Northern California is on fire when he tells you he doesn’t love you anymore. There’s no sun the day he leaves — too much smoke. The air is too poisonous to breathe, so you have to stay indoors. No matter. You order books to keep you company: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Lane Moore’s How to Be Alone. Meditations on loss and loneliness, grief and alienation. They don’t teach you how to handle your pain as much as they remind you that this pain is not unique, that loneliness, as Laing writes, is “a populated place.” Laing tells you that you are not alone in your aloneness; Didion, that your irrational thoughts are part and parcel of it all; Moore, that this solitude is impermanent.
“My life felt empty and unreal and I was embarrassed about its thinness.” (The Lonely City)
You’re finally going to finish Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song. Fat and exhaustive, it’s always intimidated you. But you power through it because you are sad and lonely and you need a distraction. Daugherty is a thorough and compelling biographer, and he keeps you interested through all 586 pages. But you quickly realize that, though you admire her work and are enthralled by her aura, you would not like to have a beer with Joan Didion.
“Now here she was at Berkeley, wrapped in a bedspread, nibbling chocolate in the dark in the middle of the night.” (The Last Love Song)
For Christmas, your mother gives you a book you’ve never heard of. Remember when we were at that spa, she says, and you were reading The Best American Essays 2015? And you kept laughing and laughing and leaning over to me to tell me about this one essay, the one about the cat? Well this book is by the writer who wrote the cat essay, the one you loved very much. What all of this means, of course, is that your mother truly sees you, which means she loves you. The book is I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, by Tim Kreider, and it immediately becomes your favorite thing you’ve ever read. It’s funny and sad, a keen consideration of love and relationships, and Kreider is relentlessly witty. You tear through the book in a couple days, with your cat always slumbering at the edge of your bed as you read.
“A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.” (I Wrote This Book Because I Love You)
You read Kreider’s first book, We Learn Nothing, and it scratches a different itch than I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. It’s a little less literary, a little more conversational. It moves you relentlessly. But now that you’ve read both of Kreider’s books, it’s time to find a new idol. You pick up Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply because it’s about a young woman writer’s whose life is falling apart, and that’s how you feel most of the time. It’s a quick read, devastating in the moment, though it doesn’t really stay with you. Still, Levy’s resilience sparks something, perhaps a resilience of your own. “As everything has fallen apart,” she writes, “what has stayed intact is something I always had, the thing that made me a writer: curiosity. Hope.” Indeed, the book ends optimistically, though messily, with the promise of new and unexpected romance.
You meet someone. Talking with him feels a little bit like an intellectual joust, but in the best, most exciting way possible. He has an extra copy of a book he likes, so he gives it to you: Brian Dillon’s Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction. Every time you sit down to read it you get flustered. He makes you feel so much: curiosity — hope.
“Being in love is one of the only times when life is anything like art.” (We Learn Nothing)
You loan him your copy of I Wrote This Book Because I Love You because it’s still your favorite book and because you want to give him something, everything. Meanwhile, everyone on Twitter has been talking about Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, so you pick up a copy. The book is just as dazzling as you’ve heard — a harrowing and incisive look at living with mental illness and disability. You recognize many of your own struggles in Wang’s experiences, and you feel invigorated to write them down. Maybe you could write a book someday. It’s the first time since November you’ve considered there being any future at all.
“I cling to the concept of being high-functioning.” (The Collected Schizophrenias)
You see his apartment for the first time, and its perimeter is lined with tall stacks of books. A great, impenetrable wall. You rifle through the books, and one catches your interest. You read the first page and are hooked, so you buy it for yourself: White Girls by Hilton Als. Its first essay, “Tristes Tropiques,” bowls you over. The essay is a long and dense reflection on love and belonging, and it deploys language like you’ve never seen before. How’s this for an opening line: “Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love.”
He and you go to bookstores together now. You like to watch him as he examines the selection, how his fingers graze the book covers. The book you’ve picked up has an essay in it about the O.J. trial, a perennial interest of yours, so you buy it right away. See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore proves to be an illuminating and instructive read, a master class in thoughtful, succinct criticism. You thumb through it while splayed out on the campus lawn under the sun. You’re happy, like you were before the fire.
“I was attracted to him from the first because I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are. It was less clear why he was interested in me.” (White Girls)
He leaves. You don’t read anything that month.
You start a new job that you’re really passionate about, where you get to write and think about books and language all day. You start reading more poetry. You’re ravenous as you rip through The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” gives you persistent chills, and it’s clear in an instant that it’s the most beautiful poem you’ve ever read in your life. Next you order Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Parker knows your soul, and it scares you when she says things like, “When I drink anything / out of a martini glass / I feel untouched by / professional and sexual / rejection,” or “I am not loved / the way I want to be” because oh my god how does she know your secrets? Then your best friend shares with you her favorite poem, Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment.” You love her and the poem so much that you buy All of Us: The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver and fill it with little blue sticky notes. Carver’s language is refreshingly direct—it cuts to the heart of things.
“Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern.” (“Mayakovsky,” The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara)
You read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free on your lunch breaks. Her essay about Anomalisa stands out as a particularly smooth and shiny work of film criticism. Smith makes Charlie Kaufman and Schopenhauer duet in perfect harmony. The book doesn’t move you, but it impresses you as a technical achievement. Then you move on to Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. In one essay, Abdurraqib tackles Carly Rae Jepsen, and the timing is perfect, as you’re currently obsessed with her new album. The essay, “Carly Rae Jepsen Loves You Back,” is compact and insightful, a study of how a performer can infuse a space with warmth and generosity and intimacy simply with their presence. “Under the spell of Carly Rae Jepsen,” he writes, “love is simply love. It is not war.” You miss being in love.
“I am hoping, mostly, that we all get better at wishing on the things we need, even in darkness.” (They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us).
At work, you’re needed, essential to the operation, and that feels good. Another perk of the job is access to lots of free books. This month, you grab a copy of Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, and it changes your life in part because it’s stunning but also because you had no idea another human being could cry as much as you do. Christle cries so very much — in the bathroom, on the floor, on the bathroom floor — just like you! You also receive your pre-order of Emily Nussbaum’s I Like to Watch in the mail one day after work. Reading Nussbaum always manages to thrill and soothe you simultaneously, a feeling akin to watching a great sculptor chisel away at an imposing block of marble.
“Despair wants me not to know the difference between itself and me.” (The Crying Book)
Once you finish The Crying Book, you start Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which you’ve been hearing about for ages. You decide that The Crying Book and Bluets are two halves of a diptych. They share a lot: both are collections of prose poems, written in the throes of depression, with a fragmented structure, associative thought pattern, and central fixation (crying, blue, respectively). Like with Levy, you are drawn to the books’ authors because they are both women writers struggling as you are.
“Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.” (Bluets)
You read an advanced copy of Carmen Maria Machado’s breathtakingly brilliant In the Dream House. The book is innovative from every angle — formally, structurally, stylistically. It splits you and your imagination wide open. Things are getting better, little by little. You find beauty in that. There is work to be done, and there are books to be read.
“But this story? This one’s mine.” (In the Dream House)