Some books that you may not have heard of or perhaps didn’t know were good book

10866233The second part of wrapping up my year’s reading is talking about all the books that were a surprise to me: the favorites that came out of nowhere. In many cases, these books were only a surprise to me, since some of them (most of them) were actually bestsellers within their categories. But still, you probably haven’t heard of lots of them, so whatevs, I will claim credit for discovering them.

Mentor by Tom Grimes – Fantastic book. One of the best writer memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s about a writing professor who made a big splash with his debut novel and then sold a much-hyped follow-up, but who never quite lived up to his initial promise. Here he charts both the decline of his career and the progression of his friendship with the famed director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop: Frank Conroy. This book is honest and sad but also very alive. I’ve never read anything else like it.

Friendship by Emily Gould – The internet loves to hate on Emily Gould. In fact, this summer some dude published a twelve thousand word article about how terrible she is. And yes, I can sort of see how someone might be annoyed by her article about blowing through a 160k book advance or the blog post about negotiating down her credit card debt. But I thought this novel was fantastic. I stayed up all night reading it, and it made me feel emotions. It’s about two aspiring writers who live in Brooklyn and are best friends and are sort of getting to the place where they want more stability in their lives but they don’t have that stability and they’re having issues with their professions and their personal lives and those issues eventually start to damage their friendship. Great stuff. Very vivid. It’s also about people who’re a lot like me, and that’s part of what I like about it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – A character study. Angel is a working-class girl in early 20th century Britain who decides, one day, that she’s going to write books. And then she does: horrible, schlocky, romance novels that horrify the literary world. And she also has a very brutish, nasty disposition and abuses everyone in her life. But I loved the book and, on some level, I also loved Angel herself. She has such an indomitable will to survive. I suppose she’s a lot like Scarlett O’Hara, but without that veil of flirtatiousness. The section where Angel falls in love is one of the subtlest and most remarkable performances in literature.

The List by Vivian Siobhan – I somehow thought that everyone in the YA world knew about this one, but I was at a lunch with a bunch of other YA writers and they hadn’t heard of it. This book is amazing. One of the two best YA novels I read this year (the other was Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now). The book is about a school where an anonymous prankster releases an annual list of the most beautiful and ugliest girls in each grade. The novel is told from the point of view of the 8 girls named in this year’s list, and it’s a stunning performance. Eight points of view. Eight stories. Four different grades. And each voice is so distinct. I was captivated.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff – This was the year where I read a lot of really good literary memoirs. In this one, Rakoff describes her first year in New York, when she worked for JD Salinger’s literary agent. The ‘hook’ for the memoir is that Rakoff at some point started answering Salinger’s fan-mail. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s really just about being very young and still feeling entranced by the glamor of the literary life and the way that glamor contrasts with the squalid way you need to live if you’re part of that life. Everything in this book, from the agency to the character of Salinger himself, has that dualism: beautiful from one angle, but very lonely and wretched from another.

As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams by the Sarashina woman – A memoir by an anonymous court lady in Heian Japan. Written a thousand years ago, but instantly captivating, from the very first paragraph. Also, a very interesting and calculated document. It is not a diary. It was written as a single, unitary document when the woman was nearing the end of her life. And it’s a sort of ode to the interstices of her life. To the quiet moments. To the romantic moments that never came. To the journeys she took between one place and another. To the times when she was shut up alone and all by herself. She spends maybe three sentences talking about her children and her husband, but goes on for pages upon pages about the man that she met on one rainy autumn day and how he asked her which was her favorite season.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill – In very short vignettes, this chronicles a young writer’s journey into marriage, success, domesticity, motherhood, and divorce. Loved it. Each little paragraph has so much voice. And the picture that develops is so careful and nuanced.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett – The third literary memoir on this list. Novelist Ann Patchett writes about her lifelong friendship with Sarah Lawrence and University of Iowa classmate Lucy Grealey (Lucy was, in turn, famous for writing a memoir about the facial deformity that had rendered her mostly chinless). I loved the portrait of Lucy that develops in this novel. She’s capricious and bitchy, but you also see why Patchett loved her. Also interesting to see the ups and downs of a young writer’s life. Very honest look at the schooling, at the fellowships, and at the financial aspect of the writing life.

I do not believe that introversion is a real personality trait

The number of people who will tell you they are introverts is astonishing. You can talk to the most dynamic, engaging person in the world–someone with thousands of friends, who goes to parties every night–and he’ll tell you, “Oh, I actually find it hard to talk to people. And I usually prefer to be alone. I’m kind of an introvert.”

