I have moved through this fourteenth year of Brain Pickings — a devastating year for the world we share, a discomposing year for my private world — by leaning on the writings and wisdom of the long-gone for assistance, for calibration of perspective, for the beauty that makes life livable. Of the few books published this year that I did read — many fewer than ordinary years — here are twenty I trust would furnish such splendor and assistance for generations to come. Think of the selection not as a hierarchy but as a bookshelf, organized by an internal logic that need not make sense to anyone outside the home and the mind in which the bookshelf is suspended.
I have never been a reviewer of books — a person who surveys the landscape of literature intending to evaluate its features. I have always been a solitary sojourner who relishes curious excursions hither and thither, guided by a thoroughly subjective inner compass, wandering the wilderness of words by pleasant deviations from the familiar trail.
These are my footsteps.
Reading Zadie Smith is always a rapture, but it has been especially delighted to press the mind’s ear to her Intimations (public library) this year — a slender collection of six symphonic essays spanning love, death, justice, creativity, identity — everything worth thinking about and writing about, everything we live with and live for.
The book was inspired by Smith’s first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us, restive makers, to create what meets the unmet need — a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however, penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of the time.)
In the laconic foreword, Smith reflects on the essential insight the Meditations gave her in failing to give her practical succor:
Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.
These intimations she lets us overhear are blazing evidence that every artist’s art is their coping mechanism, their floatation device for the slipstream of uncertainty we call life — evidence that a great artist makes of it a raft large enough to fit more of us, robust sufficient to carry us across the cascades of time and understanding. For a taste of the book, all the author’s proceeds go toward the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund; here is Smith on love, habit, and creativity.