Selfies…with Books! 2023 Year in Review

Books Read

November 21, 2023: Nausea, by John Paul Sartre

Somewhere in between these dates: To Live, by Yu Hua

October 11, 2023: Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

September 19, 2023: Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

February 25, 2023: The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

Pieces Written

The Bomb Everyone Saw Fused

It is January 1, 2024. I am sitting comfortably in a gaming chair I had the good fortune of salvaging off of a neighborhood dumpster. The chair was, and is, in practically new condition. The room I sit in has its lights turned off, but it is nonetheless lit from a variety of sources, chief among them my newly-bought mint and eucalyptus candle. I’ve bought this candle multiple times now because of its economical size and price, but I couldn’t tell you what eucalyptus smells like. The mint is lovely, though.

I’ve made myself a cup of coffee, which I am currently drinking—a notable detail because I almost forewent the opportunity, given the lack of a clean spoon. The dishwasher, whose efficiency given a two-hour and fourteen-minute run time I hold in deep suspicion, would not be done for another hour and a half and, I thought, all spoons were imprisoned therein. But this was not so. A tablespoon sat inside a mug on the counter, hugging the wall—I only barely saw it, but what a joy to have found it because now I can enjoy coffee while I write. And feel less shame over the quantity of sugar poured in because of said tablespoon.

To round out this full-body relaxing experience, I am listening to the latest jewel secreted out of Spotify’s lair: a public playlist entitled, with truly modern punctuation, “zen garden”. Deep bass, running water, chimes, light bells, quietly-twittering birds, and sustained piano notes combine to provide aural peace, the kind you might be familiar with if you’ve ever played Minecraft and built your home without intruding beasties.

I write all this in apology to myself. The previous year wrapped up a number of things, hugely monumental, consequential, personal things; things, which, I’m glad to have out of my way. These writing exercises are a personal tradition that now span something like five years. I say “something like” because in recounting previous Year-in-Review entries, I see that I skipped 2020 and 2022, so I haven’t been as consistent as I thought. That said, this is now my fourth entry and years that I skipped are likely indicative of unfortunately hectic, inner turmoil, now past. But the point of entries such as these remains: to recount the year through the books I have read, yes, but more importantly, to bring out through writing what my inner self considers important.

For example, I finished law school this past year. I passed the bar exam. It turns out that the diametrical anguish and relief that accompanied both those experiences paled in comparison with my inner disappointment in my writing output. As the above shows, I completed one piece of writing in 2023, entitled “The Bomb Everyone Saw Fused.” In looking through my files explorer, I see that I have at least five word documents that I started and since abandoned.

(Turns out I did write a Year-in-Review for 2022—I just didn’t post it. With the benefit of hindsight, this absence turned out to be a portent of my writing in 2023 for reasons I will now analyze).

Law school and the bar, highlights of a budding professional career—and yet my disappointment over an anemic word count is what brought out the strongest reaction, in reflection. But I won’t be hard on myself. The last semester of law school demanded focus, optimism, and above all, tempered breaths. By the time I graduated and had to begin preparing for the bar exam, all I had left were shallow breaths. The date stamps for the books I read show how little I had left to devote to anything that wasn’t work, school, or whatever activity I felt I needed to distract myself, or escape. All but one of the books I read in 2023 were started and completed after I had taken the bar exam. While I may not have written or read much during my last semester, from January 2023 to May 2023—and into the bar exam prep period that would not have wrapped up until July 2023—I found retreats in photography and gymnasiums, which I am glad to have preserved in Instagram and Flickr posts.

But what else explains the lacking writing output? Clearly it wasn’t disinterest, given the started but unfinished works—and it wasn’t lack of time since the books I read likely inspired those unfinished works. My first instinct is to blame acclaimed commentator Fran Lebowitz. I had watched a series of her more recent interviews and, somewhere in one of them, she criticized everyone having an opinion on something. I admit to writing that last sentence with some hesitation because, if I were to be remembering her critique incorrectly, and then were to interview her and ask about that point, if stated incorrectly she would be quick to say that she didn’t say that.

Potential editorial clumsiness aside, netizens likely have had the thought themselves that comment sections and websites that self-populate with user-created posts are filled with nothing but unprompted commentary. More reflection might lead to a more harmonious world, or at the very least to less feelings of misplaced self-importance. Yes, I said—I agreed, in effect adopting the curmudgeonly, perhaps even elitist stance that lay takes were better left unsaid. But it didn’t occur to me until much later, after my 2023 writings were started and left by the wayside, that everything I write is a lay take. I’m no expert in anything. To the extent my writings cite anything, they are usually to links I happened to come across, the inspiration to write likely happening because of the link itself. Moreover, Leibowitz continues to hold cultural relevance, in part, because of her prominence as interviewee. As I’ve written before, this blog likely only has a readership of one—the one being me—so why should I deter myself from writing something I might enjoy? All that gave way to my 2024 resolution, which is to write once a week.

If this were a cooking blog, now would be the part where I show you the three-quarters of a page you were looking for: The goddamn recipe. So I will briefly recount what I read, and re-read, this year:

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

Sci-fi books give me the best, book-affected dreams, and this was no different. Images of pyramids in faraway planets, 80s-style monitors and satellite dishes in rural China, with a touch of the very real influences of the Cultural Revolution on resources and the scientific talent pool—what’s not to like?

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

I’m always shocked by how short this book is. Unusual for me, I believe I started and finished it in the span of two or three days. Rich descriptions and dialogue lend themselves to inspire commentary on race relations in the American West, gender views, and an enduring, if not impossible, ideal of the American Dream, even at a time when it might have been more attainable than today.

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

The only non-fiction book on my list, I picked it up not realizing what a thorough diagram it would present regarding the impact of race on American society. All one needs to do to decide whether they would be interested in this book is to read the table of contents. Its sections and chapters aim to tackle what appear to be abstract ideas, only to show the concrete foundation underlying substantial deformity.

To Live, by Yu Hua

Another re-read, I think I picked this up again because I needed a kick in the pants. For those unfamiliar, To Live is a Chinese fiction book that follows its main character, Fugui, through decades of Chinese history, from the rise of the communists onward. Fugui and his family face, endure, and some ultimately succumb to, great tragedy, with the takeaway being that as long as you can keep moving, you have hope of seeing a better tomorrow. Even if that tomorrow is years away.

Nausea, by John Paul Sartre

I was ready for this book to destroy me. The beginning parts felt as if they were ready to do so, as they described a main character who went about his days not really knowing or feeling that anything he was doing was of any importance or significance. Such was his inability to find meaning, even in a project he chose himself, that he abandons his endeavors—sound familiar?

I feel much better.

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