How Shall We Live?

I’ve always had a deep faith in books. As with many readers, libraries felt like church to me, bookstores like monasteries. Opening a new book feels like a ritual, as does closing it when finished. I’m sure this worship led me to seek a scholar’s life, and not only a scholar but a scholar of books specifically, an acolyte trying to not only find insight but also dissect and understand this medium specifically. Books—the ideas, stories, and art they contain—could be my religion, so great is my belief in their wisdom.

Several years ago, when I was deeply unhappy, I turned to books for understanding, for answers, and for the first time found them wanting. It was if I went to consult at Delphi and the oracle could not speak. Nothing I examined could fill the soul-wound consuming me, a wound that came because I had abandoned that scholarly path—or it had abandoned me. I needed to reformulate my relationship to books and reading, that or leave it behind entirely. My path meandered. I read what I wanted, and for the first time began keeping a list of what I read. Quite unintentionally, I read more books that year than in any year previous, and that phase changed in some ways what books meant to me. Because they may have still helped save me, but rather than giving me a map they gave me (or, perhaps, I gave myself) escape, distraction, pleasure, and myriad shards of truth.

Since then, I have grown more intuitive about books, listening for and seeking out the ones that call to me. The world feels very dark right now, both literally as the northern hemisphere seeps toward peak darkness in the year, and metaphorically as our culture seems increasingly fractured and broken and the planet grows angrier in their pain. I no longer expect to find a book with the answer. But I do find that individuals offer flashes of insight, like the cut side of a gem, and that together they give my brain and heart a tasting menu of understanding, a multi-vocal answer for how we shall live.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz: 9780307949424 | Books

Annalee Newitz explores the extinction-causing crises of the past, alongside the strategies of those beings—human and other—who did and did not make it, to propose a model for how humans in our current iteration can survive as a species long into the future. Unlike many of the authors and thinkers I’ve been engaging with recently, Newitz pays little attention in this book to thriving or happiness, equity or justice, and instead focuses on, and thereby makes the case for, species survival alone. But Newitz also knows and explores the essentiality of culture to what we are. On a craft note, in their non-fiction writing Newitz shows the work, describing visits to researchers and sites and other sources. But they make it look effortless, spending mere sentences, occasionally paragraphs, distilling the point of that research to the topic at hand. I found this book more hopeful than I expected, and clarifying, even resolve building, in its case for why species survival matters and is feasible.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times: May,  Katherine: 9780593189481: Books

A very different flavor of book from Newitz’s, Wintering uses the season and themes of winter to craft an argument in favor of periods of dormancy, hunkering, resilience, darkness, denning. She wanders from her own and her family’s periods of ill health causing a withdrawal from work and “normal” life to visiting the Arctic in January, honoring the winter solstice in December, or sea swimming in February. Through these explorations, May claims wintering as more than a metaphor but, rather, an iterative season of both human and planetary life that will come no matter how inconvenient to our contemporary cultural expectations, an inevitability better embraced than resisted. She writes: “We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose of them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist | Book by Lulu Miller | Official Publisher Page |  Simon & Schuster

Every once in a while, a book feels inescapable. Released in 2020, Why Fish Don’t Exist kept getting recommended by so many podcasters and end-of-year lists and, it felt like, random strangers that I finally said to the universe, “Fine, I’ll read it!”

Every once in a while, a book comes along and makes you want to run up to everyone you know and love, and also random strangers, and say, “Read this book!” Such a book is Why Fish Don’t Exist. A tale of science, obsession, resilience, failure, and trying to figure out what-does-it-all-mean. But it is so much more more than the sum of its summary. I read it in one day and felt changed by the end. Try not to learn too much about it beforehand. Just read it.