Sixteen years ago, I got in trouble. This was an unusual occurrence. I was—and still am as an adult, really—what most would call a “good kid.” Or, as my mom still says, a “sweet boy.”
But I’ll set the scene for The One Time I Got in Trouble: I was 8 years old and up past my bedtime when I heard my mother descending the stairs. I knew there was no point in faking sleep. At the time, I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by the faint light of one of those spinning paper lanterns, unable to put the book down and go to bed.
As my mother took in the scene, I realized she wasn’t truly angry with me. She was more annoyed that I was reading by such a dim light, straining the notoriously weak eyes I inherited from her. I said I was sorry for staying up past my bedtime. She told me that staying up late to read was never anything to be sorry about. She kissed me good night, turned the real light on for me, and went to bed.
Besides giving birth to me, giving me permission to read is the greatest gift my mother has ever given to me. By telling me to not be sorry, my mother turned me into who I am today: someone who still stays up late every night reading by the light of a (much stronger) lamp. I know now that I read with such abandon and hunger because of her.
So I couldn’t help but smile when I came across these lines in Ali Smith’s Autumn a few weeks ago: “Always be reading something. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.” It’s exactly how I think of reading—as a constant. Which is probably why I feel irrationally guilty when I’m between books, paralyzed by that persistent dilemma: what to read next?
Luckily, that paralysis also propels me forward. I’m always excited by the possibilities offered to me by the wide, wild world of books, thrilled by what could be coming my way. And I think that’s how and why I read so much: the possibility of discovering something that will grab me, shake me, and even change me. Reading books helps me read the world.
Out of the 156 books I’ve read (so far) this year, here’s what left a mark on me.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I first attempted Morrison’s classic a few years ago, and found myself overwhelmed. This is a heavy book, following an escaped slave named Sethe who's haunted by the literal and metaphorical ghosts of her past as she tries to find a new kind of freedom. I just couldn’t quite process it, and I knew that it was more of a me problem than a Morrison problem. I put Beloved aside and resolved to return to it later.
So when Beloved appeared on the syllabus for one of my final classes of grad school, I thought I might be ready this time. I was, and I learned that some books really are worth the wait. Beloved is a difficult reading experience, but Morrison makes it worth the effort. She so masterfully makes her writing serve her characters and her story, and when she draws everything together in the final pages, the result is unforgettable.
It’s clear to me now why this is one of the few bona fide masterpieces of contemporary literature. Beloved shows that Morrison has much to teach us: about the choices we make for ourselves and the ones we have no control over, about the importance of remembering the past but not recreating it, either. Like any classic, its lessons are timeless, really, but also timely.
A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
A Writer’s Diary gathers entries from Woolf’s extensive diaries that focus on her literary life: reading, writing, social calls with other authors. It sounds excruciating, but I found myself delighted by how vibrant Woolf was and how seriously she took writing. She saw it as a true vocation, something that requires time and effort, not just talent.
Besides basking in the glow of a complicated genius, I found myself touched by the more intimate moments collected here, such as Thomas Hardy autographing a book for Woolf and spelling her name wrong, or her husband Leonard reading a manuscript Woolf’s been slaving over and finishing it in tears. “The miracle is accomplished,” Woolf wrote.
These brief, humanizing flashes show us Woolf the woman, not just the icon, and they gave me a new way of looking at a writer I so admire.
Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays by Mary Gaitskill
I sang my praises of Gaitskill’s expertise as a critic here, but the passage that tripped me up in this collection of her nonfiction comes from “Lost Cat,” a memoir that is the absolute centerpiece of Somebody with a Little Hammer. It’s one of those rare passages that stopped me dead in my tracks:
“But life can give a lot. If you can’t see inside the heart no matter how you look, then why not look? Why not see as much as you can? How is that disrespectful? If you are only given one look, shouldn’t you look as fully as you can?”
I found myself reading these lines again and again, astounded. I still think about them constantly, and carry them with me every day, knowing that they’ve changed the way I see the world.
Reading gives us a way of looking into the hearts and minds of others. That’s why those lines from Gaitskill cut to the quick for me, I think. The sentiment she expresses reminds me of that advice from my mother all those years ago, when she gave me permission: permission to look, to see, to read—to do it as fully as I can, and never feel guilty about it.