September ’22 book roundup

As I type this 2-book roundup for September on the 4th day of October, I choose to relinquish my self-deprecation in favor of self-motivation. This month I will treat my writing, both creative and book-review-related, as something worth prioritizing and planning, not just as a hobby that I do some of the time, if and when I feel like it. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, I simply want to embrace the mantra “Where your attention goes your energy flows” so I can focus on what matters most to me, and to get rid of these blog intros where I over-explain why I have a chaotic posting history over here on thelavenderhours.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Background courtesy of the magical Palo-Colorado Canyon in Big Sur, CA

My first September read was one that has been on my mind since it came out in 2017. Having just graduated with my English degree and a minor in linguistics, I’m grateful that divine timing didn’t urge me to read Elif Batuman’s, The Idiot just yet; I needed to miss the world of academia and the jargon of the humanities a bit more in order to appreciate it as much as I did. Having ever only seen the cover, with its millennial pink matte background and a hunk of rock shaped like a brain, I truly don’t think I ever was aware of the plot or the themes at all. I finally thought to order it in a recent thriftbooks haul and was immediately drawn into the witty, nostalgic, heartbreaking mind of Selin Karadağ. A child of Turkish immigrants, Selin attends Harvard college in the fall of 1995 and tries to make sense of all that she feels one step removed from.

Product placement baby!

Throughout the next 423 pages, Selin contemplates all there is to contemplate about language and meaning and spoken language vs. written language and how it’s even possible that any of us understand what anyone else is really trying to say. She finds herself in a situationship with an older Math major named Ivan, whom she holds elaborate and many layered email conversations with that seem to fall flat when she tries to communicate with him in person.

As I’ve already mentioned, one of my favorite aspects of the book was how incredibly specific and nostalgic it felt when it came to the language of talking about language. For example, Batuman has Selin regularly refer to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory of language that our language shapes or influences our experience of the world i.e. language determines thought – a theory that’s been disproven as it was originally presented, but in a way that Selin can’t understand or accept. She regularly refers to similarities between languages like Hungarian and Turkish, all while taking Harvard level classes in English as well as studying Russian. As the title suggests, what’s so endearing about our protagonist is how very impressively intelligent she is, yet she seems often to think of herself as less-than, or as just barely missing the mark (usually in regards to fkin Ivan, who is The Worst Guy).

There is some plot to the story such as Selin spending the summer in Hungary with a family she’s to teach English to, but most of the book takes place either in Selin’s mind or through her communications with others like Ivan or her roommate Svetlana. Selin is a character unlike any I’d encountered before – she partly reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrators, or Rachel Cusk’s extremely cerebral narrative voice, but something about her is entirely and unmistakably simply, Selin. Luckily, Batuman just released a new book, Either/Or which picks up the following year, 1996 as Selin attends Stanford for her sophomore year. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading it, but I may have to wait a few years to build up to the level of appreciation I felt for The Idiot – it was truly a perfect book for all lovers of language, reading, and writing.

At the Center of all Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life by Fenton Johnson

Following such an academia focused work, I kept the train rolling with a bit of non-fiction writing on the craft. With October being off-season for me, I plan on using the forthcoming few weeks of downtime to work on my writing a bit more, hence why I picked up Fenton Johnson’s, At the Center of all Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. His prose and nuanced insights on what the act of being alone can do for a creative has been timely and much welcomed as we head into the cozy season of hermitry here in Colorado. Fenton selects a wide range of what he calls “solitaries” who’ve followed a creative calling of some sort. Among his list of solitaries, he includes Henry David Thoreau, Paul Cezanne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Eudora Welty, Rabindranath Tagore, Zora Neale Hurston, Rod McKuen, Nina Simone, and Bill Cunningham. He then goes on to describe the ways in which their nonacceptance that to be considered a full person one must attach themselves to another has cultivated a certain depth to their creativity. He explains that there is a significant difference in choosing solitude versus being alone, and that society is often the entity responsible for these untrue narratives we hold.

In speaking of Eudora Welty’s work, he says, “I trace an evolution from the fear of loneliness that informs “Death of a Salesman” to her later, more sophisticated embrace of aloneness – i.e., deliberately chosen solitude. Johnson then goes on to perform a close reading from a previous work of hers, “Bride of the Innisfallen” published 20 years prior. He breaks down her liberation in solitude and notes a revised ending which when compared to the original betrays subtle word choice differences that reflect her updated outlook. I enjoyed that so many of his solitaries were writers and found a reassurance in the turning inward I’ve noticed in myself the last few years. Although I by no means consider myself a solitary, I do find myself choosing myself as company over most anyone else for the freedom of choosing what I do with my time, and for the space in which I can be free of anyone’s perceptions but my own.

In his closing, Johnson concludes, “What the subjects of these pages have in common: each lost the self to find the self. …Capitalism tells me I will find myself in things – I will locate my self, literally and psychologically, in and with my phone – when what my solitaries have taught me, again and again in their different ways, is that if I want to find the self, give it away, again and again, until there is no more left.” Talk about motivation to share my work, sheeeesh.

This winter, I’m choosing to embrace the solitude, let the loneliness happen and stew in the space where creatives create. A final passage on solitude and the act of writing: “I have come to delight, not only in my solitude but in my loneliness, its shape and texture, its undulations, how it changes from day to day, a relationship in its own right – a relationship with the self, with the imagination, with my work. There I feel a visceral connection to some deep, enduring truth that I can access only in the silence of my heart, in the silence of this room, where I write first drafts in pen and ink on the verso side of already-used paper – this last consideration is so essential that, when traveling, I pack a few already-used pages. Writing on already-used paper provides the liberation of play time – the composted and tolled garden of all revelation. I am daily and endlessly grateful for books, portable wisdom; every room of my small house is papered with the color and variety of their spines, each book evidence of its writer’s hours of contemplation, labor, solitude. I write among them as a student among teachers. That is the magic of the word in print: not that it answers questions, but that it composes an ongoing score for life, a mute chorus of voices as alive and evolving as light.”

As always, thanks for stopping by, and happy reading!


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