I'm a promiscuous reader.
I think of books the way some people think about shoes, antiques or gold coins: I can’t get enough of them, it doesn’t matter whether I have room for them, or whether the titles are critically acclaimed. They’re my treasures.
In every room through which I pass on a regular basis, I’ll have several books open at once. They are my treasures but they’re not sacred objects per se: I’ll lay them open on their backs with their pages spread out; I’ll use a coffee-cup as a bookmark; I’ll rip a big book in half if I need to take it with me on the road in order to save space in my bag (and no, I haven’t mastered the art of reading long pieces electronically—not yet).
The four books I’m actively reading now (some by people I know, some by writers I simply admire from afar) I thought merited not only mention—because they make such an odd set of companions in my imagination—but also deserved high praise on their own. They take us through various phases of life and address myriad issues from widely differing perspectives.
1. The book in my living room: I wasn’t sure whether a brightly illustrated book titled Science of Parenthood with a blurb from Dr. Oz on the cover would hold my non-child-rearing imagination, but it turns out that the author and illustrator, Norine Dworkin-McDaniel and Jessica Ziegler, have written a genuinely original, entertaining and enlightening book that even non-parents can enjoy. Subtitled “Thoroughly Unscientific Explanations for Utterly Baffling Parenting Situations,” it includes unexpectedly witty references and allusions that will delight even the skeptical reader. Everything from “Heisenberg’s Theme Park Uncertainty Principle,” to “Occam’s Stroller,” to “Pavlov’s Highchair”—all part of the book—will make the most exhausted parent smile despite themselves. This is a book to buy for your family member or friend who has a baby or toddler—and to read yourself before you wrap it as gift.
2. The book in my office at home: I was daunted by this next book for an entirely different reason: part of the series International and Cultural Psychology, it’s a collection primarily aimed at clinicians edited by Farah A. Ibrahim and Jianna R. Heuer. Titled Cultural and Social Justice Counseling: Client-Specific Interventions, I wondered what, as a more general reader, I’d be able to understand and learn from the text. Yet one of the main reasons I read outside my own narrow areas of individual expertise is to see whether I can reach over the intellectual fences demarcating professional fields to harvest something useful. In this well-researched and up-to-date discussion of identity as it factors into therapy, for example, I found myself considering how not only race, religion, gender and ethnicity affect my students and my larger community, but also how larger concepts and constructions of equity, justice, reform, life as a refugee and life in “exile” inform and are informed by often under-examined belief systems and under-scrutinized practices. Dense and complex, I’m nevertheless finding the book to be both illuminating and insightful.
3. The book in my office at work: A book I’m insisting others read (it is, after all, part of my day job as a professor of English) and am therefore re-reading myself is White Teeth. A novel published to international acclaim in 2000, British author Zadie Smith’s first book takes place in contemporary London—and everywhere in the imagination of her deftly drawn characters. It, too, is a dense and complex book, but Smith’s prose is as sharp and deadly as it is perceptive and original. When, for example, one of her characters seeks comfort from her family for a failing marriage, the narrator warns us about the covert gratification her relatives will feel witnessing her unhappiness: “[D]on’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt.”
4. The book in my kitchen: Finally, I am reading, because it makes me laugh, inspires me, exhilarates me and satisfies all kinds of appetites, Mimi Pond’s hilarious, poignant and sui generis graphic novel, Over Easy. Published in 2014, Over Easy was written and illustrated by one of America’s smartest and funniest women. Pond's work takes us back through a creative woman’s life in the 1970s. Of course, she works at a restaurant. As NPR put it, Pond’s writing is “unpretentious and airy, and her people aren't overwhelmed by their affectations.” Embracing art, love, competition, desperation, generosity and community, this is another book to buy as a gift—and keep for yourself.