Reading Roundup: June 2019

Friends, did you know that you do not have to scavenge bookstore clearance tables to read affordably as well as ravenously? You do not have to wait for coveted books to go on sale, or pounce on ARCs before they are published? Did you know you could check out all the new fiction you please at a library?

Of course you knew this. I did too, but I couldn’t quite seem to get into the habit. But now I have mastered the arcane rituals of checkout and return at a university library two blocks from my office, so I was able to squeeze in a few more reads this month.

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. This book opens with a girl who simply can’t wait to get to the beach, and I felt the same way as I started reading. All I knew about the novel is that it is a translation from Russian and that it entails a school for magic–drawing the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, although reviews were clear that Vita Nostra was a darker, more violent take on magical education. I was as ready to dive into this as into the ocean.
What the reviews did not mention was the tedium of magical education. Our main character transforms quickly from a schoolgirl who loves the sea to a drudge who memorizes meaningless textbook passages to a novice savant who begins to glimpse meaning through the passages. While I respect the audacity of depicting the academic rigor it would take to transform a normal human teenager into a mystic, I found the transformation very uncomfortable to read. I was reminded of a period in my own life when I spent so much time poring over obscure texts until reality seemed to unravel.

Fortunately, the plot matches on, and although the creeping sense of dread does not let up, the tedium gives way to wonder and shock.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. On Twitter, I asked:

This widely acclaimed debut book was one of the responses. It burns slowly at first, and I could see the much-admired craft of the book–the natural, realistic dialogue, the almost clinical observations of the first-person narrator’s psychology–but I was too uncomfortable to consider re-reading this book anytime soon. I’m slightly older than the older couple who fascinate the novel’s college student protagonists. I can’t imagine getting involved with someone so young, but I remember being in the throes of becoming and all the growing pains of vulnerability, cruelty, and crisis. I didn’t much enjoy revisiting that age.

That said, I was impressed by the way this book makes sense of what sometimes seems to me a senseless age. It made me want to revisit my old journals, to see if I too can find meaning and poetry in the flailings of youth.

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi. I expected the same breezy prose and space politics as the enjoyable first book in this series, and the sequel did not disappoint. The storytelling is noticeably more slapsticky at first–as though the major and minor characters are still reeling in disbelief from the events of the first book–but the stakes remain high as the Interdependency hurtles toward collapse.

Mass Effect: Initiation by N.K. Jemisin. Yes, a video game tie-in novel… by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. The Kindle app on my phone pushed a notification that the book was on sale this month, and I was furious. How dare you come into my house with this kind of targeted pitch! Of course I am going to read it!

Initiation is a ME: Andromeda tie-in; as you may recall, I did not hate Andromeda, but in any case this novel takes place before the Initiative leaves the Milky Way. (In fact, it takes place during the events of Mass Effect 2, so there are plenty of callouts for fans of the original trilogy.) Cora Harper, an asari-trained human biotic and one of your party members in Andromeda, is just trying to get used to human space, and instead, gets embroiled in a suspenseful heist plot involving AI. Reading her story felt like I was playing a DLC–there are fights! alien planets and asteroids! cutscene-like passages of exposition-via-dialogue!–and I loved revisiting the universe I have spent so much time in, so much so that I’m tempted to read other books in the series (which are not written by Jemisin). In the past I haven’t been as delighted by tie-ins for other beloved game series, but I was primed for a novel of this pacing after finishing Consuming Fire–both move quickly and don’t take themselves too seriously–and I think Jemisin’s style was well-suited to balancing Cora’s interior life with the progressively leveled action sequences.

