Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

Five Minute Book Blurb: Why Write?

A few weeks before the new year, I found myself wandering through my local book shop as snow gently floated outside of the store’s big bay window. I’d come with the explicit purpose of selecting the first book to read during my year of writing and reading to come. Less than five minutes into my browsing, Mark Edmundson’s book Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters seized my attention. “Why write?” the inside cover asked. “Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read—read as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading? Why write, when the world wants to be informed, not enlightened; to be entertained, not inspired?” I nodded so forcefully that my head felt it might bobble off my shoulders. We were only a few weeks out from the worst election in U.S. history, and I couldn’t help but think of a nation obsessed with fake news and Facebook politics. I’d only read the synopsis on the cover, but this book was already speaking my language. So I snatched it up and headed home, excited to crack the cover when the new year, and my year of reading, officially began. Unfortunately, I’d soon discover that my year of reading would not start with a bang, as they say, but with a whimper.

Edmundson begins strong with a beautiful and inspiring foreword. Among other reasons, like learning to think and building up the muscles of your mind, Edmundson says that writing is important because “by coming up with fresh and arresting words to describe the world accurately, the writer expands the boundaries of her world, and possibly her readers’ worlds, too.” Afterwards, Edmundson breaks down the book by reasons you should and should not write along with the pleasures and perils that come with the craft. Each chapter is dedicated to a possible benefit or pitfall with Edmundson using his own reflections, experiences, and interpretations of what other famous writers have said about writing to argue his position.

The first chapters of the book are enjoyable enough; Edmundson discusses the importance of writing, even in a world inundated with the mindless prattlings of everyone on the internet, and reflects upon the difficulty of transitioning from your “habitual self,” which is still thinking about the dishes in the sink and the humdrum tasks of everyday life, to the creative self, which can delve into the words and worlds of your creative mind. Despite these welcome reflections, the book quickly becomes insufferable. Edmundson takes every opportunity to wax poetic about his favorite canonical authors, leaving the reader feeling as if she were stuck in a lecture hall while Edmundson talks in circles about the greatness of old, white men.

At another point, Edmundson retells a story that appears in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. Without crediting the story to Solnit, Edmundson recaps her personal experience with a man who explains the premise of her own book to her, insisting that he knows more about the subject even after he discovers that she’s the author of the book he’s explaining. After his retelling, Edmundson says he’s “not sure [he] believes this one out and out.” I’m sure Solnit would not appreciate the irony of a man explaining her experience to his readers in his own words without so much as mentioning her name or granting credibility to her story. If I didn’t have a book quota to meet, I would’ve snapped the book shut right then and never turned back. One Goodreads reader remarked that “women were an afterthought for Edmundson,” and it certainly seems that Edmundson thought he could cover his bases by citing Emily Dickinson and, on occasion, substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine one. Unfortunately for Edmundson, his lip service to women can’t cover up his white male privilege.

Despite its many downfalls, Why Write? did offer a few refreshing insights. For example, Edmundson discusses the importance of choosing the right medium for writing, noting that word processors can block our creativity, if only because our words appear so official and well-formatted, like a work that’s already complete the moment the words are written. Instead, he advocates for putting pen to paper when drafting; as a writer that mostly drafts on a computer, I was pleasantly surprised at how composing in a notebook opened the floodgates of my brain and how easy it was to edit my jottings into something more polished as I converted my draft into a typed document.

However, Edmundson’s best argument is for the importance of writing itself. Why write in the age of information overload and rampant skimming? It’s the question that hangs over the whole book. Edmundson argues that writing—good or bad, published or unpublished—preserves the timeline of our lives and is important for that reason alone. “Our writings create constellations[,]” Edmundson say. “They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life.” Really, what could be more beautiful than that? Unfortunately, though, a handful of thoughtful or inspiring ideas does not make a remarkable book.

Last year, I moved for the third time in less than three years. As I packed up my belongings, I resolved that, moving forward, I would keep only the books that truly inspired me, books that I’d regularly refer to as a writing handbook of sorts. It’s safe to say that Edmundson’s book will soon find its way to the donation pile.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which also delves into the importance of writing in the modern world as well as how writing is akin to a spiritual practice.