The truth is, everyone sometimes finds it hard to talk to people and everyone sometimes wants to be alone. The charmer who hops effortlessly from party to party is a myth: even within the maelstrom, there is awkwardness and loneliness.

When you read online about introversion and extroversion, it will focus on “energy.” Interacting with people imparts energy to introverts and drains energy from extroverts. But, in my life, there’s pretty much no activity that gives me energy. I wake up with a certain amount of it. Then I run down throughout the day until I finally fall asleep. All activity costs effort. Some things cost less than others (TV costs less than reading; going hungry costs more than eating), but nothing happens automatically.

If I didn’t do things just because they “drained energy” from me, then I would never do anything other than sleep.

That’s why the concept of introversion rang true to me for so long. I was like, “Wow, that dinner party really wore me out. I never want to talk to anyone again.” Because the truth was that social interaction did drain me more than most activities. The problem was that I never figured out why it was so draining.

It’s just like how some people find swimming really tiring…because they have a terrible technique that dissipates all their kinetic energy. If they had better form, swimming would become much less tiring (though it would never cease to require some effort, of course).

The reason I was drained by social interaction was because I was really bad at it.

I required huge amounts of alcohol to talk to strangers…so much alcohol that even though I met many people, I was never sure how it happened. And since social interaction was such a black box (input alcohol, output human connection), when I was sober, I was just as clueless as ever. Whenever I went to a party or gathering that was largely filled with people I didn’t know, I’d lurk on the fringes or disappear to smoke cigarettes by myself (I told myself I was “recharging”). And when I’d come home after a gathering, I’d feel so exhausted. I’d sit at home and tell myself that I disliked other people…that their conversation was so shallow and they were so plastic and what was the point of small talk anyway and that all I needed were a few close friends because who needs a horde of fake, surface-level acquaintances anyway?

If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said that I was an introvert.

I mean, people make this distinction between people who are shy and who want to be social, and the “real” introverts. But I definitely thought I was one of the real ones. I enjoyed spending time by myself. To this day, I have no problem with not seeing another human being for a day and generally feel few pangs of acute loneliness when I am by myself. And being around people was very exhausting for me. I dreaded it, and I frequently cancelled or minimized my social engagements by telling myself, “Oh, I just need to be myself today.”

But then I stopped drinking, and, by and by, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to talk to people. I won’t say that I am a dynamo of wit and charm. In fact, part of the learning process involved letting go of this idea that social interaction involves holding forth and entertaining other people. But I do pretty well. I can sometimes talk to strangers (a thing that few people, every very charismatic people, are truly good at doing) and am pretty good at talking to casual acquaintances.

And, surprise, I enjoy social situations much more than I ever did before. I am much less likely to need to go off by myself to “recharge.” But nothing happened to my personality. I still feel pretty much the same inside. I just learned a few really simple things that smooth over social interactions and then I consciously practiced them until they became easier (though they’re still not quite second nature).

I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “But some people just know how to do all these things. Some people just know how to start conversations and keep them going. Some people just know what to say…”

Well, yeah, but so what? It’s the same process as anything. A kid becomes a pro basketball player because when he was eight years old, he happened to be a little better than everyone on the team, so the coach gave him more playing time, which lead to him getting more practice, which led to him improving faster than everyone else, which lead to him becoming the star of the next team, and so on. A tiny initial difference in skills is translated, over twenty years, into a huge final difference.

The same is true with social skills. Kids who are just a bit friendlier in grade school acquire more friends, gain more confidence, practice their social skills more, etc, etc, until they turn into adults who are seen as “extroverted.”*

But social interaction isn’t supposed to come about as a result of good skills. It’s supposed to arise as a spontaneous connection: souls calling out to each other in sympathy. The result is that we essentialize social outcomes (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I’m an introvert”) rather than looking at them as things we can improve (“Oh, I find it hard to talk to people because I never know what to say when there’s a lull in the conversation. Why don’t I just sit down right now and think of five things to say, so I’ll always have them ready…”)

I know that people will read this and say, “Oh, Rahul’s experience is not my experience. I’m a real introvert.” And that’s absolutely fine. Actually, it’s shockingly presumptuous for me to say that I don’t believe in peoples’ self-analysis of their own personality traits and desires.

