I did it!
One of the best things that has happened to me since leaving full-time education is that I have rediscovered the joy of reading. I have returned to my bookshelf much in the way of a prodigal lover: thinking she had enjoyed all there was to enjoy, she went forth into the world, only to find it was cold and empty without her beloved.
This year, I set myself the task of reading 30 books. I am working on consuming literature not just as a fan, but as someone who desires to contribute. I think about my literary ‘diet’ in the way we are taught to think about food (a realm in which I have been markedly less successful): it is fuel, it will become part of me, and therefore I need to choose it well. As such, I have deliberately chosen a range of genres to keep my writing input broad.
It’s worth me saying that I would never have rediscovered my passion to this degree without discovering Goodreads.
I adore having a place online to store book recommendations, especially when they pop up from friends on my Newsfeed, or in a Buzzfeed article. I now have a myriad of virtual bookshelves where I store these suggestions, and endeavour to keep rotating from which shelves I pick my next reads.
One of these shelves is for my first novel, which I am trying to make a reality, though the process is very much ‘one step forward, two steps back.’ This shelf houses books of a similar style to the one I think I am aiming for, and also quite a lot of memoirs about various forms of chronic pain (as that is loosely the subject of my embryonic tome). As such, if you were to admire my Read Books from this year, you would see a significant proportion of chronic-illness-related books (I know, I know, I bring the party). This is partially for my own benefit and self-improvement, naturally, but all of these are read with the novel in mind.
Other trends you may pick up: feminism, and Highly Sensitive People.
2016 was a crucial year in my self-understanding. I feel that my feminism has grown but also mellowed. By this, I do not mean I have blunted my talons, for I do not believe any less in justice and gender equality. It simply means I have been finessing the art of retracting them, so that when I do choose to extend them, their impact is far greater, and more precise. It also means that the unwittingly ignorant are not at risk from my feminist wrath: I hope that shows grace, and not passivity.
It might not surprise you then, that three of my Top Five books of 2016 could be classified as ‘feminist literature’. These are:
- I Love Dick by Chris Kraus: an incredibly intellectual, philosophical, genre-bending, analytically gratuitous, seeringly honest sort-of memoir/constructed narrative/thought experiment, which recently experienced a resurgence in popularity.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adechie. I was bought this as a present otherwise I would never have chosen it for myself, but boy oh boy, would I have missed out. Adechie’s fame as one of the stand-out voices of the year is well-merited. Her prose is elegant, precise, and imbued with such wisdom. Effortlessly, she evokes settings and situations I can never have hoped to understand; and with such alacrity that by the end of the novel, you feel you have lived another person’s life, and embodied their confusion. A stunning experience of a book.
- Truce by Andrea Gibson.* Truce is a collection of poems, and Andrea Gibson was introduced to me as a spoken word artist. It is, perhaps, then, fitting that I chose to download this as an audiobook rather than reading it on the page. I spent days basking in Gibson’s mouthwatering use of language. After I finished listening, I wrote this in my Goodreads review:
Andrea Gibson writes like fire: warm, comforting, with the inherent potential to consume and destroy in a matter of seconds. Gut-twisting, heart-convulsing, beautiful truth.
*I’ve included this as ‘feminist’ in deference to the definition of feminism as simply equality for all genders. I admit I am uncertain how Gibson identifies other than with ‘they’ pronouns, but I feel their poetry sits incredibly well within a feminist canon, of voices emerging from oppression and hardship at the hands of the privileged Other, rising from the ashes like resplendent birds of fiery prey. One of my favourite poems from the selection is A Letter to My Dog, Exploring the Human Condition. Given that 2016 was the year I was blessed to get a dog of my own, this poem took on new resonance and quickly snatched a place in my heart (right next to Tottie).
Another of my Top Five is Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I haven’t included it in the list of ‘feminist literature’ from the year, but I’m sure it could sit there perfectly comfortably; it would just miss the point of all the book is. Naturally, the subject being Bolz-Weber’s journey to and as a minister of Lutheran faith, the focus is on the transformative power of God through Jesus in her life. The grace her writing espouses took my breath away. I purchased the book in a muddy tent in Kettering, when I was attending Greenbelt Festival as a Press Reporter for Tearfund. I even experienced Nadia’s towering, tattooed, terrifying presence in the flesh as she signed my copy. Rarely in my life have I been so glad to be aware of someone’s existence, and I suspect I will need to revisit her work often in the coming years, as I pursue my own journey of faith through grace.
However, one of the most significant ways in which books helped me grow this year was in teaching me about sensitivity.
All my life, I have been – well, a pretty delicate flower. Like this:
Well, strictly that’s not true. Whilst this uncannily accurate picture may reflect my worldview now, it has not always been the case. I didn’t utter the word ‘Fuck’ until I was 19 (though I am pleased to report I have more than made up for it since). This was partially down to deference to my surroundings and respect for my parents’ wishes, but it was also more than a little due to fear: fear of being perceived as anything less than THE NICEST, SWEETEST GIRL IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. Part of being this naturally sweet and nice, however, is an innate sensitivity and compassion, which manifests itself in a variety of ways, from jumping at loud noises to crying at television adverts. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been told, by multiple different people, to ‘Stop being so sensitive.’ As such, all my life, I’ve felt quite ashamed of my inherent sensitivity, like a button on my dashboard was broken from birth and could never be fixed.
One of the best things that has ever happened to me – IN MY LIFE – was discovering The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, PhD.
This book did nothing short of change my life. I intend to write more about this in another post, but for now, suffice to say that this book taught me to perceive my sensitivity as a great source of strength and unique gifting, as well as a potential weakness. Through reading and processing this book, I felt truly understood and welcomed as I am for the first time in my life. I have since passed it on to my mother, who has lived all her life as an HSP and harbouring shame for this (which she unwittingly passed on to me). She has since begun to embrace her healing too.
Funnily enough, this huge turning point, which, for me, characterised 2016, is summed up beautifully by Andrea Gibson in Royal Heart, one of my favourite poems from Truce (mentioned above):
Because of these books, I go into 2017 unafraid to feel, unashamed of my uniqueness, unapologetically me. Bring on the next thirty books. I’m ready to be challenged, cheered and changed.