Typically, I’d also link to a review from a more well-known publication as well, but I couldn’t find any to date. So, for now, I suppose you’re stuck with my opinion.

 

 

Five Minute Book Blurb: The Art of Memoir

I’ve always identified myself as a fiction writer. Creative nonfiction, as a genre, didn’t enter into my awareness until I was a couple of years into college, and even then, the idea of writing it never occurred to me. Creative nonfiction was for those who had lived extraordinary lives or those who had survived horrendous childhoods plagued with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, those who had built schools in Afghanistan or those with collections of exotic stories after traveling the world. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school that I made my first attempt at writing my own true stories as part of a nonfiction class and started to discover what writing nonfiction meant.

Compelled by my experiences in Ecuador and a need to reconcile my life there with the high-paced American life that I live now, I recently picked up Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in an attempt to figure out how to render lived experiences to the page. The week before, I had settled down to begin unwinding the matted yarn ball of memories that is my Peace Corps life and realized that I had a multitude of questions about writing in this genre: What if the details are fuzzy and I can’t remember every event in a sequence of occurrences? How do I tap the mixed up card catalog of memories that is my mind so I can render the details on the page?  Is there a secret strategy for rediscovering memories long forgotten? How do I muster the courage to include the details that portray myself and others in a less than flattering light? Does writing nonfiction necessarily mean giving up all of your secrets?

If you’re not lucky enough to be one of Karr’s students at Syracuse University, reading The Art of Memoir is the next best thing to taking her memoir writing class. Citing her own creative process while writing her three best-selling memoirs and referring to a list of others that she regularly teaches, Karr explains the ins and outs of writing memoir, dedicating entire chapters to unraveling the thread of memory, dealing with difficult portrayals of friends and family, and defining what truth means in the context of memoir. The reoccurring theme that ties the book together is why we write memoir in the first place. As Karr points out, good stories don’t always make good memoir material; instead, she says, we write memoir to make sense of lived experience, to explore the details of our lives more fully and understand what it means in the greater context of who we are. Throughout the book, she dissects passages, line by line, from other admired memoirs, illustrating how any lived experience, if rendered truthfully and with emotion, can capture a reader’s interest. Multiple chapters also contain lists of practical writing strategies, and what many disliked about this book—the extremely technical discussion of the craft of writing—is what I so loved the most.

As I sit with my thoughts and memories now, I find myself weighing the emotional significance of each and reconsidering how snippets of my lived experience can be incorporated in a way that impacts the reader rather than just tells them a good story. Karr’s book also provides a good reminder as to why we write, even in the face of doubt and unpromised reward:

“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world. And you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts.”

It’s an argument for revising, but it reminds me why I get up before sunrise every day to scribble down my thoughts, even when the words come slow and the work is frustrating.

Writers who are well versed in the world of memoir or who are looking for prescriptive rules on how to write a best-selling book will be unsatisfied with Karr’s book. If there’s anything a true writer knows, it’s that there isn’t a one tried and true method. For this nonfiction novice, though, Karr’s book struck the right balance between instructional and theoretical, helping me to reimagine how to approach writing about a complex time in my life and nudging me to finally put some words to paper. If you’re a memoir lover, you lose nothing from reading this book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with an expansive list of memoirs to study as you journey down your own path of turning memories into pages.

This is a great book to read if… you’re making your first venture into nonfiction and/or memoir writing, or if you’ve already begun and you just need a helpful nudge to get back on track.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… On Writing by Stephen King, which also discusses the craft of writing in specific terms.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review…(especially one with an opposing point of view), I’d suggest this one by Gregory Cowles, who believes that Karr’s book is scattered and that her treatment of truth in memoir overlooks exactly what makes the genre so appealing: the formation and subjective recreation of identity.

 

 

 

Finding the Novel Cure

A few months back, as my bus trundled along Lake Shore Drive, carrying me to another hectic work day, I opened an article—entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?— that one of my most wonderful English professors had posted to Facebook. I already knew my personal answer to the question, but I love reading articles that confirm my anecdotal evidence, so I opened it on my cell phone and dove right in. (If you haven’t read it, stop right here and click that link immediately. Seriously, hop to it!)

