Summer Reading: Reflections on Reading Lists, Self-Splitting, and Intellectual Landscapes

Okay, so I’m feeling real behind on my summer reading challenge. So far, I’m about 9/10 of the way through My 1980s and halfway through After-Cave. I checked out Natalie Diaz’s book from the library, bought Citizen: An American Lyric from The Book Corner, and currently have Nests and Strangers and not so, sea sitting in my Small Press Distribution cart.

It doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading though. If I’m honest, this is more like what my reading has looked like the past month:

reading diagram cropped

My 1980s is denser than I expected. What pleasantly surprised me is its lack of nostalgia (so far), its insistence on praise and looking at a work on its own terms, and Koestenberg’s hyper-attention to detail. It’s so like my own, but he’s able to zoom back out and talk about what the tiniest of details contributes to in the grander scheme of things.

What nags at me:

1. its attention to primarily white artists (with the exception of Roberto Bolano). (Does any one know how to put a tilda over the n here? I don’t know how to do it. How embarrassing.)

2. How “high” culture some of the subjects seem. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m not familiar with a lot of classical music (despite how much I listened to Beethoven and Bach and others during childhood road trips) or visual artists as much, but much of the discussion seems firmly rooted in privileged perspectives.

3. Much of this feels very removed from the world I inhabit as a woman of color and someone who grew up in a rural area, which leads me to ask the question: what would my 1980s/1990s/2000s look like?

So while I have some qualms and disconnects with the book, I’m still enjoying it, and it’s making me think very seriously about my own intellectual autobiography and what’s shaped my view of the world. My 1980s has also exploded my notions of the purpose of essays, how they can be structured and how they can be written.

(Who else has done that for me? Jordan Karnes, It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here. Roxane Gay. Dear Sugar. Chuck Klosterman, once upon a time. Maybe still. I don’t know.)

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I have such a hard time with linear thought.

Now that I draw out my reading map over the past month, I can finally see what’s happening. It’s what I’ve suspected for awhile — it feels like a splitting of selves. I have my writer self, and I have my professional self. I’ve been neglecting my writer self, almost by necessity, to help my professional self survive. Some days I wonder if I’m still a writer, and now it’s clear to me that my splitting of selves has made me antsy. Not being able to write makes me anxious. It keeps me up at night. I’m still a writer.

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So The Islanders. In thinking about my intellectual autobiography and what has shaped my worldview, my view of right & wrong, of relationships, I remembered this series I adored in my teen years called Girlfriends. It centered around this group of 18-22 year-olds, friends who were out of high school. Some in college, some bartending. One was in a rock band, I think. They were figuring out life, love, relationships. Of course. There were some tame love scenes, maybe some drug use. My dad read one and forbade me to read any more of them. I continued to secretly check them out from the library and read them, though.

I loved them because they were gritty and real. Because they were maybe the first books I had read where not everyone went to college after high school, and it wasn’t a disaster. Because there was sex and some of it was casual, and it wasn’t a big deal. Everyone was doing what they thought was best for them, and sometimes they wouldn’t make the “right” decision, but it wasn’t scandalous and no one was ostracized for their actions. They were just alive and no one was making them feel like the world was ending because they made decisions.

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So. I was trying to find Girlfriends (still haven’t found them) and came across the Making Out series, which I also adored. They’ve been re-packaged and re-released as The Islanders series. I immediately checked them out from the library and inhaled the first two volumes. I’d forgotten how funny they were, and how each character had distinctly “unlikeable” characteristics. Zoey dated two dudes at the same time and was led by her emotions. Jake was a nice guy but a little lecherous, a little too black-and-white, you’re either good-or-bad, right-or-wrong. Claire is “aloof,” “mysterious,” self-serving. Nina (my fave) uses humor and rebellion as a defense mechanism against sincerity. Aisha relies on logic, even in matters of love. Lucas draws a little too heavily on his experiences in teen prison.

And still, I love them all. Because they aren’t representations of those traits. They’re written as very real people. They’re all complex teenage human beings, motivated by complex feelings and emotions, making decisions with complex consequences.

One of the characters struggles with her experiences of being molested at age 11. I don’t remember reading anything else at that time in my life that treated/described that experience with an acknowledgement of its messiness and complexity. And then race! It acknowledges race and racism with conversations between Black and white characters that make a mindful effort to have real dialogue about race. That shit is complicated. There is, obviously, no one convo that can fix everything, but these books model ways in which those conversations can begin.

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A writer friend recently told me something that amounted to this: You are a writer. Despite your output, despite your writing speed, you are a writer. Give yourself the time and the space and the patience to nurture whatever it is inside you that wants to bloom. There is nothing wrong with being a slow writer, or a writer that needs time.

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I’m going to be kind to myself. Instead of making myself feel bad or failed for not being where I want to be on my reading list, I’m going to acknowledge that July has been jam-packed and busy for me. I frame my reading list as intentional reading, and the other things I read alongside it are dots to connect back to them. They cannot be siloed or split. Because the words are being housed in me, these very different reading choices are inherently connected. They do not serve different aspects of myself. They serve my whole self. Conflict resolution and poetry. My 1980s and the YA fiction of my adolescence. They are connected. I am the connector.

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Don’t even ask about Kissed by a Rancher. Terrible.

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