Book Club

Literary Life Raft.

By: Jen Shoop

I have been missing reading lately.  I wish I could figure out a way to squeeze more of it into my day, but it seems to drop to the bottom of the priority queue–the bric-a-brac of life as a new mom preoccupies my hours, and I’m lucky to have gotten through a scant handful of pages each day.

But, I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately.  Not only that I miss it, but that I want it so desperately to be a part of mini’s life, as it has shaped my own in important and magical ways.

Good books have given me the words to interpret and explain the phenomena of my own life.

They have brought into focus questions that matter–existential questions, but also small, pebble-like, quotidian ones.

They have, on a practical level, led me to earn an advanced degree, secure my first job as an executive, and start this blog.  (Long stories, each of those.)

They have given shape to emotions I’d previously only groped at understanding.

They have made me feel human.

The Fashion Magpie Library 1

The Fashion Magpie Library 3

The Fashion Magpie Library 4

{I would love to lounge in any of these beautiful home library spaces for a rainy afternoon with a good book.}


I recently came across this essay on failure by Patti Smith, published late last year in The New Yorker, and it occurred to me that it should be required reading.  Not for any specific age or life experience or lifestyle–just, required reading for being a human.  What it says about faltering moved me in the way that good books often do: it reminded me of how connected we are to each other, of how so many of us share in the self-same life experiences of love, loss, triumph, travail.  There is a lot in the news right now that tells us  just how fragmented and friction-filled the world is.  But good writing flies in the face of that truism.  It restores to us a feeling of connection to those around us: aha!  I am not alone!  Someone else has felt this way!  And has described it in a way that makes me understand myself and the contours of my emotions that much better.

I was struck by this article coming off the heels of this post I recently wrote on self image and relationships.  I cannot tell you how many texts and emails I received in response to this post–it elicited more of a reaction than any other single post I’ve ever written.  (Which is saying a lot–not to pat myself on the back–because this post and this post still make me bawl my eyes out, and I still receive a lot of notes on them, too.)  I’ll preserve the anonymity of the many ladies who wrote to me on this topic because, well, it’s such a personal thing to share your body image issues with another person, but suffice to say: I may not have properly underscored the sentence where I wrote: “So many of us women are too hard on our bodies and on ourselves.”  Perhaps I should have written “too many of us women” or “all of us women.”

At any rate, I was left thinking about the many books and articles I have read that, like this Patti Smith article, should be on a sort of “reading life raft”–the kinds of pieces that speak to me on a deep level, that help me rearrange my emotional furniture, if you know what I mean.  Surely many (all?) of the books on this list of 10 life-changing books would make the cut.  I’m curious to learn what else you would add?  (Leave comments, please!)

Today, I would add a poem, of all things.  Poetry is sort of persona non grata nowadays–who reads it, I wonder?  And though I’ll admit I’m rarely found with my nose in a book of poetry–poetry is hard! it requires excavation!–I would lobby that we should change this unfortunate stigma, because, upon reflection, there have also been many poems that have shaped my life.

Earlier this week, a relative passed away.  I was not exceptionally close to him, but I am very close to several people who were.  And one of the first things that came to mind when I’d heard the news of his passing away was this poem by Donald Hall.

This poem breaks my heart.

And it is not for the faint of heart. Its representation of the minutiae of grief is like a punch in the gut.

In my opinion–an admittedly imperfect and woefully under-informed one when it comes to the topic of poetry, as I have not read much of it since completing my M.A. nearly ten years ago–the excerpted lines below are among the most perfect lines ever written on the experience of grief.  In fact, they may well be among the most perfect lines I’ve ever read.

“Gus no longer searches for you,
but when Alice or Joyce comes calling
he dances and sings. He brings us
one of your white slippers
from the bedroom.

I cannot discard
your jeans or lotions or T-shirts.
I cannot disturb your tumbles
of scarves and floppy hats.
Lost unfinished things remain
on your desk, in your purse
or Shaker basket. Under a cushion
I discover your silver thimble.
Today when the telephone rang
I thought it was you.

At night when I go to bed
Gus drowses on the floor beside me.
I sleep where we lived and died
in the painted Victorian bed
under the tiny lights
you strung on the headboard
when you brought me home
from the hospital four years ago.
The lights still burned last April
early on a Saturday morning
while you died.”

Ugh.  Lord.  These images.  The halting and at the same time flowing cadence, the flood and tumble of memories.  The lump in the throat they leave me with.

I’m sorry to leave us here, but some things bear saying, and those lines–especially the image of Gus the dog with that damned white slipper in his mouth–and that Patti Smith essay–and these thoughts on reading–have been tumbling around inside all week, waiting for escape.

P.S.  The best books for babies.

P.P.S.  My reading-on-a-rainy-day uniform (also suitable for sick days, physical or emotional, when you just need to curl up in bed): the most comfortable lounge pants known to mankind (I own in multiple colors and also in pajama set form), super-soft v-neck, and an oversized sweatshirt.

P.P.P.S.  I obviously instantly added Patti Smith’s celebrated book, Just Kids, to my reading list after reading–and loving–her essay.

P.P.P.P.S.  (Too many post scripts?)  Two items that have been tres popular on Le Blog lately but are running v. low on stock: this monogrammed infant bubble (great price!) and this utility dress (restocked in a few sizes!)  Catch ’em while you can.


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2 thoughts on “Literary Life Raft.

  1. Oh, you will *love* Just Kids, it is brilliant. The story of two fantastic lives, written by a fantastic writer. It was kind of fascinating to me that there were so many astonishing stories that I hadn’t heard, mostly because it was a time when celebrities could have some sort of privacy (imagine!).

    Also, it makes me a bit sad and incredibly nostalgic for a time when NYC was really a haven for artists. New York has nurtured some of the greatest writers, musicians, actors, and visual artists but there’s truly no room for them now. There’s no bohemian lifestyle, there are no starving artists, just $3K studios and million dollar brownstones. It breaks my heart!

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