To my surprise, the article that I thought would be full of statistics and scientific evidence on the mood-lifting effects of reading was actually an article on bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Despite having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, I had never heard of bibliotherapy. The idea was immediately enticing. Using books to cure one’s ailments? What could be more magical and lovely?

Like most avid readers, I’ve been experiencing the power of the written word since I was young. Despite my interest in books from a young age, the first time I can remember the saving grace of words was as a junior in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador for a summer, and as I boarded the plane to go to a developing country alone, the words of Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series kept echoing in my head: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Those words became my mantra that summer, lending me courage as I teetered above the Andes mountains in a small propeller plane flying from Quito to Cuenca, mimed my needs to my host family while trying to speak a foreign language that felt like speaking with a cork in my mouth, and navigated foreign streets in a city 15 times bigger than any city I’d ever lived in. They say that you are the stories you tell yourself, and Christopher Robin assured me that, despite my doubts and fears, I could do this on my own.

Since then, there have been plenty of times when the words of literature have surfaced from the dark of my mind, right when I’m experiencing something difficult, like a whispered thought from God. When I’m taking on a new project or I feel nervous about putting myself out there creatively or professionally, I remember “I had to do it for myself” (Everything is Illuminated). While mourning the death of my grandmother and watching the terror of the January 2015 Paris attacks, I thought of one of my most beloved protagonists, Oskar, and his “heavy boots” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). When I’m struggling with anxiety, I think of Sylvia Plath’s “I am, I am, I am” (The Bell Jar). When I feel jealous of others’ success or find myself sizing up my accomplishments with those of my coworkers or friends, I remember Amy Poehler’s “Good for her, not for me” (Yes, Please). When I’m trying to find the motivation to write or exercise or simply follow through, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” and I push myself to simply keep moving (Big Magic). Needless to say, after many books and many experiences, I’m inclined to believe that books can help with anything.

For weeks after reading that article, I’d found myself idly thinking about The Novel Cure, a sort of medical dictionary put together by two bibliotherapists, and wondering what sorts of great book recommendations lay within. So, for Christmas this year, I bought myself a copy! There’s never a time that I couldn’t use a good book recommendation to cure what’s ailing me.

The day the book arrived, I sat on my couch, leisurely paging through the list of ailments and their novel remedies. There were many that I felt applied to my life; some were concrete and diagnosable medical ailments—anxiety, having; panic attacks; flying, fear of; claustrophobia. Others were more general, abstract, and even funny ailments—Monday morning feeling; brainy, being exceptionally (an ailment that I totally understand); writer’s block; tired and emotional, being.

I continued to peruse the pages, searching for the perfect diagnosis to start with, confident that I would know it when I saw it. Then it jumped out at me. My soul gave a little gasp of immediate understanding before I even read the description for this ailment, and I knew this was where I needed to start.

City fatigue.

It is exactly what it sounds like. In my case, it’s not being able to truly nap in over two years. It’s wanting to ride the bus without having to listen to the prattling, inane conversations of 20 strangers yapping on their cell phones. It’s every time the bus doesn’t show up and it’s -25 degrees outside. It’s the drug-addled person shouting on the train while you’re locked in a tiny car in a tunnel beneath the earth. Or listening to your downstairs neighbor relentlessly blast his bass for literally 10 hours without reprieve on the day after the Paris attacks when you are hungover, weary, and sure that all of humanity is spiraling into a pit of absolute madness. It’s that unending craving for space, quiet, and delicious solitude. Yes, city fatigue and I are well acquainted, but it’s time to finally distance myself with this constant companion. So I’m starting with The City and The City by China Miéville, the recommended cure for city fatigue and a murder mystery that focuses on the tiring matter of “unseeing” those around us. With any luck, maybe I’ll learn a few coping mechanisms.

This year, I’ve resolved to read at least 27 books, or one book every other week; it’ll be challenging given that I’m planning 2 weddings and trying to establish a daily writing practice on top of regular adult duties. Moreso, the goal is to remind me of the importance of reading during every available opportunity. With The Novel Cure in my library, I know I’ll have plenty of great recommendations at my fingertips. For those of you who aren’t so interested in the physical index, you can also find plenty of good advice, book recommendations, and inspiration on The Novel Cure website. Incidentally, they also do “surgery,” or provide customized diagnoses for readers who write in with their ailments.

As for me, by the time of my next post, I’ll hopefully be ready to face the city with abandon once again. If not, there’s also a novel cure for misanthropy, so that may be the one to check out next.

Reading Drought

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It happened. Just now. I finished a book! And a great one at that!

For months now, I’ve been suffering through a long, listless reading drought.  I’ve been attempting to read books that seem intellectually interesting, but ultimately don’t captivate my imagination. I’ll sit down, intent on making some serious progress, and find my mind wandering or my eyelids drooping instead. Would I like to be interested in these topics? Yes. But am I? $4.50 of library fees say that I’m not. (When library fees come a quarter at a time, that’s a lot of disinterest and misplaced motivation!)

So, I finally faced the facts, returned my not-so-interesting library books, and splurged on the new releases I’ve been drooling over for a while now. After all, one of my goals for 30 is to read 30 inspiring and interesting books this year. I certainly can’t do that if I can’t get past the first 20 pages of my book.

Now, you can tell the state of my life by the books I’m reading.

My dear loyal readers, get ready for some book reviews, because I’m diving head first into my good reads!

What I Learned from a Year of Reading

It’s been a year of transition and learning for this reader/writer/wanderer. Numbed by the most bitterly cold winter of my life and the culture shock that comes from moving between lives and worlds, I embarked on a mission to read a book a week for the entire year. After returning from Ecuador, I’d felt like a stranger blindly wandering through a life that wasn’t entirely mine; reading, I hoped, would help me learn something about why I couldn’t get back to myself, or rather, about the person I had become between leaving for Ecuador and returning to the States.

For a year, I read on the train and in the bus, in doctor’s offices and coffee shops and by the lake, while making dinner and waiting for friends, as I brushed my teeth before bed and during my limited lunch breaks at work. At the beginning, there were many successes; when it’s literally 50 degrees below zero, there’s not much to do other than read. Then summer finally, unbelievably arrived, bringing adventures with friends and family, months of 12-hour work days, entire weeks of binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and a fantastic new relationship that’s kept me wonderfully distracted. Now, as the temperature wanders back into the negatives, I’m finishing out the year with a total of 37 books, averaging a little more than a book every week and a half of 2014. I didn’t completely achieve my goal, but I did learn a lot along the way. Below are the biggest lessons I learned during my year of reading:

1. My threshold for finishing a book in a week is approximately 250 pages; on average, fear of flying begins at age 27; and the more you replay a memory in your mind, the more cemented it is in your brain.

You learn a wealth of interesting facts when throwing back a book a week. For instance, I learned how the use of memory palaces—or placing visual cues in a mental recreation of a familiar place—facilitates your brain’s ability to recall information. I learned what parts of the brain trigger and manage anxiety and a multitude of strategies for clearing such stimuli from an overtaxed brain. I learned how chickens are sexed. I learned about the history of machismo in Latin America and the altered mental state caused by mourning. I learned what vulnerability looks like in work, study, and relationships and why it’s important in all facets of life. I also learned exactly where in my commute I can balance on my tip toes just long enough to wrestle my book out of or into my bag, an important lesson when packed into a shifting, tilting, herky-jerky train.

As I paged through book upon book, I also began to see themes from previous books reappear time and time again, which brings me to my next lesson….

2. Everything is interconnected, or reading makes you a good conversationalist.

After a mere two months of my reading challenge, I quickly realized that the more I read, the more I had to say to those around me. I discussed the mechanics of memory with my coworkers and the science behind flying with my father who is an active sports pilot. With friends, I marveled over the dark, yet hopeful themes in Saunders’ short stories, themes that moved me to tears even while sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the L. As it turns out, my reading challenge was also great material for first-date conversation and an easy way to tell if I should pursue a second date.

