‘So, what are you reading at the moment?’
Lately this question unnerves me because I’ve mostly been reading Twitter, or articles I’ve found there. Someone will share a link to something interesting-sounding and I’ll disappear down a rabbit hole for a while, then emerge briefly before tumbling into something else. It’s an absorbing way to pass the time, and I’ve come across some gems (like this and this and this), but it sometimes distracts from more substantial reading.
When I’m writing, I find it difficult to stick to word limits, but as a reader, short can certainly be beautiful and essays are perhaps my ideal read. They set out a point of view which you can contest or be seduced by, leave you with something to ponder on, and let you skip nimbly on elsewhere without becoming too submerged. (If I’m being optimistic I’d say my attraction to essays reflects an appreciation of the form rather than a short attention span, but it’s probably a dubious claim.)
Little magazines and journals are great for essay-fanciers and I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Overland, particularly Hugo Race’s memoir on post-punk Melbourne, John Marnell on narrating African sexualities (he quotes Chimamanda Adichie, whose collection of stories The Thing Around Your Neck just can’t be recommended highly enough) and Laurie Penny on why she writes (‘Good writing illuminates truth; it has nothing to do with sounding clever’). There’s an awful lot of writing-about-writing around, but then some of it’s awfully good, and Rjurik Davidson’s piece on writer’s block was excellent. He situates his thoughts in a broader context, writing that Western society is facing ‘a social epidemic of anxiety’ and that ‘[m]any of the same concerns affecting blocked writers—perfectionism, impatience and so on— affect the population in general’. The essay concludes with hope and by emphasising the collective: although we can’t ‘step out’ of our surrounding culture, ‘we can critique it, and ultimately…do our best to build something different’.
On the fiction front, I’ve just finished Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace; the titular story kept me anxiously riveted from beginning to end and is full of typically memorable phrases, ‘I have the eyes of an attractive marsupial’ is one of the cleaner, less disturbing lines. ‘Lyndon’, the story of an aide to LBJ, was a fascinating read, as was ‘My Appearance’, a gently devastating tale woven around a banal setting. I must admit though, I prefer Wallace’s essays to his fiction. I love the pieces in Consider the Lobster and recently devoured A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, sticking so many little pieces of paper in to mark passages I liked that the book is now difficult to read without scattering bespoke confetti everywhere. I have attempted Infinite Jest, but didn’t get very far, and my inability to finish it makes me feel as though I’ve flunked some sort of intelligence test. I’ll probably try, and fail, again next year.
It’s sometimes a relief to find I’m still capable of becoming completely engrossed in a book despite the nearby presence of my smartphone. One that really pulled me in was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. Solomon considers the broad topic of children and parents who differ from each other: autistic children born of neurotypicals; deaf kids raised by hearing parents; transgendered people whose parents are cisgendered, and so forth (it’s a theme also present in a vividly written story in the latest Overland, ‘Into the woods’ by Sarah Klenbort). The book is huge and varied, including interviews with people on both sides of various dividing lines and canvassing ideas and arguments about love, identity, family, disability and belonging. I can’t possibly do justice to it here, but if you rush out and read it we can talk about it for hours.
The zeitgeist tends to pass me by and this year I finally read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I particularly liked its exploration of the questions about legitimacy that underlie all legal systems. Mantel writes: ‘When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them’. Reading the book also drove home how little I know about pre-1900 Britain: it’s a confused morass of the three-field system, the plague, the Battle of Agincourt and the Industrial Revolution, with gaps filled in by Blackadder. I’d better add some books on British history to my increasingly long to-read list.
But first, a treat: on a friend’s recommendation I’ve just ordered Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, a biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, from my favourite bookstore. I can’t wait to sink into it and, for a short while, be oblivious to all else—just as soon as I hide my phone! See you on the other side.
Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and is obsessively interested in history and politics. When she’s not reading Twitter, she writes for outlets including The Guardian, Overland, The Baffler, New Matilda and Crikey. Follow her at @saraheburnside, and tell her to go open a book.