Tag Archives: John Green

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!

Clinging to Life on Earth

IMG_1029Hello friend,

I used to feel really prepared to die. I did. I didn’t have a death wish, and I wasn’t necessarily eager to go, but I definitely felt ready. Lately, though, I have swung completely the other way. I obsess over the possibility of my death. And it is not only mine; it goes for my wife and children as well. I think about it way too much. Worry. Fear. Dread. They are all part of the package. But why? How did I go from welcoming death to obsessively dreading it? How did I get this way?

When I was a kid and young adult, I didn’t think much about death. Like most people at that age, I felt pretty bulletproof. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might die at any moment. In my mid-20s, I went through a spiritual overhaul. I spent a lot of time contemplating God and my place in the Universe, and I became much more clear about what I believed. I felt intimately connected—united–with everything. It was a beautiful way to live, really. During those years of blissful union with the Divine, in particularly rapturous moments, I found myself saying out loud, “You can take me now, God, if you want. I am ready any time.” I guess I was just really solid in my belief that, no matter what form we are in, it is All God and will never be otherwise. The end is not in doubt.

With that thought as my foundation, it really just didn’t seem to matter to me whether I was “alive” or “dead”. The difference was only a superficial one. I loved the life I was living here on Earth, but I figured the next part was at least as good, so why not? I could go either way. When I heard of people dying, I thought two things: 1) Good for them; and 2)Bless their loved ones. I went along that way for a lot of years, loving life but welcoming death. The Grim Reaper was certainly not my enemy, nothing to fear.

That all changed suddenly on a hot Friday night in August of 2008. It was not a car accident, terminal diagnosis, or some other brush with death. No, it was, in fact, a brush with LIFE. My daughter was born. My whole world changed in a flash. The sun rose and set in her eyes. I hung on every breath, and the slightest smile from her could carry me through the day. But it was not this immense joy that she—and later her brother, too—brought to my world that completely turned my relationship with death. Rather, it was the responsibility. Yes, suddenly I was completely in charge of raising and nurturing this magical little creature to adulthood, and it needed to be the most loving, joyous upbringing ever. In order for me to insure that she had her greatest friend and protector, I needed to stay alive.

In that instant, death became my sworn enemy and greatest threat. It is true that my spiritual foundation did not suddenly fall to shambles. I still believed that All is God and that the end is not in doubt. I still believed it was going to be beautiful on the other side. And I knew that everyone on Earth figures out a way to carry on no matter what the circumstances, so they would make it without me. But I couldn’t have that. The idea of leaving them behind is a torturous one for me. Everyone always says that the worst thing imaginable is having your child die. I can see that so clearly at this point, which is why I have come to obsess in my dread of my children’s deaths. I have been reading and re-reading John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars, lately. Its leading characters are kids with cancer, and I am just sick the entire time, not just in imagining my own children suffering from something so awful, but also in thinking about their parents.   What an awful, helpless feeling!

But I think that not so far down the ladder from that pain must be the idea of dying yourself and leaving your kids without you to raise them. Talk about helpless! A couple of years ago, my cousin Heide died of cancer. She was the mother of two amazing little girls. I have thought about her and her family a million times, both during her battle and, of course, after it ended. I can’t stop imagining how helpless she must have felt, knowing that she was not going to be there to nurture and watch her girls grow up and become women. I would be absolutely shredded by it. Just thinking about it knocks me into a state of shock. Unselfishly, I want to be of the utmost service to my kids every step of the way. Selfishly, it would absolutely eviscerate me to miss out on their daily magic. I want to be the shepherd, but I also want to be the witness.

It is also for these reasons that the thought of my wife’s potential death haunts me as well. As I said, I need my children’s upbringing to be the absolute best, most loving experience, and she is a crucial part of that. The kids need their mother, and she needs to be their mother. We have a vested interest in living this earthly life for a while.

Does this mean I will stop freaking out about death and return to my “Take me any time, God!” mode when they reach adulthood and no longer need the shepherd? I imagine the dread will diminish some, but not entirely, because the witness will still want to witness. I have no doubt that thoughts of missing out on their lives (and potentially the lives of their children) will keep me wanting to stick around to a ripe old age. Still, I think I won’t be as clingy to this life as I am now. My seeming desperation to live right now will more likely become a mere preference for life over death. Hopefully I can always maintain my focus on the present, secure in the knowledge that the best way to make the most of my time here is to stay in the moment rather than obsessing over the past or future, a future which certainly will include all of our deaths.

How about you? How desperate are you to keep living? Grab your journal and pen, and dig in. How do you react when you hear of someone dying? On a scale of one to ten, how peacefully do you think you would accept the news that you have only a year to live? How much does your family situation play into that rating? How much do your spiritual/religious beliefs affect your feelings regarding your acceptance of death? Has your acceptance of your mortality changed over the years? Do you think you would accept a terminal diagnosis better for yourself or for a family member? Obviously this topic is a deep and challenging one, but I believe it is very revealing and thus highly worth your while. So write! Then, leave me a reply. I want to know: Are you clinging to life on Earth?