Fun fact: I knew I’d snagged a keeper when my boyfriend confessed that the first book he checked out with his brand new library card was Pride and Prejudice. *Swoon*

3. No TV required.

Before I began my journey in reading, I spent a lot of time watching TV, particularly the low-budget reality trash that fills the MTV and TLC lineups. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve had since college. “No! You’re too smart to watch this trash,” my friends would moan as I turned on the latest episode of Teen Mom or Intervention. At the time, I told myself that I was simply giving my mind a break from studying and the literal hours of news I watched and/or read every day. (Little did I know that TV news media is just a separate but equally terrible and unconscionable form of reality TV.) When I returned to the United States, I also returned to my old reality TV habits. After my forced, long-term separation from reality TV while living in Ecuador, however, I couldn’t mindlessly consume the drivel without noticing how numb and stupid I felt afterwards or the way that society seemed to be lowering itself to meet the bad behavior I’d witnessed on my TV screen. I knew that to feel better in my own skin, I needed to rescue my brain first.

So I turned off the TV and picked up the books, and hot damn did it feel good! I could almost feel my brain cells regenerating with every new page. Of course, I always knew that I didn’t need TV, but the wonderful lesson was that I didn’t even miss it.*  I went months without even touching my remote and this year I plan to cancel my cable completely. Good riddance!

*I’m counting House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as a different kind of TV here, since I feel these series hinge on the same elements you would find in a well-crafted story.

4. Some books shouldn’t be read in a week.

When I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, I didn’t realize that the book was nearly 400 pages long. I loved the riveting strangeness of the plot, the bizarre, yet relate-able characters, and the richness of the story…until I realized that it was nearly the end of the week and I still had 200 pages to finish. I dutifully forged through the rest of the novel, feeling exhausted and annoyed by the time I finished.

Towards the end of the year, when finishing 52 books was clearly unattainable, I began The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. With no deadline looming over me, I luxuriated in the detail, taking the time to truly contemplate the characters and let the themes percolate in my mind. It was absolutely liberating. This coming year, I’m excited to tackle the fat books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelf since my challenge started, because books are richer when you have the time to get completely lost in the story.

5. Reading begets more reading.

Before this past year, I hadn’t done much reading. Thanks to post-graduate school burnout and the pervasive idleness of Ecuadorian life, I’d forgotten what it truly meant to read for pleasure.

As Malcolm X said, “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

After my year of reading, I am more curious, more hungry for knowledge, more passionate about the world around me, and more connected to myself than I have been in a long time. Thanks to a regular regimen of reading, my mind has been fully reawakened, and I have never loved reading as much as I do today.

My increased book consumption naturally led to more online reading as well. I began with lists on good books for 20 somethings, then gradually transitioned to articles about gender, studies on language and memory, and interesting pieces on the mythical concept of work-life balance. As I went through the highs and lows of life, I looked to the written word for guidance. Disappointed and disheartened by the Hobby Lobby ruling, I reflected on Rebecca Traister’s I Don’t Care If You Like It, an article that I still think about with an ache of identification and a surge of determination. After discussing the sometimes dismissive attitudes of male colleagues, a friend recommended an excellent story from NPR, Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?, which empowered me and impacted the way I interact with my coworkers. Exhausted and overworked, I sought solace in I Came Undone and Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed. Anytime I needed a good read in addition to my designated book for the week, I also perused the always excellent Longreads blog.

As I mulled over these concepts, I also realized…

6. We are what we put into our brains.

I am convinced now more than ever that what we put into our brains dictates who we are and what we will become.

This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when we just need an hour of mind-numbing TV or Facebooking to take off the edge at the end of the day. (See point #3.) As it turns out, Buzzfeed lists, crying reality TV stars, and Candy Crush Saga are easy to consume, but don’t offer the rejuvenation that we truly crave.

Within the first months of my reading challenge, I felt more creative and motivated to write than I had in years. Instead of plopping myself on the couch with leftovers and the TV remote/cell phone, I soothed my tired soul with words. The more I read, the more I wrote and desired to write. My brain was always tired, but, to my surprise, I always felt regenerated by the end of the night.

