The Saturdays of my childhood involved my father picking me up from gymnastics practice to take me to my favorite bookstore on Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki. I used to pick out my favorite Enid Blyton novels, sometimes as many as five at a time. We would then buy sunflower seeds and take the bus home. Thus would commence hours of reading, interrupted by my mother imploring me to shower and eat something other than sunflower seeds. Only after reading a whole book would I stop for actual dinner, at which point my mother would ask with bewilderment “How many pages did you read today?!” My father always stopped her, trying to instill in me the sense that pages do not matter. “We do not read for the number of pages. It is not a race, not a competition.”
Much has changed since then. Harvard, and graduate school, have been constant races of who-has-more-pages-to-read-than-whom. “Death by reading,” I wrote tongue-in-cheek in September. My father is long gone, and Aristotelous Square is, optimistically, an ocean and two plane rides away. My love for reading, Saturday afternoons, and sunflower seeds, however, remains intact. Goodreads has become my favorite way to digitally keep track of the books I have read and new books I wish to read in the future. It, too, has fallen prey to the reading arms race, asking “what page are you on?” every time I log in and stacking the books I have read in a year. There are even challenges for the more competitive among us. “Read 52 books a year: one per week!”, proclaims one of them.
When I enrolled in graduate school this fall, I vowed to only add books to my Goodreads shelf if they were books I would have chosen while browsing through a bookstore. It seemed unfair to add every book on every syllabus to my “Books I Read in 2012” shelf. The collage that emerges is one that feels true to life: collections of essays, memoirs, reflections on photography, travelogues, love, conflict theory, social justice, feminist literature, more essays. Here are some favorites among them.
Favorite assigned reading: For a group project on Rwanda in my Politics of Violent Conflict in Africa class, I had to read Scott Straus’ The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. It encompassed two qualities I seem to be drawn to: methodical and heartbreaking. In addition to the groundbreaking methodology on assessing individuals’ motivations for participating in genocide, the book supplied me with one of my favorite excerpts of the semester. Since I read it, it has leaped onto Post-It notes and blog posts, and it encapsulates many of the questions – personal and academic – that I, too, live in:
“I never expected to be in Zaire or Rwanda or to cover raw violence, but once I witnessed such events, I could not let go of them easily. Eventually my trauma formulated itself as an intellectual question: Why does violence of this magnitude happen?”
Favorite memoir: Calling it a memoir is, practically, cheating. In a very strict sense, Susan Sontag did write this life story of hers. And yet, a memoir implies a sense of agency and choice that she did not exercise post-mortem. David Rieff, Sontag’s son, published a series of her journals and notebooks, with the caveat that “what I do know is that as a reader and a writer my mother loved diaries and letters — the more intimate the better. So perhaps Susan Sontag the writer would have approved of what I’ve done. I hope so at any rate.” For him, for her, for the reader, Reborn: Susan Sontag’s Journals & Notebooks (one volume in a series of her published diaries) is a leap of faith. There is a moth-to-a-fire quality to being intrigued by the writing. Sontag haunts with her intelligence, insight, and layered consciousness. She makes it hard to read her words at night, in bed, with the book crawling under the pillow when I fall asleep — my preferred mode of indulgence. Perhaps that is because so many of her thoughts are disquieting, or disquietingly familiar:
6/19/1949: “Yet the past is no more past because it was delimited within a particular geographic area from which one is now irrevocably departed, than if it were all lived in the same place…”
2/13/1950: “I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.”
Recommended — but to be read in a chair, if you do not want your loved one to ask, “Darling, do we have to sleep with Susan every night?”
Favorites by virtue of the place at which I read them: I can imagine a universe in which I would not be attached to these books. If my friends were to tell me that these books are not, in fact, that special, I could believe them. But sometimes you cannot divorce a narrative from the place at which you were first exposed to it, sometimes you cannot separate the book cover from the setting and the words from your life’s context.
One such book this year was Andre Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, which feels like sand flicked onto legs by children running into the sea. Aciman narrates his experiences in Italy and, though entangled at times in flowery descriptions,the book is full of insight on home and away, wander and wonder. My highlighted passages, with a side of sunscreen, included:
On place and rituals: “Sometimes the history of provisional attachments means more to us than the attachments themselves, the way the history of a love affair stirs more love than the affair itself. Sometimes it is in blind ritual and not faith that we encounter the sacred, the way it is habit not character that makes us who we are. Sometimes the clothes and scents we wear have more of us in them than we do ourselves.”
