Let’s imagine that for each of us there is a basic self and an extraneous self. The basic self is simply who you are, the boiled down version of you, very simple, possibly naked. Say the basic self is represented by your fingerprints, your height, your DNA. The extraneous self is composed of all the optional parts of our personality, the things we love and hate, the things we’re attracted to, the things we try on and cast away. It’s still us, it’s just the more fluid version of us. The basic self is you in the bed. The extraneous self is the bed, the mattress, the mattress pad, the fitted sheets, the top sheet, the light summer blanket, the pillows, the pillowcases, the pajamas. You get the picture.
The basic self has picked out all these extraneous things. We enjoy them or we don’t enjoy them. We are adventuresome, open-minded, or we wish to be. We’re trying to find the things that we like, the things we can relate to that help us express who we are. We sift through all the stuff through which we might express ourselves.
And sometimes, we want nothing to do with anything extraneous. For small periods of time we are nothing but our basic selves. There’s no need to try anything on for size because we know who we are and we know what matters. I’ve felt like my most basic self in the face of illness or death or true love. When I’m in that state I think I’ll figure out a way to stay there always, but inevitably it slips away. I become interested in pillowcases again. I wonder what bedspread would best suit my needs.
Is this a lousy analogy? Forgive me. The feeling is very clear and very difficult to put into words.
Writing a novel is an experience of my basic self. Everything else falls away. I don’t want to be helpful or social when I’m writing. I don’t want to see dear friends or get together for lunch. I don’t want to read books that are trying to do something interesting or show the author’s potential, even though at other more expansive times in my life I want to do all those things. My basic self wants brilliance, and everything short of brilliance (I have mentioned this before) winds up tasting like nickels.
So there’s very little that I love these days, but what I do love I love so much I can barely breathe. The bar is very high right now. It won’t stay there.
I should say that some of these books I read months ago as galleys and they’ve just recently come out. I try very hard not to talk about books you can’t buy yet, even though I often want to. I list them in no order whatsoever. I love them all.
The Overstory by Richard Powers — This is a novel that means to save the world. It’s about trees and a group of people who are devoted to them. It’s about how we kill trees and how trees will outlast us. Trees will have the last laugh. It’s enormous, and so ambitious and brilliant it makes me want to try harder every day, every sentence.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson — These five long stories were completed just before Johnson died at the age of 67. He wrote some great books (and some not-so-great books) in his life, but these stories stand alongside his 1992 classic, Jesus’ Son. They’re full of insanity, drugs and violence. They charge into the world full-speed ahead. One imagines Johnson lived his entire life only as his basic self.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith — Is there anyone out there as smart as Zadie Smith? To watch her enormous brain at work on matters of politics, nationalism, art, and culture is to be both amazed and comforted. She makes me feel like we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket because she’s out there thinking and feeling and writing so astutely. You don’t need to read all these essays at once, but have them there to dip into when you need some courage.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — It could be read as a shadowy spy novel in the aftermath of World War II, but the human longing, the pull between a brother and a sister and a missing mother makes it much deeper and warmer than that. It’s a wonderful thing to behold such a writer at the height of his considerable powers. And for the record, I could not love his last novel, the slim and autobiographical The Cat’s Table more.
Circe by Madeline Miller — Among the prodigiously talented Miller’s many gifts is that she assumes the reader is as smart as she is. We’re not, but thank you. Miller, who is fluent in Latin and Greek and a scholar of Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, has gone back to the classics to tell the story of the witch who once turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. It turns out Circe was so much more than just a footnote in someone else’s story. This one is also a page-turner.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit — This book was first published in 2013, and when I read it several months ago I planned to read a stack of her books and write about them, but I keep getting delayed. At this point I feel like I’m withholding a vital piece of information: read Rebecca Solnit. I’ve given this book to so many people and everyone has been floored by it. I can’t tell you what it is exactly, a nonfiction meditation on Iceland, cancer, mothers, travel, the string that ties all the disparate points together? More than that? Just read it.
Every month I think this will be my last post until I finish my novel, but then I find I have one more thing to say. The point of this post was supposed to be how essential it is to read smart books in the wake of the lowbrow muck that floods our news every day, but when I started making a list of the books I’d read recently that had been such beacons for me, I saw that they were so far away from muck they couldn’t even figure into a muck-based equation. These are books for the basic self, at least my basic self.
Come into the store and see what books call to you. Or stand at the cash register and watch the mesmerizing short film of the shop dogs we had made. We always love seeing you.