How I choose books to read

Reading is just another activity that has been hugely changed by computers and other entertainment technology.

I’m writing this post for those of you who still read books—or have the ambition to read them. I don’t believe people will ever stop reading books. Nor will print books die out. Visual and interactive media are compelling forms of communication that have enriched our lives and our ways of telling stories. Yet I have faith that the combined power of well-crafted words and readers’ imaginations will ensure the enduring popularity of simple printed books.

Technology has affected not only the formats of what we read, but how we choose our books and other reading materials. In this post, I’d like to share how I choose my books.

Cover of How Literature Changed My Life by David Shields

Andre Alexis’ review of this book gave me an “I can’t wait to read this!” reaction.

1) I read book reviews, mainly from the weekend edition of The Globe and Mail. I thoroughly enjoy reading the book reviews in the Arts section of The Globe. I don’t buy many books. Since reviewed books are typically new, I enter their names and authors on my computer’s “books to read” list. I read them when they arrive at the library, or I ask for them for Christmas gifts. Often the reviews themselves are extremely thought-provoking and well-written. Occasionally, I’m so galvanized by a book review that I’ll buy the book immediately. For example, Globe critic André Alexis’ take on How Literature Changed my Life, by David Shields, was a fascinating read on its own. I tried to get the book at my local Chapters but they hadn’t yet received it.

Cover of Astray by Emma Donoghue

After reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, I was eager to read anything else by this astoundingly good writer. I found “Astray” in the 7-day loan section. I had to fight with the librarian to let me take it out, because it was severely water-damaged.

2) I browse at my local library. I do two types of browsing. The first is simply scanning the “new” and “express” books sections. If I see a book that I want (after using method #1 above), I check it out.

The second type of library browsing requires more time, but it’s (to me at least) very pleasurable and almost a lost art these days. That is browsing randomly amongst the shelves of books, taking out books that I’m attracted to because of their titles, or because I recognize a familiar author’s name, or because I start reading the summary or the blurbs and get ensnared. This kind of browsing goes on until my time runs out, or until I have a stack of at least three or four books. Then I leave the library feeling like a rich person. I’m filled with anticipation about the pages soon to be devoured.

The great advantage of this kind of “random browsing” is its unpredictability. You never know what unfamiliar or obscure books you will discover. These may be books that haven’t been mentioned in any mainstream media. They may be books that are old and wouldn’t be available in any bookstore now. They come with not only an older style of language, but with different smells and page textures than newer books. Maybe they have comments penciled into their margins by a reader long dead now.

A randomly-chosen book could get you to open your mind to a subject you’ve never been exposed to or curious about before. And who knows where that could lead?

3) I browse at Chapters. There is something enticing about being surrounded by attractive new books. I like browsing at Chapters (but see my pet peeve*). However, I try to resist the urge to buy every book I’d like to read. Browsing in a bookstore is similar to browsing in a library in that you can do the “easy” browsing in the front areas where the heavily marketed books are, or you can browse in the stacks where you might find older “treasures”. One of the differences, of course, is that you won’t find any truly old books in Chapters.I haven’t included second-hand bookstores as an inspiration for my book choices, but that’s simply because I don’t have such a store anywhere near where I live.

*Pet peeve: It’s especially irritating to shop at Chapters before Christmas. I find that my browsing is so frequently interrupted by “assistants” that I don’t even have time to read a book cover or a blurb to get an idea what a book is about. If I needed help I would ask one of the 100 or so floor-drones for it.

Cover of Le Ton beau de Marot

“Le Ton beau de Marot” includes 88 wildly diverse translations of a 16th-century French poem—but so much more!

Random browsing in Chapters has led me to numerous treasures. I want to rave about two examples here: both are astounding acts of creativity. They demonstrate how a writer can focus on a topic or person that he is obsessed with, and follow that obsession to the absolute limits of genius. When I read these books, I experience the privilege and excitement of being drawn into worlds I never knew existed.

In Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Douglas R. Hofstadter starts with the goal of translating a short medieval French poem and expands it into a 570-page book that is bursting with the joy, exuberance, and music the author finds in language. Your appreciation of the book will be greater if you have some understanding of French (as I do at an intermediate level), but even without that you will be dazzled by Hofstadter’s insights about the creative art of translation. Starting with the anagram “translation = lost in an art”, this book is a challenging intellectual journey; surprising, delightful, and hugely rewarding. Anything I could write in praise of this book would be inadequate.

Cover of Ha!

Gordon Sheppard’s “Ha!” is a tribute to Quebec separatist writer Hubert Aquin. Its creation took 25 years.

A second “treasure” that I found by accident at Chapters was a strange, unconventional book whose cover blurbs intrigued me irresistibly: Ha! A Self-Murder Mystery, by Gordon Sheppard. Sheppard, a well-known Canadian writer, artist and filmmaker in the ’70s, spent 25 years creating this almost-900-page book that Quill & Quire reviewer Nicholas Dinka calls a “genre-busting beast.” (Read Dinka’s review of Ha! here.) Ha! is an investigation into the 1977 suicide of Sheppard’s friend Hubert Aquin, a Quebec separatist writer. The book is presented entirely as a series of interviews with many of Aquin’s friends and acquaintances, plus quotations from Flaubert, Joyce, and Dante, and images from artistic geniuses like da Vinci and Goya. According to Dinka, Sheppard’s purpose is not only to understand the life, death and work of Hubert Aquin, but to ask difficult questions about the “potentially destructive struggle” of every artist’s life.

4) I follow suggestions from friends whose opinions I respect, whether I’m talking to them in person or just see one of their comments online.

5) My curiosity about a book is re-awakened after seeing the movie version. Usually I’ve read the book before I see the movie. The movie often compels me to go back and read the book. I’m fascinated by the creative process that screenwriters and directors go through as they make decisions about how to transform a book into a movie. This must be especially difficult when a very long book (like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) has to be reduced to a two-hour film.

Cover of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

The recent movie version with its theatrical effects did justice to Tolstoy’s great novel, but had to omit much of the parallel love story of Lenin and Kitty.

What I almost never do

I know it’s easy to let your computer choose your books for you. A site like recommends books for you based on data it’s aggregated about your browsing, purchasing, and reading habits. Writer and publisher David Gaughram’s states in his recent blog post that Amazon is considered to be the best of these book e-commerce sites. The reason, he says, is that Amazon shows you the book you are most likely to buy, without taking price or the author’s history/reputation into account. For this reason, self-publishers fare better on Amazon, according to Gaughran.

Why don’t I like letting Amazon choose my books for me? Because it doesn’t allow for that random, unpredictable discovery of books I would never plan to read. Also, there’s an irrational part of me that is revolted by the idea that a computer can understand my intellect and how I want to feed it. (Even though I’m not denying that Amazon’s choices would probably satisfy me very well.)

How do you choose books to read?

Have I left out anything important?

Does anyone have a book to rave about?

A not-so-quiet boost for introverts: book review of Susan Cain’s Quiet

Photo of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingIn her introduction to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, bestselling author Susan Cain writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself. I can vouch personally for the life-transforming effects of this outlook.”

The reason I wanted to write about Quiet is because I believe it does have a message that can change people’s lives. In this book about introverts, I recognized myself, and Cain’s descriptions of introverts’ strengths gave me a new conviction about my abilities and how I can use them effectively.

Quiet is the result of years of research by Cain. Her work has exposed her to psychological explanations of introversion, both ancient and leading-edge, and to the latest research in neurobiology, which offers much evidence of brain differences between introverts and extroverts. Most compellingly, though, she writes that her work on Quiet has gone on “unofficially for my entire adult life.” An introvert herself, she is stunning proof of an introvert’s ability to succeed in a culture that seems to favour the extrovert’s personality. Cain was a lawyer for seven years, until she accepted that her real passion was to do research and help other introverts attain the self-understanding that would allow them to reach their potential.

