in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Besting the depression beast

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“But despite the enthusiastic claims of pharmaceutical science, depression cannot be wiped out so long as we are creatures conscious of our own selves. It can at best be contained—and containing is all that current treatments for depression aim to do.”The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon

I admit it – I’ve written a misleading title for this post, in large part because I don’t think there is any such thing as “besting” depression in the sense that you can defeat it completely. Can you best it in that you tame it, manage it, have good days or very long spells of not having depression rule your life? Of course. And it’s in this sense that I use the term “besting”… finding, through all the trial and error that it seems to require, the right treatment for depression to deliver you (or the depressed person) the best possible outcome and way of living. And this, at best, seems to be impermanent and something about which one must be vigilant.

People who are not clinically depressed and never have been are unlikely to ever understand intrinsically true clinical depression or what it feels like. Maybe with observation and experience, we can recognize it in others (“we”, here, being laypeople without clinical depression who are the friends, loved ones and colleagues of the clinically depressed). Maybe we can get brief but “light” glimpses of the multifarious nature of depression (and other mental illnesses, which may or may not accompany depression) when we ourselves dip into our own melancholy.

Like most, I have been through circumstantial depression (when something terrible happens, and triggered by this circumstance, I react in some way akin to ‘depression’ – which can be a whole host of different things). But ultimately I retain, or at least quickly and independently regain, the ability to cope and manage without consequences or lasting physical or emotional effects. Perhaps I am, like many, predisposed to an overly thoughtful and melancholy nature… but this is not clinical depression or mental illness. I have seen the difference up close more times than I care to recount.

I think frequently and often about depression, anxiety and other illnesses, as usual in trying to understand the people around me and, more closely, the people in my life. Those who do suffer from at least depression, if not a smörgåsbord of other issues. This need to understand largely began with my father’s late-1980s breakdown and ongoing battle with crippling depression (which has manifested itself repeatedly ever since but in different guises and ways, something to which he will never admit; he discarded his Prozac after a few years and declared that he was “cured”, but he isn’t). What I continue to learn along the way informs all my interactions with people who share with me that they are depressed or otherwise mentally ill (I have many friends, family members and colleagues who have experienced these conditions at varying extremes). More recently, experiences with depressed (often undiagnosed) addicts/alcoholics have pushed me further into the investigative field, wanting not just to understand limited textbook portrayals of depression but the much more integrative and complex web of interwoven factors that make up depression as a whole.

Looking for a fresh perspective, I turned to Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. (And strangely, I was only about a fifth of the way through reading the book when Sinéad O’Connor’s recent self-published video, crying out from the depths of her own depression appeared on Facebook. A real-life reminder that depression and mental illness is everywhere, does not discriminate, and that even if stigma attached to mental illness has decreased considerably in the last 30 years, it still takes quite a lot of courage, particularly as a public figure, to put yourself out on display in such a raw, emotive, helpless state and ask for help.)

Immediately gripping in its in-depth approach, starting with the intensely personal and detailed, and weaving itself out into a mixture of the personal (both the author’s own and the experiences/anecdotes of others who have lived with depression) and journalistic/scholarly pursuit of the history of depression and its various treatments alongside the complex web of mitigating factors that change one’s relationship to depression, e.g. poverty, demographics, politics and social perception (stigma), the book has been well-worth the difficulty and time invested.

By “difficulty” here, I don’t mean that it is a challenging or excessively convoluted or academic book – in fact, it reads much more like a riveting, long-form piece in a periodical. It’s technically quite easy to read, fixate on and think about, long after you’ve put the book down. It takes some digestion; it’s almost comprehensive and encyclopedic at tackling all angles of depression. It’s for this reason that my own writing about the book is surface-level at best – a mere recommendation for those who want to understand depression, who suffer from depression and want to see hope through information.

Moreover, despite Solomon’s relatively dispassionate account of his own journey (and those of others), the book is difficult because these accounts are so human and painful to read about, to see, even through the filter of distance, what he and others have gone through, both in the throes of deepest, wildest depression and in seeking treatment. But that is where the power of this book rests – and why this work not only satisfied my desire to know and understand, as closely as I could get to being under the skin of a depressed person, but also is important as a topic of study and discussion, as a compendium of depression and how it is seen, treated, perceived on many levels. As a springboard for continued analysis and study.

Defiant

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The other day, reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I was struck when reading her writing on Joan Baez by the statement:

She “…was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme.”

These words evoked for me the feelings I have long had about, and the image of, Sinéad O’Connor in the late 1980s, an embryonic personality driving and sometimes hindering a skyrocketing career and startling voice. I’d always felt back then that the well-publicized “mania” (I wouldn’t really call it this), early in her career, had unfairly stuck to her, giving her a reputation she could never outrun. She was so very young when her career took off, and we forget – today, as always – that people are still quite unformed and incomplete throughout their early adulthoods; I’d venture to say that many people continue to be unformed well beyond youth. She fit Didion’s description: a personality before she was a fully formed person.

O’Connor, though, also experienced very public controversies (which many would dismiss as publicity ploys), public identity crises and shifts, and quite gut-wrenching bouts of depression and battles with other forms of mental illness (and here I mean gut-wrenching for her fans to watch her go through; I cannot even begin to imagine or put into words what these bouts are like for her, undoubtedly something much worse than just “gut-wrenching” – maybe The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon begins to touch on some part of it, but certainly not all of it), which continued well beyond her youth, worsening with the passage of time.

Could one say she never had the opportunity to become a fully formed person, to move beyond the preternatural talent and preconceived ideas people had about her? And, given the revelations she has shared over the years about her own experiences with abuse and mental illness, how could she ever become a fully formed person? How could she not struggle, often – again – very publicly?

I thought about all of this rather without aim while plowing through the Didion writing, humming tunes from The Lion & the Cobra album to myself, overcome by memories of the summer of 1988, listening to this album repeatedly (when I finally got it on vinyl, after waiting forever), so in love with its extremes of ethereal wave and primitive scream. How, oh, how, I was asked by classmates, could I like this? (Perhaps another case of people failing to look beyond the shaved-head surface.) Eventually Sinéad gave us I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which, at least for a while, turned her into a mainstream favorite, and the masses could finally understand what I had been saying since 1987.

In one of those all-too-frequent little coincidences, it was only a week or so after being reminded of Sinéad by Didion’s writing that Sinéad herself posted a heart-rending video of herself on her Facebook page talking about her diagnosed mental illnesses and recent suicidal thoughts. It feels exploitative to post the video again (certainly in its complete form), although it’s on her official Facebook page to see. A cry for help, a need to be heard, a voice reaching out to others who perhaps felt as she did? In a way, this act felt very much like the Sinéad O’Connor who has always existed, no matter how lost she feels: she won’t be silenced; she won’t care if you, we, anyone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say; she is, despite being devastated by the effects of her illnesses and the rejection she has perceived from her loved ones, still defiant in the way only she can be. Hopefully it will be this defiance that keeps her going.

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash