Welcome to Life Advice for Book Lovers, Lit Hub’s advice column. You tell me what’s bugging you in an email to [email protected], and I’ll tell you what you should read next.
I’m generally such a good reader and love to read. Every day my favorite thing is to browse a new bookstore or settle down with a new novel at a cafe near my house. But… I can’t concentrate anymore. I do not know why. I can think of a few reasons (stress? Who isn’t stressed these days), but the end result is that my mind is spinning, my attention is scattered, and I’m having such a hard time concentrating on just about anything. Can you recommend good reading fiction to someone whose attention span has suddenly and inexplicably gone completely missing? TO HELP!
Dear broken brain,
Oh, you are not alone! Thank you for your question, a question I think we all face in one way or another.
One of the most gripping books I’ve read in recent memory is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How far do we go in the dark. It begins when an arctic plague is unleashed (hello, pandemic meets climate change!) and jumps into different lives exploring the aftermath. It’s a romance in stories, which might help with the quicksand of your attention span. Characters reappear, but you don’t strictly follow the same people, which is refreshing. Sequoia Nagamatsu makes you reorient yourself with each section jump. And when the characters come to the surface, it’s like finding an Easter egg. In fact, it almost feels like it’s training your mind that way to stay nimble enough to find the connections.
I realize that the subject may seem grim – and there are certainly sections that weigh heavily on the heart – but there is also a great deal of hope in these pages. I think that might be what you’re looking for.
Because I can’t resist an excuse to shout out a collection of short stories (the restless reader’s friend), I’ll also say: Aimee Bender’s The Flammable skirt girl because its premise and language are so strange that you have no choice but to pay attention. And it’s short (you’ll feel accomplished).
Also, I know you asked for fiction, but if you ever felt inclined to visit her tougher cousin, Jenny Odell How to do nothing: Resist the attention economy is like a beam of headlight in the fog.
I’m getting married next year! It’s mostly exciting, but comes with its anxieties: our families are quite different and have never met, important family members may be missing (complicated estrangement), I hate the performative aspect of marriages, and I’m also (gasp) a divorcee. I expect a multitude of feelings. Forget about color themes and flower arrangements: what should I read?
Dear Fiance Bookworm,
First of all, congratulations!! You have found something rare and wonderful in this world, and I am honored that you are sharing your happiness with us here at Lit Hub in this small way!
Of course, there is no shortage of wedding novels. But so many of them (at least the ones I’ve read) are either tragedies or comedies of errors, neither of which I want to commend to you now. (Although there is very good news in Raphael Bob-Waksberg Someone who will love you in all your damaged glory titled “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occassion” which explores the complete absurdity of wedding preparations. It is by the creator of BoJack Rider, so you know it’s funny until it cuts. But this one really is a superior! You who hate performative song and dance will love it.)
I now think of all the great wedding portraits I have seen painted in literature. They can be a depressing bunch. What is this quote from Tolstoy? “All happy families are alike.” An ever happy marriage romance would be so boring. I know you know the nuances of a marriage, and it’s not all sunshine all the time, but it seems cruel to recommend anything other than happiness.
So instead I’m going to pick up another short story – one of my personal favorites – which I think is love, distilled. It’s called “The First Person” by Ali Smith, from her collection of the same name. The whole book is great, but this one is exactly what you need right now. Here:
You’re not the first person hurt by love. You’re not the first person to knock on my door. You’re not the first person I’ve rubbed my arm with. You’re not the first person I’ve ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance to not be really impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person I’ve made laugh. But you’re the only one right now. I am the one right now. We are the only one right now. That’s enough, yes?
It is tender in its jokes between lovers. It is fascinating in its immediacy. It’s encouraging for second chances.
Love Love Love,