Cain writes that although our culture’s “ideal” personality is extroverted, one third to one half of Americans are introverts. Carl Jung first popularized the terms “introvert” and “extrovert”. The two types differ in many ways, but in a nutshell, introverts prefer the inner world of thoughts and feelings, while extroverts are attracted to the outer world of people and activities. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts recharge by socializing. Studies of identical and fraternal twins have shown that a person’s degree of introversion or extroversion (it’s a spectrum; most people aren’t all one or the other) is 40–50% genetic.

FinnishJoke.inddCain’s book is significant and useful because her key insights about introversion do more than offer hope for individuals; they suggest how our culture can best take advantage of the abilities of both personality types, particularly in the ways we educate and nurture our children, the ways we structure our workplaces, and the ways our organizations make group decisions.

Early in the book, Cain outlines what she believes to be a problem in Western cultures. Since the early twentieth century, we have increasingly favoured extroverted, gregarious people, those who have great social skills, speak well, and present their ideas with flair. When choosing and promoting leaders, we often wrongly equate the ability to speak well with high intelligence and good ideas. Cain quotes a successful venture capitalist as saying, “We put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”

One of Cain’s many interviewees was Boykin Curry, managing director of investment at Eagle Capital. Boykin blames forceful extroverts for causing the global financial crash in 2008.

Research has shown that extroverts are more likely to engage in risky behaviour than introverts. Cain’s summary of the research on the “reward system” in the brain is one of many parts of the book that delves into the neuroscience of behavioural differences between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts appear to be more strongly influenced by the brain’s “reward system” than introverts. Extroverts are more responsive to the chemical dopamine, released when pleasure or rewards are anticipated. The implication is that organizations should listen to introverts when group decisions have to be made—especially in risky situations like those proceeding the financial meltdown of 2008.

Cain is critical about the prevalence of what she calls “Groupthink” in both schools and workplaces. Many workplaces and schoolrooms are designed to encourage interactivity and group work. However, studies have proved that people are most productive when they have privacy and can avoid distractions or interruptions. This is especially true for introverts, who need lower levels of stimulation than extroverts to function at their best. Moreover, the popular view that group brainstorming is the best way to generate creative ideas is a myth.

Most creative work, it turns out, is accomplished in solitude—the way introverts prefer to work. Steve Wozniak, who built the world’s first personal computer (and co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs), wrote, “Artists work best alone.”

Research psychologist Anders Ericsson has devoted his life to figuring out what separates superior achievers from merely good or average achievers. Studying violinists at three levels of performance, he and his colleagues discovered that the key factor separating elite level musicians from lesser performers is the amount of time they spend practicing alone.

After studying excellence in many fields, Ericsson has concluded that it takes about 10,000 hours of what he calls “Deliberate Practice” to gain expertise in any field. Deliberate practice must be done alone; it is only then that a person can concentrate specifically on the tasks or knowledge that he needs to improve his own performance.

joke about Finnish people

How is intelligence related to introversion/extroversion? According to IQ tests, both types are equally intelligent. However, introverts have different problem-solving strategies. They tend to be more persistent, more analytical, and more reflective than extroverts. Introverts are prolific contributors of society’s greatest ideas, inventions and creative works.

The first challenge for introverts is to not undervalue their own talents. They should not be afraid to devote long hours to their passions, even when (as often happens during adolescence) this is seen as strange or anti-social behaviour.

But introverts also need to be heard—to share their ideas and creative works. Cain examines the whole issue of whether introverts, who may be shy or withdrawn, can change to become outgoing, effective communicators of their ideas. Can introverts who are afraid of public speaking somehow “pretend” to be extroverts in order to get their messages across?

Quiet gives many examples of introverts who have answered this question affirmatively.

Professor Brian Little, a former Harvard University psychology lecturer and winner of the 3M Teaching Fellowship, defines himself as a true introvert but is a great public speaker. He created Free Trait Theory, which says “We can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects’.”

