For the past couple of years, I have suffered from a condition I am going to call Reader’s Depression. One of its main symptoms is not participating in activities one once loved to do. This is not to say that I have lost esteem for reading; it’s just that the reading has often been replaced by the search for something to read. Another symptom of reader depression is the endless longing, obsessive, unquenchable desire to read. The condition stems from not being able to find books that hold my attention and fulfill the hunger I have for content that will teach me, a voice that will engage me, and prose that is lyrical and aesthetically pleasing.
My shelves are stacked in all directions with books I love, teach, and recommend to others. But whether it’s bad luck or plain pickiness or just having exhausted my reading lists of books on my favorite topics, I have made myself ill searching for books. I spend hours on Amazon browsing, entire afternoons in bookstores cracking book spines for the first time, blowing off dust to find books that only reiterate what I already know about food politics and the environment, that deter me with slack prose and a clinical voice, that drain me with apocalyptic visions of global warming and the apathy with which the United States reacts.
Although I am a poet, I am drawn to nonfiction, too, and I love to ride through a captivating novel as well as linger long in a great book of poetry. The following are books that have soothed me, stimulated my senses, taught me, and forged themselves with my being permanently. They are the books that continue to urge me on to return to booklists, bookstores, bookshelves with faith that I will find that next book to give myself to—even if it takes a little longer than I’d like.
This past May I had the pleasure of being accompanied on a cruise by Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which was my companion on buses and in bed before the sea rocked me to sleep. I love books that explore one object in an expansive way (i.e. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, which I also highly recommend). I’d read one of her previous books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, about the life—or afterlife—of bodies, which I enjoyed, and I am happy to say that Gulp lived up to my expectations. The prose is conversational, humorous, insightful, and quirky, and the book is jam-packed with odd bits of information that sometimes seem unbelievable. Roach goes where most minds want to venture but are too embarrassed or frightened go. From Elvis Presley’s colon to human dog food tasters to experiments on digestion conducted for years through a hole in one poor man’s stomach, Gulp provides you with a heap of biological and chemical knowledge as well as that occasional satisfactory ewwww that emerges from looking at something you don’t want to see but cannot look away from.
Currently, I am about halfway through Nathanael Johnson’s book All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. Johnson is the son of hippies, a former student of Michael Pollan, and writes with a voice reminiscent of David Sedaris sandwiched between a load of research and a sophisticated level of diction. Part memoir, part journalism, and shelved in the “Nature” section, All Natural was the book I left the bookstore with last week after spending two hours browsing; I walked out with it is because I couldn’t stop reading it. Johnson’s voice is investigative and curious—he tells a story with suspense and payoff—and he makes me laugh out loud. There’s a lot of information in there, but similar to Roach, his writing makes it easy to, yes, swallow.
This past spring, Gold Line Press published The Egg Mistress, a small chapbook of poems by Jessica Poli, who is currently a graduate student at Syracuse University. Admittedly, she is an acquaintance, and her collection beat out mine in a chapbook contest that I also entered, but I am so happy it did because reading The Egg Mistress is like enjoying a scrumptious slice of cake, bite by bite. The poems are imagistically associative, surprising, and surreal. They are easily classified as experimental, but I connect to them far more emotionally than other experimental poetry. They leave me in a headspin, licking my lips with lines like this simile from “24”: “I softly explode like soda / opened underwater” and these opening lines from the poem “The Bodies We Make for Ourselves Are the Bodies We Desire”:
This is how we dance: pulling lettuce out of the soil
by its dirty roots, Grabbing panties from the clotheslines.
You call my eyes dead blue. You swear
my pulse runs at an angle.
Her voice is original and I wish her collection held more than just the short twenty poems that it does. I can go on and on about this little book; read it and it will be easy to understand why.
Perhaps one of the reasons I have had difficulty finding a novel to satisfy me is because I recently read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. The Grapes of Wrath easily took its place beside Moby Dick as one of the best novels I’ve ever read, which makes it difficult for another novel to follow. If you haven’t read this book since high school, it’s time to re-read it. And, if like me, it’s one you say you will read one day, make today your day. There were suspenseful sections where I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, and paragraphs I couldn’t stop reading over and over to savor the lyricism. The story is timeless and timely; today the Joad family could very well be your neighbors who lost their house in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the migrant family seeking seasonal work outside of town, the local farmer who lost his crop to drought, or the member of your own family laid off after twenty years and unable to find work. Environmental degradation, social prejudice, greed, and the power of corporations and banks all drive this story, and yet it will be the bonds of family, community, and the maternal will to nurture that will leave you with hope for both the Joads and for us.
Michelle Bonczek is the author of The Art of the Nipple and an editor at The Poet’s Billow. She teaches writing in Syracuse, New York. Her poem “Advection, Nova Scotia” is published in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion.