us dive into the ordinary lives of a cast of characters, only to lead us towards a bombshell that derails everything we’ve come to know and love/hate. In So Long, See You Tomorrow, the bombshell happens on the first page – Clarence kills Lloyd – and we work back and forth through time to answer all related questions. In her message, Elizabeth calls the book “generous and kind and brilliant,” and it doesn’t take long to discover exactly what that means. Maxwell takes great care in contextualizing the characters’ actions and motives, as if exonerating them, as if they have every reason in the world to behave exactly the way that they do. Perhaps we all do.
“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
Between the World and Me, p. 48
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
I encountered Ta-Nehisi Coates on two separate occasions before picking up his book. The first encounter was in San Francisco; I was in my friend’s bedroom with nothing to do but run my eyes over her bookshelf, up and down, left and right, and I noticed a copy of The Atlantic with its infamous cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” The second encounter was in the August issue of Rolling Stone (what do our magazine subscriptions say about us?) that features a Q&A with Coates, and this recollection stuck with me:
“I remember sitting in a library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. And in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it’s very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid in a library somewhere, picking this book up and disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.”
Coates’ Between the World and Me is divided into three parts, each styled as a letter to his son. The book is a historical and personal study of race in America: “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world,” and the outgrowth of this belief is racism (p. 7). He continuously contrasts his upbringing to “the Dream,” which involves “perfect houses with nice lawns,” “treehouses and Cub Scouts,” and in general a profound detachment from racial injustice. When describing a friend he meets at Howard University, Coates seems to also describe the mission of his book:
“He was, like me, from one of those cities where everyday life was so different than the Dream that it demanded an explanation. He came, like me, to [Howard University] in search of the nature and origin of the breach” (p. 49).
I read to expand my experiences, to learn and to feel. Between the World and Me offers all of those things and also reads beautifully, each word carefully chosen, each sentence carefully woven. I’ve just finished the first part, and I have a feeling there is far to go.