I’ve been on a reading kick this summer (or, rather – ever since I submitted my master thesis). Paired with a new found inspiration to “pare down” my life of digital distractions, I focused this summer on cultivating better, slower hobbies. More reading, more yoga. Less coffee and more going to bed earlier.
While I’d be happy to reflect on how these new habits are working out for me some other time (& believe me, despite imperfect implementation, I can tell a difference in my life), today I want to give the curious ear an overview of what I’ve been reading. Take this as an invitation to write me and reflect on what you’ve been reading lately as well.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
I’ve been wanting to read this one, ever since I watched the SparkNotes video on it to prepare for my AP English exam in high school. Later, when Easy A came around and modernized the plot, I wanted to read it even more. I’m happy I didn’t read it in high school because I don’t think I would have empathized with the themes explored here. The Scarlet Letter is about colonial America shunning Esther who has a secret affair and becomes pregnant. The novel explores how Esther faces the judging crowd every day, and how in more ways than one, those who look down on her are actually more “evil” than she ever was. Her difficult circumstances allow her to grow spiritually. On the other hand, the man she has an affair with has to keep this all a secret – and this eats him up on the inside, until he confesses and dies. The way I see it, the novel is about facing judgement, learning from mistakes, and not letting the crowd keep your head down. In the age of cancel culture, still a very relevant book, I’d say!
The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga & Ichiro Kishimi (2013)
The first non-fiction book I read in a while was The Courage to Be Disliked. This came as a video-recommendation from Ali Abdaal’s YouTube channel. The premise that sold me to give the book a try is that “the past does not matter, and trauma isn’t real.” The book presents Adlerian psychology in the form of a dialogue. There’s plenty of good lessons, and if you’re looking for a feel-good self-help book that actually gives you hope for the future (instead of dwelling on the past), then this one is for you.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)
Remember how much I loved Jane Eyre? Well, Villette is from the same author. It’s a gothic English novel from the 19th century that has a female lead who goes on a solo adventure and becomes a teacher in an overseas school in France. The school has an intriguing land lady who snoops around everyone’s stuff when they’re sleeping, a doctor and a teacher who both serve as romantic interests, and the ghost of a nun that haunts the school’s corridors at night. The novel falls apart in some areas, and some further reading seems to imply that it’s loosely autobiographical (hence, Charlotte Bronte didn’t bother with tying up the plot lines). Nevertheless, I love me a good gothic novel. Even as you’re reading it on the beach as I did, the mood won’t get lost on you.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
My friend Dea recommended this one to me, and it’s the first 20th century novel I read this summer (as you can see, I’m on a 1800s kick!). The novel is set in the Czech Republic during the 1960s and follows the life of a couple as they move and come to terms with the shifting political regimes in their country. The part that resonated with me most is when Thomas, the protagonist, realizes that every side of the political spectrum – the communists and the anti-communists alike – want to hijack his identity and “have him say things in their words”. Both sides, at some point in the novel, offer him a piece of paper – a statement – and ask him to sign it, so he pledges allegiance to their fight. This feels iffy to Thomas, no matter what side he is on. In the end, he realizes that the best thing he can do is escape to some village and live his own life. Again, in our hyper-politicized world, I found this oddly … relevant. It’s like no matter how often we forget, humans seem to have been going through the same set of struggles on repeat since the start of time. While I reflected a lot with this book, I found the setting of it and the characters to be too modern for my current mood.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (2019)
The second non-fiction of the summer is one that rings near and dear to my heart. Ever since I quit social media, I have been meaning to read this novel to inspire me even more. Cal Newport opens the novel by saying that we “stumbled” into this digital dystopia by accident – when the iPhone came along, it was marketed as an iPod that could make phone calls, not as a mini computer. The clash of smartphones and social media together is where it all turned sour. People are slowly wasting their lives away consuming a product (i.e. Facebook) that was intentionally designed to keep them hooked so they can see ads. While I don’t advocate for a life without technology, the book gives good tips on how to manage your addition better.
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate (2019)
Another recommendation by a YouTuber… Unfortunately, this time, the experience was lackluster. I’ve committed to reading books to the end, even if I don’t like them, and so I did. This is a collection of essays by people detailing their relationships with their mothers. I think the title is misleading – I thought it would address taboos in mother daughter conversations. Instead, it’s a collection of mostly whiny writers piggy-back riding off of their childhood experiences – and some of them are pretty boring. I don’t know … I don’t want to be a hater, but I really did not enjoy this book. Everything can sound dramatic if you write about it in a certain way, and that’s how I felt with these stories. Would not recommend.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
Finally, back to my 1800s kick. This is my first Dickens novel (other than pretending to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school …), and I really enjoyed it. The start was a little rough and the language is difficult at times, but it’s nothing my Kindle’s dictionary feature can’t handle. Oliver Twist made me reflect on the level of national self awareness England had at the time to produce a piece that (very eloquently) criticizes how harshly society treats poor people and orphan children. Not only that – but England also had the level of self awareness to consume and applaud a piece of literature that discussed these topics. Now that I am in awe of.
* The one tone-deaf moment in the novel is when Dickens gets a little anti-Semitic, but he seems to have apologized and self corrected for that.