Live like you mean it,

William

Are You Destined For Greatness?

DSC_0616“You know,” he said after a while, “it’s kids’ stuff, but I always thought my obituary would be in all the newspapers, that I’d have a story worth telling. I always had this secret suspicion that I was special.” –Augustus Waters, a dying teen in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars 

Hello friend,

I just this moment finished reading The Fault In Our Stars, the brilliant and heartbreaking novel by John Green. It is filled with beautiful, deeply insightful passages about our existence and our place in the universe. But, for some reason, the passage that I instantly went hunting back for upon finishing was the one I quoted above, with Augustus admitting to Hazel his “secret suspicion” that he was special, that he believed he was destined for greatness. Ever since I read that chapter in the book yesterday, I have not been able to get the idea out of my mind. The reason is as simple as it is awkward to admit to: I have the same secret suspicion about myself.

I do. I always have. Always. And, not surprisingly, I have not mentioned this to anyone in my lifetime. It seems too boastful, too self-aggrandizing, too potentially degrading to everyone else around me. But is it, really? I mean, it is really just admitting to a gut feeling I have always had—an intuition—not something I go around telling myself based on rational observation. I haven’t decided that I am better than anyone else, but rather I have “a secret suspicion,” as Augustus says, that something grand and noteworthy will become of my life, that I will be famous for something positive.   To put it simply, I feel destined for greatness.

When you carry something like that around with you your whole life—in complete silence about it, especially—it seems like you are the only one feeling it. While there is a certain power to it—you think at any moment you are going to stumble upon your big break and life will be forever changed—there is a loneliness, too. The famous people know each other—they rub elbows at the Oscar parties or the NATO Peace Summit or Nobel Prize ceremony—but where do those still awaiting their greatness meet? That is why it struck me so deeply when I read that line from Augustus. “Finally, a kindred spirit!” I thought. But then, “Wait a minute, he is about to die, so his suspicion was wrong. That means mine could be wrong, too. AND he is admitting it because he is dying, so maybe lots of people feel the same way and just don’t ever say it. Maybe everybody feels that way. Could it be?

This is difficult to wrap my mind around, having gone through life thinking I was the only one with this gut feeling that it was my fate to become a person of great influence (and that I was not supposed to advertise that ahead of time). But now enters this idea that most or all of us have this same intuition, this same tug from the Universe. That would be quite a trick played on us by the Divine (or the Devil?), a trick of psychological delusion to keep the masses pacified: each of us secretly thinking we alone are destined to stand out from the rest of the pack, nobody saying anything to anyone else for fear of seeming boastful or arrogant. It is the ultimate deception.

It is a bit deflating to me, I must admit, after a life of believing fame and influence were right around the corner. But, honestly, I have been lately wondering, “If this is really going to happen, Universe, then WHEN????” I am not getting any younger. Perhaps in the end I will pass on in quiet obscurity like almost everyone else, never making an impact beyond my beautiful-but-tiny sphere, my “secret suspicions” of the Great Fate finally revealing themselves to be mere delusions of grandeur. Of course, given the extreme expectations I have lived with all my life due to these intuitions, it would seem quite a disappointing way to go down. I will probably have a lot to make peace with.

So, are these gut feelings–that I am special and destined to do great things—a blessing or a curse? I suppose the answer to that depends somewhat on the course my journey takes from here. If it turns out that they are right—if I win a Nobel Prize or become President or cure cancer—then they will have served to buoy me in tough times and keep me on my course, always believing in the best possible outcome. In that case, yeah! If, however, I go quietly into the deep, dark night, then what? Then I would probably still argue that they were a blessing—buoying and keeping the course and the like—right up until the end, when the realization of eternal obscurity and unimportance hits home. Of course, then the mighty have a long way to fall and much to make peace with. Still, I would argue that that is a fair trade for a life lived with confidence and great expectations. I think I will press on upon my course toward greatness. The end will come eventually, with or without my certainty about it.

How about you? Do you have a secret suspicion that you are special, that you are destined for greatness? Get out your journal, and write about your expectations. How do you think your life will go? Will you be famous? Will you continue on the same trajectory that you are on now, or are you expecting a rollercoaster? How will you feel at the end of your days? How will you be remembered? Answer it both from your ego’s point-of-view and also straight from your gut. More than any post I have written to you so far, I would deeply appreciate a response from this one. I am truly baffled by this thought at the moment about how many of us have this secret suspicion that we are special, and I need some answers. I want to know: Are you destined for greatness?

Trust your heart,

William