The last week of 2017 finally arrived with a wintry blast that felt particularly chilling given the previously balmy (if unseasonable) temperatures earlier in the month. While the year’s end always seems to be an appropriate moment to pause from the everyday hustle and contemplate where we’ve been and where we hope to go, it seems perhaps more necessary than ever this year. For my part, I look forward to discovering opportunities to do better and be better in the upcoming year. I also plan to continue reading books that challenge my thinking, comfort me on darker days, and outright amuse me.
Over this past year, I’ve read around 50 books, not counting the ones I’ve re-read both for a certain youngster’s bedtime or my own pleasure. I picked my top notable reads because they contained fascinating stories, some imagined and some true, that resonated with me long after I read them. Most (though not all) became blog posts (links to posts are provided). And although 2017 has been a troubling year (with December being a rather difficult month both generally and personally), it still has had its bright moments. Among them includes the remarkable bounty of books I received as gifts. In fact, the most books I’ve received as presents in a year…ever.[*] So many that I made myself promise to start my 2018 reading list with in-house books only,[†] excepting science-related nonfiction.[‡] Well, we’ll see how long that resolution lasts. I hope your new year is a good one filled with great books. Happy reading!
2017 Notable Reads (Links to Posts Are Provide Where Applicable)
There’s moments when I long for more time to read, particularly as seasonal errands consume what used to be my leisure time. Because reading requires a certain amount of concentration, it’s difficult to perform alongside another activity.[*] It’s among the reasons why you don’t see many people mulling over books while paying their bills or partaking of novels at parties.[†] After all, attempting to carry on a conversation while reading a crime thriller only guarantees someone’s going to lose the plot.
While reading might not lend itself readily to multitasking, that’s never stopped anyone from trying.[‡] With varying degrees of success and risk involved, some folks manage to combine reading with seemingly incompatible tasks. For the curious, here are three types of multitasking readers I’ve identified and how sensible or sketchy their choices are:
Secret Readers. Reading at work or during class may be appropriate when required, but secret readers discreetly (they hope) read when their time should be allocated to something else, like listening to lectures or, well, actually working. It’s obvious why people read during lessons. Either they haven’t done the assigned reading and are catching up, or they’re sneaking a book because they’re bored. As I discovered in sixth grade, even reading ahead in your text book doesn’t go over particularly well, regardless of how well you understand the subject matter. And while I haven’t done much extracurricular reading at work, I understand the temptation to do so when stuck in long, irrelevant meetings or when there’s downtime with nothing to do. Many bosses, however, tend to be unsympathetic in such cases. As for readers whose work and school tasks languish whilst turning pages, this constitutes a read-at-your-own-risk scenario.
The Driven Reader. Driving tops my list of “Times Not to Read”, whether the individual is steering a tricycle or a truck. Both reading and driving require roughly the same amount of focus, and I don’t think I need to explain the dangers of doing the latter poorly. Yet, I’ve seen people perch books (or their phones)[**] on the wheel whilst driving. Bizarrely, I once witnessed a woman put on her hazard lights, stop her car in the center lane of a busy highway, [††] and review a map with her companion. That she repeated this behavior every few miles…I digress. Friends, please don’t do this. It’s risky reading at its worst.
Did I miss any other great (or horrid) examples of multi-tasking readers? Let me know below!
[*] The primary reasons not to read involve timing (previously engaged in another activity) or the wrong environment (too loud, too dark, etc.)
[†] Some exceptions apply: book readings/signings, book groups, poetry readings, and the like.
[‡] Whether or not the attempt should have been made is entirely different story. [§] My last gym was very noisy, with multiple televisions tuned to competing news stations. During last year’s election, I wasn’t sure whether the exercise or the news increased my heart rate.
[**] Texting adds writing to reading-while-driving, which increases the danger as far as I’m concerned.
[††] The road in question is the Garden State Parkway. At the time, the speed limit was around 55 mph (roughly 88 kph).
When creative clutter turns catastrophe, it’s time to right your writing space.
Mistakes Were Made
Recently, I had a literal light bulb moment. The lamp on my desk, which had been flickering, made a popping noise and then everything—computer monitor included—went dark. A quick trip to the circuit breaker box, however, restored the power. My computer rebooted without problem and, happily, my documents were unharmed.[*] But as I wormed my way underneath my desk to unplug the offending lamp, I realized it was time I finally sorted out my writing space.
My writing desk lives in the bonus room of our house, an addition off our dining room that we use as office space. While it’s technically a shared space, I use this room the most, especially since my spouse decided its locale wasn’t quiet enough for conference calls when working from home. So, we spent a day (somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve) moving me into a larger desk so that I could have more space for my writing and other projects.[†] While we succeeded in rearranging and discarding old furniture and miscellany, I still needed to organize where my assorted belongings would reside on the desk. Plus, there were several boxes that needed to be sorted and stowed…somewhere. But, given the hour, I reluctantly agreed to get to it later.