In other words, introverts can act like extroverts when they’re highly motivated, whether it’s to promote the work or key values they believe in, or to help the people they love. Brian Little’s core personal project is igniting his students’ minds.

Cain also shares the story of Jon Berghoff, an outstanding salesman. (He began selling knives as a high school junior, and is now the head of a huge personal coaching and sales training business.) Berghoff insists he’s an introvert. He says the most important quality of a good salesperson or consultant is the ability to listen well, because people respond positively when they feel understood.

Cain’s research has shown that the CEOs of successful companies are often introverts. Introverted leaders are more likely than extroverts to listen to ideas from subordinates, creating a “virtuous circle of proactivity” in which employees are encouraged to express their ideas.

Companies likely benefit from the leadership of introverted CEOs because they aren’t overly dazzled by “hype”, and are willing to listen carefully to the suggestions of both the extroverts and introverts within their organization. Our society is enriched by having a good balance between the “men of action” and the “men of thought”. Quiet will leave introverted readers with increased understanding and confidence about the powerful contributions they can make to the organizations they work for or their own self-driven personal work.

Quote of the Week archive

Over time, I expect to gather a number of quotes that I’ll treasure, so this will be the place they are collected.

March 15, 2013

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.


–from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”

March 15, 2013

Susan Cain quotes Marcel Proust in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She says he called moments of unity between a reader and a writer (who have never met in person) “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

January 29, 2013

“Brandling would see the glass half full even when it lay in shards around his feet.”

Henry Brandling, a character in Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, is describing himself—in someone else’s words. Brandling is a childlike adult in the best sense of the word: naïve, open to magic and adventure, hopelessly vulnerable to love—yet adult in his self-awareness and sense of humour.

Read this novel to escape to another time and a fairytale aura—but know that the emotional landscapes are real.

Alan Twigg on B.C. BookWorld, writing and e-books

The winter 2012-2013 issue of B.C. BookWorld

The winter 2012-2013 issue of B.C. BookWorld

“I’ve spent the past two years writing a book for myself and one reader.”

Last Wednesday night I was privileged to attend a Canadian Authors Association meeting featuring guest speaker Alan Twigg.

Twigg is famous in the B.C. publishing world, and rightly so. He has turned his passion for B.C. and its writers into his life’s work. In 1987, he founded the quarterly literary newspaper B.C. BookWorld, which is chock-full of stories and book reviews about B.C. authors and their work. He continues to be the principal writer for this publication, with partner David Lester in charge of editing and production. Twigg has also created the online resource . This site now lists over 10,000 B.C. authors. It is searchable by author or by title and provides a veritable treasure trove of information on these authors and their contributions to B.C.’s historical and cultural landscape.

Twigg mentions that he is a fifth-generation B.C. native, but he acknowledges that most people are immigrants here, and claims that even if you aren’t from here, “B.C. will rub off on you.” He claims that we have “a psychological zone” here that is very different from most other places on the planet. Twigg relates a few anecdotes to illustrate how little of B.C.’s history is taught in schools. It is the authors Twigg promotes unflaggingly through B.C. BookWorld who have shared Twigg’s sense of wonder about B.C. through their research and the books they’ve created.

In a sense Twigg’s pride in B.C.’s writers is ironic because he admits that in the hierarchy of international publishing B.C.’s publishing industry doesn’t even make it to “the bottom rung of the ladder”. Internationally, the top places are New York, London, Frankfurt, and a few other cities, with Toronto positioned somewhere near the bottom of that ladder.

Twigg calls this situation the “outsiderism” of B.C. Yet, he goes on to ask, why should we complain or care if a B.C. writer never makes it onto the cover of Quill & Quire? [a Toronto-based literary magazine]. We don’t care because we have our own B.C. BookWorld.

Twigg is proud of what he calls “the huge appetite for B.C. BookWorld”. He describes B.C. BookWorld as an educational newspaper containing “deeper news”. In his conception, books are a form of “cultural news”. The online site is now getting about a thousand views a day.

