At the start of this year, I set myself the lofty goal of not just reading more, but reading better. It warms me to say I’m not doing too badly. I’ve read more books so far this year than I did at all over the entire course of the last and I think, in part, feeling clearer and less anxious about what I’m doing with my writing has enabled that. So, gone are those self-help-entrepreneur-creative-business-hustle-type books which served their purpose once-upon-a-time yet also sometimes served little purpose at all. Instead, I have made room for other books, more beautiful books; books that may not help me build-my-brand (Dear Lord!) but that will at the very least stretch my thinking.
I keep a list of all the books I’d like to read in my notebook. That list is very long and every time I go into a bookstore or the library, I stray from it, browsing through books as though I’m picking berries in a field on a summer’s day under a straw hat. I am easily swayed by smart alliterative titles, easily convinced by the girl behind the counter who says I really must try this one that she couldn’t put down; hell, I am swayed sometimes by books that just look damn pretty. Bookstore layouts are my downfall, my labyrinth; I am trapped yet I also don’t want to leave. What I am trying to do, though, is be more mindful of what I bring home. Because the more unread books on my bedside, the more books I seem to want to keep on acquiring. So I’m trying to pace myself: one book at a time, Huma. One book at a time.
It occurred to me, while writing this blog post, that almost all the books I’ve happened to read lately are essays or collections of some sort. I suppose this isn’t all that surprising, given that my first book was a collection and now I’m threading my own essays together too, but though I am biased, I have to say - collections are such a nice, easy way to make time to read. When time is short or you are battling with a novel you just can’t make heads or tails of, it’s refreshingly spritely to dip in and out of a collection of stories, or a collection of essays; one at a time. If you haven’t ever tried reading a collection, give it a go. The individual pieces are often short, so easy enough to digest, and yet they are almost always more meaningful than tweets.
Here’s what I’ve been reading these last few months:
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essay and Stories by Marina Keegan - Marina was only 22-years-old when she died in car crash, five days after graduating from Yale. This alone makes her smiling face, beaming out from the front cover, hauntingly poignant. Marina was young but yet had work published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This book brings together pieces of Marina’s portfolio; both non-fiction essays and short stories she wrote during her time at Yale. They’re written in that voice of being twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two; that voice which believes so passionately that the world is yours for the taking. That she, in turn, was taken so soon is what makes this collection all the more moving.
The Good Immigrant USA edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman - The premise of this US collection is the same as The Good Immigrant’s UK collection: a gathering of fresh perspectives from writers of colour. It is bright and triumphant. My favourite essays are On Loneliness, by Fatimah Asghar, in which she takes a ride in an Uber and is suddenly confronted with an overwhelming sense of wanting, of needing, to belong and How Not To Be by Priya Minhas, in which she describes her girlhood, of learning to be a woman caught between her family culture and wanting so desperately to fit in.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett - I have never read any of Ann Patchett’s novels and yet I was drawn to read this collection of her journalism. When placed together, these first-person pieces read like the most charming memoir. I found this delightful to read; even when she writes of difficult things, like her first marriage failing, she does so with lightness, all these moments just tumbling on to the page. It was a dream to read.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith - In her foreword to this, Zadie Smith mentions how she feels some sort of anxiety about not having any real qualifications to write - this from Zadie Smith. I haven’t read all of her novels, just two (White Teeth and NW) but I’ve always enjoyed her more journalistic pieces more, and so I loved the chance to delve deeper through these essays. It’s not the sort of book you’d want to necessarily read all in one go, but the sort to dip in and out of, by nature of the fact most of these essays are journalism, and you’d probably be moved to pick them out by subject rather than read them chronologically. The subjects of her essays are far too wide-ranging to list here but her voice is so beautifully consistent and simple throughout and such a lesson in writing as you. It’s as though she’s thinking aloud. I’ve underscored many, many pages of this collection; I suggest you do too.
You think it, I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfeld - Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favourite writers. I don’t hold on to every single book I read or buy; I pass them along to other parents at the school gate, I leave them out on the brick wall for neighbours to take, I send them to my mother and my mother-in-law. But Curtis Sittenfeld’s books have always stayed on my shelf and I re-read her regularly (American Wife is one of my most favourite comfort books, by which I mean a book I’ll turn to when I’m needing the literary equivalent of a cup of tea and a big slab of cake). I was excited to learn she had written short stories too and I’ll offer up right here that I haven’t finished this yet because I’m savouring every single page and trying to make it last. Most reviews all name check the title short story, but there are so many in here that I loved - Off The Record, The Prairie Wife (what a twist!), A Regular Couple. What I love about her writing is that it is so down-to-earth, so unpretentious and yet so clever in its simplicity. I love the way she zooms into personal relationships and holds them up to the light. I’d love to write like she does.
And now then, over to you: what have you been reading? What should I pick out next?
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