On writing, place, memory: “Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I’d been while living there. Writing wouldn’t alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on. Writing sees figures where life sees things; things we leave behind, figures we keep. Even the experience of numbness, when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah. Write about numbness, and numbness turns into something. Upset flat surfaces, dig out their shadows, and you’ve got dreammaking.”
On joy, place, memory: “It is a transposed and counterintuitive joy, joy by proxy, the vicarious, artificial joy of finding in one place things lost in another.”
Since college, I have been copying my favorite passages from the books I read into notebooks, as a depository of inspiration to dig through when I need it. I copied 25 passages out of Aciman’s book this year, more than any other book I read for pleasure. Tellingly, this was a year of reflecting on place and memory, nostalgia and home, writing and intimacy, and the intersection of these explorations.
Other books I associate with the places at which I read them:
On the beach in Halkidiki, with sunscreen spray on the Kindle: Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, edited by Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu. This was an interesting project, as it brought together 25 Muslim American women to reflect on love, sexuality, religion, spirituality, family and social prescriptions. It was perhaps an incongruent read for the bikini-filled beaches of Greece, and not necessarily one of the most moving books of the year for me, but a lot of it resonated, called back memories, and made me smile on the universality of love.
On the plane to Tel Aviv: Palo Alto, James Franco. This one felt like a less original take on The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Plus, I could not get the image of Franco eating his own arm in a movie out of my head while reading.
On the plane to Khartoum: Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss. In the middle of the night in bed in Jerusalem: Red Book, Deborah Copaken Kogan — eerily and familiarly, about Harvard alumni reunions. On the plane to Mexico: Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok. In the middle of the night in bed in Greece: Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War, Annia Ciezadlo.
Favorite books related to my work and passions: Every time I accept a work assignment in a new conflict-affected area, I turn to books to not only learn about the conflict itself but also to jar my imagination of the place I am about to behold and the communities in which I am about to parachute. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that much of this year’s reading has been thematic.
There were the Sudan books: A re-read of Alex de Waal and Julie Flint’s Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, a fascinating account of Sudan-related policy in Rebecca Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle To Stop Genocide, heartbreaking and inspiring memoirs and essays in Jen Marlowe’s Darfur Diaries, Halima Bashir’s Tears of the Desert, and Daoud Hari’s The Translator. They were the kinds of books that were read with a knot in my throat, and a constant desire for that crack in everything that lets the light in, as Leonard Cohen would have it.
There were the books that appeared on syllabi and that called me to re-read them, or to fall in love with them anew. Mazurana, Raven-Roberts, and Parpart’s Gender, Conflict, and Peacekeeping should really be part of the canon for anyone interested in this topic, as should Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. The latter may seem outdated at times, and should be read as a companion to Enloe’s more recent work.
Marianne Elliott’s book on the personal dimensions of humanitarian work in conflict areas, on the intricacies of conflict management and international development in war-affected communities, and on the challenges to mental health that this work presents has been eye-opening and has felt like home. Marianne recalled her years of service with the UN in Afghanistan with a candor and vulnerability that moved me to pieces. It is slated for a US release within 2013, and I will likely profile it in greater detail closer to that date, but for now, do order Zen Under Fire from New Zealand.
Finally, for anyone interested in civil resistance and non-violence, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-violent Conflict continues to be an incredible guide to the subject, and a phenomenal example of data analysis on violent and non-violent conflict.
Favorite surprise: Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Reviewing this for The Equals Record earlier this year, I wrote:
The problem with reading in tiny spurts, with eyes half-shut from fatigue and thoughts of humanitarian law swimming in your head, is that such mental states are not conducive to enveloping yourself in an imaginary universe and allowing it to sweep you away. They do not create the necessary conditions for magic; magic requires time and a desire to give in to a plot, regardless of bedtimes, alarm clocks, or beckoning libraries.
Perhaps this is why I so appreciated Cheryl Strayed’s ability to create magic out of directness, to bear beauty out of her honesty. This book was the product of an advice column Strayed wrote (anonymously, at the time) for The Rumpus under the moniker “Dear Sugar.” One of my favorite Dear Sugar columns gave this collection of essays its name. Read that column here, and dive into the book with—as Strayed puts it—”the courage to break your own heart.”