I finished Ali Smith’s Artful in bed the other night at 12:42am. I didn’t mean to. I’d told myself I wouldn’t. But I did, because every new page contained something that made me yell—actually yell—in the dark of my room and I’d already blunted my pencil with furious underlining and I couldn’t believe one person could weave so many wonderful threads into a cohesive whole.
This is the deep and abiding pleasure of the thing: to be introduced to new secrets—inducted into them, even—while also catching sight of familiar friends. Sometimes you read a book this rich before you’ve encountered enough of the source material and it just feels overwhelming. Other times the author will quote a phalanx of people you’re already familiar with and it’s…tired. The same quotes from the same famous figures. Nothing new.
But Artful…woof. It hit me just right. Just rich enough, just new enough, just familiar enough, just fucking weird enough to wrap me up in a giddy sense of total intoxication.
You know when you meet someone whose brain operates in way you find totally engrossing and energizing and you just want to spend all your time watching them cram things together into new and impossible forms? It’s like that. The mere fact of their existence grabs you by the shoulders and seems to bellow “If you’re not doing everything in your power to live in this electrifying pinball machine all the time then what are you even DOING WITH YOURSELF?”
I was in high school when I started my first list of unknown words.
It happened because I was tired of acing vocab quizzes in English class without having to study, and that was happening because I was a precocious kid who read a lot of books and seemed unable to stop adding to her already unwieldy (and often socially alienating) internal dictionary.
So I made a list. And I formatted it like the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency homepage, because it was 2005 and that’s what we did back then.
I never did anything so organized as quizzing myself on the entries, but when I rediscovered this artefact it turned out I’d learned almost all the words quite naturally in the course of becoming an adult. (Using them in conversation also seems to put less of a damper on my social life these days. Score one for finding your people.)
Anyway, several years ago I found myself jotting down word after word as I tore through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Her goshawk’s “breast feathers of vermiculated snow” were just the tip of the lexical iceberg. She deployed technical birding terminology and archaic literary expressions with equal and terrific frequency. I hadn’t read anything involving so many new-to-me words in ages.
So I made a new list. Just a messy thing in the notes app on my phone, not modeled after any particular beloved internet comedy website. And, as the books and years rolled by, I kept adding to it.
Eventually some Twitter conversation prompted me to share a selection of choice entries, but I thought it would be even better to catalogue them all on my own site. There’s now a slightly awkward, plugin-fueled version of that very feature here, but you can also subscribe to this RSS feed and it’ll just update your reader every time I add a new word. (The plugin also adds hover-activated definitions when I use catalogued words anywhere on the site, so that’s fun.)
I’ll warn you right now: I copy my definitions willy-nilly from whatever dictionary I have to hand, but I’m starting to get more deliberate about formatting and I do try and cite where I first encountered the word at the end of each entry.
If all goes according to plan, I can look back on this new list in twenty years and wonder how I ever got by without using the word lambrequin in a sentence every other day.
Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy delighting in these new terms as much as I do.
Katherine Kwong is a delight. She’s smart and earnest and curious and very, very kind. We first met in person at my book tour event for 100 Demon Dialogues at McNally Jackson in New York, and her online exuberance is even more tangible in person. When she told me she was launching a podcast to interview folks about formative books from their childhoods, I couldn’t wait to hear it. Little did I know she was planning to interview me for its inaugural season!
Because of Quarantine Time I honestly couldn’t have told you when we recorded this conversation for This Book, That Book, but given the details I share about our foster dog it seems to have been fairly early on in the whole process. Possibly March. Anyway, I was delighted to get a text this morning saying that my episode had gone live, so I share it here for all of you to enjoy.
We discussed My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, a sun-drenched dream of a book full of thoughtful observations, eccentric characters, and a deep love of the natural world. It holds a place very near to my heart and manages to act as a touchstone in our conversation for growing up with a menagerie of creatures in Southern California, life as an only child, and my nascent love of tall ships (partly catalyzed by the book’s own small vessel, the Bootle-Bumtrinket).
You can listen to the episode (and check out the four other interviews released so far) below:
Those of you who were here for my last Year in Review post will recall that I didn’t read as much as I would’ve liked to in 2014. So, spurred on by Austin Kleon’s excellent “How to Read More” list, I set out to read…
Good News: I’m currently at 63, and will probably have knocked out a couple more before January 1st officially rolls around, so I’m calling this initiative a roaring success.
I plowed through nonfiction, fiction, comics, memoirs, short stories, plays, and poetry. I tried books randomly off shelves, I tackled stories I’d been meaning to read for years, and I followed up on many recommendations from friends.
My beloved housemate Zina joined me in my quest, and to help ourselves stay accountable we kept long lists outside our bedrooms, marking off titles and making suggestions as we went. This was a really useful way to keep track of everything, notice trends, and direct my choices a little more deliberately.
When Austin came to Portland to promote his new book (the excellent Steal Like an Artist Journal) back in October, we took our lists along to share and grabbed a photo:
It feels great to have stuck with this through the year, and I’m glad to see that my voracious appetite for reading is back in full force.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share a selection of my favorite picks from the past year. I haven’t been taking extensive notes along the way, but these are some impressions to whet your appetite.
I started strong this year by finally going after Moby-Dick [#8], which I can’t believe I’d taken so long to get to. It was dense and lengthy, as I’d been warned, but also immersive, expansive, and utterly engrossing. Melville’s bombastic prose was such a delight that I couldn’t stop myself reading it aloud to anyone in earshot—a book with excellent mouthfeel. Going on the recommendation of my pal Justin Hocking, who knows a thing or two about Moby-Dick, I purchased the Modern Library Classics edition because it also features Rockwell Kent’s stunning woodcut illustrations for the book—a must-have component.
Railsea  by China Miéville was part of my broader push to try more Miéville, since he’s been recommended to me maaany times and after reading The City and The City last year I still wasn’t quite convinced. BOY HOWDY DID THIS CHANGE MY MIND. One of the perks of having read Moby-Dick is now twigging to every Moby-Dick reference everywhere, which is no small thing because Western Civ really likes its Giant Whale Book References, but Miéville has really run with it to make something grand here. I loved, in no particular order: the fictitious terminology, the gender parity, the adventure, the imaginative universe, the twists and turns, and all the little tics and nods that brought the reader of both texts into cahoots with the authors.
Basically, for a good time read these two back-to-back.
I’ve been thinking a lot about wandering this year, so it felt apt to pair these two nonfiction titles. Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and John Fowles’s The Tree  were both surprises, in a way. I thought I’d read all of Fowles’s books when I was younger, but this recent re-release of his essay on wilderness and domestication brought my attention to a gap in the canon.
The Tree is a rambling text that explores Fowles’s thoughts on huamnkind’s relationship to nature. The early part of the narrative contrasts Fowles’s affection for untamed spaces with his father’s nigh-Linnaean orchard, but it was the last third of the book that really brought it home for me. The text also highlights the absolute best of Fowles’s prodigious vocabulary (tor, wisht, tachist, clitter, Laocoön, polypodies, bulbul, brassards, fumitory, and lucubration, to name a few—thanks, Jason, for picking these!), while ranging across natural history, personal narrative, and scientific musing.
Solnit, meanwhile, is a writer whose work I’ve seen more and more often on the lists of people I admire, so I chose a collection at random and dove in. A Field Guide to Getting Lost could be in direct conversation with the final section of The Tree, in which Fowles revisits a stunning, desolate patch of woodland in Dartmoor like somewhere from a dream. It echoes throughout this passage from Field Guide:
Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. […] you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.
Solnit has a mind for nonfiction that I find endlessly fascinating. Her writing is both poetic and critical in the wide-ranging way I love most, and her thoughts on the value of the unknown in the creative process spoke to a lot of what I’d been thinking about this year. I’m looking forward to devouring the rest of her books in 2016. (If you’d like a more extensive taste, there’s a lovely write-up of the collection on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings.)
