Here at Public Books our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with compelling, thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a new behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Anand Pandian and M. P. Mariappan, Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India
Anand Pandian writes Ayya’s Accounts with his grandfather M. P. Mariappan in visits which touch down along the path of their transnational family. Switching between his grandfather’s voice and his own historical and anthropological observations, Pandian traces the history of India and its diaspora through his grandfather’s migrations, as the colonial order, WWII, independence, and the rise of the New India shape both his trade in fruit and his family’s life.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
I’m also reading The Hobbit with my almost nine-year-old son. It is my first time reading it and as someone who rarely reads fantasy, I am surprised by how much fun I’m having following Bilbo as he transforms from homebody to dragon fighter. The book has definitely carved out a place in our family. We sneak up on each other with Gollum-like stares and fall into fits of laughing while creepily intoning “my precious.”
Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band
I’m one of those Sonic Youth fans who’s seen in Kim and Thurston a model for how to grow older on your own terms, to stay relevant without chasing trends, to combine weird, dissonant music with marital harmony. If what they produced in their final decades only rarely approached the electrifying heights of 1985–90 (just before I started actively listening, to be honest), it was often pretty great, just about always worth your attention, and never embarrassing. Still not entirely over the divorce or the break-up of the band, I’m finding some consolation in Kim’s memoir. The writing is good enough to vindicate my ongoing esteem, the origin stories are only deepening my appreciation for the songs, and having this famously cool and reserved performer open up and talk through her heartbreak feels like an incredibly generous gesture, easing our sadness while she’s the one who suffered it first-hand.
Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?
A compelling question we’ve all asked ourselves at one time or another. The French philosopher’s answer to is to stop drifting along with an ideology of flexibility and adaptation and to start thinking in terms of “plasticity,” the cognitive ability to explode a previous form of being and radically change from within. “If we do not think through this transformation or this plasticity, we dodge the most important question, which is that of freedom.”
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
The Aristotelian notion of plot is so firmly embedded in the collective reading conscious that any description of Sleepless Nights tends to begin by mentioning an essential plotlessness, either by describing it outright as such or, in subtler variations, through a loaded word: lyrical, scrapbook, etc. I mention it because there’s an implied listlessness in that description which is undeserved. Sleepless Nights draws heavily from Hardwick’s life (a Kentucky upbringing, a move to New York, graduate school at Columbia…), and while she’s a beautiful prose stylist, more impressive is her work with character. They come and go, each fully articulated, sometimes in a few as a couple of paragraphs. Another brand of propulsion, sure, but equally effective.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
After reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s wry and scorching confessional travelogue in the New York Times Magazine, I figured I had better grab his autobiography, My Struggle, and see what all the fuss was about. I devoured the first 250 pages of Book One (there are six) in a single sitting, but now it sits on my nightstand, face down, pages splayed, its spine bent into an awkward, lopsided V. Whenever I glance at it, it seems to look away, like we’d had a torrid, drunken one night stand and now direct eye contact makes us both uneasy. How weird. But, perhaps, fitting. The intimacy that Knausgaard’s lyrical recollections evoke, coupled with the seductions of his Nordic neuroses, make you feel both tender and lusty at the same time. For me, the pleasures of his prose are fleeting and have been followed by feelings of mild revulsion. I could never have a long-term relationship with such a writer. Or could I?
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
In this collection of essays, Roxane Gay offers cultural critique that reveals feminism’s inherent pluralism. Her commentary emerges from personal anecdotes and critical, yet sympathetic, readings of “high” and “low” culture texts. She takes on everything from Girls to Play as it Lays to Yeezus. Gay’s commentary is entertaining and refreshingly accessible, effectively advocating for her position without being prescriptive.
Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism
I have a weakness for grand histories, and Anderson attempts an immensely ambitious one here. Anderson tries to vindicate Marx’s theory of historical materialism through a study of the transition from classical slavery to feudalism. I’m neither well versed in late antiquity nor the early Middle Ages, but Anderson seems to do a masterful job threading theory through history. Throughout the book Anderson explains where Marx’s obsession with the forces of production was right and where he needs amendment. Even more impressive is Anderson’s use of secondary sources, as he cites studies in German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Russian. Anderson’s prose is far clearer here than it is in his more overtly political journalism and it’s a shame that he’s now largely abandoned narrative for polemic.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Oh my god, this book is so, so, so good. Maggie Nelson is a creative dynamo, and this latest forthcoming from Graywolf is extraordinary. A mix of autobiography, criticism, and poetic flourish, flush with theory and quotation, Nelson displays her intelligence and talent once again in this new book that focuses on queer family-building, motherhood, and her relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. Sexy, achingly smart, and beautifully written, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Matthew Rohrer, Surrounded By Friends
Also on my nightstand is the latest book of poems from Matthew Rohrer, a delightful little volume published by Wave Books. Especially wonderful is the fourth section, a series of poems “written with” the haiku masters Bashō, Buson, and Issa, as well as “Translations from Hafiz,” which feel as relevant to modern life in New York City as they do to 12th-century Persia. Rohrer’s poems satisfy in a way that must be experienced to be believed. Get your hands on a copy.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right now. I’m not very far along into it, so I currently still have no idea what’s going on. All I know is that its dark, no one is who they say they are, and I’m very excited about it all.
Seamus Heaney, Station Island
I’m also currently reading Seamus Heaney’s Station Island. I really love Heaney, particularly North, because there’s something so lovely in the way he writes and the way that it sounds (I’m a firm believer that all Heaney poems should be read aloud to yourself). Station Island felt less political and conflicted at the beginning but by the time I actually came across the long poem “Station Island,” I was back to the Heaney that enraptured me in North.
Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters
Whenever I feel lost I go back to Birthday Letters. Ted Hughes’s poetry has a way to make me understand. It helps me navigate. Love, pain, sorrow, lost, (in)dependence from the loved one. “Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely / Girl who was going to die.” I guess the book is a love story, in a way. Letters to Sylvia Plath that not only give us a way into the couple’s troubled love life (reason enough for any fan of the poetess to read Hughes’s book), but a way into urban, modern love. Woman empowerment and love. What happens to traditional roles in relationships when women claim their liberty. “And you will never know what a battle / I fought to keep the meaning of my words / Solid with the world we were making.”