Tender by Sofia Samatar. I’ve raved about Sofia Samatar’s novels, which offer imaginary worlds so densely packed with detail that I’m forced to read slowly and enjoy. Tender is a collection of short stories–twenty stories!–which offer a very different canvas for her gifts. Instead of detailed works that unfold slowly, these are brush sketches that evoke familiar times and places as well as eerie and otherworldly ones. I was particularly moved by “Tender,” not only for the way it plays on every possible meaning of that word but because its radioactive landscape reminded me of the creeping horror of the Chernobyl television series. Some stories suggest alternate perspectives on folkloric and cultural touchpoints like fairies, selkies, Heart of Darkness, or Coppélia; others take the form of academic or ethnographic research notes on supernatural phenomena. It’s a lot, especially for someone like me who wants to read at a gallop, but if you love short stories and fantastic tales you may love these.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Unwinnable argues that The One Good Dog in all videogames is your faithful companion from Fable 2. I can’t disagree. The dogs in Fable 2 and 3 are the reason I got so excited when I started playing Fallout 4, knowing little about the game beyond its premise, and was met by a German Shepherd who seemed to want to hang out and hunt molerats with me. Like the Fable dogs, Fallout 4’s Dogmeat was delighted to bite my enemies and sniff out ammo and food. He didn’t have the expressive range of the trainable Fable dogs, but I could collect colorful bandannas for him to wear. And that’s where it ends: Dogmeat broke my heart by simply disappearing off the map halfway through the main quest. He’s not in the gas station where I first found him. He’s not in the settlement where I thought I sent him. He’s just gone.
I digress, but I would be remiss if I didn’t complement this link with Can You Pet the Dog? on Twitter.

I about lost my mind when I saw that this rare book exhibition of modernist publications included a weird little play by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Edward Gorey. I once found a copy in used bookshop.

A French artist draws beautiful illustrations on books that have little to do with the books. Love it, instant follow.

It turns out that I will read anything about The Westing Game, but I always appreciate Jia Tolentino’s lyrical, sharp-eyed reflections on culture.

On the Fine Art of Researching For Fiction

On Fanbyte, Where Should LucasArts Take Star Wars Video Games? offers three entirely coherent video game concepts that employ different genres to play to as-yet-undersung strengths of the Star Wars universe. I was underwhelmed by The Force Unleashed 1 and 2, and for that reason haven’t gotten excited for the forthcoming Fallen Order. But I would absolutely play a turn-based tactics game built on Stormtrooper specializations, and would possibly throw my money at an RPG exploring Lando’s backstory if one existed. Aside from the good ideas, though, I was impressed by this writer’s fluency in both the Star Wars universe and game genre conventions. For example, I have a fondness for turn-based tactics games but couldn’t articulate the mechanics and appeal this well.


Reading Roundup: May 2019

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. A friend recommended this book in my International Women’s Day thread on books by women I read and loved. I remembered enjoying The Age of Miracles, so I put it right on my list. I warmed up to it slowly. It opens in the most insular of insular communities: a group of freshman girls living on one floor of a dorm in a small college in a small college town nestled in the mountains. It looked, for a moment, like the progress of the book’s cataclysmic sleeping sickness was going to be thinly veiled social commentary. But I read grimly on, and the sleeping epidemic raged on, playing no favorites and following no narrative rules as it devastated the town and surrounding region. In place of the commentary on campus drama I feared, the book takes a complex and nuanced look at the varied and unpredictable ways humanity responds to a crisis, and how we try to make sense out of senseless loss.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. A good commute read. I enjoyed revisiting this old story–in fact, the sections of plot that were most familiar to me (from the Iliad, as opposed to other, later stories of these heroes) were the parts I read with the most urgency.

The Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I picked this up to read the story that the film Arrival is adapted from. Like the movie, the shell of this story is about Earth’s first contact with aliens and a linguist’s attempts to communicate with them; the heart of the story is her personal joy and grief, glimpsed in fragments like dreams or memories. I thought the movie handled these braided plots very well, but it’s a whole other experience on the page with the narrator’s changing tenses and direct address to keep you anchored in time. For example, in the movie I didn’t realize that the linguist’s fluid perception of past, present, and future is a direct result of learning to think in the alien language–very cool.
Since I came for the aliens, I expected more aliens and spaceships in other stories, and I was surprised that the stories I loved most were those that treated archaic science the way you usually see sci-fi treat science-yet-to-come. What if the sky really was a solid dome, a firmament? What if homunculi were real?

Elsewhere on the Internet

Fanbyte: Jorge Luis Borges’s New and Improved Pokémon Type System

This Chicago Tribune profile of Nnedi Okorafor has Nnedi Okorafor’s stamp of approval!

Loved seeing author headshots for some of my faves in this piece (Tayari Jones, Meg Wolitzer) but I was also really interested in the photographer’s description of her process. At my job, when I interview students and alumni, I leave the headshot photography to our designer but usually tag along to make chitchat as they pose. It does help them warm up, I think, but perhaps now I’ll be more intentional about it.

