Non-Fiction

  • Quiet

    Susan Cain

    As someone who has consistently been described as quiet, I felt obligated to read this book, though I didn’t expect to be blown away by it. I would say Quiet seems most useful for people who never realized they are introverted or extroverted people who just don’t get people who fall on the other side of the spectrum. Cain draws on a fair amount of psychology and biology research to break down introversion on a scientific level and describes ways that more introspective people can be effective in leadership positions, despite the Western preference for extroversion.

    The chapter looking at cultural differences in introversion and extroversion felt highly simplified, comparing white Western norms to those in Asian countries, including...more

  • Men Explain Things to Me

    Rebecca Solnit

    Rebecca Solnit wrote the first and titular essay in this collection in 2008, after which it was posted on TomDispatch. Since then it has taken off and been reposted several times, along the way inspiring the portmanteau “mansplaining.” It was worth rereading that one for a second or maybe third time, but the other six essays in this book aren’t just filler to make a book version of a viral sensation.

    Despite giving a feminist eye to some bleak topics — as in the one where she connects Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault of a hotel maid with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries — there’s a recurrent sense of hope across these essays, for me most palpably in “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing...more

  • Loitering

    Charles D’Ambrosio

    In some people (usually willful or grandiose or highly defended types) there’s only a very small difference between talking incessantly and saying nothing. I vaguely remember a quote from Roland Barthes, who claimed his rhetorical needs alternated between a little haiku that expressed everything and a great flood of banalities that said nothing.

    I expected that I would really like this collection of essays, reading about it first through D’Ambrosio’s interview with Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker. I was especially curious about their discussion of his work being “marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold.” In actuality, while I appreciate the style of his writing, the overarching themes of the book felt too bleak for...more

  • The Unspeakable

    Meghan Daum

    Meghan Daum opens her second book of essays by explaining how she hoped that all together they would “add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” This examination of the disconnect with how one is “supposed to feel” compared to our actual feelings succeeds best in the opening essay, “Matricide,” largely about her mother’s death and complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Some of the other apparently “unspeakable” topics — like loving dogs and Joni Mitchell and not being a foodie — ring rather false in comparison. But by that point, I was also less inclined to find common ground with Daum, since these all came after the essay on her being an “Honorary...more

  • Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay

    Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer, and I’m glad to see this book with its hot pink title on the front tables in bookstores, where perhaps people who think they don’t need feminism* might see it. Gay is razor smart and genuine; she has a witty and light-handed writing style, even when digging into complicated issues.

    She writes some simple but important bits about privilege, like: “Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

    And she talks about feminism’s...more

  • The Empathy Exams

    Leslie Jamison

    The essays in the book range widely in scope, from very personal to more critical to more journalistic, though a theme of understanding others’ pain loosely lassos them together. Often this manifests as her own attempt to understand, like her profile of people with Morgellons Disease, who believe that fibers are expelled from their skin and become so obsessed with the delusion they end up isolated from feeling so misunderstood. She wants to understand them, even though it’s so difficult to believe. Sometimes she even dissects her desire to feel others’ pain, as when her brother is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and she imagines herself in his shoes so completely that it becomes more about her than him, leading her...more

  • Ordinary Affects

    Kathleen Stewart

    Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things.

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  • Regarding the Pain of Others

    Susan Sontag

    I’m on a laid-back mission to make my way through Susan Sontag’s oeuvre, and this in particular has been on my active reading list since I finished On Photography several years ago. It turned out to be a rather prescient selection, as shortly after I finished reading, tensions broke open again across Israel and Palestine, making the ideas here profoundly timely. Sontag talks of how “being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience,” while later clarifying that “speak[ing] of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism”:

    …it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of

    ...more
  • White Girls

    Hilton Als

    Just after I started reading this book, I had a conversation in which someone said that inaccessible art can’t possibly be good art, with a side note about how some people may appreciate art solely because they can’t immediately understand it as they assume it’s smarter than they are. The discussion partially came from me describing my struggle through The Luminaries, not entirely enjoying it, but finding the structure of it compelling from a technical standpoint. The essays in White Girls vary in their accessibility, and since I was reading primarily for entertainment, I skimmed through the ones that didn’t draw me in enough. In this opinion, it can’t be a “good” book, because it was too much work...more

  • Reality Hunger

    David Shields

    You know you’re in for some bold and broad declarations when a book starts off, “Every artistic moment from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.”

    Reality Hunger calls itself a manifesto, yet it feels less a call to arms to me — it’s more of a collage of thoughts that are numbered in the hundreds and organized into 26 themes that all circle around the intent to deconstruct artistic creativity. Some of the thoughts are Shields’s but many of are quotes or partially comprised of quotes. He wanted to publish these unattributed but was legally required to include a list...more

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