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Best Reads of 2018

For several years now, my only reading resolution has been to read 100 books. I keep track of them at Goodreads and everything counts — fiction, nonfiction, poetry, audiobooks, essay and short-story collections, but not individual short stories. Novellas? I don’t know. I don’t come across many.

I made my goal of 100 books in 2011, then skipped three years, but met the goal in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Missed it again in 2018, by quite a lot, which I attribute to three different vacations in Europe. I never read much when on vacation. The days are full, dinners are late, after which I fall into bed.

I read just 72 books in 2018, and they included more nonfiction than fiction — which may be a first.

Five-star nonfictions: Pep Talks for Writers, by Grant Faulkner (founder of NaPoWriMo), Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder (deserves a reread soon), Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen, , Subliminal How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, How to Write Non-Fiction by Joanna Penn, Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi, The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz (a book that really did change my life), Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon (about intermittent fasting), Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis, Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro, The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

Five-star fictions: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller, American by Day by Derek B. Miller, Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit by Amy Stewart (4th in the Miss Kopp series).

Five-star poetry collections: Add Water, Add Fire by Karie Friedman, The Billy Collins Experience by A. M. Juster (a reread). In general, I don’t give star ratings for poetry (mostly because I have so many poet friends). But Friedman is deceased. And Juster’s book is a standout to read again and again.2

Another New Year

Obviously from the looks of things here, I’m a failed blogger. But each year, I think again about things I’d like to say, usually just to get thoughts into words for myself if for no one else. Over the past year or two, I’ve been listening to more and more podcasts about books and reading, and they’ve led me to think about my own reading history, as well as my current reading life. So I’m going to use this space to record, from time to time, thoughts on just these things.

The Delights of Distraction – Part One

Delights of Distraction — Rewards of the Digressive and Dreamy

To be with the one I love and to think of something else:
this is how I have my best ideas.
                                           — Roland Barthes

I recently enjoyed hearing Matthew Bevis talking about poetry and distraction on the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, “Poetry Off the Shelf.” His recent essay in Poetry Magazine is titled “In Search of Distraction: The Rewards of the Tangential, the Digressive, and the Dreamy.”

Who cannot quote a few lines of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”?

We hear a lot about our culture’s “pandemic attention deficit disorder,” as Rebecca Solnit has called it, and about our (and especially our youth’s) constant state of distraction, first by video games and then by social media. No one, it seems, can sit still and pay attention for long. We roam the Internet, gobbling morsels here and there but go for long periods of time without the nourishment of long-form reading. Attention seems to be a universally acknowledged virtue. And it’s widely assumed that we need to do something to fix our inability to fix on anything for long.

Bevis notes the publication last year of The Distracted Mind, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (a psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist), which offers strategies for changing our behavior in order to function more successfully in diverse settings. But . . . hold on there. . . .

Bevis makes a case for distraction as closely tied to artistic inspiration, and that the moment in which concerted attention lapses may be the moment at which a new perception dawns. He muses: “I’m writing this sentence as a distraction from a book about poetry that I’m meant to be writing, but also with a hunch that the book may get written via the distraction, that something in the book needs to get worked out — or worked through — by my not attending to it. Or perhaps the book was really always a distraction, and wherever the non-book resides is the place I’m supposed to be.” And he recounts this delightful practice: ““I like to put things up around my bed all the time,” Diane Arbus once noted, pictures of mine that I like and other things and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”

Bevis wants more of that funny subliminal thing. And so do I!

Often, it seems, it’s when our attention lapses and we let our imaginations lead us astray, into speculation, hypothesis, and daydream where ideas collide, merge, and morph, that we stumble upon some of our best thoughts. As Diderot wrote: “Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.”

Bevis turns to the role of distraction in the writing of poetry and a discussion of the writing of John Ashbery in particular. This was really interesting to me because I’ve always been aware of how reading Ashbery quickly leads me down all manner of mental rabbit holes. Reading Ashbery, even when I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, has often led to writing a poem of my own.

I’ll come back to Bevis and Ashbery in Part 2 of this post. But . . .

By chance, on the same day I was reading Bevis, I came across an article called “The 2 Hour Rule: The Genius of Einstein, Darwin, and Nietzsche Applied” by Zat Rana at Einstein was a daydreamer, Darwin a cogitator, and Nietzsche as well. All of these brilliant thinkers spent hours and hours . . . well, thinking, imagining, letting ideas roam freely leading wherever they would. Darwin and Nietzsche both took long walks for the purpose of mulling over their thoughts and ideas and letting things come together in new ways.

Rana says that “At their core, a healthy amount of daydreaming and reflection enable memory consolidation, and they allow non-linear connections to form, which both help our ability to break down and target issues and look at them through a new lens.” While we all engage in daydream at random moments, Rana suggests that dedicating a two-hour period each week just for thinking in a semi-focused way — that is, letting the mind address some general questions without being overly directive about it. Here are a few questions that Rana reflects on, and he maintains that doing so has been the highest-return activity in his life, forcing him “to balance the short-term with the long-term.” He says, “I catch problem before they become problems, and I’ve stumbled onto efficiencies and ideas that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.”

• Am I excited to be doing what I’m doing or am I in aimless motion?

• Are the trade-offs between work and my relationships well-balanced?

• How can I speed up the process from where I am to where I want to go?

• What big opportunities am I not pursuing that I potentially could?

• What’s a small thing that will produce a disproportionate impact?

• What could probabilistically go wrong in the next 6 months of my life?

The idea of dedicating some thinking time to address meaningful life questions really appeals to me. I never begrudge the time I spend online, even as I flit from topic to topic. (I really don’t use social media much, but do succumb to rabbit holes, following the lead on one interesting tidbit after another.) But setting aside the time for just thinking seems like a luxury and as well as a worthwhile endeavor.

Matthew Bevis is a Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford. He’s the author of The Art of Eloquence, Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce (2007), Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (2012), and Life Lessons from Byron (2013), among others.