I’ll level with you: I was going to buy a self-bettering business book on essentialism during a recent visit to Powell’s and instead I said “Fuck it” on my way out and grabbedThe Folly of the World  at random off a shelf in the Gold Room because—you guessed it—there was a boat on the cover. I’d never heard of Jesse Bullington, but within three pages I knew this was going to be an unnervingly enjoyable read. The book is foul and visceral and well-researched and vivid and unsettling. It did exactly what I wanted and several things I didn’t anticipate. Curious to pick up more of his stuff.
So now, the Big Ones. The favorites. I read a lot of enjoyable fiction (and nonfiction) this year, but there were some books that were so direct and so human and so brave that I just couldn’t put them down. They stuck with me longer than the rest, and I know they’ve already appeared on many people’s lists, but that’s probably because they’re just splendid, so here they are on mine.
Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking  was an inevitable must-read because I’m a huge crowdfunding enthusiast and I feel like my entire career has been made possible by the kind of reciprocal relationship Palmer describes in this book. Furthermore, I relate a great deal to her exploration of how we can become comfortable with asking for help from fans or fellow professionals with our work, but remain completely incompetent when asking for help with the more foundational, emotional needs of our lives from the people we love the most.
From what I’ve seen of her writing elsewhere (full disclosure, I didn’t have much prior Amanda Palmer exposure, musical or otherwise) I think the text really benefitted from having an editor or a more coherent publishing structure, because it retains all of Palmer’s trademark vulnerability and irreverence without getting too discursive. Crucial for artists looking to build a familial bond with their audience, equally crucial for humans of any profession looking to build a nurturing bond with one another.
Daring Greatly  by Brené Brown was also an obvious choice, because I’ve been on a vulnerability kick and after her smash hit TEDtalks Brown is pretty much the go-to source on the subject. Daring Greatly was simple, as a read, and less emotionally raw than The Art of Asking, but it still resonated with me a great deal. There’s an element of preaching to the choir, but I still loved quietly saying “yes, Yes, YES” under my breath as I agreed with things on every page. Straightforward, practical, excellent.
Okay. Deep breath. Tiny Beautiful Things  is firmly fixed on my Top Books of Forever list right now. It was like a drug. I couldn’t stop myself from reading “just one more column” every time I picked it up, even though each section felt like something to be held and savored and dissolved on the tongue. I hadn’t read any of Cheryl Strayed’s other work—though I have seen her speak on a couple occasions in Portland—so this book came out of nowhere for me. The selection of experiences is so far-reaching, yet familiar in an incredibly intimate way.
If Daring Greatly is a manual for empathy, Tiny Beautiful Things is the truth of it in practice. Watching Strayed begin her answers—all her answers—by validating the experiences of the people who have made themselves vulnerable to her is potent in and of itself. Her association of narratives from her personal life with the stories readers send her way is intimate, insightful, and healing. All of it felt perfect. I recorded chapters and sent them to lovers, I read them aloud to Zina in the bath, I cried over them on the floor of the kitchen, sitting next to the heating vent drinking tea in the morning.
It was only when I followed this up with a theoretically similar book (The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz ) that I was struck by how meaningful it is to have the original letters printed alongside Strayed’s answers. Grosz’s accounts as a psychoanalyst (even with personal anecdotes in tow) come off as clinical and removed. He seems to be making pronouncements on anonymized patients, rather than entering into a deeply personal dialogue that somehow becomes universal in the telling. If this experience was anything to go by, I should be reading more advice columns. (Heather Havrilesky’s Ask Polly is my go-to favorite at present.)
So there you have it! Eight favorites from a very busy year. Thanks for reading along, and if you’re game to join me in 2016, why not make your own list? I want to hear all about it.
I’m departing for Boston this evening for a week of historical research and sailing aboard the Charles W. Morgan, an original 1840s wooden whaling ship. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, feel free to refresh your memory with this post. I’ve got some fun stuff scheduled for the blog while I’m away, so stay tuned for news and thrilling events that will autopost in my absence. I’ll also do my best to update from the road — or water, as it were.
In addition: I would also love to see any and all of you in the Boston area at Trident Booksellers and Cafe, where I’ll be doing a reading/signing on July 14th at 7pm. This is my first solo signing event, and I’m really excited to meet all my East Coast boat comics people. Here’s a link to Trident’s site with some more info, plus a Facebook event where you can invite your friends.