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Monday, June 10, 2024

Are you a twenty-something like me and confused about everything? I recommend reading some nonfiction

Here are three of my favorite memoirs that have kept me and my existential thoughts company this year

 

By SONORA SLATER — arts@theaggie.org

 

I was your typical 12-year-old voracious reader, leaving the library with a precarious stack of “Percy Jackson,” “Keeper of the Lost Cities” and “Warrior Cats” novels and flying through them a day at a time. I never cared much about having a refined or intellectual reading taste, or stocking up on my knowledge of the classics (apologies to my English major mother), and I still don’t really — I’m currently on chapter three of the new (new!!) “Percy Jackson” book.

But as much as reading has always been about escapism for me, it’s also become something else as I’ve entered my 20s. It’s been a way to help me navigate real life, a way to learn from other people with other life experiences and perspectives and a way to make me feel less alone.

Good, honest nonfiction helps me remember that other people are also grappling with big life decisions, career goals, relationships and friendships, anxieties, uncertainty about the future, figuring out who they want to be and what they value — you get the picture. 

Because of this, if you were to pull up my StoryGraph page from this year (I abandoned Goodreads… traitorous, I know), you would see I’ve been mixing some nonfiction into my steady stream of fantasy, young adult and, yes, romance novels. Specifically, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs. So, without further ado, here are my three favorite memoirs that I’ve read this year, and why reading about these authors’ lives and thoughts has stuck with me.

 

“The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green (2021)

Yes, that John Green — the one who wrote “The Fault in Our Stars” and taught you most of what you know about U.S. history via his “Crash Course” series on YouTube. If that alone doesn’t convince you to give this book a chance, maybe the fact that it somehow combines “The Penguins of Madagascar,” facts about geese and musings on the complications of human life, love and loss will.

The concept of this book is pretty straightforward: The Anthropocene is the current geological age we’re living in, marked by the impact human activity has had on shaping the planet. Each chapter is a separate essay in which Green “reviews” various aspects of society or the world today, such as the QWERTY keyboard or air conditioning, and then gives it a rating out of five stars. 

But at the same time, he weaves in stories about his life and his childhood and his brother Hank, his reality during the pandemic, when he wrote the book, periods of darkness in his life when he struggled with his mental health or battled illness, and periods of light when he spent time with his wife and kids appreciating the beauty of the world. 

But mostly, this book is about hope; finding hope, losing it and finding it again. I debated between a lot of quotes from “The Anthropocene Reviewed” that I thought might give you a taste of its themes, but ultimately I decided that this one describes it best: 

“Hope is the correct response to the strange, often terrifying miracle of consciousness. Hope is not easy or cheap. It is true.”

I give “The Anthropocene Reviewed” five stars. 

 

“I’m Glad My Mom Died” by Jennette McCurdy (2022)

Jennette McCurdy was a child actor, starring in iCarly after being pushed into the television industry by her overbearing mother who insisted on living her unrealized acting dreams vicariously through her daughter. 

Throughout the book, McCurdy recounts struggling with addiction, eating disorders and the extreme perfectionism that she learned by trying to earn her mother’s praise, writing about these experiences in an unflinchingly honest way. Still, her wry humor and insightful reflection on how she’s worked to create a new life and identify for herself as an adult keep the book from getting too dark and give a purpose to the story. Here’s one quote from it that stuck with me:

“I’m trying every day to face myself. The results vary, but the attempts are consistent.”

 

“Dinners With Ruth” by Nina Totenberg (2022)

The subtitle of this book adds some important context: “A Memoir on the Power of Friendships.”

This book is about more than just NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg’s life; It’s the story of how she and former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg became friends, and then stayed friends, through loss, disagreement, professional conflict of interest and many, many years. It also touches on other friendships she was a part of or witnessed, including those between people who held very different political views, or different perspectives on life. 

In college, I think we’re all learning about complicated friendships — ones where you care about the other person deeply, enjoy spending time with them and learning from them, but you also disagree on certain things that are important to you. Some of my most powerful friendships in college have been the ones where we trust and respect each other enough to disagree. 

I think that’s why this book spoke to me, and why I think it might speak to some of you. Totenberg is 79 years old, and the perspective of her age made her reflections on friendship stand out to me because she is someone who has clearly cultivated the kind of friends that are with you through decades, through celebrations, loss and illness. That’s the kind of friendship I want to learn how to build and hold on to — especially female friendships like the one between Totenberg and Ginsberg.

But as Totenberg reflects on in her book as she describes several of the close friendships she’s witnessed between very different, strongly opinionated people, that’s not always an easy thing to do — especially now.

“In our current climate, could [friendships like the ones she’s seen between very different people] ever take root and thrive?” Totenberg writes. “And what does the answer to that question mean for all of us?”

The world is wide, and people have lived so many lives in different places and times than our own. And yet, there is so much that connects us (I’ve never had a unique experience in my life, if you know what I mean). 

If you, like me, sometimes feel generally unqualified to be the one at the helm of your life decisions, maybe it’s time to pick up a memoir. Absorb some advice from someone older and wiser or someone who’s gone through the same things you have or someone who’s led a wildly different life from your own and might be able to give you a new perspective, and remember that we are never really alone. 

 

Written By: Sonora Slater arts@theaggie.org