…WHAT EXERCISE IS TO THE BODY
The quote above is attributed to Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (co-founders of The Spectator magazine, 1711). I couldn’t agree more, especially having done a lot of both reading and exercising in the past year.
Here are some of my favorite recent reads, from comedy to history to classic.
But first: it is quite true, what that old-timey duo said: Reading keeps our minds sharp and our empathy softer still. It is the ultimate fitness, kept alive by a body’s healthy mechanism (this is why we run). Is there anything more vital?
Note: Halfway through this post I realized that I cannot include all of the books I’ve read recently without this entry being ungodly long. So I’ve chosen (more than) a handful to highlight.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Apparently I am predictable because two years ago, I was given this book by 3 different people (who obviously love me)! I’ve read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and hate to compare the two, but I’d lean toward Amy’s. I like her writing, voice, and overall sense of humor better. She also gets philosophical in a no-nonsense way.
One of my favorite excerpts:
“You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.”
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This picture hurts for a couple reasons. One, I miss that pup so gosh-darn much. He lives with his daddy (my ex) now and lives a wonderful life full of hiking and adventuring. But I miss his snuggles and love.
Another reason is that it reminds of a time of heartbreak and chaos, during which I decided to retreat to some familiar, beloved books of my childhood. I first read The Poisonwood Bible in 7th grade. It’s a story told by the wife and four daughters of an evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. It’s truly a gem and still one of my favorites.
“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.”
Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
This book is critically acclaimed (A National Book Award Winner) and centers in on the intoxicating wonder of New York City in the 1970s, told through a tightrope walker’s life. It is a great read, but it didn’t quite touch me in that way that only some books do. Perhaps I should revisit it down the road.
“The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.”
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
When I was in middle school, I read and enjoyed both The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. So when I was in an airport bookstore looking for a good novel, I was drawn to a familiar author. The story revolves around “an urban slave in early 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina, yearning for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women,” (Goodreads summarized this better than I could.)
“I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”
The Essential Ken Wilber by Ken Wilber
Regarded as one of the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our time—and the most widely translated academic writer in America—Ken Wilber is the shit. (You weren’t expecting that, were you?) For someone who sometimes fantasizes about quitting everything and holing up in a cabin in the woods to write loads of philosophical tomes… reading this collection of Wilber’s thoughts was a welcomed (and less risky) alternative. Fun fact: he currently lives in Boulder!
Modern science is no longer denying spirit. And that, that is epochal. As Hans Küng remarked, the standard answer to “Do you believe in Spirit?” used to be, “Of course not, I’m a scientist,” but it might very soon become, “Of course I believe in Spirit. I’m a scientist.”
Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut
I am in love with Kurt Vonnegut. He’s one of my favorite writers, of all time. I’m on a quest to read everything he’s ever written. Look at the Birdie is a collection of short stories that were initially unpublished, most of which read like a fast-paced episode of Black Mirror (Netflix this, stat).
“He became fubar in the classic way, which is to say that he was the victim of a temporary arrangement that became permanent.”
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
Having discussed and traversed the concept of vulnerability with my counselor, she recommended Daring Greatly (and anything else written or spoken by Brene Brown). It’s about the courage to keep opening your heart to the world, and to make choices out of love, not fear. (And, as the excerpt below touches on, to have the courage to see the pain of those who’ve hurt us instead of demonizing and dehumanizing them.)
“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
by Kurt Vonnegut
On a Kurt kick, I jumped into this beauty, which is also so, so good. The story presents Eliot Rosewater, a seemingly insane millionaire wandering the country in search of philanthropic purpose. It put Vonnegut on the map second only to Slaughterhouse-Five. It was also a poignant read given the current political climate in our country.
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
I also went on a Bill Bryson binge this year, but it wasn’t because I enjoyed A Walk in the Woods; honestly, Walk was hard for me to get through, despite Bryson’s dry sense of humor and ease with which he drops mind-blowing knowledge bombs (he is a meticulous researcher). But on recommendation by The Man, I read Mother Tongue and found my Bryson sweet spot: linguistic history. Score! My nerd bells were ringing!
“To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”
Made in America by Bill Bryson
While Mother Tongue explores the history of English as a whole over scores of centuries, Made in America delves deep into the weird evolution of American English—idiosyncrasies, accents, the impact of major technological advances, etc. It’s just as good as Mother Tongue, if not better.
“Just a month after the completion of the Declaration of Independence, at a time when the delegates might have been expected to occupy themselves with more pressing concerns—like how they were going to win the war and escape hanging—Congress quite extraordinarily found time to debate business for a motto for the new nation. (Their choice, E Pluribus Unum, “One from Many”, was taken from, of all places, a recipe for salad in an early poem by Virgil.)”
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
After the election results I was feeling angry and disempowered, and a new fervor for reading emerged. I felt like the only way to fight against willful ignorance and victimhood was to read—fiction and poetry, to fill my mind with hopes and others’ perspectives on this human experience; comedy, since laughter is the best medicine; and history, so that I can know what I’m talking about politically and understand the context in which certain factions of our nation view the(ir) world. I turned to Nick, a history buff, requesting an American history lesson that starts at the beginning. He handed me Mayflower from his bookshelf, and it’s an absolutely riveting read.
“In the end, both sides wanted what the Pilgrims had been looking for in 1620: a place unfettered by obligations to others. But from the moment Massasoit decided to become the Pilgrims’ ally, New England belonged to no single group. For peace and for survival, others must be accommodated. The moment any of them gave up on the difficult work of living with their neighbors—and all of the compromise, frustration, and delay that inevitably entailed—they risked losing everything. It was a lesson that Bradford and Massasoit had learned over the course of more than three long decades. That it could be so quickly forgotten by their children remains a lesson for us today.”
The Dead by James Joyce
The Dead is a novella, part of Joyce’s The Dubliners… and, quite frankly, the best of the bunch. It is poignant, superbly visual (to the point where I could see the snowfall and the candles flickering beyond the room of any particular scene), and boasts an all-too-relatable twist at the end.
“He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
At age 11, this book was love at first reading. Then matched only by my love of Shakespeare, Wilde opened up a poetic world of allegory to which I had not quite previously been exposed. The story is about a young, naive, incredibly attractive man (Dorian Gray) whose ego is inflated by two adoring patrons and thus is granted his wish: that his portrait age and take on the unseemly wrinkles of sin while his body stays young forever, despite his bad choices. Moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for, of course.
“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This book really resonated with me in high school, so I thought I’d revisit it this past month. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same effect! Interesting how that happens. Nonetheless, it’s a good and quick read, about a “strong man” named Okonkwo of an Ibo village in Nigeria who falls from grace with the tribal world and doesn’t quite know how to adapt.
“Then listen to me,” he said and cleared his throat. “It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.”
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
In the same vein of many of these reads, I’m rediscovering the glory of A Clockwork Orange, one of my favorites in high school (that I read of my own accord! What a dork). After making a good dent in it this morning, I know I’m going to love it just as much as (if not more than) I once did.
“It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.”
Phew! That was a doozy. All this to say that reading is so good for the mind, the soul, and even the body (a good rest is where it’s at). I usually read in the morning after breakfast while I’m sipping my coffee cozied up on the couch. It’s one of my favorite times of the day. Le sigh. (And hey, let’s follow each other on Goodreads!)