The gifts that kept on giving: a celebratory list of books I read in 2014 – part 2

Continuing my previous post, here are the next three books that shook me up this year.

5. In favour of the sensitive man and other essays, by Anaïs Nin

Every time I read Anaïs Nin (her complete set of diaries is on my ‘I have to buy this before I die’ list) I feel wistful, because she wrote the words I wanted to write. Every unformed thought in my mind she has already put in lyrical prose. Every quote by her resonates. This book, a collection of articles and pieces she wrote over the years, is no different. Reading it, I kept wanting to exclaim “where have you been all my life?!” Like The Women’s Room, her words still apply today; both her passion and her wry way of looking at life break the heart a little bit, the way the heart breaks when it recognises truth.

It was the principle of creative will that I admired and learned from musicians like Eric Satie, who defied starvation and used his compositions to protect his piano from the dampness of his little room in a suburb in Paris. Even Einstein, who disbelieved Newton’s unified field theory, died believing what is being proved now. I give that as an instance of faith, and faith is what I want to talk about. What kept me writing, when for twenty years I was received by complete silence, is that faith in the necessity to be the artist – and no matter what happens even if there is no one listening (…) I mean that we must gain our strength and our values from self-growth and self-discovery. Against all odds, against all handicaps, against the chamber of horrors we call history, man has continued to dream and to depict its opposite. That is what we have to do. We do not escape into philosophy, psychology and art – we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.

and related to the above quote, but elsewhere (I love the way all of her quotes are so cohesive):

Even in the darkest periods of social history, outer events would be changed if we had a center. It is only in the private world that we can learn to alchemize the ugly, the terrible, the horrors of war, the evils and cruelties of man, into a new kind of human being. I do not say turn away or escape. We cannot turn away from social history, because it is necessary to maintain our responsibilities to society, but we need to create a center of strength and resistance to disappointment and failures in outward events. Today I am working for causes which I consider worthwhile, but that is in the world of action, and the world from which we draw our wisdom, our lucidities, our power to act, our courage, is in this other world which is not an escape but a laboratory of the soul.

It feels to me that Nin’s words are tremendously important. To live from this ‘laboratory of the soul’, to create from this place, and to give to the outer world from a fullness within – this resonates.

6. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Probably my favourite book of poetry ever, I didn’t so much read as reread it this year. Yet there is always something new in Whitman’s poetry, some part where I didn’t previously grasp the profundity – like any good poet, I guess, his words mean so very much that one could spend a lifetime digging around in them. Quoting him is a challenge – what do I leave out?

[17]

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as they are mine they are nothing or next to nothing,

If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,

If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,

If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,

This is the common air that bathes the globe.

and

[31]

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,

And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

Finally, my very favourite line ever:

Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,

I and this mystery, here we stand.

7. The bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Like Whitman’s poems, this is a book I keep coming back to. It is short, and written simply, but it tells a powerful story – in fact, it tells all the stories that make life what it is. It is about being human, about dying, about loss, about friendship, about grief, about love in all its forms. If you read just one book from my list, read this one, even if only for this ending:

Even now’, she thought, ‘almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’

A few other books that I loved and that have shaken me up deserve a mention – I wish I could quote all of them:

Brave new world, by Aldous Huxley

The god of small things, by Arundhati Roy

Love in the time of cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The history of love, by Nicole Krauss

The casual vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Of my entire year, of all the things that have stood out for me, the words of these authors have perhaps become ingrained more than anything else. I hope that you have read equally good books this year – and please do comment with some titles! I love singing a good book’s praises, and I love reading new ones.

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