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Monday, November 13, 2023

And here is the envelope, ready to open --

Happy morning sight, courtesy of SUNSHINE!

My top nonfiction picks of 2023 -- so far (the year isn't over yet) -- are not rank-ordered or alphabetical, as I limited the list to four books. First is one I read most recently, but all four work together in my mind. Maybe they would do the same in yours.

But first I should delay the opening of the envelope, shouldn't I? Quack on about the weather a bit, draw out the suspense? You already see by my opening image that we have sunshine this Monday morning in Leelanau County -- and what a lovely gift it is! I took time out from a big cleaning-sorting-reorganizing-decision project to hang laundry outdoors on the line and get Sunny up to the dog park in Northport after picking up my mail. On our way to the village, we stopped along one of my favorite back roads, too, but I'll save that image for the end of my post and use cloudier photographs between beginning and end to highlight the contrast. 

Tamarack on the first of November

But now -- the books!


Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, by Katherine May. 


Author Katherine May, though suspicious of groups, says she craves more and more being part of a congregation but doesn’t know where to start. “Nowhere has ever seemed to fit.” She doesn’t want to insult any religious community by making only a partial commitment, being a “wavering presence in the room,” and she is also “wary of stealing from traditions” and “cherry-picking the comforting parts of complex religious traditions – usually the aspects that tell us everything’s okay – and ignoring the counterbalancing obligations….”  But her strong sense is that we in the West have let ourselves lose childhood’s enchantment (“small wonder magnified by meaning”) by considering it “childish,” and let ourselves become indifferent to it. May wants enchantment back, and she courts it at the seaside, on hilltops, in the presence of stars and of fire. Who doesn’t want to be carried away, if only for a few fleeting moments? (Where do you court enchantment?)

Clouds, light, and color always enchant, don't they?

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, by Naomi Klein. 

At first Naomi Klein paid only peripheral attention to what she refers to as the “antics” of the “other Naomi,” but as Naomi confusion grew larger and larger, Klein gradually became obsessed with her double. You would be, too, if people kept attributing views to you that you had not only never expressed but never espoused! Klein is not, however, a shallow thinker, and her investigations went much deeper than the phenomenon of finding herself confused, on social media and elsewhere, with another writer with the same first name. “As I shadowed my double further into her world … I found myself confronting yet more forms of doubling and doppelganging, these ones [sic] distinctly more consequential.” In history, literature, and myth, a doppelganger is more than a confusing double. It can also be an unwelcome mirror, a warning. On social media, Klein points out, everyone presents a doppelganger of his or her real self, and while we in our 21st-century doppelganger culture are paying attention to one another’s doubles and perfecting our own, we are distracted from and neglecting to notice more important changes in our world. This is a serious book, but it also contains funny moments. It is personal and at the same time important. I highly recommend it. (Did you ever wish you had a twin?)

Can you tell them apart? They don't care.

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, by Susan Cain. 

This book by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is probably not for everyone. Maybe there is no single book that would speak to all readers, but Bittersweet certainly spoke to me last winter with its meditation on “longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world,” and I don’t think it was only because grief had entered my life (although grief does have a way of cracking one open to small beauties and pains of everyday life, as well as to the feelings of others). But I can’t remember a time in my life without an acute awareness of passing time. “Always at my back I hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” were lines that seem to have been with me always. (I wonder if there is a connection between introversion and feelings of life’s bittersweetness. If Cain addressed that question, I have forgotten her answer. What do you think?)

Sunny loves tart wild apples, both for play and for snacking.


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist. 

When this dense, heavy book first came into my hands, I skimmed the brain science and impatiently turned to the second part, focused on history. On my next reading, however, I determined to read more carefully from the beginning. There is a lot of repetition (for emphasis, I’m sure, not for “padding”), and not only does McGilchrist convince me, but I now read and look back on past reading through his lens

For instance: 

(1) I see May’s search for enchantment (see above) as a longing to recover the right brain’s “desire or longing … toward the Other.” 

(2) Tempting as it is to see those lost in Klein’s “mirror world” (see above again) as suffering under enchantment, I see them more as people who have abandoned enchantment and ambiguity for certainty, the left brain’s rigidity not allowing anything into the picture that would cast doubt on what it already “knows.” 

(3) Even Cain’s “bittersweet” feelings, it seems, would be rejected by the left brain, whereas the right brain has always realized that “light and dark, birth and death – bitter and sweet – are forever paired.”

Socrates and Plato prioritized ideas [of things] over “things themselves,” and while Hume declared that neither inductive reason, deductive reason. nor both combined were adequate to put together complete knowledge (implicit bodily/sensory/social background underlies all the rest, as Bergson and the phenomenologists finally realized, also), much of science to this day, and far too much of politics, continues to be ruled by the left brain’s hierarchies, rules, categories, etc. Even religious experience, when translated into theology and creeds, loses itself in left brain re-presentations of what was once known without mediation.

Leaves in the understory, overstory bare, sky cloudy

My favorite 2023 nonfiction list was longer at first, but I decided that these four will constitute my top recommendations for the year so far, because they came together for me, ideas from each strengthening and reinforcing and enriching ideas and thoughts from the others. I was reminded of my first semester in university, when everything I was learning -- drama, psychology, rhetoric, etc. -- seemed connected to everything else in a way that astonished and delighted me. 


I have yet to read either of the new books on private equity companies (my new self-study subject), books ordered for the bookstore and in stock now (one with “Plunder” as its title, the other with “plunderers” as part of its title), but one was featured in an interview on NPR with the author only the other day. 

There were also several other beautifully done and moving nonfiction titles in my reading since January. Among the latter group were: 

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, by David Abram; Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott; My Venice and Other Essays, by Donna Leon; Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, by Marcia Bornerud; The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams; Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power, by Susan Page; and Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. 


Every book in the longer list is worth reading, and as my short list is a highly personal selection, if my top recommendations leave you cold you may be more strongly drawn to titles in the unannotated list. Or perhaps you have (and I hope you do!) your own top nonfiction picks to share. Are there books of history, memoir, essays, science, politics, or economics that made strong impressions on you this year? Anything you wish everyone in the country would read? 

Glorious blue sky!


Karen Casebeer said...

I love the progression of images, Pamela! What a difference a little sunshine and blue sky makes.

Anonymous said...

Your writing is a breath of fresh air. Thank you