What Are You Reading (Offline, that is)?

reading liz moody

Liz Moody, a freelance writer and former newspaper columnist, now runs a lifestyle blog, Things That Make Us.  Her posts about sex, love, travel and being a 20something in this crazy world (and, of course, the Point of Writing series) can be found at http://www.thingsthatmakeus.com.  Follow her on Twitter at @lizcmoody I spend a lot of time (too much!) thinking about the point of the written word, what function writing serves in the world at large.  Through my blog, I’ve gotten the opportunity to ask some amazing writers, and have received incredibly diverse and insightful responses.  “Writing allows the spotlight’s beam to cast outward into our society, then begin to illuminate ills and joys in ways we hadn’t allowed before,” says Kevin Salwen, author of The Power of Half (and my uncle).  My friend Hannah thinks that writing expands people’s capacity for empathy, while my other friend Chris thinks:  “Being able to feel from another person’s vantage point turns out to be nothing but intense self-examination.  What you’re doing, really, is finding out what it means to be you.”

I, of course, ask other people because I haven’t yet decided what my thoughts on the matter are.  The purpose has morphed over time, from the large type books I read when I was first learning how to interpret words on a page to the perfect world of Sweet Valley that I hid my face in as I walked to and from elementary school, on the bus and on the playground to avoid the less than perfect awkwardness of talking to real people.  There were the books I read in college to gain literary street cred, able to drop names with the pretentiousness one goes to college to learn.  Now, though, I’m free to read books for purely my personal relationship with them, free of other necessities or circumstances.  If I were to say what, right now, I believe the purpose of writing is, it would simply: to make us feel things.   If I close a book with my belly sore from laughter, it’s accomplished its purpose.  If I close a book with tears streaming down my face, all the better.  These are a few of the books that have made me feel the most:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion The opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” radiantly captures the optimism of California gone awry.  It tells one story of one family in one town, in a way that is both incredibly intimate and incredibly universal.  It always leaves me with an eerie feeling, where I’m unable to talk to people or feel completely settled in whatever environment I’m in.

A taste:  “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Beginning as a Greek epic, seguing into a tale of an immigrant family’s American dream, and brilliantly interweaving a coming-of-age story, Middlesex, to me, is about figuring out what it means to be oneself. The book manages to be incredibly complex and lyrically written while maintaining an easy read, page-turner quality.  I alternated between sobbing and feeling incredibly uplifted, in between wondering:  how did someone write this?

A taste:  “Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." … I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris While I love all of Sedaris’s books, this one is where I feel he really hit his stride.  I read an interview with him where someone asked if he worried he was going to run out of material (Sedaris writes nonfiction, often mining his past).   Sedaris answered that the more he wrote, the less “big” things he wrote about, and the more he liked his pieces for it.  This book is often about the subtle moments that matter in the every day.  It veers from don’t-read-in-public laughter worthy (a Neanderthal take on the college experience) to incredibly poignant insights on family and friendships.  This will be the funniest death-themed book you’ll ever read.

A taste:  “I think about death all the time, but only in a romantic, self-serving way, beginning, most often, with my tragic illness and ending with my funeral. I see my brother squatting beside my grave, so racked by guilt that he’s unable to stand. “If only I’d paid him back that twenty-five thousand dollars I borrowed,” he says. I see Hugh, drying his eyes on the sleeve of his suit jacket, then crying even harder when he remembers I bought it for him.”

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff A collection of short stories wherein each story has the emotional payoff of a novel is not an easy thing to come by.  I often had to set down the book as I finished a story, in order to let the story properly marinate in my head.  The pieces are wildly diverse: a baton twirler’s path to motherhood and meaning, a polio victim and her unlikely lover, the role of water in the world, and in one life.  While the form, particularly, allows Groff to tug on a wide range of emotions, the one I felt most acutely was a sense of loss, a pang in my stomach and chest of something I was now missing that I didn’t know was gone.

A taste:  “There is no ending, no neatness to this story. There never really is where water is concerned. It is wild, febrile, kind, ambiguous; it is dark and carries the mud, and it is clear and the cleanest thing. Too much of it kills us, and not enough kills us, and it is what makes us, mostly. Water is the cleverest substance, wily beyond the stretch of our mortal imaginations. And no matter where it is pent, no matter if it is air or liquid or solid, it will someday, inevitably, find its way out.”

Are you, like me, seeking emotion as you turn pages, or do you read for another reason? What do you think is the purpose of books?