I believe that curiosity is my most defining trait. As a kid, I directed that curiosity towards the outdoors, spending countless hours biking, digging in my backyard, wandering through trees, or trying to perfect my layup. I took apart things (and rarely put them back together), memorized maps, and tried to find ways to make LEGOs functional. My curiosity extended to trying to figure out whether I could be good at things, and in certain areas of my life, an exacting self-discipline took over where curiosity left off. I remember, as an eight year-old, feeling a need to make 100 shots at my neighborhood basketball court before going home for dinner. When I was thirteen, I spent hours in my basement for weeks on end, battling with a sewing machine because I wanted to make my friend a Pikachu hoodie for her birthday. Sophomore year, I spent weekends watching and dissecting movies, analyzing the composition and color balance of specific frames, because I wanted to make my own movie one day. The summer before my junior year of high school, I planned out every single day of my summer vacation so that I could read all the chapters of my history textbook, write all the needed book reports, study for the SAT, play basketball, practice photography, pass my piano exams, spend time with friends, and go on a family vacation without missing a beat. Summer before senior year of college, I spent hours playing guitar after work every day because I wanted to know how well I could play “The A Team”.
Books have always played an important role in my life. Like many 90’s kids, I was obsessed with Harry Potter growing up. Other favorites included Eragon (Christopher Paolini), Holes (Louis Sachar), Red Scarf Girl (Ji-Li Jiang), anything by Roald Dahl, The Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket), Yao Ming's autobiography, and Ichiro on Ichiro. I regularly snuck into my brother's room to steal the books from his more advanced reading list. I read less frequently in high school after basketball, track and field, piano, yearbook, and photography took over my life, but I remained tied to stories. Books helped quench an insatiable curiosity and imagine new worlds I never thought possible. Invisible Monsters (Chuck Palahniuk), Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut), Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky), Nine Stories (JD Salinger), Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson) stand out as favorites from that time. In college, Haruki Murakami captured my imagination, but otherwise, I did not have much time to read. The 2016 election made me acutely aware of my lack of knowledge about the real world, and I started down a path of understanding the numerous issues of our current time. That journey is fairly well-documented on this blog. In 2017, I started a reading project in an attempt to understand the environmental consequences, political influences, and health implications of the American food system. After about a year into that project, I realized I wanted to spend more time expanding the breadth of my knowledge before diving specifically into a single subject (I know that the food system in itself is a vast subject, but I think you know what I mean).
Since then, my reading has been much more impulsive. I have a general list of books that I want to read, but am open to picking up anything that sounds interesting or diving into recommendations from friends. It is through a whimsical exploration of literature that I've learned the true value of reading. I move between memoirs (perhaps my favorite genre), fiction, psychology, political science, nature writing, and history, but at the end of each book, I feel like I've learned something important about myself and my place in the world. I've learned to ask myself new questions, to perceive my life in a new way, and to challenge my assumptions about the society I live in. I’ve made connections between books that seem completely unrelated on the surface. Building empathy with characters, real or fictional, is the invaluable gift of storytelling. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's quote at the beginning of this post feels incisively relevant. Books can be as much about the things that didn't happen, the words that weren't written, the characters that didn't exist, and stories that were untold, as much as they are about the things that did.
In a rare attempt of trying to encapsulate what a book can mean to me, I'm going to spew some thoughts about Beartown by Fredrik Backman, perhaps my favorite out of the 55 books I've read so far this year. Here is the description on the inside cover of the book:
"People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.
Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.
Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world."
Perhaps needless to say based on my strong recommendation, I find the story captivating. I read A Man Called Ove a few years ago by the same author, and while I recognized his ability to craft a truly multi-dimensional character, I was unprepared for his capacity to build a whole town of them. I found myself falling in love with multiple characters at once—I cried with them and celebrated their victories. My heart broke with theirs. I've read many books this year with well-crafted characters—Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith), and A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki) come to mind, but Beartown is unparalleled. I think it would be difficult to write about the book holistically without spoiling anything, so I will write by themes. Please excuse my disjointedness.
