3 New Books About the Power of Self-Reflection
We live in a world that seems to be more self-directed than ever before, but that navel-gazing appears to be primarily for public consumption. Is it really self-reflection if it’s posted in a performative capacity for everyone to read? Regardless of your answer, there’s something to be said for quiet internal contemplation of the world around us. The three new books in this week’s book club celebrate the inner world of thought, the possibilities of imagination, and the highly pleasant activity of “wasting” a day in solitude.
1. The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale ($28): College-aged Leda, the main character of Casale’s debut novel, is first shown reflecting on the adult feeling that comes from sitting in a coffee shop: “What she loved most about sitting at the coffee shop was not the coffee or the shop but the brief, listless feeling it gave her of having her life together. She could sit beside the richness and warmth and see herself as something so divinely competent. This is what it is to be an independent person, and she’d take a sip. This is what it is to be a cosmopolitan person, and she’d take a sip…At least I know that I don’t really have my life together. At least I know that I don’t know, she thought.”
She notices a young man in a Boston University sweatshirt, reading Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins. After a completely botched attempt at flirting, she picks up a copy of her own, for reasons she convinces herself have nothing to do with the encounter. She never reads it. Leda is shown reflecting through her life as the years pass by in this collection of important moments in everyday life. We find out what she wanted and what actually happened, tiny turning points: the only time she ate two scones in one day, the most unintentionally erotic New Year’s kiss she would ever receive. What do you do when you’re not reading Chomsky?
Everything around her is sharply observed as well; Leda is adept at reading the behavior of others, and gauging their emotional states; “Here we are all alone pretending to have time together,” she thinks, looking around at a party. The book asks us to think about what is meaningful, and to realize that these personal, quiet moments are important — that women’s everyday stories are important. It treats with equal reverence lost loves and lost gloves, raising a child, and raising a point. Overall, it paints a picture of a life that somehow adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
2. The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl ($26): Hampl loves to daydream; she calls this making sense of things by seeing them from all sorts of different, reflective angles. In her memoir, she looks back at this inward, solitary journey, waxing poetic on the rewards of relaxed contemplation and differentiating between solitude and loneliness. In childhood, Hampl was floored to find out that the Church considered daydreaming to be a sin, because she thought it was a beautiful thing. It was that beauty, that ownership of each thought that passes through one’s head that she concluded must mean “the imagination is up to no good.”
“When you close your eyes, you see and hear things you didn’t notice before, though they must have been there all along. It’s not that you make things up – you notice things. Maybe that’s a kind of making up? Hard to say,” Hampl writes. “Words are partly thoughts, but mostly they’re music, deep down. Thinking itself is, perhaps, orchestral, the mind conducting the world. Conducting it, constructing it. I sense this instinctively. There is no language for this, not then, not even now, this inner glide, articulation of the wordless, plotless truth of existence.” If daydreaming is a sin, Hampl embraced it wholeheartedly; as a child, and for the rest of her life.
The Art of the Wasted Day explores the lives and homes of people who exemplified the theory of restful retreat, from the pea plant breeder/geneticist Gregor Mendel to Michel Montaigne, the inventor of the personal essay (and patron saint of the personally contemplative). She describes America’s penchant for striving, while defending the concept of leisure as essential to personal development.
3. Every Other Weekend by Zulema Renee Summerfield ($26): “Nenny lives in two houses. The first one is haunted. The second house is not haunted, but still: some nights she lies awake in bed and cannot sleep.” Summerfield’s book shows the potential dark side of a little too much inner thought, as for young Nenny, it manifests itself in anxiety and catastrophizing premonitions that seem unlikely to actually come true.
It’s 1988, and America appears on the precipice of all sorts of terrifying threats, eagerly reported on by the daily news. Eight-year-old Nenny’s parents have divorced, riding what seems to be a cultural wave of splitting up. Nenny has moved with her two brothers into her mom’s new place, which comes with a new stepfather (Rick, a Vietnam War veteran) and his two children. The titular “every other weekend” is spent at her dad’s apartment. She has more than a little trouble adjusting, and her anxieties over her new situation mesh with a precocious child’s conception of world events to form colorful nightmare scenarios. “You could make a catalog of these fears and sell it for a pretty penny. Give it a nice shiny cover with a drawing of a girl trembling and sweating and with her fingers crammed in her mouth. Call it something like When a Child Suffers the Inevitability of Doom.”
Nenny worries about natural disasters, violent crimes, and even being conscripted by Mikhail Gorbachev; when an actual disaster finally strikes, it’s far different from anything she’s imagined. “Mom tilts her head and half smiles, half frowns with a look that means it’s time to get real, and she stops petting but still holds Nenny’s hand and says, ‘What’s been on your mind?’ ‘Everything,’ Nenny says, because it’s true. It’s always true.”
What books are on your mind? Tag us in your next introspective read @BritandCo.
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