Like so many other things I adore or despise in life, my opinion of a book is based on more than just merit — it can be seriously altered by circumstances.
April was a transitional month. I traveled internationally, returned home to unemployment, and was then serendipitously hired into the busiest work I’ve had since college finals week. I started several books while unemployed, but with so few distractions, I was incapable of finishing a book that wasn’t confusing, mysterious, or driven.
Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder was one of the three books I managed to read through over the jobless months. I began and finished it during a period of unusual activity – my eight day trip to Guatemala over Easter. I took my traveling companion’s good advice to bring just one book, and this was the perfect one. I could read it on the plane, in the morning with a cup of coffee in the sunlight, at a loud hostel at night, anywhere. I began reading this book once before, as a young teen with no philosophical education, and never finished. A few years studying the subject for my degree, and a trip of beautiful, tiring travel and practical conversations were the proper background to a philosophical, experimental novel.
The book reminded me that philosophy can and should be a part of our everyday lives. It elevates us, helps us understand humanity and the world, and is a part of culture whether or not most people are aware of its influence. I can’t say that I agree with most philosophers who (unsurprisingly) assert that the philosopher is the highest level a human can reach. But I do agree with Jostien Gaarder, and my old professors, about the importance of the subject.
Sophie’s World is quite a novel. It’s now been about 20 years since it’s first publication in Norwegian, but a book containing an understandable and concise history of philosophy is always relevant. The reader learns to become a philosopher along with the main character, Sophie. And what makes a person a philosopher? Asking questions, keeping one’s mind open to possibilities, and learning from history. It’s simple, really.
Back at home with my laundry piles and mice infestation, I blew off reading The Big Short for book club and stayed up late for Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.
Reading Murakami is like listening to someone describe a vivid dream. He writes in contradictions, broken metaphors, mystic poetry. Sometimes you’re not even sure he knows what he talking about.
Kafka on the Shore was sometimes indecipherable, occasionally shocking, mostly lovely – full of art and music and natural beauty. There are a two characters I absolutely adored – Oshima, a wise, transgendered librarian assistant with a charming smile and Hoshino, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing truck driver who feels protective of grandfatherly types and learns to like Bach. It was a mysterious, coming of age, epic journey fantasy. It felt like a race to the answers at the end of the book, but one through Wonderland. Most of the questions are left mysteries, and though that is a little confusing (like the whole novel), it’s better. It wouldn’t be as beautiful with all the secrets revealed.
Around the time I was hearing rumors of a decent available job, I borrowed Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. Sometimes it was good for subway reading with short chapters, sometimes it was a bit confusing for interrupted reading, though the subway is my second favorite place to read, as long as I can find a seat.
Let The Great World Spin, a mosaic of stories in the tunnels of New Yorkers lives, is the best Manhattan-based novel I’ve read. The characters are caricatures, cliches, and exaggerations of New Yorkers. The story I liked best was the one with the most regular characters – a group of mothers meeting to commiserate over the loss of their sons in Vietnam. It was full of the tension, uncertainly, awkwardness and regret of real life.
I think McCann chose to anchor his novel to Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walking stunt between the Twin Towers because it was a true New York moment, completely un-inimitable, and in his words, like creating a living monument to the city. Let The Great World Spin is a written monument to our city and neighbors, full of the sadness, goodness, craziness we witness daily. It is a quick read because it is precisely written, with paragraphs of concrete examples pulled from characters’ thoughts. It is also a good, fulfilling read, and pretty much worth all the hype.
Once I began my insane new employment, I had so many distractions to block out that I found the focus for slower books. I finished up Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge in two days, and have somehow found the patience for France Maye’s poetic and rambling Under The Tuscan Sun. It’s more a memoir about Italian cooking than Italy. When I was unemployed, I could barely read five pages before wanting a nap in the sun, but the rattle of the N train arouses a new longing for fresh olive oil and dark espresso.
My receptiveness to books, stories, and concepts depends on my personal situation. Maybe reading is more about the reader than the book itself. I can happily read about siestas and fresh tomatoes when I’m working ten hour days on little sleep. I need plot with direction when my life is directionless. I can appreciate something as an educated adult that I couldn’t understand as a self-absorbed teenager. There isn’t any secret to properly appreciating a book, except that maybe if you don’t like one, it isn’t the right time. You just need to take a break and let it mellow on the shelf for a few months.