For the last eight years, I’ve only been following Game of Thrones via Twitter and think pieces, but I did watch the finale. There were some really visually stunning moments, I thought, but I could see why fans were frustrated at the quality of writing in this season. I did a full body cringe when Tyrion started talking about the power of stories. What does this remind me of, I wondered?

Just trust me when I say this is real Taurus energy: Everything should take 20 minutes

I appreciated Jia Tolentino’s take on The Bold Type, a delightful confection of a show that I feel slightly awkward about enjoying–only partly due to its tenuous connection with the realities of media, as Jia describes. (Jacqueline is a romantic fantasy of a boss–the boss that that knows you better than you know yourself–and I love her.) I feel a little old for the show, truthfully, and never more so than when the young women encounter conflicts in their love lives that amount to miscommunication. But other than that, their plot points are maybe a little embarrassingly close to reality: trying to find a job that supports your needs as well as your ambitions, balancing relationships and crazy working hours, not seeing eye-to-eye with a friend and not feeling sure how to move past it. Interestingly and perhaps more relevant to me than most of my peers: I’ve only seen one other show depict the egg freezing process (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and, of the two, The Bold Type handled it with more grace and less sensationalism.

Shows I’ve watched recently that I feel exactly the right age for: Big Little Lies (delicious!), Dead to Me (wry and vicious!), Fleabag (devastating and capricious!).

Reading Roundup: April 2019

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.  Do you know, I’ve been sporadically reading John Scalzi’s blog Whatever for upwards of ten years, and I’ve never read any one of his books. I have to admit that I assumed they’d be a little more rocketships-and-spacewars than I typically look for in science fiction. But the first book in the Interdependency series was free with Tor’s newsletter last month–have you signed up for Tor’s newsletter? you probably should, there are monthly free ebooks!!–and what do you know, it’s a delightful read and fully accessible whether or not you came for the intergalactic politics. His writing is just as breezy and personal as the blog, but the characters are well-drawn and it’s their various stakes in the Interdependency that made it a pageturner for me.

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman. I borrowed this from a friend and read it sporadically this spring, when I felt confident I could take it on my commute without damaging its pristine cover. This is a series of essays that offer fascinating, probing glimpses of programming life starting in the early dot-com days, when I was a consumer of nascent internet services but knew nothing of how it was built. Ullman is an elegant writer and I appreciated her careful, nuanced perspective.

I’m Fine and Neither are You by Camille Pagán. This was an Amazon FirstReads this month, and even when I chose it from the limited monthly selection, I wasn’t sure it was for me: it opens with a harried young mother who is dissatisfied in her marriage and her job, which is a story I will totally read (e.g. loved The Ten-Year Nap) but which may not land for me as it would for someone who has experienced a young family. But then the main character loses someone close to her, and I found myself anxious to find out how she finds resolution. Spoiler: mainly through speaking up for herself, which sounds a bit trite but you know what? We all need the reminder sometimes.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I don’t have as strong of a personal connection to Emily Dickinson as one might assume (as I am a white female literary scholar educated partly on the East Coast) but I am so excited for Wild Nights with Emily, a super gay retelling of her life. And it’s not just like “Oh wow how cool would it be if this important historical person was gay”–it’s like “Oh hey we used spectrographic technology on Emily’s heavily redacted letters to her brother’s wife, and it turns out that the blacked-out parts of the letter are super gay, and also that the woman redacting these gay letters was having an affair with Emily’s brother, and now we made a movie about that hot mess.” Vulture has some backstory. I love this, I can’t wait.

At Electric Literature, A Perfectly Normal Interview with Carmen Maria Machado Where Everything Is Fine. Having just read the deliciously savage interview that revealed Bret Easton Ellis’s truest vapid self, I was preparing to get the popcorn when this piece took… a turn…

The Paris Review: On Classic Party Fiction (warning: more melancholy than festive)

I’ve long enjoyed Anne Helen Peterson’s accessible scholarship on Hollywood scandals, but I was struck by her newsletter musing on the similarities between adjuncting, teaching yoga, and multi-level marketing.

I’m not throwing my lot in with any particular Democratic candidate yet (although there are a few I’d like to see sit back down). As yet agnostic, I can respect the historic importance of Mayor Pete’s run even as I enjoy this subtle burn from a parody Twitter account:

I find this a rather literary take on a rather literary television show that I love, and I am snapping up all nonspoilery coverage while I wait for season 2 to make it to Hulu: Serial Killer As Instagram Influencer? On Killing Eve‘s Cool Girl Assassin on LitHub.