And believe me, if you came up to me and said that you were an introvert, I would never disagree with you or ask you to change. So let’s take questions of identity and leave them to one side. People can continue to self-describe as introverts if they want to, and if they’re really satisfied with how they are, then that’s great. But when people come up to me and say, “Oh, I wish I was the kind of person who could talk to people easily” or “I wish I was the kind of person who could make lots of friends” then I’m like…well…you can be.

*Although if you talk to really charming people, you’d be surprised at how often they’ve put some amount of conscious study into developing their charm

Your friends probably won’t be there for you when you most desperately need someone’s help

22-friends2I love being in the Bay Area. Because I went to school here, I know a lot of people around here. There’s always something to do; always someone to see. And when you know people, it’s also easy to meet new people. Seeing people is important. I have done no research into this, but I think there’s just something in the human brain that really likes the sight and sound of other people.

However, I think there’s also a danger of fetishizing friendship. For instance, a Facebook acquaintance recently linked me to this blog post, about slowing down and taking things easy and building up community networks. And I believe in all those things.

But it’s also important to realize that friendship–at least within the upper-middle-class American context within which I and most of my readers operate–is a very weak thing. I don’t mean it’s weak in that it’s valueless or ugly. I mean that it’s weak like a crystal sculpture: it’s a wonderful, graceful thing to have around…but if you put even a little bit of weight upon it then it will break.

My life has been very short, but from what I’ve seen, it seems obvious to me that your friends will not be there for you when you are poor or ill or suffering. If you are unemployed, they’ll forward your resume to someone, but they won’t let you live in their home, rent-free, for months or years. If you are ill, they might visit you in the hospital, but they will not nurse you back to health. If you are depressed, they will commiserate with you for a few hours, but if you keep being depressed–if all you can talk about, for months, is your depression–then they will stop talking to you.

Every time I write something like this on my blog, I feel like people see it as an indictment of them. It’s not. First of all, this is not based on personal experience. I’ve never had a major catastrophe in my life that necessitated help in this way. Second of all, I don’t see any particular need for the structure of friendship to be changed. This is what friendship is in our society. Saying that friendship should be stronger is like saying that motorcycles should have four wheels. It’s meaningless. A four-wheeled motorcycle is no longer a motorcycle.

Nor do I exclude myself from this summary. I like to think of myself as a person who’d go to the mat for his friends, but the truth is that I have already failed to do many of the above things for people who I was close to. If you are in dire trouble, I will probably not help you. Honestly, it won’t even occur to me that I should help you.

That’s why I am always a bit confused by people who put down and ignore their family. It’s fine to not be close to your family. And it’s fine to not like them. And it’s fine to not want to spend time with them. But there should at least be some kind of recognition that your family is all you have. I don’t know why this is, but I am fairly certain that even a weak and distant cousin would do more for me if I was in need than a fairly close friend would.

I’ve also found that the Indian-American community is close in a way that friends are not. I’ve seen examples of people who went through tremendous effort to help people with whom they had a very tenuous relationship, simply because they were both within the same part of the Indian-American community.

Which is just another example of how friendship is different from a relationship of mutual aid. Friendship is based on pleasure: you’re friends with a person because being around them makes you happy. The other relationships in our life aren’t necessarily like that: you don’t necessarily like your cousins or parents or children or wife or fellow churchgoers or the guys who sit in your section of the stands at the stadium. You don’t need to like them. You’re bound together by something that transcends pleasure. And I think it’s that connection–a kind of connection that, no matter how weak, cannot be severed at your convenience–that leads people to help each other.

I often ask people whether they have any enemies, because I am fascinated by the concept of the enemy. I don’t have any. And most people I know don’t have any either (outside of, perhaps, their work). And that’s nice, but it also means that we live in a context where we can sever relationships very casually, simply because we no longer like a person. And when people stop being fun for us, that’s what we–either consciously or unconsciously–choose to do.

Okay, so, right, this is all a bit of a downer, I guess, but it doesn’t need to be. I think most people already know this, more or less instinctively. But some people don’t. Some people put a lot of their emotional energy into their friends. They expend all this time and effort with the feeling that somehow, in some way, this will be rewarded. And it’s more than time. It’s getting emotionally wrapped up in other people: thinking about them, feeling their emotions, kindling a sort of platonic love for them. All of that can be very intense and sometimes even very pleasurable. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it imposes an obligation on either you or them. And don’t let it prevent you from maintaining or pursuing the kinds of relationships that will sustain you when you are in need.