Though I often preface a reader-writer moment with detail about how and why a certain passage resonates with me, I offer this without comment as all is contained within:
"It's one of the most curious sensations that can be granted us by the chance of meetings and absences: that of being alone in an ordinarily full, noisy, or belonging-to-someone-else house. We suddenly have a sensation of absolute possession, of easy, long control, of amplitude -- as I said -- of relief and tranquility.
How good it is to be alone for a long time! To be able to talk out loud to ourselves, walk around without the bother of being seen, rest after a divagation without calls! Any house turns into a field, any room is as big as an estate.
All noises are alien, as if they belonged to a nearby but independent universe. We are, finally, kings."
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, #137
The wow-factor of podcasts comes and goes for me. I'll be off them for years and then devour twelve in a series all in one afternoon like a gluttonous podcast pig. As one does with, say, all of Murakami or Breaking Bad or The Wire. Gorge on the goodness, etc.
Two podcasts have recently captured my attention:
I will try to consume the newest podcasts in a more balanced way, but...
I've recently resolved to finish the many projects around my house that have remained unfinished (or, let's be honest, un-begun) since we moved in sixish years ago. This means many things: Craigslist scouring, eBay madness, early morning monthly pilgrimages to the Rose Bowl Flea Market (not awesome on daylight savings, still tired from yesterday's shenanigans), tile sampling for a bathroom redo, upholstery swatches for a pair of old club chairs and many overwrought thoughts about how my home could be used and all the sorts of fun that could be had if things were just a bit more sorted in this shaggy old loft. All of which is too much thinking about things that are not nearly as important as, say, all the novels I'd like to read in March, clean drinking water for all and world peace. Still. This needs to get done.
All this over-thinking and design-dreaming led me to a place I often go when I'm in need of inspiration: back issues. These past few weeks, I've been somewhat madly flipping through all my old Dwell, Domino, Elle Decor and Metropolitan Home issues for ideas that could solve for some of the unique problems we have in our space. It has been an interesting journey, re-reading these back issues. When I come across a home or a feature or an idea that I first read about in 2006, I am reminded "Ah, yes! I remember this wonderful thing..." as if I'm visiting a familiar home, a treasured memory. Strange, how these strangers' homes are somehow buried in my subconscious and upon seeing a certain piece of art hung just so or a painted black floor change a room entirely, I'm reminded of the first time I loved the idea years ago.
Funny how these ideas and images are floating about within us and a single flip of the page can bring it all freshly back, when pre-flip there was no awareness of holding these images within and no sadness at not being able to recall them.
I'm not even really a back-issue-saving kind of person. I routinely recycle nearly every magazine or periodical that enters my home to avoid clutter. But for whatever reason, I thought these would be great reference material. As if my past self was saving these for my future self so I could have the pleasure I've had these past three weeks. "Ah, yes. I remember this wonderful thing..."
I also have several Believer, Tin House, Granta, Paris Review and Zyzzyva back issues (perhaps I'm a back-issue-saving-kind of person after all) and I'm hoping they'll have the same effect. I look forward to revisiting these stories and essays I loved when I first read them but that I have no recollection of at the moment.
I've been road-traveling again. Not in California. I've got an entirely new batch of roadside insights to share that have nothing to do with old memories conjured by familiar landscapes and much more to do with deeply buried dreams unlocked by entirely new scenery. More on that soon.
When packing for a trip that was all about seeking out snow (new snow, powder snow, the kind you will not currently find in Mammoth or Tahoe), I felt instinctively that two things would be the things to bring with: an old journal filled with old writing scraps (time to make something of it all, perhaps) and a copy of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet.
What I could not have known as I was flurry-packing down jackets, wind-block shells and low-light ski goggles is that these two items were, in fact, the items. I read a few scraps of my old work and had a strange sensation. I put them away. Picked them back up again. Felt strangeness again and again. Who had written these words? How was she so confident years ago in a way that I am not now? Where has she gone and can I get her back again?
I set my old words aside for the rest of the trip. This adventure was to be about fun, about snow, about wide open Wyoming spaces, about après ski and conversation with interesting locals. My old words had conjured up more than I intended. They'd made me feel somehow less. Somehow diminished. Somehow wishing the less wise me of years ago could re-emerge, then merge with the wiser (but meeker) me of now and embolden my future writings. It was too much to think about so I set them aside and didn't open them again.
I did, however, crack open Pessoa's disquieted thoughts. Here's what greeted me in fits & spurts throughout the entire first section:
"In the ordinary jumble of my literary drawer, I sometimes find texts I wrote ten, fifteen, or even more years ago. And many of them seem to me written by a stranger."
"I often find texts of mine that I wrote when I was very young--when I was seventeen or twenty. And some have a power of expression that I do not remember having then. Certain sentences and passages I wrote when I had just taken a few steps away from adolescence seem produced by the self I am today, educated by years and things. I recognize I am the same as I was. And having felt that I am today making a great progress from what I was, I wonder where this progress is if I was then the same as I am today. There is a mystery in this that reduces my worth and oppresses me."