Write to the Paris Review for advice, get a poem prescribed to your ills.

Remember how I have a favorite bookstore that lays out clearance books like traps? Remember how I have gone there to purchase paper copies of books I initially started reading on my phone? It’s closing. I’m very sad.

Reading Roundup: March 2019

What If It’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli. This book arrived in the mail, a surprise gift from a friend. It is a delightful read, a sweet story about two teenage boys who meet cute in New York and try to date, and I can’t argue with its charming optimism and love toward its genial characters. What if your teenage romance was good, though? What if everyone tried their best?

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. Another surprise: apparently I bought myself this book at Christmas and it arrived electronically on March 1, on schedule. Gingerbread is a novel, and I have to concede that the author’s novels don’t snatch my breath away and colonize my imagination the way her shorter fiction does (What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours; Mr Fox). So it takes me a little longer to follow her into this world, this strange family with its surreal memories of a place half out of fairytale and half out of history. But I did enjoy dwelling there, for a bit.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Holy shit. It’s going to take me some time to recover.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I visited the Chicago Museum of Design early in the month. It’s free and just occupies one room, which at the time featured an exhibition on bicycle design. In addition to old blueprints and advertisements, there was an interactive that invited visitors to draw a bicycle from memory. I found this exercise delightful; as a noncyclist, I managed the handlebars, wheels, and seat but hadn’t a clue of how to connect those three elements, so I drew an x under the crossbar. I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one who attempted some guesswork, and it was fascinating to see what different visitors left out and what they added in.
For the same reason, I am absolutely charmed by this New York Times writer who asks authors to sign her copies of their books by drawing a bunny in 10 seconds.

At Christmas, my mother unearthed a plastic storage container full of Nancy Drew books and asked me what I wanted to do with them. “Donate!” I said without hesitation. “I thought you’d want to keep them for [my friend’s daughter],” she said. Truly, it hadn’t occurred to me, and I’m still on the fence. This series is in much better shape than most other well-loved books of my youth; perhaps the sunny yellow hardcovers invited me to treat them more carefully than the paperbacks I read in trees, in the pool, or in the bath. The physical objects have been sealed away for a decade or more and suffered fewer of the ravages of time than my other childhood favorites. I’m less certain how what’s on the pages has fared. I remember snatches of these books as intimately as my own memories–the spider sapphire, the lilac tree–but I have a nagging suspicion that the volumes featuring far-flung destinations reflect an understanding of the world that we have tried to leave behind.
I don’t know. But learning that the Nancy Drew books were produced by a stable of freelancers makes me more interested to reread rather than less. I’ve never been interested in close-reading the mass market books of my youth; perhaps this multiplicity of authorship is one reason why.

Literary. Burn. Book.

I love me some savage reviews. This collection emerged out of a Twitter thread about “red flag” books–books that would give you pause if a potential online match listed them as favorites. Several of mine are on there; for example, back in my online dating days, I’d think twice about connecting with someone who listed Fight Club as a favorite book. Once a dude offered to read Bukowski to me while cuddled under a blanket (*shudder*), and another dude literally had a username that referenced Lolita’s Humbert Humbert (which… wow).

Liking books is not a personality!

Chaucer’s hot pants and other details previous biographers may not left out

Courtesy of Critical Distance, a compilation of critical writing about the Mass Effect trilogy (including a post by me!)

Reading Roundup: February 2019

A short list for a short month. I picked up The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty, the sequel to The City of Brass, and inhaled it. Like The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper conjures a detailed, captivating world based on Middle Eastern legend. The stakes start out very high, with its three main characters each politically compromised and in fear of their lives, and then it twists and turns from there.

And then I did something I rarely do. I went back and reread The City of Brass. And then I re-read The Kingdom of Copper. Revisiting this world reminded me of reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, another doorstop fantasy novel that I’ve re-read multiple times. It’s comforting to spend time in such a complete, deliciously detailed world with characters I’ve come to love despite their flaws, but there’s enough going on in each book that there is still more to discover.

So that was most of my February: preoccupied with the deadly politics and legendary magic of Daevabad. I technically read the next two books on March 1–one from start to finish while waiting for my plane to be de-iced–but I’m including them in this roundup because in my heart (and outside of the icy plane) it was still February.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. Sweet like candy. I gobbled it up.

2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Mary-Helene Bertino. An oddball novel that follows main characters from the Italian Market to Rittenhouse to Fishtown one Christmas Eve, like Philadelphia’s own Ulysses. It’s a charming story–its many narrators include a rebellious 9-year-old and a roving dog, and the author can’t resist loving blazons to key Philadelphia landmarks even though her characters find them quotidien–but there’s just enough of an edge in the plot and prose to keep it from cloying.

Elsewhere on the Internet

You may be tired of Konmari hot takes, but I really appreciated this Nursing Clio recap of the “30 books” controversy and gentle correction of what critics are getting wrong about Marie Kondo.

Vox: “A Novel”: Why do so many book covers still use the phrase for works of fiction?

Also at Vox: One of film’s greatest epics is a 7-hour adaptation of War and Peace. Really. As I said on Twitter, I will try to find a Philly viewing of this extravagant, no-holds-barred, bears-drinking-beer adaptation of an equally no-chill novel, and I will be thinking of my friend who died last year. He used to curate viewings of 3-4 films around a theme, sometimes with themed snacks as well, and I never went I barely have the attention span for a 90-minute film, let alone hours and hours of film. We did watch television adaptations of costume dramas together and had one episode of the BBC adaptation War and Peace left when he died.

Whatever, Oscars.

My friend wrote this article about using the Pomodoro method to write her dissertation (and I am mentioned in it!). I was inspired to download this Pomodoro plugin for my browser, which gives me a little structure when I’m working on longer pieces for work. Now to get in the habit of using it to structure my own writing…

Reading Roundup: January 2019

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve enjoyed the author’s other books, and this one is no exception. The book mostly centers on Amy, a New York mom who grapples with feelings of uselessness as her ten-year-old son becomes more independent, her marriage seems perfunctory, and her former career as an attorney seems impossibly distant and unrewarding. The narrative dips into the lives of Amy’s friends, mostly mothers of other boys at her son’s private school, their parents, and even some surprising glimpses of the lives of Margaret Thatcher’s assistant and Rene Magritte’s wife. It is a sharply observed book, mostly humane and sympathetic even as it recognizes the privilege of certain characters and the ways many of their struggles are of their own making.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. I’ve been following Ng on Twitter because she tends to tweet beautiful and interesting things about art and books and animals. This fantasy novel reflects some of those fascinations, as well as obsessions you might call Victorian gothic. Much of the action, such as it is, takes place in an spooky castle in faeland, and it’s as still and claustrophobic as any genteel maiden’s life might be: running around the moors like Elizabeth Bennett is not an option for Catherine Helstone, as a mortal who is never completely safe in Arcadia. The experience of reading the book is like exploring a cramped antique store, so packed full of oddities you can’t really take it all in. For example, the novel told me plainly, more than once, that Arcadia was circumnavigated by wicker whales that contained oceans and swam through the earth the way regular whales swim through the sea. That imagery didn’t really sink in, though, until a faeland whale beached itself near the castle and our protagonists could look inside its mouth to see sunlight glinting through the wicker roof of its inner cavity and illuminating the improbable coastal region they found therein. This is not a complaint! If you’re in the mood for eldritch fantasy with a heaping dose of metaphysical poetry, this a book that rewards a slow read–as your eyes may frequently dart back to see if you really read what you thought you read.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. I’ve been hearing about this novel for years–it’s a popular book in discussions of food literature, since the main character Rachel is a food writer and drops in recipes throughout the story of her acrimonious divorce. I started and finished the book on a long train ride, possibly the only circumstances in which I could manage it. Though you can see the relationship between this self-deprecating narrator and the lighter, sweeter humor of When Harry Met Sally, using humor as a coping mechanism means that everyone around the narrator becomes a target for a joke too, which in turn means a number of jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and mental illness that didn’t age well.
On the other hand, I’ve had two occasions this month to quote Heartburn on capers–“Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it”–which I find untrue but nonetheless funny.

