Ferocious Inquiry, Celeb Crushes, and The Value of Marginalia

I tend to indulge my celebrity crushes (usually writers) heartily, nursing a few at a time, often the authors the books I’m currently reading. My ferocious inquiry into how these humans tick informs a lot of the listening I do. Podcast Addict has a function that allows the user to add a search based podcast to the list of podcast subscriptions, so at the top of my podcast list are the names and faces of whomever has most recently captured my curiosity.

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Right now I am voraciously consuming all the interviews I can find with Anthony Doerr, one of my favorite authors – a writer whose skill at the craft is a marvel of otherworldly dimension. Here is one of my favorites:

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Like Doerr’s writing, his workshop lecture ends up being more than just a display of craft: It’s a blueprint for life itself.

Hilary Mantel, an author who was brought to my attention by Mr. Doer in an interview with The NY Times about what he likes to read, is the prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, which I am currently reading (and Bring Up The Bodies, its sequel). These historical novels revolve around Thomas Cromwell, a weathered and worldly man of low birth who becomes adviser to King Henry VIII.

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Admittedly, this sounds boring; and Tudor England is a notoriously thorny subject, which is why Mantel’s rendering of Cromwell’s life, rich with internal landscape and personal growth, is especially masterful. I quite like the main character and identify with him deeply: his brutal past, his sensitivity, the space he occupies between these polarized selves. The passage below is a touching demonstration of how he cloaks his empathy in the masculine roughness demanded by the time.

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marginalia

Marginalia – those terribly valuable observations you jot in the margins of books – is something I re-learned from Maria Popova, the author and curator of Brainpickings, a wildly successful blog, and one of few that I read religiously.explore-in-the-marginalia-we-talk-only-to-ourselves-we

Popova writes about the meaning she derives from whatever she is currently reading, often the out-of-print diaries and letters of long-dead writers and artists. Sometimes she also reads and reports on newer explorations of timeless wisdom, like The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, a captivating work that “thrives between genres” about the relationship between loneliness and art [source]. You can listen to a short reading from the book about loneliness and technology on the Guardian Long Read.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time, these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.” -Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

While Doerr and Mantel are, to me, exalted giants of literature whose feet I am unfit to wash, Popova and Laing are flesh-and-blood role-models, closer to my own age and writing in that nebulous personal-essay-meets-memoir-meets-non-fiction genre that feels like home to me. What do they do all day? How do they support themselves? When do they work out*, what do they love to eat, how did they find the courage to pursue these writing dreams? These are the things I ache to know.

*Turns out Maria Popova, a native Bulgarian, was previously a competitive body builder and runs sprints at the gym while she reads.

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