"How did I advance toward what I already was? How can the person who knows me today not know me yesterday? All this confuses me in a labyrinth where I am with myself and wander away from myself. I wander with my thoughts and I'm sure that what I'm writing now I already wrote. I remember."
"Once again, I have found something of mine, written in French, over which fifteen years must have flown now. I've never been to France, never dealt face-to-face with the French, never, therefore, exercised that language in which I had ceased to be fluent. Today I read as much French as ever. I'm older, a more experienced thinker: I must have made some progress. And the French in that passage from my distant past possesses a confidence which today I do not possess. The style is fluid, but in a way I could never be today in that language, with entire passages, complete sentences, forms and modes of expression that demonstrate a control over that language that I lost without ever remembering I had it. How is it possible to explain that? Whom did I substitute inside myself?"
"But what am I experiencing when I read myself as if I were someone else? On which bank am I standing if I see myself in the depths?"
"At other times I have found things I've written that I don't remember having written -- which is shocking -- things I don't even remember being capable of writing -- and that does frighten me. Certain phrases belong to a different mentality. It's as if I'd found an old picture, unquestionably of me, in which I had a different physique, unknown features -- but features undoubtedly mine -- all horrifyingly my own."
Though Pessoa tends toward the dramatic, I know (without question) that bringing along my old writing and casting it aside amidst a range of uncomfortable emotions only to pick up Pessoa's ramblings on the same is not an accident.
I don't know what else it might be, but I am for the moment reassured by his words.
That many believe he was crazy is, obviously, beside the point, no?
Though I did not love Lydia Millet's Ghost Lights as a complete novel (How the Dead Dream set the bar oh so high...), it is littered with passages so achingly beautiful and insights about human nature so scarily spot-on, that I enjoyed it moment to moment for the sentences in a way I did not enjoy it for the plot.
One particular section keeps coming up for me again and again. I'm not sure if it's because of the sadness it carries, the truth it delivers with a punch or the fact that I am in contact with many dogs on most days by nature of my husband's work, but it seems a somewhat fitting way to begin a new year in which I want to cut all the bullshit out of my life and get painfully real about what matters and what doesn't:
"People were like dogs and this was why they took pity on them--dogs alone all the hours of their days and always waiting. Always waiting for company. Dogs who, for all of their devotion, knew only the love of one or two or three people from the beginning of their lives till the end--dogs who, once those one or two had dwindled and vanished from the rooms they lived in, were never to be known again.
You passed like a dog through those empty houses, you passed through empty rooms...there was always the possibility of companionship but rarely the real event. For most of the hours of your life no one knew or observed you at all. You did what you thought you had to; you went on eating, sleeping, raising your voice at intruders out of a sense of duty. But all the while you were hoping, faithfully but with no evidence, that it turned out, in the end, you were a prince among men."
Just. Yeah. Sit with that a bit and see how it hits you. I've been sitting with it for weeks now and...yeah.
I've been traveling a ton this past month and it is the kind of travel that has put me in a very specific kind of mood: the writing mood. What kind of travel does that? Road travel does it for me every time. Sure there are characters in the average airport who make me curious. Fancy hotels have their story to tell, too. Yet there's something about the scenery rolling by out the window, the long stretch of highway, the bizarre little towns along the way and the people who inhabit them that I find utterly fascinating and oddly in need of closer examination.
I've lived in California my entire life. I've driven these long stretches of freeway from San Francisco to San Diego, SoCal to NorCal and back again and again over many years. When I travel these roads, they feel like my roads. The strange people in the strange shanty towns feel like my people, the towns feel like my towns. The passing of the same landmarks, the same red rock formations, the same snowy peaks through so many phases of my life gives me a history to refer to, a future to look forward to.
A trip up to San Francisco from LA, then, is not simply a trip. It is a chance to remember what that trip was like when I was 13. Then 24 and in love. Then 30 and single and full of ideas anew. Then that time we all fought in the car, alternately shouting and laughing and stewing in anger. Then that time we were headed to a funeral, silent and sad. I remember the albums I discovered with each trip. The songs I played on repeat until my heart stopped aching. The beats I tapped on my steering wheel drive, drive, driving along. With every trip I take up and down this state, I revisit all that I have been and all that I hope to still become.
I've been on three California road trips in almost as many weeks. I have a lot of stories, real and imagined, to tell.
I guess it was inevitable. All that hype. All the lead-up. All the excitement around the release of Murakami's 1Q84 and reading it right away, even though we all know I never read big, important, much ballyhooed books right away. What was I thinking?
At least I re-read all his stuff. (Oh no, I used that DFW word to make you all think I'm not as smart as I really am and to seem all casual-like. Watch out.) And I'm finally reading other things. Which is an odd sort of relief mixed with guilt. Murakami guilt: it's all the rage, haven't you heard?