Ah, later. Such a fatal word.
From Creative Clutter to Catastrophe
Of course, I didn’t return to the task during the holidays (so many social calls) or afterwards (too busy). On occasion, I filed items or slipped some odds and ends away. More often, though, I nudged items under the desk, shuffled piles around my desk, and absentmindedly stuffed items in the drawers when something was in the way. And I continued to write and manage my other projects as usual. While I’m inclined to indulge in chores when I write,[‡] the one place I leave untouched is my desk; I like to spread out the books I’m reading or using for research as well as my notes while I’m at the keyboard. I rarely clear off my desk completely but I tuck away items I don’t need once I finish a project. But more and more items lingered on my desk because they had nowhere else to go.
For some time, though, it was little more than a nuisance. Although I was irked by the unfinished job, I promised myself I’d get to it eventually—with that eventuality occurring in some distant month. My dissatisfaction grew when I found myself searching for important documents I stashed in some obscure locale. When I had to stop writing to hunt for a hefty tome that had been swallowed by a pile of paperwork (and I’m not sure what else), it was a sign that my shuffling piles around to make a spot for writing notes wasn’t working well. Having to wriggle past now dusty boxes to find an outlet finally forced me to admit that it was time for a clean sweep. The constant interruptions were officially more annoying than the clutter itself. So, off I went to organize, however reluctantly.
Righting My Writing Space
When it comes to writing, there’s nothing wrong with a little desktop chaos.[§] The question is whether the writing space works for the writer. On any given day, multiple obligations and needs pull us in different directions, often taking us away from our writing. We don’t need to get in our own way as well. In my case, too much clutter distracted me from writing. Even when I wasn’t writing, being unable to find items I needed turned my writing space into a source of irritation when it should be the place where I focus on the words. Reorganizing my desk was just another step toward creating a better writing environment. And while my desk may not be magazine ready (and the office still needs work), I already feel less crowded.
[*] Documents that automatically save for the win!
[†] Arts and crafts as well as household finances, plus whatever comes up.
Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War.
A recent trip I took to Boston to visit with family and friends included a side trip to nearby Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is a charming rural town known widely for its role in the Revolutionary War.[*] It also possesses the quirky distinction of being the birthplace of the Concord grape. Specifically to my reading interests, though, several famous authors made their homes in Concord, among them Louisa May Alcott. Long before I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or Nathaniel Hawthorne (all Concord residents), I read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and loved it. She was one of the first authors whose works I sought out and binge read everything I could then find: the remaining novels about the March women (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), followed by Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom. Discovering her connection to Concord guaranteed my visit there.
A Place to (Finally) Call Home
Orchard House wasn’t Alcott’s childhood home—or even the family’s first home in Concord—but it is, as I noted in a different post, the one she employed as the setting for Little Women and the place where she lived the longest. Unlike the genteelly poor Marches, the Alcotts suffered dire poverty. Although many of her father Bronson Alcott’s ideas to reform children’s education are common now, they were revolutionary then and soon left him unemployed, as did favoring his principles and dreams above self-interest. Abigail May Alcott, her mother and an early social worker, managed their household with very little—inspiring Louisa to become the family breadwinner. The publication of Little Women, the book Louisa wrote reluctantly at her publisher’s suggestion, would achieve this goal.
Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar[†] and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War. Yet Lizzie Alcott (model for Beth March) never lived at Orchard House, and older sister Anna (Meg March) wed soon after the house was purchased; she would not truly reside there until after she became a widow and moved in with her two sons. Louisa’s youngest sister, May (Amy March), however, literally left her mark on Orchard House. May’s parents permitted her to draw directly on the walls of her bedroom and throughout the house.[‡]In Louisa’s room, her writing desk is exactly as described in the novel. Unlike her fictional counterpart, though, she served as a nurse in the Civil War until illness forced her to return home with her health irreparably damaged. Also unlike Jo, she preferred literary spinsterhood to matrimonial dependence.
