25 x 25 (Five Books I Read)
My last few birthdays have aligned with pivotal changes in my life. Six weeks after my 21st birthday, my mom and I climbed in a U-haul and drove from Arkansas to Boston so I could begin graduate school. July 2015, I rounded the bend to 22 in Accra, Ghana where I was completing an internship with one of their government ministries. 23 saw me back in Boston post-graduation and six months into my post-academic career. And this time last year, I was entering my fifth week in France where I was studying at a French language immersion school. 24 was spent touring a medieval village in the south of France. If it sounds idyllic...it was! Which brings us (well, me) to 25.
A little over two months after my birthday, I will be beginning another life chapter as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. As I entered the state of reflection often brought on by another full rotation around the sun, I found myself thinking about a practice that my former supervisor used; project a number of goals (the same as the number of years) to accomplish before the next birthday. As I didn't utilize this practice proactively after my 24th birthday, I decided to implement this idea retrospectively and document my own 25 by 25; twenty-five things that I've read, tried, seen, done, and learned before my twenty-fifth year of life. This will be the first of five posts documenting these experiences. Check out the rest of the series at the end of this post.
5 Books I Read:
I made a concerted effort to read more during the past year. From childhood, reading has always been a haven for me but after a combined five-and-a-half years of reading predominately for academic purposes, this past year gave me the chance to get back to curating my own reading list.
1) I know why the caged bird sings - Maya Angelou
I know...how is is that I just read this book for the first time at twenty-four? But what a read it was! This is the first and only book I've read where the prose was poetry from beginning to end. Angelou's unique writing style is simultaneously reflective, narrative, biographical, and poetic. To read this book is to experience the full spectrum of emotion from triumphant joy to gut-wrenching sorrow. Obviously, I recommend reading this if, like me, you're on the late freight and haven't enjoyed this classic novel yet. Biggest takeaway: Writing has the profound power of giving voices to the voiceless.
2) Daring Greatly - Dr. Brené Brown
I'm on the late freight reading this book as well but I'm so glad I finally did. Along with 35 million other people, I was captivated by Brené Brown's 2010 TED Talk about the power of vulnerability. Her book is even more captivating. Written in a straightforward, practical way, Brown demonstrates to the reader how vulnerability transforms our ability to live, love, parent, and lead well. Brown's approach is decidedly different from some self help or motivational books alongside which her book may be categorized. There is a directness in her writing which made me, as the reader, feel as though she was sitting across from me sharing the knowledge, practice, and expected result for applying what she has spend decades discovering. I found myself highlighting and note-taking all over the book. Biggest takeaway: Cultivating and practicing gratitude is a critical component for having a joyful life.
3) Hillbilly Elegy - J.D. Vance
Although a NYT best seller, this book wasn't on my radar until my sister-in-law read and recommended it. I admit I read the cover sleeve and put the book down, uninterested, for a few months. Finally, I came back to it and started reading it during Uber rides, on airplanes, and at my dentist's office. My dentist took note of my reading selection and rather passionately informed me that she had thrown the book in the trash after reading 10 chapters. My interest was piqued. And the strength of her reaction made me even more determined to finish the book with as much objectivity as I could muster. I'm glad I did. Vance's story is ultimately a story about family. His family. One that was mostly dysfunctional but also loving and striving to cope with the challenges they and many like them faced as a working-class family in 'middle America'. I credit Vance with a strong effort at objectivity, himself, although I think it fails him at some points; understandable given the deeply personal nature of the book. I hope other readers find this book is a gateway both to a better understanding of the hillbilly subculture and a willingness to investigate the many other subcultures existing across our country. Biggest takeaway: Common experience is a powerful bonding mechanism and cross-cultural understanding is essential for harmony in a multi-cultural society.
4) At Home in Mitford - Jan Karon
The first time I read this book (which is the first of a series), I actually listened to it/them. One of my older siblings brought the cassette tapes from our local library and I consumed every single book. Many years later, I am rereading these books and I have found double the joy from doing so. I was so touched by the depth of the messages Karon conveys through characters which ostensibly appear 'normal' at best. The fictional story of an aging Episcopal priest, Tim Kavanaugh, in an unassuming town in North Carolina packs so much love, truth, and a surprising amount of drama into each book. I appreciated how real each of the characters is and how Karon doesn't shy away from portraying the emotional and spiritual challenges of being a clergyman. Her storytelling skills are such that I found myself alternatively relating to and sympathizing with characters who, on the surface level, I don't have that much in common with. Biggest takeaway: There is no greater act of love than to exercise your talents and gifts in service of those around you.
5) Pride & Prejudice - Jane Austen
Although I've seen the BBC miniseries (obviously the best film/tv rendition) more times than I care to admit, I've only read Pride & Prejudice through twice and the last time was many years ago. I am so glad I embarked to read it again. The brilliance of Austen's writing shone through for me even more than before. In contrast to more contemporary novels, Austen spent a great deal of words explaining what characters were thinking and feeling giving us insights that even the characters did not have. Her style paints such a vivid picture of late 18th century life and the ways in which her characters navigate the expectations and demands that their society made of them. It also made me appreciate how counter-cultural many of her characters were and how many lessons may be drawn from them and applied to the present day. Biggest takeaway: It is a truth universally acknowledged...(just kidding!) First impressions can have a blinding effect and warp our behavior; suspending judgment or reevaluating our perspective can enrich our relationships (and potentially garner multiple proposals from English multimillionaires).