At the lovely #midnightmurakami event at Skylight Books (truly sweet to meet other Murakami fans who would otherwise never venture out of their homes to speak to people in a group publicly, over cookies & tea), I picked up a few distractions:
Don't get me wrong, I've been petting my gorgeous 1Q84. I've skimmed. I'm just not ready to commit with so many other novels to devour first.
At the start of this month, I spent time in the Bay Area for a host of events and meetings and family gatherings and managed to sneak in a few days in Napa. No Napa trip would be complete without a trip to Copperfield's Books in Calistoga, where I picked up a few more distractions:
And so, you can see this fancy web of distractions I've carefully crafted. Support my indie bookstores, buy books that are not 1Q84, read those books and somehow subvert the blame all the while still suffering from acute Murakami guilt. Perhaps you are actually reading 1Q84 and have thoughts to share? Would love to hear them.
Alas, I've got another distraction to cultivate: 49ers/Giants in an hour.
Nicholas Kristof has an excellent piece in NYT about Room to Read, an organization I am deeply committed to and believe in. I've recently started volunteering with the LA Chapter of Room to Read and have been struck by how difficult it is to convince writers, readers and booklovers to donate funds so this organization can continue to do the amazing work Kristof highlights.
In part, I get it. If you are passionate about building a library, you may want to build that library with your own hands. (Despite the fact that employing locals to do this and embrace what it means has a proven record of long term success for said libraries and communities.) If you care about children reading, you want to personally hand them a book and see the smiles on their faces. You want to contribute in a very tangible way that yields immediate results...for you. In our age of want it good, want it now, 30 minutes or less...I understand why this is the often unintentional desire: to feel good about doing good RIGHT NOW. In the moment.
Yet Room to Read needs a different kind of volunteer. A different kind of donor. Someone who is down for waiting to see results and understands those results may be much greater for the waiting. For the patience. For the long term vision vs. the short term smiles of handing out a book or two.
I've never been one to do things the easy way (friends and family, I feel you) and so perhaps it makes perfect sense that Room to Read is the organization that I've chosen to focus on and invest my personal time in. I won't give you the hard sell, because Kristof's piece does that quite beautifully. What I will say is that I'm quite tired of everyone in the bookish industry talking a big game about getting more people to read, but never really following that up with action. What good is all our talk of truly defining "social reading" or building the most beautiful digital books or creating easy publisher workflows if only a few thousand American readers benefit? Room to Read represents a powerful shift away from talking and is very much about the doing.
Here are a few quotes from Kristof's piece I'm compelled to share to paint the picture:
"There are no books for kids in some languages, so we had to become a self-publisher,” Wood explains. “We’re trying to find the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia.” Room to Read has, so far, published 591 titles in languages including Khmer, Nepalese, Zulu, Lao, Xhosa, Chhattisgarhi, Tharu, Tsonga, Garhwali and Bundeli.
The cost per girl for this program is $250 annually. To provide perspective, Kim Kardashian’s wedding is said to have cost $10 million; that sum could have supported an additional 40,000 girls in Room to Read.
“I get frustrated that there are 793 million illiterate people, when the solution is so inexpensive,” Wood told me outside one of his libraries in the Mekong. “If we provide this, it’s no guarantee that every child will take advantage of it. But if we don’t provide it, we pretty much guarantee that we perpetuate poverty.”
A social media story in five parts:
Here's the thing:
THIS is what I wish everyone of my clients would do. THIS is what all the social media folk tell their clients to do. THIS is what every Mashable article is ostensibly about - connecting with your customers, finding a way to bring the online world into the offline world. You talk about social reading (yes, my much longer piece on this and its many definitions is forthcoming)? THIS. IS. IT. Facebook it if you will but I can think of no better way to show your customers how much you care about them than to pull together this kind of event, impromptu-style, from an online request to an in-person experience.
On this very day, with the event only hours away, there's a piece in Publisher's Weekly about the trouble Skylight Books is having in these oh so scary for indie bookstores times. This bookstore, struggling to stay open, is doing it right. They care so much about their customers that they are staying open tonight for us. You can talk all you want about tech and how it is changing the digital reading landscape (it is) and how you lament your favorite bookstore closing - but it means nothing if you don't put your money where your mouth is. Have you visited your local "favorite" bookstore lately? Have you purchased anything? If you live in LA, please join me and many others tonight at Skylight Books at 10pm to do your part. Buy the Murakami book, buy several others. I'll see you there. Let's do this.
Marisha Pessl: Night Film: A Novel
It promises much. Those kinds of promises rarely deliver.
Robin Sloan: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
I feel as if this will be a sort of End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas kind of thing. No idea why but if that's anywhere close to the case, I'm in.
Fiona Maazel: Woke Up Lonely: A Novel
Have heard remarkable things about this novel. Have you?