A Year in Reading: Anthony Doerr

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I staggered through some big, challenging books this year, but when The Millions asked for a single title, the first that came to mind was a little red confection called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Currey.

Daily Rituals describes how 161 painters, composers, novelists, and playwrights managed their hours. It’s basically a little encyclopedia; there’s no arc to it, no modulation, and it’d probably be dismal to read all at once. But for the month it waited on my nightstand, I found myself looking very forward to reading a few pages each evening.

Among other things, I learned that: W.H. Auden munched amphetamines, Igor Stravinsky did headstands to “clear the brain,” Louis Armstrong swore by herbal laxatives, Ludwig van Beethoven took prodigious baths, Carson McCullers sneaked sherry into the local library where she wrote, Truman Capote was so superstitious he “couldn’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray,” Marcel Proust sometimes ate only one croissant all day long, and John Cheever was a seriously horny person.

Also: Once, for a week straight, an insomnia-stricken Franz Kafka “saw nothing but Montenegrins in [his] sleep, in extremely disagreeable clarity.”

In other words, Currey presents 234 pages of trivia. But Daily Rituals presents more than a compendium of cocktail party ephemera. As its little thumbnails stacked up, a singular lesson emerged, one that for some reason I’ve had to relearn over and over again:

All serious artists, no matter how they work — whether at dawn or midnight, whether indoors or out, clothed or naked, intoxicated or sober — share one trait. They work.

Here’s Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Here’s Henri Matisse: “For over fifty years I have not stopped working for an instant.”

Here’s Gustav Mahler: “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!”

Here’s Stephen Jay Gould: “I work every day. I work weekends. I work nights…”

Here’s Sigmund Freud: “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable.”

Here’s H.L. Mencken: “Looking back over a life of hard work…my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder.”

Here’s my 10-year-old son, Owen, last week, as he stared grim-faced at another math worksheet. “I got them all wrong! I hate long division. I wish there were superpowers. I wish I didn’t have to work.”

Alas, I wanted to tell Owen, there are no superpowers, and nothing has ever been created without work. Uncharacteristically, I kept my mouth shut, and he soldiered through his homework, night after night, and a week later I watched him finish another worksheet and look up. “I got them all right,” he said.

Here’s wishing you all a productive 2015.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Anthony Doerr

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In a year in which some remarkable books found me—Anne Carson’s weird, exquisite Autobiography of Red; Brad Watson’s hallucinatory, radioactively-good story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives; Siddhartha Mukherjee’s massive, massively interesting biography of cancer The Emperor of All Maladies–no book afflicted me with such jealousy as Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will.

What is it?  It’s a blue hardcover containing hand-drawn maps of fifty super-isolated islands, paired with a page of text about each.  It’s also a collection of fifty prose poems.  And a quest for the loneliest places in the world.  And a testament to the transformative power of maps.

You can read it in an hour.  Or a month.  It contains lots of lines like: “Here in Neptunes Bellows, at the gates of hell, in the jaws of the dragon, the waves crash interminably” (128).  Or, “ They soak the rock-hard leather in the sea for four or five days to soften it, fry it on the coals, and force it down their throats” (70).

“It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts,” Schalansky argues in her introduction, “and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrus orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world” (23).

Atlas of Remote Islands is a celebration of what can still be accomplished with imagination, paper and ink.  Holding it, you feel as if you’ve stolen the composition book that dreamy girl in the back row of your high school English class is always scribbling into.  You page through it and think: Oh my God.  She’s a genius.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions