All three of these books, from the past year, are similar only in that each wrestles with daily existence in ways that have startled me, made me rethink everything I had done up to that moment, and made me reevaluate how I want to move forward. Reading each of these books is an active, rather than a passive, experience. In each I have found moments—several moments—where something I’ve never seen conjured in language before somehow rises up, before my eyes. How each writer—a poet turned essayist (Biss), a poet channeling Ginsberg with long, rangy meditations (Zucker), and a novelist arriving at his first memoir (Elliott)—arrived at these moments is both mysterious and seemingly simple—each picked up a thread of thought (racism, motherhood, murder), an image (telephone poles, zapruder films, adderall), and followed them, or, rather, allowed themselves to be led, into an unknown place. Each of these books is thrilling, in their plainspokeness and in their brilliance.
When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.
I fear the silences.
The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud. Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.
When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”
He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.
I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.
Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.
I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way. Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.
Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.
For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women. And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.
I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.
And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.
For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.
I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.
To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.
I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”
Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.
And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.
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Rex Sorgatz is a writer, designer, producer, and entrepreneur based in New York City. He currently works for Saturday Night Live and is a contributor at Wired magazine. His writing has appeared in New York, Gawker, Radar, and Spin. Former careers include being Executive Producer of msnbc.com and butchering fish in Alaska. He blogs the internet in real time at Fimoculous.com.I lack conviction.I planned to use this space to step up to the plate. I wanted to go to bat for something published in 2008. But I feared how you would perceive my choice: a sarcastic plea for a post-literate society? a cynical prognostication for the death of the book? a blatant mockery of the written word? a sneering wink to the puerile blogosphere for overthrowing the printed page?Yep, my favorite book published in 2008 was Hot Chicks With Douchebags.Wait!I reserve the right to define “favorite” for a specialized sort of pleasure: this was the book that I kept picking up and paging through, the one I wanted other people to experience, the one that made me wish had a book club because it’s so goddamn mysterious and I needed other people to help guide me through its mystery.You think I’m kidding.But I dare you to page through this weird little picture book spun off from a blog – bustling with Hellenic characters, breathless photographic drama, complex anthropological signage, post-porn frisson, and a glossary! – and not feel entranced (or at least pleasantly beguiled). It’s a crazy mix of post-op feminism and hall-of-mirrors desire. Lacan would have eaten this shit up.Nonetheless, despite the ponderous appeal of lechery on display, and my spineless inability to support low culture when it most needs it, declaring the douchebag tome as my favorite read this year would be a lie. Instead, a book released in 2002 about a television show that started in 1975 towered over all else for me this year.But it requires a story….Through an arcane sequence of unexpected events, I started working for Saturday Night Live at the end of 2008.It made no sense to me either. But there I was, not as a writer, and definitely not as a performer, but as an internet dork trying to push SNL further into the digital age. Holding meetings in the writers’ room on the notorious 17th floor of 30 Rock, I could only think one thing:I have no fucking business being here.Every day I’d walk through the corridor where pictures of 34 seasons of cast members hung from walls. To say I was intimidated is like saying Belushi dabbled.Like you, and maybe like your mom, I grew up on Saturday Night Live, through good years and bad years. And also probably like you, a newfound appreciation of the show arrived this year, as critics seemed to treat its satiric value as the second-coming of A Modest Proposal.Though an avid fan, I was not a historical one – yet at work I was trapped in a sea of historical experts. When a name was dropped that I didn’t recognize, I would sheepishly ask who it was referring to. An answer like “He wrote Coneheads” would magnify my ignorance.I clearly needed to study.My girlfriend, who is one of those people who knows the show’s history like others know the Torah, recommended Live From New York, an oral history collected by Tom Shales and Jim Miller. Of course I soon discovered it was not only the definitive book about the show, but also one of the most revered popular culture books of all time.Did you know there was an adult version of “The Muppets” in the show’s first season? Did you know that Howard Cosell had a show called Saturday Night Live at the same time? Did you know the show started because Johnny Carson wanted to stop running re-runs of The Tonight Show on Saturday nights? Did you know that Bill Murray and Chevy Chase got into a fistfight right before Chevy went on for his monologue in the second season? Did you know that innocuous phrases like “that sucks” couldn’t get past the sensors in the early years? Did you know about the drugs? (Okay, you probably knew about the drugs.)This isn’t so much a history of a show as it is a history of an era. Having come of age around media startups, I love stories about how things begin. And this oral history is essentially the rattling, sputtering, clanking noises made when trying to start something new.More from A Year in Reading 2008