According to my paychecks, my life is about books. Well, sort of. What this means is that a long time ago, my parents encouraged a hobby, indulged it a lot, got on board with a liberal arts degree, and then nodded encouragingly and smiled when I told them I wanted to quit my grown-up job and become the type of doctor that doesn’t help people. Worse yet, the type of doctor whose life doesn’t get an hour-long drama.
Can you imagine how it would play on tv, though? Ooh! Rushing to teach comp in the basement! Circling chairs! Assigning group work! Having too much coffee during class and sneaking out to pee! Making copies! Fun activities to spur conversation and teach academic argument! Printing something off J-STOR in the computer lab because the University’s computing system doesn’t acknowledge her as someone who can print to the main office!^ Adversity! Plagiarism hearings! Writing groups! Citations galore!
But anyway, a while ago*, I stopped reading for fun. Because I read for a living. To come home and crack open a book after a long day of work felt like, well, work. Plus, Rock of Love 2 was on, and I wanted to be a part of the cultural moment. That didn’t mean, however, that the books didn’t keep piling up. A life-long recipient of books as presents** for no occasion, I continued to receive books — really, really good books, like everything Junot Diaz wrote — on a regular basis. But at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to break a binding***, so I let my habit of keeping up with non-school books (which was an unusual, but fun, hobby for a lot of grad school) slide for a few months. Or maybe a year.
But when I started reading again, and well, even though I get pissed by jokes that hang on my nerdiness and bookisheness as their premise, I remembered that I friggin’ love a good story. And because I’m seven types of bossypants, I’m now going to list the books that you should read based on the books that I really enjoyed this year. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s something to start with:
1. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Really, seriously, just read it. And, when you’re done, pick up Junot Diaz’s short story collection Drown. (Note: I actually read this in 2009, but I saw it on the shelf and I was like, “Damn, if people haven’t read this yet, they’re totally behind. Time for me to let them know they should get with the program.”)
2. Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys. While not Michael Chabon’s most highly regarded**** novel, it’s kind of a perennial favorite. And in the middle of July, it was the best thing that happened to me. When you’re done, you should pick up his newest book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs. I’d really like Chabon to write more long fiction soon, but this most recent turn with the personal essay was also pretty important to me this summer.
3. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Just too good. Almost so good it hurts. Especially the title essay. When you’re done, grab a copy of Consider the Lobster so that you don’t go through complete withdrawal.
4. Stieg Larsson, The Millenium Trilogy. Not for the faint of heart, mildly squeamish, or easily confused. But if you can give your life over to an ultra-violent tale of Swedish intrigue for a few weeks (its like, 1800 pages long when you add up all three books), it’s worth getting caught up in. I mean, I broke my no hardcovers rule for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and spent about a week at the pool using the metallic dustjacket to blind my fellow swimmers while Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist did some damage, Swedish-style. Just be warned: if you get into it, it will own you. Make sure you call your family and friends before you start reading to let them know why you won’t be in touch.
5. Rebecca Traister, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women. Because sisterhood is powerful. And also, Traister’s analysis of women’s role in the 2008 election is super smart.
6. Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. I was big on essays this year, but this was the only collection I read (or wanted to read) from someone who’s my peer (age-wise). And I was glad to find a similar soul out there, even if I’ve only met her on paper*****.
7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This is how I go to bed at night. Do you have a problem with that? Also, now I understand (and am still learning) all the Sherlockian in-jokes. Who’s the nerd now, bitches?
8. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried. I taught all of these this year (In the same class! Crazy and awesome, right?), which meant I re-re-read them. And once again, I was in love. Also, Huck Finn made the news today, so you should see what all the fuss is about. Oh yeah, and, if you feel nothing when you read these books, you have no soul. You should call someone to have yourself declared dead inside.
But just so you don’t think I’m handing out homework and doing none myself, here’s what’s currently in my “to read” pile. And yes, I have a “to read” pile. It’s sitting in front of me right now. Bite me.
1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I’ve made significant dents in both books, but was interrupted by the start of the school year in both cases. But I plan on not becoming one of those people who’s always planning on reading/finishing/understanding Infinite Jest, so I’ll be making time for it.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
3. Collum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
4. Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
^ I will never let this die. NEVER. At least, not until I can print freely.
* January, 2008, to be exact. That’s when I started reading for my qualifying exams. There wasn’t time until May to consider the idea that books weren’t my enemies. And by that point, I decided that ABD meant All Books Dead (to me).
** Which is both cool and not so cool. Cool when it’s a random,”Here, I was in Barnes and Noble and I picked this up for you. Enjoy this book/present for no occasion,” or even “We all know how important #s 1-105 of The Babysitters Club are to you. So, we make sure we keep you in the Ann M. Martin,” and generally sucky when your brother is awash in Ninja Turtles and you’re worried about running out of shelf space at age eight.
*** This is how you can tell my books from other people’s. Also, this is how you can tell what I’ve read and what I haven’t. While I’m pretty good about keeping my things nice, I need to break the bindings on my books. (Note: I only break the bindings of books I personally own. I’d never break a lender.) They just don’t feel right in my hand otherwise. Also, if the binding’s intact, the book doesn’t lay flat when you’re eating. And that is essential. Also, I hate hardcovers.
**** And so I guess, by some critical metric, not his best. Because that would be The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is also worth reading.
***** Meaning that after I read this passage:
“The day I get shot in a bodega (buying cigarettes, naturally) will in all likelihood be the day before laundry Sunday and the day after I decided to clean out my closet, got bored halfway through, and opted to watch sitcoms in my prom dress instead,”
I was glad to know someone else out there thinks like I do about the things I think about, like what my parents would find in my house if I was killed during the day. Also, who doesn’t know that the best part about living alone is the freedom to play non-judgmental dress up in front of the tv?