In everything he says, Twigg conveys the idea that successful writing is not reflected by the number of readers but by the quality of readers. The whole question of how many readers a writer needs is related to Twigg’s conviction that B.C. writers don’t have to be ashamed that they don’t publish in the “power centres” of publishing. He does concede, however, that if you’re a writer who wants to be rich and famous, you’d better go to New York, London, Frankfurt, and other top publishing cities.

In one of his more outrageous statements of the evening, Twigg expressed his opinion of readings and literary festivals: “Readings are a ridiculous bastardization of literature.”

Why? Because both reading and writing are private activities, according to Twigg, who believes that “writing is underfunded because it’s not a spectacle,” like other arts such as dance and theatre.

(I should add that Twigg muttered some disclaimers, such as “I have nothing against the Vancouver Writers Fest” along with his statements about readings.)

Although I agree with him that the serious business of writing and reading books happens in private, I enjoy attending readings. Most people are curious to meet the authors of books they like. They want to compare the writer’s “voice” with the real person, and perhaps to gain some insights into the creative process and technical aspects of writing. Also, oral storytelling is an ancient art, and a writer who reads his book well can enhance his audience’s appreciation of it. Getting a “taste” of a book through a public reading often leads me to buy it (or at least read it!).

When I suggested that writers could gain international readers for their books through e-publishing, Twigg responded with scorn. He thinks e-books are putting independent bookstores out of business because they are so cheap. I agree with him on this, but I don’t agree with his opinion that people don’t really want e-books and have just been seduced by low prices and the persuasive marketing of e-readers. E-readers are here to stay because many people appreciate their portability and convenience.

However, I agree with Twigg that virtually every writer would prefer to be able to hold his own book in his hand. A physical object isn’t the same thing as words on a computer screen. Twigg is quite supportive of self-publishing, acknowledging that many high-quality books are now produced this way. One advantage of self-publishing is that writers have more control over the design and production of their books. Twigg sees self-published and print-on-demand books making up an ever-larger percentage of books.

Twigg encourages writers not to be overly concerned about how many copies of books they sell. Writers (and the readers they most want to have) are motivated primarily by their desire to create and appreciate art. This must be the reason Twigg, a self-confessed “private person” is willing to work so hard to promote the writers he believes in. After all, as he concludes, “Life is empty without art.”

How much solitude do writers need?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much solitude is ideal for writers. In part, this is an ongoing problem for me because there is this constant conflict between how much time I spend creating (pondering ideas and punching them into the computer), how much time I spend absorbing (reading books, newspapers, online articles) and how much time I spend socializing (sometimes in person but often online, and though this can be educational or stimulating or fun how much is too much?).

Recently, I wrote a snail-mail letter (because it was Christmas) to a friend (I’ll call him James) who interpreted what I had written as a request for writing advice. We ended up having a phone conversation about it. He feels very strongly that writers need to be alone most of the time. For him, socializing is almost always boring, a complete waste of time. (I think his mind is too brilliant to find a match with the vast majority of other people’s minds.)

Though it is true that the actual writing gets done when we’re alone, I don’t agree with James that writers have to be completely withdrawn. We get a lot of our ideas from both interacting with others, and being observers and eavesdroppers.

I’m sure most writers are like me in getting inspiration for fictional characters from real people. Sometimes it’s better when you know a person only slightly—but something about that person utterly seduces you or puzzles you—and you can go on to let your imagination build a whole character from the few tantalizing things you know about the real person. I’ve heard some writers say that they lose control of their characters—the characters “take over” the story and it goes places the author never planned.

How important is it for a writer to have an audience—his readers? Of course we all want to write a bestseller that millions of people buy so we can get rich, but do writers also get a reward simply from the act of creation itself?

I went to a Canadian Authors Association meeting last night in Vancouver, where B.C. BookWorld publisher and writer Alan Twigg gave an inspiring talk (in his inimitable provocative style) about B.C.’s writers and publishing scene. He began by telling us he’d been writing a book for two years that was intended for one reader. [I’ll be writing more about Alan Twigg and B.C. BookWorld in another post.] He segued into other topics, but later I reminded him about his “one reader” comment. I said that most writers, even if they didn’t care about becoming rich and famous, would rather have a hundred readers or a thousand than just one. Most people around me nodded.