6. Minor failures do not constitute a total failure.

I may have failed at reading 52 books in a year, but I succeeded at feeling good in my skin again. Books offered me a form of escapism that didn’t numb me; instead it allowed me to examine myself indirectly through the struggles, joys, and life experiences of others, fictional or not. Through books, I found a way to work through the hard parts of my Peace Corps service and the new, sometimes unrecognizable, person I was upon returning. Of course, reading wasn’t the sole factor for my successful reintegration into U.S. culture. Reading grounded me; counseling and the unconditional support of family and friends helped me work through reverse culture shock and rebuild my life in the States. As such, I am eternally grateful for those who dedicate their lives to guiding others through their struggles, for the people in my life who love me through all the ups and downs, and for the writers who take on the risk and hard work of writing about the oddities, struggles, tragedies, mysteries, and complexities of life.

So what’s in store for this blog now that my year of reading is over? As I mentioned in a previous post, 2015 is the year of focus—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. This blog, fortunately, is one of the projects that I’ll be dedicating myself to this year. Thanks to a 1.5 hour round trip commute, I’ll have plenty of reading material to reflect on, and given that one of my many New Years resolutions is to finally write a collection of essays, I’ll have plenty of writing insights to share as well. To those who have been reading and commenting, thanks for taking this journey with me; I hope you’ll check back often.

Here’s to a productive and prolific 2015!

A One-Sentence Review of My Favorite Reads of 2014

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer—A quirky and insightful read about the mechanics of memory, the mysterious nature of the brain, carefully crafting our own perception of our lives, and the often-overlooked importance of forgetting.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—Using straightforward and simple language, Didion portrays what it truly means to grieve and pay tribute to those we love in images that struck hard and stuck with me long after closing the book.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—A magnificently crafted book about the eternal love between family and the horrors of life, portrayed in detail so real and vivid that I dreamt of losing my own sister for nights on end. (Note: That was the worst part of reading the book. This novel is truly excellent.)

Tenth of December by George Saunders—As usual, with great talent and mastery, Saunders shows us the best and worst of humanity, blurring the lines between bad and good and striking both hope and despair in the hearts of his readers.

1984 by George Orwell—Disturbing and impactful, this book made me realize that in a society devoid of freedom of speech and human rights, not even your personal thoughts and memories are safe.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—A tear-jerker that felt more substantive than many other YA novels I’ve read and truly made me consider the differences between empathy, sympathy, and love, especially in the face of terminal illness.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg–An encouraging, affirming, and comforting guide on why writing is important, how it spiritually nourishes us, and how to create a life that centers around a daily writing practice.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way  We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—An insightful look into why vulnerability leads to greater self-fulfillment, better parenting, work successes, and more meaningful relationships and a practical guide on how to bring vulnerability into our everyday lives.

A One-Sentence Review of My Least Favorite Reads of 2014

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney—Another forgettable book about a self-pitying 20-something wallowing in drugs, alcohol, and despair.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro-Yawn fest.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg—Although this book contained some nuggets of wisdom, I couldn’t get past Sandberg’s focus on working within the confines of the patriarchy to rise to the top or the in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck that contributed to much of her success and therefore greatly separates her from the majority of the working women that she aims to address and motivate.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami—In spite of a very catchy name, Marukami’s book offers mostly train-of-thought observations and lacks the originality and insight that I expected and craved.

I am no longer at the Council on Foreign Relations at Sixty-eighth and Park but sitting across from John at breakfast in the dining room of the Bristol in Paris in November 2003. We are each reading the International Herald Tribune, hotel copies, with little stapled cards showing the weather for the day. The cards for each of those November mornings in Paris showed an umbrella icon. We walked in the rain at the Jardin du Luxembourg. We escaped from the rain into St. Sulpice. There was a mass in progress. John took communion. We caught cold in the rain at the Jardin de Ranelagh. On the flight back to New York John’s muffler and my jersey smelled of wet wool. On takeoff he held my hand until the plane began leveling.

He always did.

Where did that go?

–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; I had to take a breather after reading that one, and I’ve thought of that passage every single time I’ve traveled by plane since then.

Our heartache poured into one another like water from cup to cup. Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell my story to my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.

-Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

Ray Bradbury, on writing

When anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old, you know? I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.”

–Sherman Alexie, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian