Reading Journal 2022
By: Alex O
A goal I set for myself this year was to, broadly put, read more. Specifically, I compiled a reading list for this year with the goal of learning more about a variety of themes and topics through literature. In order to expand my view of the world. I’ve asked members of my communities for their recommendations and have mostly derived the list from those recommendations. This is the product of these reflections. In this journal I will document my reflections of the narratives I’ve read/will be reading over the course of this year. In these reflections I’ll go over my reading, what I believe to be the themes (messages) of the book, and generally what I think the book means, and what I’ve learned from it.
Over the course of this journal, I’ve come to believe that humans make sense of the world and construct meaning from narratives, furthermore I believe that narratives exist almost everywhere, not just in books and films. For this reason, I will be covering a variety of mediums in this journal. To me, music, speeches, essays, and films can have just as compelling or deep narratives as the traditional book. For this reason I will be exploring a variety of mediums in this journal, as I don’t want to strictly practice my readings of books. Still, this list will primarily consist of books and written texts since I generally learn more from a book than a song or film (that’s not to say that some films and songs haven’t taught me lots!!).
The Death of the Author – Roland Barthes: September 2021
The death of the author is what inspired me to start this journal. This essay argues that the intent of an author is of little value to the reader of any text. Furthermore, it is up to the reader to construct meaning out of the narrative provided “interpretation”. This, in a sense, liberates the reader by “killing the author”. Barthes says that there is not one right way to look at any text.
In literature, we’ve extended this type of thinking through different types of storytelling, narratives that aren’t bound by trying to say one thing. All of these ideas encapsulate postmodernist literature and postmodernist literary analysis. After reading this essay I’ve become more inspired to be conscious of what I’m reading, and what it might mean to me, as an individual. Thus the inspiration for this journal. To practice being just a little more aware, mindful, and conscious of what I’m reading.
The extension of this is being aware of why I’m thinking. To not be swept up in my own immediate reactions and interpretations, which leads me into my next entry here.
This is Water – David Foster Wallace: November 2021
Themes: Learning to question why we interpret the ways in which we do, educations value, combating “blind certainty”
“This is Water” is a commencement speech by writer, David Foster Wallace (“Infinite Jest”, “Consider The Lobster”) in the speech, David argues for what he believes a liberal arts education teaches you. It is an education that teaches you “How to Think”, but most people already know how to think, so the real power found in education quote: “isn’t really about the capacity to think, rather the choice of what to think about”
David argues there’s a certain value in the obvious, the exact same experience can have totally different interpretations from two different individuals, now there is not necessarily a false interpretation but it is important to realize that we have a natural biased interpretation. This leads into Blind Certainty: “A Close mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up” learning how to think teaches us how to change our default settings, choosing how to see a situation is a skill that should be learned. Learning how to think really means learning how to have some mastery over how and what you think, you have an automatic response to everything but learning how to think will let you challenge your automatic response which can lead you to a more content life if done in moderation. David argues practicing things like sonder: the realization, contemplation, and acceptance that every passerby has lives just as complicated, frustrating, and hard as our own, will lead to a more well rounded view of your world. Not seeing things as your own immediate interpretation sometimes but things that just are can lead to a more healthy mind and life.
David says a good degree (or education) should teach you “How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectful adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially, alone, day in and day out”
Day in and day out is something I have no idea of yet. It is something I believe isn’t truly taught in school, because it’s ugly, but it’s true. Despite that, I’ve learned that I can look at it however I want, I think that’s pretty cool, and find meaning in the meaningless. The annoying details of a day in and day out existence leads us to believe everyone else is in your way, but that’s simply not the case, and if you choose to think of these narratives differently you can gain something of value out of the seemingly valueless. Combatting Blind Certainty is something I try to do every moment. To be a little less certain in my immediate reaction is to be just a little bit more aware, this is something that this speech inspired me to do. It’s also the reason I started this journal. I think analyzing and thinking about my reactions to literature is a good place to truly start this journey of discovering who I am, and who I want to be. Looking at these books differently and critically is a great way to practice for when I do it with my own narratives; in some ways I do this here already.
“This is Water” – David Foster Wallace: February 2022 retrospective
I decided to take a look back on my reading of “This is Water”. I’ve come to take: ‘Not seeing things as your own immediate interpretation’ to be one of the big key ideas David was trying to convey, in the context of the commencement speech format, that idea is what David believed to be the core learning of an education in the humanities. The “default setting” David refers to, is the easy way of seeing the world. One’s own immediate reaction, the values and beliefs that have been implicitly shaped by one’s cultures and communities that subsequently dictate their worldview is something that David seems to argue as something that we must break free of. I agree with him.
This idea can apply to how I see text too, after embracing the ideas from “The Death of The Author”, and now “This is Water” I am able to not only freely make my own interpretations but also critically think about these interpretations and what they might say about myself, not just the text. This journal is a documentation on that thinking, on being just a little bit more aware, and a little less certain.
The Catcher in The Rye – J.D Sallinger
Themes: anti-Escapism, dealing with loss, finding who you are
“The Catcher in the Rye” felt very abstract for me, it seems to me that there is no method to the madness of the protagonist, it seemed to me that he was constantly escaping. With no real plan on where he will go. It’s easy to draw parallels between his life and my own as escaping is something I would argue almost everyone does sometimes. In the case of Holden, and in the case of me, it’s trauma that we escape from. I believe that he has not yet come to terms with the loss of his brother. This is why I think The Catcher in The Rye is really a story about grief, and how we might unpack it. There is an ignored inner turmoil inside of him that goes almost completely unmentioned throughout the book, it is not written in the text but within the “sub-text”: what one can decipher/interpret from the literal text of the book.
This inner turmoil that is ignored is what I believe to be the main takeaway, it is completely universal that everyone has something that bothers them, but ignoring it doesn’t solve it. “The Catcher in The Rye” is also a story about the negatives of escapism. Holden interlizes his feelings of guilt and grief for his brother and externalizes them onto his sister and himself, instead of accepting what is (which is not necessarily something we should expect out of anyone). Holden dives into the chase of what he thinks should be, sex, vanity, and an intelligent conversation are some main things that he chases throughout the book, yet he seems to turn down the things he chases when presented with the opportunity, perhaps he feels underserving. But I think it’s more that feels that he knows it won’t fill the void left in him from the death of his brother, the void that grows so much more (even if not acknowledged) when he throws his opportunities away.
I think at the end of the day, the catcher in the rye says so much while saying so little. It isn’t a hard read instead, J.D focuses more on the subtext of the book, letting the reader draw their own parallels to Holden’s struggles and pains, he allows us to fill in the blanks easily, for that the book is beautiful.
My own habits and patterns of dealing with trauma is what dictated my reading of this text. I mentioned that escaping was something I really related to in this book. I saw my own patterns in Holden and this reading made me think about just how much control hard things have over my life, and that dealing with it the manner of escaping is something I should no longer do. “The only way through it, is through it”
A Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss
Themes: Stoicism, love transcends reason, anti-xenophobia
This was probably my most enjoyable read of the year, I usually am not one for fantasy books. I was never able to finish Dune or Lord of The Rings. I think the main reason I am not attracted to fantasy books is that they typically make use of ‘Hard world building’: The world is built very explicitly through large amounts of detail, every character’s back story is established right away and so is every place. ‘Soft World Building’ is the inverse, in extreme uses, practically nothing is explained explicitly. These are ideas I learned while researching why I liked this book so much more than Lord of The Rings. A Wise Man’s Fear does not follow this pattern of its genre, the main character’s (Kvothe) back story is told in passing, through conversation, most characters follow this pattern. You are thrown into a world as an old man retells his story. In the book, Kvothe goes through schooling at a prestigious university not so different from Hogwarts except far less magic focused. After this arc, Kvothe finds himself without enough money for the next semester at his school, so to get money he embarks on a quest of sorts for some rich lady. It is this arc that was most important to me, because during his journey he is accompanied by several different characters one of which being from a culture very different from the main characters and the rest of the crew. That character being tempi: the Adem warrior. The Adem culture is explored extensively throughout the book. It is a culture shrouded heavily mystery to the outside world and thus falls a victim to xenophobia from the rest of the books world. Our main character learns to accept and care for Tempi and learns more about their ways, something that pays off heavily in the conclusion of the book.
To me the core of the narrative though, is found within the B plot of the book. A romance between two young people. This B plot is consistent yet remains in the background for most of the book, yet it feels like the love that Kvothe feels for Denna (the love interest), is it persistent in Kvothe’s mind throughout his adventure. After all the things he goes through, he consistently priotizes Denna. That’s not to say that this love plot is unhealthy or overly idealized, they are depicted as people, characters with flaws and emotions. What that plot said to me is that “love transcends reason.” I liked this theme a lot.
The book doesn’t go without downsides though, there’s a small arc where Kvothe is trapped by this love goddess entity, and he sort of becomes what you might call an alpha male, from her “teachings”. This section felt really jarring and took away from the innocence portrayed in Kvothe and Denna’s relationship. Nevertheless the majority of the book was a great read.
I have a soft spot for ideal, yet imperfect love. I think that’s why the romance plot engaged me so much, to me Kvothe’s and Denna’s relationship was perfect because it wasn’t. They had problems, and they learned to deal with them in a healthier manner as the book progressed. Something I hope to emulate in my own life, my own narrative.
Phoebe Bridgers – Chinese Satellite:
Theme: Coping with mortality
Chinese Satellite is the sixth song off of Phoebe Bridgers second studio album Punisher (best album of 2020 nothing else compares). To me, Chinese Satellite is an underrated gem of this fantastic album. It expresses an optimistic and heartfelt tone all while intimately confronting love, existential crisis’, dissociation, and imposter syndrome. The song has a conversational 2nd person writing style (“I”s and “you”s). Some of these lines I feel like the song is speaking directly to me, other times I directly empathize with the “I” phrases. Sometimes I feel like I am the one saying “You”. In short, my perspective of listening fluctuates. For the sake of coherence, I’ll try to only relate the song through the first person narrator.
The song starts with I believe to be a reference to imposter syndrome with the stanza: “I’ve been running around in circles, Pretending to be myself. Why would somebody do this on purpose, When they could do something else? Drowning out the morning birds, With the same three songs over and over”. I think this is a very accessible line to relate to, and that doesn’t take away from how it truly does resonate with me. The metaphorical feeling of “running in circles”, is a feeling I get a lot. To me, it means trying very hard to break a cycle yet not changing anything concrete.
“Pretending to be myself”, I think, refers most directly to impostor syndrome. Which is “loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud”, it’s typically associated with high achieving people, but I have moments where I definitely relate to these feelings. I also hear “Pretending to be myself” to be a bit more literal. I don’t really know who I am yet, but I pretend. Everyday. There’s an argument to be made that most everybody does that. I don’t know if that’s better or worse.
“Drowning out the morning birds, with the same three songs over and over”, is the last line that articulates for me the negative cycle of self loathing and retreating into apathy. “Drowning”, just means blocking out the noise with the three songs, perhaps not only of the birds but also of the conscious. I’ve done this exact thing many many times, before and after hearing this song.
“Why would somebody do this to themself” is the most impactful line of the first verse in my opinion. This line always grounds me back into reality, and reminds me that it’s my ego that’s stopping me. I’ve stated a few times already in these analyses that retreating into apathy, or my own head is always easier. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar. I think those are my answers to the question posed by Phoebe, this song always reminds me that I can in fact do something else, and I’m just overcomplicating things in my head because it’s easier. But not better.
“Took a tour to see the stars, but they weren’t out tonight”, is a notable lyric, because up until this project I heard it as “took her out to see”. I think I’ll still hear that. Through the personification and imagery I always imagine a picture of two people being collectively disappointed by the lack of stars.
The next lines are ones I relate to a lot more closely though: “I want to believe, instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing, you know I hate to be alone, I want to belong”. To me, in some sense, the pursuit of belonging is the pursuit of meaning. To find a grand meaning or purpose is something that you subsequently belong to. This is something that I searched for, for years. I’d love to say I found one but I’d be lying. Instead, I’ve found belonging in my communities and with that I’ve found meaning for myself, “there is value in the blatantly obvious”. I still look at the sky and feel nothing, but if I look at it with some special people, it’s a little different.
One of the biggest confrontations of this song comes in the form of death. “When you said I will never be your vegetable, Because I think when you’re gone it’s forever, But you know I’d stand on the corner! Embarrassed with a picket sign, If it meant I would see you, When I die”. This stanza has a sub narrative of what I would argue to be two romantic partners disagreeing about what death means. I think “vegetable” is just a placeholder for any romanticly endearing nickname. Although, the word vegetable is quite unique given its connotations of health, and longevity.
As for the rest of the quote, I think I would do the exact same thing the song says; if I knew for certain, I would adopt any religion to see the people I love when I die, but in my heart of hearts I know that I still believe death is meaningless.
The last stanza starts like this: “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, It’s just a matter of time before I’m hearing things”. I think “hearing things” relates all the way back to the beginning of the song where the song explored the habit of listening to three songs over and over to drown out the morning birds, insinuating staying up until the morning. “Hearing things”, to me, just refers to anything that shuts my consciousness up.
“I want to believe, That if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam, Coming to take me to where I’m from. I want to go home” is how the song ends. I think the stereotypical “tractor beam” could be any sort of fantastical narrative that provides the main character with a uniqueness and belonging. “take me to where I’m from” and “I want to go home” further add to these statements being a metaphor for the earlier mentioned desire for belonging.
When I turned 11, like so many kids before me, I was hoping so badly that a letter from Hogwarts would fly through my window, even though I knew it would never happen. The desire to feel special and unique is pervasive within our culture at all points of life, it’s even here in between these lines from me.
I think this all raises yet another question: is it wrong to want something that is impossible (not dying). I think that this song implies that it isn’t, at least not for now. This might be a projection of my own deep rooted belief that my consciousness has a chance to somehow exist after death. Somewhere, I know that this is probably not the case. This song always makes the contemplation of mortality a bit more easy.