Reading this book made me acutely aware of the sacrifices of parents. I've talked to some of my friends about this recently—that we're reaching a point in our lives where we're much more conscious of the fragility of our parents and the risks they took to make our lives better. Despite having been a recipient of a lifetime of this love, I cannot imagine what it feels like to love a child. Even the unconditional love I have for my mom seems to pale in comparison to the capacity she has to love me back. The variety of parental love expressed in this book is honestly breathtaking. I don't think anything I've ever read has portrayed the fear parents have of their children being hurt as thoroughly as Backman does in this book. Each parent has a different parenting style and relationship with their child, but the overwhelming need to do what they believe is best for their kid is a universal and powerful force.
I met my best friend when I was a freshman in high school. We were fourteen, lost in a world that scared us both. The most astounding part of teenage friendship, for me, was everything that could be conveyed without words, and the complete selflessness that ensues from a blinding love. It was not about solving—or even understanding—each other's problems, but the capacity to make each other laugh in spite of them. It was knowing that no matter what was happening in other aspects of our lives, a wink, smile, hug, or dumb joke awaited to relieve the pressures that were built up in each other’s absence. It was wishing desperately to be able bear the burden of each other's pain, even knowing that it would never be possible. Backman represents all of these sentiments in the friendship between Ana and Maya, and it truly ripped my heart to shreds.
At the core of this story is a youth hockey team. Hockey is a sport I've never watched, never attempted to play, and know nothing about. I did, however, play varsity basketball through high school, and Backman truly captures the spirit of what it's like to be on a young sports team. I think it's pretty much accepted that nobody really cares about girls' sports. My high school basketball team was competitive—we broke school records, played in regional tournaments, and occasionally attracted recruiters. Our games were radio broadcasted on a local network and covered by local newspapers. None of that really mattered. The boys team received the majority of attention and turnout at games, despite the fact that they were thoroughly mediocre. My basketball team probably did not matter to anyone except my teammates, coaches, and our parents, but nothing will ever come close to the experience of being part of a team where every single person cared more than we ever thought possible to care about a sport. When we played, each game felt like a matter of life and death. When opponents hurt one of us, they hurt all of us, and we fought back. Every practice mattered. We held each other accountable for nothing less than giving each shot, layup, dribble, sprint, defensive stance, and box-out every ounce of energy we could muster, even in practice. I cannot count the number of times I cried in the locker room with my teammates after a disappointing game, nor can I describe the bond that forms through experiences like that. There was never blame, only a shared sorrow. I played high school basketball through plantar fasciitis, shin splints, a broken tooth, a torn thumb ligament, and a concussion because the need I had to stand with my team was stronger than the desire to take care of my body; my responsibility as a leader was more pressing than the pain that left me in ruin at the end of each day. I don't think it's possible to explain what it is like to play a team sport to someone who has never played a team sport, but Backman captures the essence of it. Reading it made me nostalgic for those types of bonds, but also sheepishly aware of my own recklessness at the time. Still, it is hard to regret the decisions that gave life meaning.
Questions of morality take center stage at critical points throughout the book. The dialogue in those moments was difficult to read because the statements are hurtful, but also because we all probably know people who would say things like that. It's hard to talk about these points in the book without spoilers, but if you do end up reading it, we can discuss. Although the book is about small town disagreements, I found a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the decisions they make relevant to our current politics. The tribalism of sports is easily extrapolated to the tribalism of political parties or social issues. The above quote on hate is disturbingly universal.
It is often easier to write and talk about books that I don't like rather the ones that I truly love. It is easy to pick apart narrative structure, character development, and poor writing. It is easy to find words about how much I disagree, but difficult to find words to express how much a feeling can resonate. It is the things that alter my life, even in the slightest way, that leave me speechless. This book is about a small town hockey team, but I cannot disagree that, "In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world." I think I have completely failed in my attempt to try to describe the experience I had reading this book, but I hope you read it anyway.