“Off again, on again” is an accurate descriptor for my relationship with reading. My hours spent with a book in hand have ebbed and flowed over the years. Like many people (I suspect), my reading binges tend to cluster around long journeys. Crime and Punishment was consumed over the course of two appropriately turbulent cross-country flights. I tore though half of Tony Hillerman’s collection during the long bus rides of my study abroad experience. The fifth Harry Potter was devoured from the backseat of a rental car weaving up the California coast on Route 1. Yes – it made me carsick. No – that didn’t keep me from finishing.
When I haven’t read anything in a while, my desire to read is dormant and the energy flows into other pursuits… if you can call watching TV a “pursuit.” But shortly after I’ve cracked the spine on a new read, I’ll find myself returning from the library with another handful of titles in tow.
Since this past year has been more of a “flow” year, I thought I’d look through some of my Kindle highlights to share some favorite passages. Here is what I found…
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk was a slow read, a memoir of a seasoned falconer training the notoriously difficult goshawk following her father’s death. I found it mostly meditative although some friends felt it was too much of a slog. Macdonald’s reflections following her loss – and particularly the passages on the non-linearity of grief and the disorientation of depression – nevertheless put words to experience in ways I never could:
“Time didn’t run forwards anymore. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that the new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.”
Like Macdonald, philosopher Alain de Botton is usually a nonfiction writer. While The Course of Love is his second novel, the characters serve primarily as a medium for de Botton (in the role of narrator) to expound upon his ideas of romantic love. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but perhaps it’s better described as a salve for the soul rather than a work of philosophical insights or fictional intrigue. This quote nicely distilled one of the de Botton’s key messages and captures the refreshing honesty found throughout the book:
“ … love can only endure when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for relationships to work, [we] will need to give up on the feelings that got [us] into them in the first place. [We] will need to learn that love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.”
From romantic love to sibling affection, this next passage is from Courtney Hodell’s chapter in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed in which she lovingly describes her brother. Honestly, I highlighted this piece aspirationally. Perhaps with practice someone might one day write something as beautiful and flattering of me.
“An atmosphere of calm hangs around about him like a cloud cap on a green mountain. Everyone in need of balm seeks him out: the anxious and the shy, little kids, old people. He’s one of the secret, mighty soothers and nurturers of this world.”
You can’t tell me after reading that you don’t want to be as calm as a cloud cap, or become a mighty soother.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is so complex and thought-provoking it is difficult to pull quotes from. A memoir, this book explores her experience of having a gender-fluid partner undergoing transition, becoming a mother, being a teacher and writer, and much more. Any one line or paragraph is so enhanced by the context of her story that it seems a disservice to share bits of it piecemeal. Even so, this passage – following a conversation in which Nelson and her partner are arguing over the merits of an action film – seemed so very fitting in our fractured society today:
“We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction – it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.
When we talked we said words like nonviolence, assimilation, threats to survival, preserving the radical. But when I think about it now I only hear the background buzz of our trying to explain something to each other, to ourselves, about our lived experience thus far on this peeled, endangered planet. As is so often the case, the intensity of our need to be understood distorted our positions, backed us further into the cage.”
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a haunting and beautiful memoir chronicling his terminal cancer diagnosis and struggle to find his meaning in a life that was supposed to be just beginning (he was finally finishing his residency as a neurosurgeon). My digital copy of this book is littered with highlights. I thought this quote in particular, though, was a fitting accompaniment to Nelson’s perspective above. It’s worth noting that Kalanithi’s first love was not science, but writing:
“Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.”
And finally, one more quote from When Breath Becomes Air:
“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form.”
Who could argue with Paul’s assertion? If language is the way to communion with one another, then surely using our voice and truly listening to the voice of others is one of the best hopes we have for achieving understanding and shattering the facades that only ever appear to separate us. That’s what is so exciting about reading to me. The written word has given us an endless well of understanding to pull from and use to strengthen the relationships we build our lives around.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading and what your favorite quotes from the year were, too. And if you’re on Goodreads, I hope you’ll friend me so I can check out your recommendations.