HELLO SIRS AND FRAULEINS, we made it through 2019! Blessings. Ok, sometime in 2018 I had a v uncomfy realization that I HAVE NO ATTENTION SPAN ANYMORE. Before I got an iPhone in 2012, I used to read books and journal and fill my quiet free time with long stretches of using my brain… and then I got a smart phone and my brain cells were like “this is worse than when you used to drink jungle juice out of garbage cans in college.” And my former days of focus were like “it’s been fun, but we’re leaving you with a bunch of random Buzzfeed popups and Jezebel articles that you’ll guiltily read until you die!”
When I was six, I used to read books by nightlight long after bedtime. I got through a very lonely stretch of living abroad by reading depressing Russian epics. I missed reading every day. I had read 40 something books in 2018, but it felt meandering and accidental. I wanted to get back into reading like my six year old self expected me to.
So on New Years last year I set a goal of reading a book a week, exclusively written by female authors. It felt daunting: we were about to have a baby, had dozens of flights around the world booked for work, and were on the verge of launching a new retreat. I didn’t want to scare myself, so I just casually wrote down my goal and opened the first book on New Year’s Day. With 2020 just a few hours away, I just finished my 72nd book (the best one of the year), and now it’s my mission to make everyone read everything all the time with me so we can talk about it at length (other things I want to talk about: Bachelor in Paradise,my baby’s fat wrist rolls,snacks).
The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui. A beautiful graphic novel about motherhood and immigration and it hit me right in the stomach to read it after a traumatic childbirth. Had I read it any other time than in Misa’s early days, maybe it wouldn’t have struck so deep a chord with me, but I was profoundly moved by the experience of reading it.
Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott. Tim and I read this aloud to Amisadai in the NICU, unable to hold her with anything but our voices, begging God to let her survive. The kind of book that, even if you aren’t a praying type of person, cuts you right in half if you’ve ever pleaded with God/the universe to grant you a deep desire of your heart. We couldn’t read a single paragraph without weeping in recognition and gratitude for the words to describe what our souls were going through.
Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino. I read a lot of cultural criticism in 2019 and truly love it as a genre, but nothing is quite as incisive and powerful as what Jia gave us this year. I love this book so much and I hope you read it.
The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields. This novel starts with the protagonist’s birth on a farm kitchen floor at the beginning of the century and ends with her dying in a Florida condo at the end of the century, and I haven’t stopped thinking about so many parts of it since I read it early in the year. A study on how many lives a single person can live, how women’s roles and voices have changed throughout only a few generations, and truly impactful and powerful in a subtle and perfect way.
How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell. This book is really an examination of how unchecked capitalism has turned even the most minute leisure activity into something to be measured for productivity, how modern society calls non-income producing activities “nothing,” and how we need to wrest our valuable and limited attention capacities from being bought and sold. We need to return to focus and creating whole, full lives rather than spending our moments tracking value in terms of money– I loved it.
The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg. A mid-century Sicilian author who I am truly sad I didn’t discover sooner. A compact little book of essays that felt so pure and right, especially the titular essay which is my new manifesto for how to raise Misa into a bold and complete person.
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo. Truly my favorite of the year, a compelling and vast history of Britain told through beautiful narratives of black women throughout generations and experiences, the perspectives that are normally otherized or untold. It won the Booker, made a bunch of top book lists including Obama’s, and it was incredible. I feel silly describing it because it her words are so much flowy-er and more perfect than mine. I was entranced.
I can’t tell if a book strikes you as good because it’s truly excellent or because it strikes something in you that you recognize, hits a specific nerve at a specific time and place. My hormones were running wild this year, I suffered from a bit of post-partum anxiety, and was experiencing the world more deeply than I ever have before, which is saying something considering I’m an easy-cryer on my best day. Reading work by women and only women all year has reminded me that our experiences in the world are shared, whether or not they’re told in their entire complexity by the media or popular literature, and that owning them in their shame and embarrassment and joy and frustration is the best gift I can offer to my daughter. I want Amisadai to live in a different kind of world where she doesn’t feel she needs to keep her stories to herself, tone them down, or believe that she is the only one who feels a certain way. I want every generation to do better than the one before them, and I feel a renewed commitment to seeking out stories that are from voices that are marginalized.
Next year I’ll be focusing on authors who are non-native to America, as well as returning to business books again, so let me know your faves!
And last of all! I get a lot of messages from people saying that they could never read this much even though they’d like to. So I have some thoughts for you if you fall in that camp– starting with my firm belief that if you want to, you will. Aside from the months of third trimester insomnia that kept me up at all hours (aka reading time) in the early spring, here are the things that helped me get to my goal:
Putting my phone in another room. We’re all mice in an experiment, guys: if you have it next to you, you’ll open it. I would leave it in a different part of the house on silent, and if there was something I wanted to google from my book I’d make a note to get back to it later.
Remembering that reading focus is a muscle that can get stronger if you work on it. I was so annoyed when I first started reading again with real intention, because I remembered when I was able to read without distraction for a long time– and those days were gone, baby. So I started again from what felt like scratch and built the muscle back up.
Picking reading over other things. So much stuff demands our attention at every moment, so picking the things that you want to pay attention to (not the things that tell you you need to pay attention to them) is crucial. Even adding 20 minutes of reading before bed can get you through lots of books in a year.
Having a book with you at all times. I cannot believe how our days fly by in 5 or 10 minute increments that feel like lost time: waiting at the doctor’s office, a few minutes between one work task and the next call, quiet exhausted time after the baby is in bed when you can’t think of what to do next… those brief spurts of time are the perfect space to open your phone and zone out for a few minutes, because it’s not long enough to do anything real. If you have a book near you and can get through 2 or 3 pages, pretty soon… you’ll have finished a book without adding any specific reading time to your schedule.
Another thing that helped me specifically was not having to commute, but if you drive to work, consider audiobooks. They aren’t for me just like Kindles aren’t for me, but my mom listens to dozens of books a year as she commutes to the airport soooo… think about it?
Say you want to. Most of the things I want to do I be sure to say out loud and write down first. Something about putting it out there in a firm way embeds it in your head and choices and makes it happen. This is true for anything, and I truly cannot wait to see what we all absorb and create and experience in 2020.
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