Social Circles and Movements
In addition to Louisa’s own personal history and writing career, a visit to Orchard House illuminates the interconnected literary and social circle of the Transcendentalists. Emerson was both friend and financial supporter of the family. Thoreau, who tutored the Alcott children during a previous stint in Concord, remained an admired friend who helped Bronson make Orchard House habitable. Hawthorne, neither a Transcendentalist or friendly with the Alcott family (unlike his son, Julian), lived next door at The Wayside, a former Alcott homestead. Of interest, Hawthorne and Abigail May Alcott shared something in common besides real estate: both were descended from different judges who preside over the Salem witch trials.[§]Samuel Sewall, the Alcott ancestor whose portrait is displayed at Orchard House, was the repenting judge whose other mitigating claim to fame was being an early proponent for abolishing slavery, a stance his Alcott descendants shared. Abigail and Bronson, also firm abolitionists, hosted at least one fugitive slave during their time at The Wayside. The Alcotts were deeply involved with the significant social movements of their time, something which the guide was careful to note was part of the value in preserving this home.[**]
After leaving Orchard House, I headed to Walden Pond. One could imagine a young Louisa and other students traipsing after Thoreau there, listening as he pointed to the small and often missed marvels of nature. Thinking on that younger Louisa, you could easily argue that Little Women seems to be a happy reimagination of her deeply impoverished youth, with hunger replaced with longing for “nice things” and constant uprooting for permanency. Yet, Alcott’s novel continues to inspire because of its inclusion of an ambitious, unconventional young women and its unpatronizing view of women’s lives. Having caught a glimpse of “the real Jo”, it seems like a fitting legacy.
[**] The credit for preserving Orchard House and The Wayside belongs to another woman writer, as it happens. Harriett Lothrop, better known by her pen name Margaret Sidney to fans of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, saw the value of saving these old homes. And as it happens, I read her novel, too, as a child.
The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.
When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.
However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.
Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.
[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.
[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).
[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).
[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).
Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.
I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.
Inspiration and Information
The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]
If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.
The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.
Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge
What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.
[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.
[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.
[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.
We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
This past weekend, I went to the Baltimore Book Festival for the first time. Greeted by unseasonably warm weather, throngs of readers strolled among tents featuring authors talking about their works. I attended lectures on editing bon mots,[*] social justice, monsters in modern horror, and food in science fiction. I bought and discussed books whose titles I just learned that day. Being an avid reader, I loved having the opportunity to delve into new topics and books I didn’t know existed. Perhaps the only book-related topic I didn’t hear mentioned was how we find the books we choose to read when we don’t have a handy festival to suggest interesting titles. We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
Polling the Readers
I’ll admit that this topic that occurred to me well before I sauntered forth to bake in the Baltimorean sunshine amongst the bookish. Perhaps a week or two earlier, I’d been looking over lists of books I read or intended to read and came to the realization that many recommendations came from Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, WordPress, and even (on occasion) Facebook.[†] Being curious, I conducted a small poll on Twitter to find out whether any other readers saw their reading lists expand courtesy of social media. Slightly over half of my respondents agreed that social media helped grow their reading lists, with contemporary fiction writer and blogger Nastasya Parker observing that these recommendations made her reading “even more rewarding”. Novelist Anne Charnock (Dreams Before the Start of Time) concurred, stating that “Twitter is good for book recommendations—from a bunch of people whose recs are pretty reliable”. The remaining individuals divided into those who felt social media hadn’t increased the length of their reading lists (slightly over 25%) and those who were unsure. Arguably, these results could depend on how those individuals use social media. Not everyone goes to Twitter and asks, “Read a good book lately?” or finds people whose reading habits resonate with their own.
I certainly hadn’t expected better to-be read book lists to be part of the bargain when I’d joined some social media outlets.[‡] However, my first Twitter chat revealed the power of the social reading community. When several like-minded individuals gather to talk about books, there’s a good chance for discovering new titles to read. In this case, the July 2016 #women_writers chat focused on reading women in translation, and, as I noted in a different post, I discovered a gap in my reading. It wasn’t long before several books were proposed to remedy that problem. I could (and did) find articles suggesting books to read for #WITmonth (like this one), but receiving multiple recommendations for certain books or authors from this group really identified worthy titles.[§] And I’ve had similar experiences with Instagram (The Reading Women come to mind) and my Goodread reading groups, to name a few.
So, spending more time on social media perversely improved my offline reading. Of course, it’s not the only place to find captivating books to read. There’s reviews (in print and online), best-seller lists, and so forth. There’s even the simple expedient of walking into the local library or bookshop and checking out what’s on display. Social media, however, makes it easier to connect with people who share your reading tastes and make reliable recommendations. Reading tends to be a solitary pursuit, but looking for new books to read needn’t be lonesome.
Has social media improved your reading list? Let me know and share your suggestions for a good read!
[†] I also created an imaginary click-bait link: “How Twitter Improved My Reading Life!” (In my head, titles like this seem to read by an old-timey news broadcaster). Naturally, should this article have existed, it would have parodied articles devoted to improving one’s romantic/sex life.
[‡] Except Goodreads. Because that’s rather the whole point, isn’t it?
[§] Two different Goodreads groups recommended works by Han Kang (either The Vegetarian or Human Acts), as did Twitter chats and various Instagram posters. Both books were compelling, challenging reads.