2017 in books

THE WAVES, VIRGINIA WOOLF

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I walked into a store one day wanting to buy a new book. I didn’t know which one. I was looking through the classics section and I saw The Waves. There was only one sentence on the back of it: “I am made and remade continually.” There was a cheaper version of it with a plain cover, but I bought the special edition one because I had this feeling that it would end up being very important to me. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s not an easy book to read. It’s quite experimental, with the majority of it written in stream-of-conscious monologues delivered by the six characters; “I burn, I shiver,’ said Jinny, ‘out of this sun, into this shadow.” I think I identified most with Bernard and Rhoda out of all the characters; Bernard for his fluid conception of self and desire to grasp eternal forms, and Rhoda for her alienation and longing to find internal refuge from the external realm.

The movements are divided by italicised descriptions of the sun, rising higher and higher into the sky as the characters grow older, midday corresponding with the climax, and then sinking lower and lower, eventually disappearing behind the ocean altogether. Light and illumination is a recurring metaphor throughout the novel. In the introduction by Winterson in my edition, she states; “Virginia Woolf was the first to begin again. All her books are an effort towards a new chart. The chart is not always easy to read and sometimes there is little light to read it by. This is the condition of our lives. We are not easy to read and we read others badly, either blinded by sun or misled by shadows.”

Woolf’s exploration of identity and embodiment is incredibly warming and enlightening. I’ve never read a book that so accurately encapsulates the dizzying intensification of existence; “I am merely ‘Neville’ to you, who see the narrow limits of my life and the line it cannot pass. But to myself I am immeasurable; a net whose fibres pass imperceptibly beneath the world.”

I think that if any book has come close to unearthing the true nature of things, it is this one. I underlined all my favourite sentences in my copy, and I frequently go back and read through them.

“Nevertheless, life is pleasant, life is tolerable. Tuesday follows Monday, then comes Wednesday. The mind grows rings; the identity becomes robust; pain is absorbed in growth. Opening and shutting, shutting and opening, with increasing hum and sturdiness, the haste and fever of youth are drawn into service until the whole being seems to expand in and out like the mainspring of a clock. How fast the stream flows from January to December! We are swept on by the torrent of things grown so familiar that they cast no shadow. We float, we float…”


 

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, MILAN KUNDERA

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After running into Amy and Emma one day after uni we wandered down Glebe Point Road and ended up in the bookstore, of course. I headed for the philosophy section, Amy for the modern fiction, and Emma towards the back. Once we regrouped we passionately told each other about our favourite books, mine obviously The Waves, Emma’s Hugo (which I currently have sitting on my desk after she loaned me her copy). Amy mentioned the Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The title intrigued me. She explained that we usually describe our existence as ‘unbearably heavy’, feeling dragged down by the weight of our own perplexing lives. But Kundera purports that what we contend with the most is actually the ‘lightness’ of Being; “When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose…Her drama was not a drama of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.

A few days later I discovered the book at another shop and bought it. It sat on my bookcase for a while, forgotten in the haste of university assignments and endless prescribed reading lists. But once I started reading it I didn’t stop.

I think that, most of all, I loved Kundera’s exploration of self. The intertwining of the different characters lives through Kundera’s carefully constructed plot allows the reader to consider situations from other’s eyes. We get the characters perception of themselves and others, and also other’s perceptions of the character and themselves. The disparity between such conceptions is playfully elaborated on in the ‘Dictionary of Misunderstood Words‘ , where we see how characters relate to terms such as ‘woman’ or ‘fidelity’, ‘living in truth’ or ‘cemetery’.

The novel also explores Nietzschean eternal recurrence; “Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here. And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives. And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature. That was Tomas’s version of eternal return. Of course we here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets.”

This book offers brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations that you might not expect from a novel fundamentally about infidelity. It gives a fresh perspective on existence and, of course, on being.

