In a season that heralds peace on earth and good will toward men, maybe reading can help make us better listeners. Or so I’ve been thinking as I renew my annual tradition of offering a list of recommended books for holiday gifts.
Reading, after all, compels you to sit with another voice for a spell, being quiet while someone else has the floor. That’s listening at its best, which seems a lost art in our deeply divided country these days. But the holidays are about pleasure, too, which is the real reason I offer my reading list each Yuletide. These aren’t necessarily the best books of 2018, and I offer them without ranking. They’re just books I’ve enjoyed in the past few months, so maybe you and those on your shopping list might like them, too.
Given our over-scheduled, Twitter-pated age, maybe it’s not surprising that the year has brought two memorable titles on the virtues of slowing down — Patricia Hampl’s “The Art of the Wasted Day” and Alan Lightman’s “In Praise of Wasted Time.” Neither author is a slacker. Hampl’s a productive writer, and Lightman is a physicist and MIT professor with a long list of other good books to his credit. They’re not arguing for laziness, but the power of pausing our hectic days, if only briefly, to get a little perspective.
Lightman, who praises so-called “wasted time,” seems to make good use of it, as evidenced by the fact that he’s published two books this year. The other one, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” chronicles his search for a spiritual dimension in his life — a quest, he suggests, that’s not inconsistent with his work as a scientist.
Is there anything that sounds more boring than a book about seaweed? Even so, Susan Hand Shetterly offers a surprisingly appealing read with “Seaweed Chronicles,” which is really about people of coastal communities — many with striking similarities to those in Louisiana — who are harvesting what’s becoming a big new food source. Shetterly’s a deftly poetic writer, which is why reading her seaweed book led me to one of her earlier books, “Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town.” Her essays about the birds and other creatures she sees around her home in Maine are a summons for all of us to pay attention, regardless of where we live.
Royal-watchers on this side of the Atlantic seem fascinated by the multitude of servants attending the British monarchy. In “Behind the Throne,” Adrian Tinniswood explores five centuries of court attendants from antiquity to the present who have kept the monarchy going. It’s a fun read, since Tinniswood is a wry storyteller.
Finally, James Mustich’s “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” is a marvelous survey of recommended reading for a lifetime. If you don’t care for my list, be assured of finding something you’ll like on his.