These days, thanks to some fellowship money and a nerdy curiosity about natural gas, I’ve been reading far too many economic reports and journal articles published in Rural Sociology and Environmental Geochemistry and Health. Full of excellent information, they lack narrative, lyrical writing, juice. For words that inspire I turn to the stacks of books found on my desk, my bedside table, and the well-worn bookshelf in my office.
For days when writing feels like pushing a Buick uphill with my forehead, I read pretty much anything by Charles Bowden, Joan Didion, or David Foster Wallace. I particularly like Bowden’s Down By the River, a story about murder and family and drugs, wrapped around a steel spine of excellent investigative reporting on Mexico-U.S. drug policy. I often re-read Didion’s essay “At the Dam” to study her clear, concise language. And I read Wallace’s essays in Consider the Lobster for his attention to detail, humor, and brilliant insights.
In honor of President Obama’s first days in office, my book club is reading Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, the 1960 best-selling account of a white man who darkens his skin and lives as an African American in the South. It’s fascinating.
Other books that I’m reading right now are ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan’s latest, Where Our Food Comes From; This I Believe, a collection of the NPR series, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman,; The Best American Short Stories of 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie; Table of Contents, by John McPhee; and a collection of W.S. Merwin poems, Present Company. Also, I’m trying, really trying, to get through Ken Wilber’s The Marriage of Sense and Soul. I would like to say I’m reading this to expand my mind, which is partly true, but it’s more accurate to say that I’m trying to win points with my boyfriend, who is a big Wilber fan.
In general, I read books not for self-improvement but because I love stories. Some of the best fiction I’ve read in the past year is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon, The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano and, though I’d read it before, Dune, by Frank Herbert.