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Themes: anti-war, exploring PTSD
Slaughterhouse Five is a 1969 novel written by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a retelling of the fire-bombing of dresden. An arguably unnecessary and immoral destruction of an almost completely civilian German city carried out by the Americans and allied forces in February 1945. This is an argument strongly made by Kurt Vonnegut through the novel in question.
The book follows a non-linear timeline, meaning that the narrative will jump in time at seeming randomness, this can be very jarring to read, yet I believe Vonnegut still manages to write a compelling story. This non-linear timeline is expressed through what the narrator and main character, Billy Pilgrim, claim to be time travel. Billy Pilgrim claimed to learn this from an alien race called the Tralfamadorians. I read this time travel as an allegory for PTSD. There seem to always be little triggers for when Billy ‘time travels’, just as it would for a PTSD episode. There is a bird that sings whenever mass destruction occurs in the book (after the firebombing, and once more when Billy is in a military hospital). I think this is because, for me the reader, and for Billy the PTSD victim, it is just impossible to comprehend the true, real, and senseless magnitude of these massacres. It is in these moments that I am reminded of a passage from the early stages of the book. The narrator, Billy’s friend, says right before he starts telling Billy’s story: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.” I believe this is the thesis of the book, and the entire rest of the book reinforces these core ideas. The narrator is telling his sons this, it is something he truly believes, so, it is something that he is telling me too. I am not to feel any type of positive way when I hear about a massacre, and I am not to take part in any type of support of it. Massacres are morally depraved, if I am not to be morally depraved I must not support such actions.
Pale Fire (poem) – Vladimir Nabakov
Themes: Coping with loss, confronting mortality
I never would have thought that my favorite read of this year would have been a poem. This poem is a part of a novel with the same title. The book is another example of a non linear timeline where our narrator uses his commentary on the poem as a way to tell his story. I think the poem section on its own is in itself a powerful and compelling read. I initially thought that this would be the harder section to read in this book, yet for me it turned out to be the most enjoyable.
The poem starts with
Atomic Habits – James Clear
Themes: Self improvement starts with our habits, cultivating good habits leads to an objectively better life
I hate self help books. I think they come off as preachy and claim a “best way” of doing things. So when one of my teachers recommended this book. I did not want to read it. I started reading the book, and I still didn’t want to read it. But it was here when I went back to this reading journal, and I was reminded that I had the choice of how I could think about the book, I was letting my predispositions to this genre cloud my judgment. So I decided to save it for later.
Spoiler alert: I still think self help books are generally bad, but atomic habits is an exception to this rule. I still could never shake that feeling of being preached to while reading it, yet I am happy to report that the advice wasn’t a total sham. James Clear was very explicit in how he told his ideas, in fact it felt like I was being smacked over the head by a shovel that was his methods on habit construction. That’s not to say these ideas are bad. They are great, practical, helpful, etc.
A method I’ve really made use of was habit stacking: the idea that habits can sort of stack on top of one another (e.g after you shower in the morning, you brush your teeth). I started using this method for the way in which I attack my work. I made sure to always do my Physics after my Calculus, and my English work after my Film work. This added a lot more flow to my work, as I would start with my ‘easier’ work then immediately stack into the harder yet related subject.
Another idea I’ve had a lot of success with is redefining my associations. This idea relates a lot to David Foster Wallace’s: “choosing what to think about” idea. In that James argues that we as humans associate certain objects, and places with habits; rituals of worship for David. For example, we think of our office’s as work spaces and homes as relaxing spaces. Learning about this idea allowed me to more explicitly redefine what I associate my room with. In the past and even still to this day I associate my entire room with comfort, and with escape; turning my brain off by consuming content in my bed. I’ve worked really hard to make my room a place where I can work effectively, this book has acted as a bit of leverage in that process. Leverage for the work of choosing to think differently about this space I call my own.
Choosing to reject my belief that self help books are bad led me to actually taking this advice seriously. The work of choosing what to think about, really paid off here.
What I’ve Learned So Far:
This journal was a documentation on the thinking of consciously constructing my own meaning from a variety of texts. It was a process of reflecting on my reading and then more reflecting on the interpretations I made. I’ve taken the ideas from the inspirations behind this journal, those being “the death of the author” and “this is water” and I’ve applied them to cultivate a meaningful experience. During this journal I’ve uncovered truths about myself and how I typically derive meaning from experience. From each text I chose, I was able to take meaningful messages from. For this I’ve really started to practice what highschool taught to me “how to think” and “what to think”, I’ve learned more about how to do it, and I’ve refined my understanding on how I construct meaning.