In her mid-thirties, Olivia Laing moved from England to New York City for a relationship, only for the romance to fizzle out shortly after her arrival. Heartbroken and alone in a city of millions of people, she sunk into the realm of intense loneliness that most people try desperately to avoid. Drawing from these experiences, Laing examines the concept of loneliness by focusing on the lives of several artists who themselves were shaped by experiences of profound loneliness and otherness. The end result is a fascinating hodgepodge of memoir, biology, art history, art theory, psychology, and the occasional foray into technology ethics.
There’s a difference between lonely and alone, and some of the artists frequently walked that line. Some were visibly different from their peers while others were painfully shy for a number of reasons. Some had experienced sexual violence and/or suffered from mental illness. Some, like Andy Warhol — née, Andrej Warhola — struggled with multiple insecurities. Born to Slovakian immigrants in 1928, Warhol stuttered, was anxious, and later suffered from skin problems. It is no wonder, then, that he took comfort in being behind a camera and in control of everything.
In the 1920s, riding high on the pro-eugenics wave that had swept across the nation, key individuals in Virginia pushed hard to advocate for mass eugenic sterilization. Unlike other states that were moving their sterilization programs forward with zeal, however, Virginia took a somewhat more cautious approach. A law was passed that would give the state the power to sterilize the unfit members of society who had been institutionalized in state facilities. However, the state would not proceed until the law was tested before the Supreme Court. The unfortunate target of that test case was a young woman named Carrie Buck.
Carrie came from a poor family; her father died when she was young, and her mother, Emma, struggled to provide for her daughter. She occasionally lived with other men and received charity to make ends meet, but she ultimately gave Carrie up to John and Alice Dobbs in hopes that she’d have a better life. The Dobbses ended up treating Carrie as little more than a servant; she was pulled out of school and sometimes hired out to help neighbors with domestic work. When Carrie was fourteen, her mother was arrested and sent to live at the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded for the rest of her life (she was neither epileptic or “feebleminded,” though she was labeled a “moron”).
In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
At the end of the first section of Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life, Sayed Kashua recounts a telephone call he received from a stranger in 2007. As a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem, Kashua had a platform that not many Palestinians in Israel are afforded: he had a weekly column in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper.
The man on the other end of the line inquired whether Kashua was being censored from writing about politics and current affairs concerning Arabs. Kashua replied that he had the freedom to write anything he pleased. Surprised, the man on the other end replied, “All you write about is how drunk you got, about your wife and all sorts of nonsense…Don’t we have other problems right now, other than your hangovers and your conversation with your wife?”
At this point in the book — about a quarter of the way into the collection — I was wondering the same thing.
I read about half as much nonfiction as I did fiction in 2015, yet narrowing down this list was hard, much harder than the fiction list was; it could easily have been twice as long. The first three titles were my favorites of 2015; everything after the jump is listed in alphabetical order.
Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do about It by Kate Harding
Analyzing things like rape myths, sports culture, and law enforcement’s mishandling of various high-profile rape cases, Kate Harding takes a hard look at different components of contemporary rape culture and what we can do about it. It’s an important book that couldn’t come at a better time.
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry
Barry teaches a class called Writing the Unthinkable, and this book is mostly a collection of her syllabi, lesson plans, and student work. Never has a book sparked so many creative ideas in me. I would give anything to take this class with her!
There’s a reason why cupcake shops started popping up all over the place and bacon is king. There’s a reason why words like “superfoods” are probably in your vocabulary. David Sax explains the rise and fall of various food trends, going behind the scenes to talk to the tastemakers themselves. It’s really interesting!