After all, don’t we write in large part because we want to share—our experiences, our imagination, our unanswerable questions and partial answers? When James talks about writers’ solitude, does he mean the purest writers don’t care about having an audience at all? Is the purest writing done for oneself alone?

I don’t think so. Writing is an attempt to capture truth and beauty—which we each do in our own way, though Keats wrote a long time ago:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(These are the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, published 1819.)

We want to capture and share.

Did James mean that in writing one shouldn’t be corrupted by what others want or expect? One should write exactly what one means from the depths of one’s solitude? Then others can make of it what they will. A writer with integrity will want to express himself as precisely (in meaning) and as beautifully (stylistically, in his own voice) as he can. The “masses” may not approve of or understand what comes out. That doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Surely most writers have peers (as well as people they consider to be superior to themselves in terms of wisdom, knowledge, writing skill, talent, and experience) and the opinions of these people will “count”.

We want not only to share, but to receive feedback. Most of us aren’t egoless, and we like pats on the back. Also, everyone can improve at any skill, including writing, and there must be few writers who can’t benefit in some way from the feedback of others. But I guess James is right that the initial effort has to be the effort of a single mind, not a committee.

I liked the challenge James suggested to me, though—his idea of “what it takes” to be a fiction writer:

I am reluctant to run advice past you that wouldn’t be worth anything unless you know somehow somewhere you have that feel of “ok, I want to put five years into this fiction business. See what I got. Throw the dice, accept the consequences. I refuse to sit around and bark all day.”

Alan Twigg expressed a similar idea of the writer’s compulsion to write: “You will be a writer if you can’t not write.” He went on to explain—“We have needs…hunger, sex, and then there’s art. Life is empty without art.”

Happy Endings and Happy New Year!

HappyNewYear.inddMost of us like to make sense of our lives by explaining them in terms of stories.

On the last day of the year, we often sum up what has happened during the past year. We are happy to think of the New Year as a new beginning, perhaps the beginning of a new story that will be better than any we’ve yet created—or so we resolve!

A couple of days ago I read a post by one of my favourite bloggers that posed questions about “feel good” versus “literary” writing. She claims, “A lot of high-quality literary pieces I read these days are very depressing,” and asks, “Is there some deadlock between literary merit and hope that they have to be inversely proportional in books nowadays?”

I was driven to comment on her post as it contained many thought-provoking ideas. Ironically, she included a wonderful little feel-good story of her own, and I highly recommend you read her post.

Like many other readers who commented on bottledworder’s post, I don’t think that good literature (either past or current) is mostly depressing.

Good literature reflects the full range of human experience. Maybe the current fashion in literary writing is to write cynically, but most people will always want a message of hope, even if they don’t prefer the sheer escapism of genre fiction.

I, like many people, get more satisfaction out of reading “literature”—meaning books that have complicated, in-depth characters caught in real-life situations—than “escapist” books. To me, there is comfort in knowing that moral uncertainty, emotional anguish, and terrible bad luck or circumstances are parts of the human condition that are shared by everyone.

Literature can’t help but have darkness because the human reality is that we are all destined to die. Not only are the ways most of us get there pretty grim, but fewer people today have the solace of believing in life after death. Good literature helps us face darker realities because it does offer hope. It usually affirms the incredible resilience and strength of human beings by showing us that the joy and richness of life can be experienced even in the most unlikely situations. But it doesn’t evade the suffering, struggling, and doubts that accompany our journeys.

Bottledworder writes that she wonders whether such things as “unequivocally happy endings…are incompatible with the tenets of good writing of the current literary canon.” Well, Margaret Atwood wrote a short story called “Happy Endings” in 1983 (published in Good Bones and Simple Murders). It was a fun little exercise but its point was brutal: the only authentic ending is “John and Mary die.” So writers can create a happy ending simply by cutting off their story before that point.