“And if various parts of her body began to grow and shrink and Tereza no longer looked like herself, would she still be Tereza? Of course. Even if Tereza were completely unlike Tereza her soul inside her would be the same and look in amazement at what was happening to her body. Then what is the relationship between Tereza and her body? Had her body the right to call itself Tereza? And if not what did the name refer to? Merely something incorporeal, intangible?…They are questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”


 

DEVOTION (WHY I WRITE), PATTI SMITH

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I read Just Kids and M Train last year. Patti’s lyrical voice is so captivating. Her writing has the same nostalgic quality as film photos – hazy, a little grainy, and infinitely romantic. When I saw she had a new book out, a meditation on the art of writing, I instantly wanted to read it. I bought it a little while later and read the entire thing in a single night (it’s only a little under a hundred pages).

The book is divided into three sections, the first and last (How the Mind Works and A Dream is not a Dream) detail Patti’s life whilst the middle (Devotion) comprises a short story of an ice skater; “There are no signs that tell us who we are. Not a star, not a cross, not a number on the wrist. We are ourselves. Your gift comes only from you.”

Ultimately the meditation takes us through Patti’s creative process, sitting in cafes, writing on park benches, visiting Camus’ home, and coming to the conclusion – “Why do we write? A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live”. Read it if you want to feel life as poetry.

“Inspiration is the unforeseen quantity, the muse that assails at the hidden hour. The arrows fly and one is unaware of being struck, and that a host of unrelated catalysts have joined clandestinely to form a system of its own, rendering one with the vibrations of an incurable disease – a burning imagination – at once unholy and divine.”


 

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY

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This was one of the first books I read this year. My brother has a habit of buying classics and then never reading them, so I picked this one up off the floor of his room and delved in.

I don’t remember much about the plot – it centres around a squalid, middle aged man who lives underground and feels outcast by society. One scene that sticks in my head is when the man invites himself to a party nobody wanted him at, there’s a quarel, and then for some reason he starts pacing – everyone looks at him oddly but he has committed to this action so he keeps going, for hours, pacing around the room, internally castigating himself for the stupidity of this repetitive motion. But he can’t bring himself to stop.

What I remember most, however, is the disparity between how the unnamed man views himself and how others view him. The story is comprised of letters he’s written, and in them he describes the (few) interactions he has with others. After every single one he forms the conviction that the other party despises him, thinks him insignificant or repulsive. And even though the narrative is constructed from his biased point of view it’s possible to discern that this isn’t always the case. He fundamentally misreads social cues and as a result believes himself to be perceived by others as the scum of the Earth. And so he perceives himself as the scum of the Earth – whilst always paradoxically maintaining that he’s better and more intelligent than everyone else. “It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.” 

It’s an interesting dichotomy, and raises questions about how we read ourselves, others and the world. I think this is even more significant in the age of social media and the reliance we place on others for our own conceptualisations of self. It’s a short book, easy to get through, and one that will undoubtedly provide a previously unconsidered philosophy of life.

“The whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!” 


 

BECOMING MYSELF: A PSYCHIATRISTS MEMOIR, IRVIN YALOM

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Couple of months ago, Amy and I went to a party at Better Read than Dead in Newtown. It didn’t take long for my arms to fill with piles of books I wanted but couldn’t afford. Amy and I challenged each other to buy ones that we might not normally reach for, and so I put back a biography of Claude Monet and instead purchased Yalom’s. Best. Decision.

I love books where the author possesses a sort of clarity about their own lives, a capacity to step outside of themselves and reflect on their own existence. And Yalom does precisely this. He charts his growth with amusing anecdotes from his own childhood, to challenges that his patients have brought up, and exploring his anxiety about death.

I’ve recently started going to therapy again, after almost a year without it, and it’s interesting to hear the perspective of the other side. Yalom goes over mistakes he’s made, times he wished he was more honest with a patient – it’s refreshingly humanising. He talks about his own experiences with receiving counselling, and how it helped him to understand his fear of death (which was really a fear of lack of control and uncertainty) and eventually merge his own psychoanalysis with existentialist philosophy.

This is one of the only books I read this year where I didn’t underline my favourite quotes – I was too engrossed to pause long enough to do so. Trust me – this book is well worth the read.


 

THE PHILOSOPHY OF ANDY WARHOL, ANDY WARHOL

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Somewhere in the period after law camp and before my first assignment was due I found time to visit the exhibit: Warhol before Pop. There were dozens of drawings of shoes, the male figure, and self portraits. At the gift store I tried to convince mum to buy me the (quite expensive) 800 page anthology of his journals but eventually settled for the much shorter (and cheaper) collection of his philosophy.

I started reading it at Town Hall station as I waited for the train home, digging my pen up out the bottom of my bag; “I’m sure I’m going to look in the mirror and see nothing. People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror, what is there to see?”

I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who thought the way Warhol did, which makes for an unwaveringly unique philosophy. The book is divided into sections such as Love, Work, Fame, Beauty, Time, Death, Art and Success. Each one filled with miscellaneous musings, interactions, recollections and ruminations. “Sometimes the little times you don’t think are anything while they’re happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life.”

I’ve always loved Warhols art but I came to appreciate it a whole lot more after getting a glimpse into the mind behind the brush.

“Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, ‘So what.’ That’s one of my favourite things to say, ‘So what’. ‘My mother didn’t love me’. So what. ‘My husband won’t ball me.’ So what. ‘I’m a success but I’m still alone’. So what. I don’t know how I made it through all the years before I learned how to do that trick. It took a long time for me to learn it, but once you do, you never forget.”


 

DARING GREATLY: HOW THE COURAGE TO BE VULNERABLE TRANSFORMS THE WAY WE LIVE, LOVE, PARENT AND LEAD, BRENÉ BROWN

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Somewhere in the blur of the middle months I started listening to podcasts on the commute to uni. One morning I stumbled across Brown’s podcast with Oprah about a TED talk she delivered, and in the evening I bought her book.

This year I was trying to be more honest, with myself and others, and this inevitably involved being more vulnerable – about my fears, capacities and weaknesses. These were all brought to the forefront when I was thrown into tutorials with the top 1% of the state, where everybody except me seemed to know what was going on (totally not true by the way – most people, if not all, definitely do NOT have it figured out).

The book opens up with a passage by Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again…who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

The central message is that in order to lead fulfilled lives we need to be vulnerable, and this involves showing up and letting ourselves be seen. This book changed my life in a lot of very small and very significant ways. Pushing me to raise my hand more when I had something to say, even if I wasn’t certain it was right. Introducing myself to the stranger sitting next to me in a lecture. Striking up a conversation with the person who complimented my jeans. Slowly, but surely, it provided an impetus to embrace myself more fully – not as some hypothetical idealised ‘me’ of the future, but as the imperfectly human ‘me’ of the present.

“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe that vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness…Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.”


 

THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PRACTICE OF MEDITATION, THICH NHAT HANH

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I was tossing up between including The Power of Now or The Miracle of Mindfulness on this list. But everyone regards Tolle’s book as the cornerstone of spirituality, and I feel as though Hanh’s has been more impactful for me. I purchased it at a Barnes and Noble in Hawaii at the end of last year, and read it in the quiet summer months.

One of the first passages is incredibly important to me – I wrote it in the opening page of one of my journals:

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, this may seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these dishes is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves…If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

I could suggest no greater book as an introduction to meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist philosophy.


 

THE ALCHEMIST, PAULO COELHO

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Like The Power of NowThe Alchemist has accrued somewhat of a cult following, and not without reason. I first heard of this book after listening to a podcast with Coelho and, again, Oprah. He spoke with such clarity about the purpose of human life (to fulfil our own personal legend), and of writing the book in just a few days, as though the words flowed out of him with some sort of divine deliverance.

I have described the book to many people as this: If you want to feel as though all things are falling into place, everywhere and at every time, then read this.

I don’t have my copy of it anymore – I gave it to a friend because I felt she needed it more. So I cannot tell you of my favourite quotes, though I assure you many were underlined. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

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