By Elle McClure
Much like many grand intentions for 2020, my Goodreads goal of finishing 50 books has fallen by the wayside. You’d think that with more time on my hands than I’ve had in my adult life, and a desperate need for distraction from the world, I’d be powering through them. (Especially considering that as a writer, other people’s words can be a sort of fuel that help make your own better.) But somehow I’ve been hard-pressed to find books that give me the right kind of escape at the moment, or can properly steal my attention away from the garbage fire that is the current news cycle. A lot of friends I talk to echo this sentiment, so if that’s you, don’t fret - lean in to what the mood calls for.
Here are eight I can recommend if you’re looking to give meaning to doing less (or doing absolutely nothing), only have 20 minutes to escape into a single story, need a reminder to get out of your head, or want something that harks back to a more trivial time.
How To Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell.
This might sound like one of those half-serious books you’d buy as a gift for someone after seeing it in a bookstore next to 'How to Stop Giving A F*ck About Literally Everything That’s Ever Happened In Your Life', but instead it’s an impressive study in how our attention has become monopolised via our screens, and how we can attempt to reclaim it. Odell argues that the internet and social media - while intending to connect us - in actuality often steal our attention away from quite vital things like community, family and nature, and she provides a framework for tapping back into those things. She’s also critical of how, “in a world where our value is determined by our productivity”, doing nothing is often mistaken for laziness. Instead it can be highly necessary to recharge and focus on what’s important before re-engaging with the world as a more thoughtful and useful citizen. As she points out: “We live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations… [demanding] the very time and space that is nowhere to be found.” I revisited it at the beginning of iso and found it reassuring that I didn't need to be optimising every aspect of my life (which is quite a deeply rooted urge, so it takes some unpicking), during a pandemic or otherwise.
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus.
The humorous title aside, this is a singular book about an artist who falls madly in love with an academic named Dick, and enlists her husband to help pursue him. The husband (believe it or not) obliges, but Dick doesn’t know anything about the crush or the couple’s agreement, and a large portion of the book plays out through letters they write to him but don’t send, so he’s none the wiser. It really struck me as an entertaining metaphor about what can happen when you live too much in your head. We do it with relationships; where we romanticise a narrative around what’s happening, or frame an idea of someone that exists separately to who they really are. But we can also do it in our day-to-day, especially when anxious thoughts keep us in a mental vortex that is actually pretty useless, because it doesn’t have a lot to do with reality. There’s a line that really stuck with me: “Living so intensely in your head that boundaries disappear... [is] a warped omnipotence, a negative psychic power, as if what happens in your head really drives the world outside.”
Short story collections: Back Talk, by Danielle Lazarin; When Watched, by Leopoldine Core; Reasons To Live, by Amy Hempel.
I’m a big fan of anthologies, not least because short stories appease my basically non-existent attention span (and at the moment are a nice reprieve from reading news stories about the End Times). These are a couple of my favourite collections, full of lively and disparate stories that I could not do justice here - you’ll just have to trust me.
Trivial Pursuits, by Raven Smith.
I’ve been dipping in and out of this during daily swims (it’s dripping in metaphor, which is good in small doses), and get a kick out of it everytime. Smith’s take is basically that you can be a person who is acutely aware of the really major, important things in life, and also revel in its trivialities. I think the pandemic has really flattened our experience of life - we’re so hyper-focused on just surviving (both literally and metaphorically) that a lot of the nuance and joy and triviality that would usually colour our lives has gone by the wayside. That’s probably really necessary though, so in the meantime living vicariously through Smith’s writing - and his talk of drinking wine in airports and patting on aloe vera every night of a holiday - is helping me feel connected to sillier times.
Too Much And Not The Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose.
This is next on my list - I ordered a copy for myself and one for a friend who’s been in the UK waiting to fly home for months. She’s sent me a couple of passages and rates it highly, which considering her taste in writing is a pretty good sign. It’s touted as a collection of essays that are part-memoir, part-cultural criticism, with Chew-Bose having based the title on a quote from Virginia Woolf about the existential frustration of being a writer (and probably, a person) - simultaneously being overwhelmed with things to say, and wondering if any of it is even worth saying.
If you enjoy these titles, let me know (and any recs in return!) via Instagram @ellemcclure