Nothing Good Can Come Of This by Kristi Coulter. It’s unusual for me to seek out a memoir or collection of essays. Even more unusual for me to seek out non-drinking narratives; I don’t even participate in Drynuary. But something drew me to this book, which turned out to be a cathartic read for a month known for broken promises and dreariness. Her writing about drinking is not preachy or prescriptive–she only ever claims to be writing about her own addiction–but her anxieties and addictions are inextricably linked to the same worries that trouble us all, from capitalist exploitation to conspicuous consumerism to bad politics, and therefore extremely Relevant To My Interests. When the author confronts the insidiousness of drinking culture, she consciously confronts the capitalist and sexist burnout that make workers, especially women, want to dull their senses. When she delves into the history of her personal wounds and wants that laid the groundwork for both her alcoholism and recovery, I appreciated the author’s deft balance of self-criticism and self-care (particularly so soon after reading the blunt-force deprecation of Heartburn). As I prepare to attend an upcoming wedding, I am indebted to the author’s conceptualization of a wedding as a novel–the sprawling Russian kind that has too many characters and subplots. A lovely prose poem called “Permission” could be a prescription for recovering from any kind of grief, with a nod to the late Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”)

Elsewhere on the Internet

Do I link myself? Very well then, I link myself. Meet your new Centuries-Old Boyfriend.

I considered adding this link to my food roundup because I associate hygge so strongly with alimentary pleasures–perhaps due in part to regular visits to Bar Hygge in Philly–but as the author points out, hygge is more about social conditions than material comforts: You don’t want hygge, you want social democracy at Jacobin.

The Good Place has not been pulling any punches this season! It goes by so quick that I need to immerse myself in recaps and reflections, and appreciated this take from gamer site Unwinnable:

The Good Place scares the crap out of me on a regular basis because of stuff like this, but I do think it’s a useful illustration of what we mean when we say all systems reflect the biases and points of view of their creators.

Appreciated this simple but persuasive take at Vox on why some of today’s best TV shows (all shows that I watch and enjoy!) centers on ordinary people trying to be their best selves, rather than the white male antihero that dominated so much of prestige television in the last two decades.

As a professional writer and editor who refers to proofreading as “proofing,” I absolutely love this Establishment listicle: ‘Great British Bake Off’ Or Feedback From My Editor? You Decide! Samples: “The layers are there…at least,” “Good idea but not executed as well as it could have been,” and “Crispy all the way through.”

I somehow missed this iron-clad criticism of lazy writing from a year ago: Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?  See also: hire sensitivity readers! Consider talking to knowledgeable people if your crucial plot points pivot on completely knowable processes!

I don’t know how I forgot to include these on the roundup last month, they are SO GOOD:

Speaking of modernism: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this entire chart, but the Mercedes de Acosta circle and H.D.-Bryher triangle appear to be spot on.

Yes, yes, this month’s roundup is a Twitterfest. But I could not publish a reading roundup without saying a word about the social media upset that rippled out from Marie Kondo’s recommendation re: books. It kept going long after we established that Kondo never said the words “Ideally, keep less than 30 books” (a paraphrase added to an image by a clergyman who actually wanted to encourage his peers to declutter). It kept going after Kondo explained that she herself prefers to keep a limited number of books but what matters is what “sparks joy” for you. The word “joy” became a lightning rod for complainers who want to showboat about their taste in Serious Literature; meanwhile, the idiom “spark joy” is an imprecise translation of a Japanese phrase which (according to Wikipedia, come on, I am not fluent in Japanese and neither are most of you) actually means to “flutter” or”palpitate.”

I’ve not watched much or read any or Kondo’s Konmari-ing, so I’m surprised to feel so strongly on the subject. But I do feel strongly about books, so if you are interested in my thoughts on the matter:

  1. No one is coming for your books. Do what you want with your books! Personally, I’m in favor of culling your books, but I myself just moved about 12 boxes of books to my new home, so I can’t judge.
  2. But, seriously, consider culling your books. Books are not inherently magical objects! They are made of organic matter that decays and cannot be kept for your entire lifetime unless you take extremely good care of them, which you are probably not doing! If you’re not reading some of your moldering books in the meantime, someone else could be. Besides, when I culled the books I was required to read for my PhD and donated the books I chose not to carry forward into my future, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my adult life.
  3. Speaking of joy: as mentioned above, it’s just an idiom. No one is suggesting that you set Dostoyevsky on fire because he doesn’t make you happy.
  4. You know perfectly well that if the English translator had chosen another approximate idiom–for example, if you were asked to sense the vibe of your books or see whether they make your heart throb–the same haters would complain. It’s the source they don’t like, not the message.
  5. Going forward, I only want to see Kondo memes that poke fun at my own sacred cows.