writers notebooks


I was pleased and a bit surprised to show up on a couple end-of-year booklists: Entropy’s Best of 2018 Nonfiction Books and NPR’s Code Switch 2018 Book Guide. Despite the thrill of inclusion, I feel conflicted about such lists. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I feel good about them when I am on them. Bad about them when I am not.

Here’s at attempt at documenting my own reading year. It was a useful exercise to try to gather all I had read, and even to think about the kind of reading I do and why.

Books I read for the first time:

  • Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner

  • The Collective, Don Lee

  • Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love, Anna Moshovakis

  • Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

  • Prosperous Friends, Christine Schutt

  • Exes, Max Winter

  • A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers

  • All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung

  • Transit, Rachel Cusk

  • Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah Satterstrom

  • Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

  • The Arrangements, Kate Colby

  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee

  • The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk

  • Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater, Sam Roxas-Chua

  • Echolalia in Script, Sam Roxas-Chua

  • No No Boy, John Okada

Books I’ve started and read from, over the year:

  • We’re On: A June Jordan Reader, Christoph Keller and Jan Heller Levi (eds)

  • American Originality: Essays on Poetry, Louise Glück

  • The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven, Thirri Myo Kyaw Myint

  • Of Sphere, Karla Kelsey

  • Captive Audience, Lucas Mann

  • They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib

  • Feminaissance, Christine Wertheim (ed)

  • Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire, Carole Maso

  • Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing, Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin (eds)

  • As Radical, As Mother, As Salad, As Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now? Paper Monument (ed)

  • Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000-2015, Jennifer Liese (ed)

  • Schizophrene, Bhanu Kapil

  • If They Come for Us, Fatimah Asghar

Books I re-read for a particular purpose this year:

  • Plainwater, Anne Carson

  • Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

  • Recocylopedia, Harryette Mullen

  • Jane, A Murder, Maggie Nelson

  • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine

  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine

  • Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil

Books I’m reading now, as part of current work:

  • Gap Gardening, Rosmarie Waldrop

  • The Dream of the Unified Field, Jorie Graham

Books I’m reading now, as part of teaching:

  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Tiger Writing, Gish Jen

  • How to Write about Contemporary Art, Gilda Williams

The documentation begs the persistent question: How do I keep track of the way a book moves me? How it lives in me? The list making is one way, but feels insufficient, superficial. I suppose something more like an annotated bibliography is another way, which I may try in the new year. There are only so many notebooks one can keep.

In fits and starts, I maintain a file box of quotes. Inspired both by the lists of quotes and “gems” that I kept in grad school, at the urging of Jen Bervin, and by Austin Kleon’s blog post about keeping (and revisiting) notebooks. Updated sporadically, I maintain a list of categories, an index that grows more unwieldy with each session. 

{Here is where I considered including a photo of my index, but the categories made me too self-conscious. Another time, perhaps.}

The booklists above do not reflect the books I bought in the past year with the intention of reading. Or the books accumulating in little piles on my office floor. A preview of a few I’m particularly excited about:

  • Action in the Orchards, Fred Schmalz

  • To Afar from Afar, Soham Patel

  • Our Possible Solutions, Carrie Oeding

  • Operating Theater, Carrie Olivia Adams

  • Bunk, Kevin Young

  • Who We Be, Jeff Chang

  • Black and Blur, Fred Moten

I guess I’d better get started.