Another thought I had after reading bottledworder’s post is that though much of contemporary literature may be cynical, the exact opposite is true about what is demanded by social media. I feel pressured to conform to the relentless cheerfulness of the Facebook world. Don’t get me wrong; I like to be inspired and to look at cute puppy/kitten photos as much as the next person. But I feel constricted: there are times I want to vent cynical or venomous thoughts on Facebook and I know I mustn’t!


Also, in case anyone thinks I’m a literary snob, I’ll report that I just finished reading (in two days!) an excellent escapist novel called A History of Pleasure, by Richard Mason. The writing is top quality, but the book (starring a good-looking character named Piet Barol who takes full advantage of his attractiveness to both men and women) is unabashedly escapist. It would make good reading for a day (perhaps New Year’s Day?) when you don’t want to read anything too troubling or demanding.

Beauty, just like literature, can be stark.

Beauty, just like literature, can be stark.

Book review: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

SheilaHetiFirst impressions

I was so crazy about this book after reading the first seven pages that I posed a question on my Facebook page: “Is is possible to fall in love with someone just from their writing?” But, interestingly, my reactions to the book became more complicated as I continued to read, and my reflections about why this was so affected how I analyzed the book.

Initially, I loved the narrator’s honesty. Maybe it was an obvious attention-getter to put comments about her technique for giving blow jobs on the third page, but also in those first pages was a story about her friend Margaux that won me over to the writer’s voice completely. The heartwarming and funny story about Margaux finished with these words:

If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her mouth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.

What is How Should a Person Be? about?

It’s a book that asks fundamental questions about how to find one’s path, how one can reconcile one’s “real” self with the self that is presented to the world. It talks about Art: what makes art beautiful or ugly? There are parallels between Art and a person as a work of art. Can we be lovable in spite of the inner ugliness that we’re afraid to reveal to others?

The book is about how Sheila (the character), in a mentally (and sometimes physically) torturous process, finds answers to her existential questions. Sheila’s psychotherapist tries to help Sheila with her problems, which all have to do with not carrying through. Why is Sheila blocked in her attempt to finish writing her play? Why do her most loving relationships, including a marriage, end after a brief time? The therapist gives an intellectual explanation, saying that it isn’t good to be like Peter Pan—the Puer aeternus—the eternal child.

Such people will suddenly tell you they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.
They must choose work that begins and ends in a passion, a question that is gnawing at their guts, which is not to be avoided but must be realized and lived through the hard work and suffering that inevitably comes with the process.

But Sheila can only come to accept herself, and her path—to finally start growing up—because of Margaux’s friendship and love. At the beginning of the book, Sheila is very distrustful of friendships with women. She meets Margaux at a party, and the two are immediately attracted to each other. They admire each other’s artistic talent—Sheila is a writer and Margaux is a painter—but are tentative in developing their friendship.

Sheila doesn’t realize for a long time that her friendship with Margaux is unbalanced. Margaux is willing to doing something she’s afraid of—letting Sheila record their discussions about Sheila’s play—in order to help Sheila write, but Sheila is afraid to expose herself to Margaux in a similar way. In fact, when she can’t bear her writer’s block and the ugliness she knows is within herself, she reacts not by confiding in Margaux, but by running away.

When Sheila figures out that running away won’t solve her problems, and returns home, she finds a letter from Margaux. The letter explains Margaux’s deep sense of abandonment and hurt. Margaux writes “I cannot be your sometime friend.”

When Sheila goes to her friend to try to repair the damage, Margaux explains that everyone has many variables and invariables in their lives, and we construct our lives around the invariables. To Margaux, Sheila is an invariable.

Sheila realizes, “No word had ever sounded to me more like love.” She finally understands Margaux’s value—and by extension, her own.

There was only one Margaux…I had never wanted to be one person, or even believed that I was one, so I had never considered the true singularity of anyone else.

Margaux is an ideal teacher for Sheila because in addition to her words and actions as a steadfast friend, she proves herself through her art. Margaux and another painter friend of Sheila’s, Sholem, have a contest to see who can produce the ugliest painting. Sholem does his painting immediately, and is revolted by it. Margaux delays doing her painting for a long time, explaining later that she had a hard time knowing what to characterize as “ugliness”. When she finally completes her painting, it has a lot of ugly features, but Sholem says, “Your touch is all over the painting,” and he calls this “the saving grace.” Margaux can’t obliterate her strength as a painter. “Your mark is there in everything you do!” says Sholem.

Margaux makes Sheila understand that in her writing, she has to expose her true self, including all the ugliness. Paralling this philosophy, the “real” Sheila Heti includes ugliness in How Should a Person Be? An utterly horrifying dream shocks readers in the first pages of the book. Later, there are other dreams so awful you can’t help but think, “What kind of monstrous, perverted subconscious could produce this kind of dream?” Then there is “character” Sheila’s sexual obsession with a man who treats her badly. This, too, can be painful to read, but Heti is brave in revealing the polar extremes of life at its most intense, both the strength of love and the shittiness of abuse and torture.

Moreover, just as Margaux’s touch is admirable even in her most ugly painting, Heti’s writing is brilliant whether she is describing beauty or despair. For example, when she learns how she has hurt Margaux by running away without an explanation, Sheila thinks:

I had hurt Margaux beyond compare. The heat of shame was the heat of my body. There was not one cell in my body unsullied by what I had done.

Sheila’s moments of ecstasy are just as intense as her pain:

I felt so moved then—shivering at the thought of a divine love that accepts us all in our entirety. The bar around us became rich and saturated with color, as if all the molecules in the air were bursting their seams—each one insisting on its perfection too.

Heti is creative in her insights, but also in her writing formats. She’s playful and wickedly funny. Most of the book’s dialogue is in script form, mirroring Sheila’s attempt to write a play. Letters and emails are presented as numbered lists of ideas—surely not realistic, but perhaps used as a device to show us how Sheila is trying to analyze everything.

As I progressed through the book, though, my initial infatuation with it became more qualified. I started to get impatient with the narrator’s repetitive problems, her inability to write her play and answer her existential questions. I became irritated by the adolescent quality of Sheila’s incessant questioning and futile escapist adventures.

However, the book eventually reached a satisfying conclusion. It’s one of those books that requires readers to think through the confusing parts. By thinking and rereading, I could appreciate how the various relationships, stories, and themes within the novel are all interconnected. I’m curious about how other readers have reacted to the book. I know there have been rave reviews about it (and not just on the jacket blurbs), but this book wasn’t attempting to win a popularity contest: that would be counter to its whole point!

This book champions love, friendship, and Art, but it shows that all of them require persistence, faith, sacrifice, and exposing oneself completely.

WordNerds: Anticippointment

clipart meeting

This is surely a feeling only a cynical or jaded person could have. The word was discovered by my friend Luciana Pimentel in a dictionary of “work jargon”. Well, I guess people do get jaded by their workplaces and know from experience that the next training seminar or PowerPoint presentation might not be the most scintillating part of their day.

Luciana, not her dictionary, provided two definitions of anticippointment:

  1. The inevitability of the bloom coming off the rose [I like this poetic definition—cynical, but true, I have to admit]
  2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also known as The Impossibility of a Perpetuum Mobile of the Second Degree. (Luciana admitted that this definition is for the geeks among us.)

With this second definition, Luciana is referring to the attempts by countless inventors to create a perpetual motion machine. Physicists agree it can’t be done, because this would violate the laws of thermodynamics. If you really want to explore this further, wikipedia can help.

I liked “anticippointment because it’s such a clever combination of “anticipation” and “disappointment”. It rolls off the tongue easily, too.

However, upon thinking about it more carefully, I’ve decided that the word is an oxymoron. By definition, disappointment implies some kind of surprise; something turned out differently than was expected. But if you are already anticipating a negative outcome, how can you be surprised—and thus disappointed?