May is the last month of our Read Like an Artist book club hosted by Literati. Several folks have asked me why the club is ending, and there are a few reasons, but the main one is: I need to focus on writing books!
I thought it might be fun to look back at the 12 books we read, listed in the order we read them. I’ve also included videos of discussions I had with some of the authors.
How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
After living through 14 sweltering Texas summers, I discovered the word “estivate,” the summer equivalent to “hibernate.” Animals that estivate rest in the summer months the way other animals do in the winter. This is the perfect book to inspire some summer estivating and make you feel smart about it.
Quite a few readers actually said they didn’t finish this one, which was a good opportunity for me to encourage people to feel okay about not finishing any picks of mine they didn’t like!
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
I love this book because it’s what I wish all my summers would feel like, deep and just a little dark and surrounded by the sea. This one was a hit, I think, and made a lot of readers reflect on their childhoods and their relationships with their grandparents. (I love all of Jansson’s work, especially the Moomin books.)
Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin
This is another illustrated story of a childhood, although a very different one, depicting 1970s Greenwich Village and Shopsin’s upbringing with her brothers and sisters in their parents’ grocery store and restaurant. The “arbitrary stupid goal” of the title is a bit of the unconventional practice and wisdom of her father (the legendary Kenny Shopsin), which is sprinkled throughout the book.
Reading ASG gives me the same jolt I get when I read something like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: “I didn’t know a book was allowed to do this!”
The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker
This might have been a risky choice for a book club because there is no real narrative here—it’s a smorgasbord of 131 exercises and inspirational quotes designed to get you looking and listening and exploring and discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary life around you. But it was a big hit — Rob’s a kindred spirit, and his newsletter rules — and best of all, we had a nice discussion about it. (Watch here.)
Hold Still by Sally Mann
While best known for her photography, Mann holds a BA in literature and an MA in creative writing, so her writing is top notch. This book covers her long, interesting life and career and her struggle to make art while being a mother to three children. It’s not often that an artist can tell their own story in prose that sings, and that’s what makes this book so special to me.
Range by David Epstein
This is a contemporary classic. Ryan Holiday sold it to me as a parenting book in disguise, a call to give kids the space and time to stretch out and try a lot of different things before they specialize. (The book was written before David became a father, but the afterword for the paperback edition was written after.) David and I have become friends, so I was able to talk him into an hour-long interview, which you can watch below:
What It Is by Lynda Barry
Readers basically have two reactions to this book: “WTF is this???” or “OMG I am now obsessed with Lynda Barry.” (Sometimes it’s both, in that order: “WTF???” and then “OMG!!!”) Simply one of my all-time favorite books and one of the biggest influences on my own creative practice. What more can I say?
We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
Kreider is one of my favorite working writers. He’s on my short list of people whose essays I read the minute they’re published, but I wasn’t totally sure how this book would go over with the crew. To my surprise and delight, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Tim and I also had a fun chat about his work:
Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl
I adore Sarah’s book about art and motherhood, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, so I got on a list for an advanced copy of Smile. It seemed like a more book club-friendly pick because it’s a short memoir with a straightforward narrative and flow. I got lucky once again and Sarah agreed to chat with me:
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Quite possibly the most popular book of the whole club. People loved this one, and for good reason. Oliver is able to pull off the magic trick of writing self-help books that are, at their core, deeply suspicious of their own genre. We had a delightful chat about it:
Old in Art School by Nell Painter
This was an experimental pick. I didn’t read it before choosing — I thought it’d be fun to read fresh, along with everyone else. Ironically, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea! I wanted Painter (talk about nominative determinism!) to be more critical of the whole idea of going to art school, but she’s an academic, after all, so I don’t think questioning the value of formal education is part of her project. I also wanted her to be more critical of the concept of being a “real” artist, or what she calls “An Artist Artist.” (Other readers really liked it and said they were exposed to a lot of artists they’d never heard of.)
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
The only other book on this list that had as much impact on me as What It Is. It was fun reading the reactions to this — it really is like the world’s coolest visual communication textbook. A bonafide classic, and a good note to end on I think.
My sincere thanks to everyone who was part of the club and also to the folks at Literati.
I will, as always, be sharing recommendations in this newsletter and on my blog. (Here’s a link to the past 15 years of my reading life.)
I’m also planning on doing more author interviews and deep dives into favorite books for these special Tuesday newsletters, so stay tuned.
Would love to hear what y’all are reading and recommending in the comments…
I just started a wild 1889 novel called THREE MEN IN A BOAT — it felt like it could've been written yesterday because the first few pages are about how whenever he reads the symptoms of a disease he decides "I have that" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Men_in_a_Boat
I also just started Iain McGilchrist’s THE MATTER WITH THINGS. It's massive, probably 1400 pages and will take me all summer. But I loved THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY and McGilchrist writes so clearly, I'm strapped in: https://channelmcgilchrist.com/the-matter-with-things/
I'm off to the bookstore today to pick up two books:
Dan Chaon's new novel: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250175229/sleepwalk
and Jody Rosen's new book about bicycles: https://www.jody-rosen.com/two-wheels-good
Thank you for doing all that you do Austin! Each newsletter continues to bring me joy.