Sometime during the 9th grade, reading for pleasure became difficult for me. I think it’s fair to say that I was hitting my resume-building stride during that year, starting a club with a friend and working on my unwittingly ballsy History Fair project about Richard Nixon (that’s a story for another day). Since then, I’ve struggled to find my way back to the time when I would race through arithmetic and grammar so that I could get back to reading stories that enthralled and excited me. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read almost all of the fiction novels in the library, but each school year I’ve become less inclined to add to the thousand or so pages my professors assign per week.
Nonetheless, after a week or so of Netflix (read: Buffy the Vampire Slayer), I feel ready to unplug and delve into some good books. I am a compulsive buyer of used books, so addicted to building my library that I once hid a stack of books in my car to conceal my spending. With so many unread books on my shelves, I decided to choose titles that would give my summer a cohesive theme. It’s a short stack, but considering that I’ll be starting my 45 hour, 7 day work week soon, I wanted to set a goal I actually believe I can accomplish.
So, here are my picks. My dual themes are travel and writing; I’m interested in what these authors have to say and eager to learn what I should look for in my own travels and writing about them.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig. This book is part of a three-book collection recommended by my friend and former teacher, Michael DeLalla. Michael is a professional guitarist whose gigs have taken him all over the world, and the guitar workshop he taught each summer changed my life. I discovered the joy of playing music with other people and met some of my best friends, including Billy, there. Zen is one of three books Michael recommends that everyone read. Curiously, Barnes & Noble shelves it in the religion section. I took an incredibly interesting class on Tibetan Buddhism at U.Va., and although it by no means gave me expertise on the subject, I’m interested to see whether this text emphasizes nothingness, simplicity, and fantastic mental feats the way The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Life of Shabkar did. The back cover of Zen sounds somewhat Disneyfied to me (“”a profound personal and philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions…the small, essential triumphs that propel us forward!”) so I’m hoping for something a little more reserved and modest.
- See Under: Love by David Grossman. I’m currently halfway through this one; one of my professors assigned parts of it for class, so I’ve returned to finish it up. Grossman is an Israeli journalist/novelist whose creativity is actually unreal. The book is about a lot of things, but its frame is essentially the story of a young boy named Momik who grows up to become a writer struggling to deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust, which his parents refuse to discuss with him. It’s about imagination’s power to transform and create and the messy human relationships that form the underpinning of momentous events. This summary misses so much; the book is full of wonderful and surprising images and ideas, like this passage:
The next moment we were no longer alone. The air was all aquiver. My hand began to tremble as though it had a life of its own. My fingers pulled and pressed together. I looked at them in astonishment: they started to pull, but there was nothing there. They didn’t stop moving. They groped. They prodded the air to make it flow toward them in a certain pattern, they propelled it wisely, stubbornly, churned it into a thicker substance, and suddenly there was moisture on my fingertips, and I understood that I was drawing the story out of nothingness, the sensations and words and flattened images, embryonic creatures, still wet, blinking in the light with remnants of nourishing placenta of memory, trying to stand up on their wobbly legs, and tottering like day-old deer, till they were strong enough to stand before me with a measure of confidence….
- The Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. This book was a high school graduation gift from my friend and mentor, Paige. Paige happens to be friends with Tony Horwitz and Geraldine Brooks, two married writers who are jokingly referred to as “the Pulitzers” by friends like Paige. Tony Horwitz is basically my hero; I decided I wanted to become a writer while reading Confederates in the Attic, my first exposure to creative, journalistic, history-based nonfiction. It’s a pretty specific blend but encapsulates everything I care about. Last summer, I read Baghdad Without a Map, Horwitz’s account of the time he spent in the Middle East after Geraldine’s job took them there. The Nine Parts of Desire is Brooks’ counterpart to that story – the Middle East from the perspective of a female Australian journalist. The parts of this book I’ve read so far provide an interesting look at the role of translators and translation, something other writers often gloss over.
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I was the kind of first grader who hauled Harry Potter books out to recess, so I was surprised and humbled when The Sound and the Fury completely eluded my comprehension when I attempted to tackle it in the 11th grade. Now, with some experience reading Faulkner in a college class, I feel ready to take on Faulkner once again. I actually really need to catch up on him, as I recently proposed my interdisciplinary Modern Studies thesis on his work. Choosing Faulkner as the subject of my thesis makes a lot of sense; he was writer-in-residence at U.Va., so we have a huge archive of resources, and Stephen Railton is one of the leading Faulkner scholars around. I’m interested in the broken family in Modern literature, so Faulkner’s saga of the Compton family fits my interest nicely. I hope to have read the majority of Faulkner’s catalogue by the time I begin work on my thesis, so I’m starting now.
- Dubliners by James Joyce. I owned Ulysses for years, nervously keeping it on my nightstand beneath my clock radio, before I was forced to read it in a class last fall. Despite my fear of the text’s massive size and reputation for being difficult reading, I was blown away by Joyce’s work. My professor said in lecture that it would make our pulses race, our hearts pound. “Yeah right,” I thought. “Maybe if you’re a literature professor!” But something happened to me when I read Ulysses; there’s some exciting energy packed into that text, and if it makes me a total nerd to say so, that’s fine. I’ll be so incredibly close to Dublin that I’m definitely planning to make at least one visit during my time abroad. I found an incredible literary itinerary on Dublin’s tourism website, but I need to catch up on reading if I want to make the most of it.
- Telling True Stories ed. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. This is a book of essays that I’ve picked up and put down many times in the past few years. It’s another book given to me by Paige upon my graduation, and it’s wonderful and extremely terrible in the best kind of way. The book is composed of essays from journalists and nonfiction authors, who select a story from their portfolios and then analyze its making. I love the way this book teaches writing; it’s engaging and inspiring. What drives me absolutely crazy is that with each new essay, I want to drop everything and race out to buy the book that the authors describes. Last time I put Telling True Stories down, it was to read Newjack, a fantastic book by Ted Conover, who contributed an essay about it to Telling True Stories. It’s a rabbit hole, but it’s a wonderful one.
- Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that I’m interested to see how Steinbeck characterizes his poodle, Charley, as well as America. My American Studies classes at U.Va. emphasize the point that the America encountered by white male writers like Steinbeck does not encapsulate the experiences of minority communities and vast excluded populations; still, there’s an undeniable allure about Steinbeck, who some consider the ultimate American writer, setting out to “discover America.” How can one “discover” a place so vast and varied? If Steinbeck figured it out, I want to know so that I can put that knowledge to use in Europe. I view the idea of this book with skepticism, but honestly I want to love it, and if that makes me shortsighted so be it. We’ll see.
- Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat Moon. This is another of the books Michael recommended. (The third is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and I’ve already read it.) Blue Highways is named for the fact that on old maps, main routes were depicted in red and backroads were coded in blue. William Least Heat Moon focuses on traveling through the forgotten towns, off the beaten path, in search of some kind of understanding of America. I want to know how he mapped his route – was it by accident, chance, or did he have a plan? How do you choose where to go among options that you probably know little or nothing about? How far ahead can you plan that type of trip? All of these questions are obviously relevant to my own trip planning.
And in case anyone was wondering, the print in the background of the picture above is the one Andrew Bird signed for me at his Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden concert last July. It was sheer luck, but after years of listening to Bird’s music, it was a great moment for me. I guess this is bragging, but that’s okay sometimes I think – let’s think of it as show and tell instead.