1. That mound of New Yorkers dating back to the Mesozoic Era. I know it, you know it.
2. The interminable paragraphs before the recipe. Life is too short for me to share your fermentation journey. Just give me the ingredients already.
3. Erotic Christmas fiction. Really, Kindle? Recommended for me? This long we’ve been together and still you don’t know me?
4. Photos of your bullet journal. I was here for your teeny-tipped felt pens but I am uninterested in your hydration levels.
5. The credits. I know. But there’s a line for the toilets and a babysitter to be paid. Plus I’m not sticking around to test for myself those rumours about ghosts in cinema four.
6. My white whale: Gay Talese’s first book, A Serendipiter’s Journey (1961). Reports from New York City that he wrote when he was not yet thirty and bursting with the story of himself in the mirror of that still-new world.
7. The rest of any book where my attention has focused more on the page numbers and less on the prose. Our minutes on this overgrown asteroid are fleeting.*
8. All the gorgeous and untranslated books written in languages I will never learn.
9. Bruno Schulz’s lost works. The short stories from the early 1940s; the others we won’t ever know about; the novel he did not finish because he was shot on November 19, 1942 by a Nazi in the Drohobycz ghetto while walking home with a loaf of bread.
10. Some of the time, all of the book recommendations. Wait. Let me explain…
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
―Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood (1987)
The first time the rest of us met Carla’s friend Shane—the writer!, the musician!—was Grand Final weekend, maybe 2006. Matt’s house in Heidelberg with the little lemon tree outside. We were in our mid-twenties but we were still foetuses. We had heard so much about Shane that we felt we knew and loved him already. We were lolling in the living room, hungover, but when Shane arrived in the flesh we bounded up to him in most joyful welcome.
Almost immediately and with his adorable enthusiasm, Tim told Shane he had a CD for him, some music he reckoned Shane would love.
‘Probably not,’ Shane sighed with rueful resignation. ‘My taste is ridiculously specific.’
I am using direct speech for Shane and not for Tim because while I remember the gist of what Tim said, I remember Shane’s words. Also: how he said them and how I felt when I heard them. Like a door I didn’t know was there had suddenly opened out. That radical self-possession. How it somehow managed to swerve entirely clear of arrogance or insult. It hinted at the possibility of a permission I might give myself and still be considered as sociable as those who reflexively nod and smile.
Though he’s long moved back to the States, Shane’s voice runs through my head all the time in my life and in my work. I hear it most clearly every time someone insists there’s something I must read. Understand, this has less to do with the person making the recommendation (usually), and more to do with the question of timing.
There is a time when you are writing where everything is connected and the world is telling you things. This feels mostly magnificent but sometimes deeply pathological. Lauren Groff recently referred to it as the time when the world becomes an aquifer burbling up to you exactly what you need for whatever you happen to be working on. She gave the example of waiting in line at the grocery shop and seeing the stranger in front of her do the exact gesture that one of her characters needs to make a particular scene click.
It’s an odd, crazy-making time that I can only describe as inward openness; a personalised attentiveness to the world as it is and could be. The important thing is to be available and intentional; as open-faced as a sunflower while keeping your own counsel about which direction to turn.
So, for me at least, no Must Reads or How-Haven’t-You-Reads during that time. Sometimes I don’t read at all. I just want to notice. How the fur of the dog is cleaner than the hair of the tense woman holding its leash. How the sneakers worn by the schoolgirls ordering coffee cost more than the waitress will earn this week. The jarring effect of new slang and the increasing sense of myself as a relic.
Mostly, though, of course I am reading. I am devouring. Just almost nothing from the general TBR pile—yours or mine. Instead I’ll read the Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus (1984) I spotted while running past the closing bookstall as the sky opened up; a frenzied and laughing exchange as book and bills became beaded with rain. I will read the battered copy of Mary Ellen Mark’s On the Portrait and the Moment (2015) which is on the shelf of the second-hand bookshop instead of her Exposure (2005), towards which Arbus seemed to gesture and which they did have in stock but now do not. From there, I will fall down a Wikipedia hole about Mark’s travels in India and suddenly require a copy of Rudolph Otto’s Idea of The Holy (1923). A month later, when I pluck the battered brick of Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985) from a little free library as I pass with the pram I will find Otto there, Sagan singing about his concept of the numinous, an ecstatic emotional experience at the heart of all religions. This will make me remember seeing one familiar face on the bookshelf of a person with whom I had nothing else in common, and I will open my unread copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou (1937) which will trigger, somehow, a craving for Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind (1978). And then, I will be delivered, urgently, back to my desk which is the last stop on a ride that makes sense, if at all, only on some interior map.
A process that turns on intuition and synchronicity, what David Grossman has called ‘moments of grace’, deeply disturbs my high cynicism, my completism, my professorial preference for replicable processes, my deep anxiety and my monumentally anal work ethic. And for what? my punitive interior monologue mourns. That whole magnificent journey is, after all, like the lemons that grow in my backyard; majestic yellow footballs that promise rivers of juice but which, once sliced, reveal only a minute orb of useable flesh. That explains, I guess, Shane’s big sigh, his rueful but resigned regret.
I’m not trying to be old Casaubon from Middlemarch, forever fiddling with his unfinishable Key to all Mythologies. So I can’t make the serendipitous path my home. It won’t get the work done and I would become morbidly disconnected from the world I try to be in dialogue with. And yet, without a big glass of Shane’s sublime self-possession, no worthwhile dialogue can take place. So, for now, I’m trying not to feel too much FOMO about my T(N)BR pile. I’m trying to be ok with telling you that my taste is ridiculously specific.
Sarah Krasnostein is a writer with a doctorate in criminal law. She is the bestselling, multi award-winning author of The Trauma Cleaner. Her work has appeared in publications including The Monthly, The Saturday Paper, Lenny Letter, Longreads Big Issue UK and various academic journals.
* This will not change the fact that I will hate myself for not staying the course.