Always relish the question

I often wish I read more fiction. When I look back at the books I’ve read, the preponderance of non-fiction titles always surprises me, partly because many of the people I know and respect (including many of you) read a lot of fiction and partly because I once did, too.

I grew up reading fiction of all sorts and absolutely loved it. Late in high school, I fell in with the wrong crowd and experimented with non-fiction, but college is where things shifted. Other than an English Lit class, I don’t recall reading fiction during those years and I failed to cultivate the habit after graduation.

Having a child changed that. Reading with my son meant fiction was part of every day of the week. This went on for years and it was glorious. When we eventually reached the nebulous young-adult fiction category, we were swimming in wonderful options (our favorites were Rascal and everything by Walter Moers.) I treasured sharing the experience, but I also loved the books.

When that season passed (honestly, I’m still in denial), I fell off the fiction wagon and returned to the non-fiction fold. It’s not just books, either. Amidst the stream of online articles and essays, few (intentionally) fictitious words are found. I even choose documentaries more often than not.

I wonder if non-fiction feeds a subconscious desire to accomplish something while reading. Does part of me view fiction as somehow insubstantial or best reserved for vacations?

Sensing something amiss and determined to reverse the trend, I thought I'd ease my reentry with a few short novels. This led me to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a little book that made me fall in love with fiction all over again.

It’s not an obscure find; it was on many lists of best books last year. Some of you may have read it (if so, we should find a coffee shop with a big enough table and talk about it.) One review called it “infinitely quotable.” I wholeheartedly agree.

· I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.
· She does not ever want to live away from me, she explains. “Promise?” I say. She curls up in my arms, all elbows and knees. “Promise.”
· There are trees everywhere you look at this place. Someone, long ago, must have believed that trees could solve anything.

The book was so good I often stopped to try to savor and absorb it all (what Lisa calls breathtaking, all-consuming reading in a previous dispatch.) The sentences are masterfully direct and at the same time, the brevity leaves room for the unsaid and unknown. I had never read a book like it before, and haven't stopped thinking about it since.

Novels have the ability to shift our perspective and cultivate empathy. The stories take us to unfamiliar places and in the end, leave us changed. They help us see the previously overlooked and rethink what's possible. A book I read recently included the beautiful phrase, enlarging the circle of we. It was non-fiction, of course.


The latest dispatch asked, What‘s the story behind your favorite piece of clothing?

Marie-Luise wrote:

I was in Tanzania, had just climbed Kilimanjaro and had no clean clothes. I found a small secondhand clothing stall tucked away on one of Moshi's murram roads and in I went. I was desperate, so I bought clothes I would not normally have gotten. Well, I guess the red skirt was OK, but the black Indian tunic with beige stitching was a bit much for me and my North American style. But I wanted to be clean so I bought both items. Of course that evening I promptly dropped an oily an oily piece of ravioli on the skirt, leaving a permanent stain. Which left me with my "Indian" shirt. I have worn it hundreds of times since and I always relish the question, "Oh, where did you get that shirt?" "A secondhand shop in Tanzania," is definitely not the response they are expecting. Sometimes my response even takes me off-guard as I am forced to remember the intensity of my time in East Africa.

Carrie wrote:

My favorite piece of clothing, is more of a type of clothing than an individual item. I find that I don't feel settled or like myself at all if I don't have a pair of slouchy, loose fitting jeans. There is just something about the way they hang on my hips. I like cuffing and rolling the ends that are worn from being stepped on, because to get just the right slouch, they are always too long. I used to keep a pair in my art studio and did my best work in them. I keep a pair now that I put on when I have a deadline to meet and a long hard day of work ahead. I've been noticing that they are coming back into fashion for women- marketed as 'boyfriend jeans'... PSHHH. F that. They have always been MY jeans and I wear them in and break them down doing the things I like to do most.

Marina wrote:

Almost 10 years ago, I bought a long, navy blue sweatshirt from Banana Republic.  I’ll freely admit to having purchased it only because it was on a huge sale, not because I was really blown away by it. But…it very quickly became my very favourite thing.  Not a particularly good looking sweatshirt – rather plain, in fact – it is incredibly comfortable, especially because it’s extra long.
That sweatshirt has travelled the world with me –it was my blanket for a week in a particularly drafty Paris apartment; a pillow on countless flights and train rides; an extra layer on cold hikes; and a most comfortable companion on days I wasn’t feeling well.
It’s now starting to get a threadbare, but like a beloved security blanket, I cannot let it go.

Sam wrote:

When I was in my mid-20's I began a 6 month journey to find the most affordable, and yet best fitting underwear -- I needed a foundational garment I could utilize for both work and play. The solution, a certain type of boxer brief, was well worth the effort, as it is easy to purchase and fits all my criteria... pun intended.

Radhika wrote:

Currently, it's a warm, fleecy hoodie in navy blue that a friend bought for me, as a gift before I moved to the US. In huge letters on the front are the words: "I ♡ London". Keeps me warm on cool Bay Area evenings :)

Ryan wrote:

Currently, my favorite item of clothing is actually a completely unseen accessory: collar stays.
I wear button-down shirts to work, and for a long time they were all Arrow shirts. Arrow shirts come with their own collar stays sewn into the collars, so I didn’t have to concern myself with them. But I had this one thrift-store shirt that didn’t have collar stays, and I wore it only in the last resort because the points of the collar would frequently turn up if I wore any but the thinnest tie.
A few weeks ago I received some non-Arrow shirts as a gift, and I found that they came with plastic collar stays that were not sewn in. I immediately lost one of these stays in the laundry, so I decided to buy some replacements. It turns out that buying a large quantity of stainless-steel collar stays costs very little on Amazon, so I bought a bundle of 36 collar stays for under $9.
I hate disposable things. Plastic collar stays always bothered me because I knew that one day they’d almost certainly end up in the trash somewhere. These steel collar stays, though, are too heavy to get lost as easily on the floor or in the washing machine. They also make me feel delightfully old-fashioned every morning when I put them into the collar of my shirt. It’s almost enough to make me change the brand of shirt I buy just for the pleasure of using my own collar stays.

Lara wrote:

To be honest I don't have a favourite item of clothing - I'm trying to have far fewer of them, and hence I've gotten rid of many which weren't serving their purpose very well at all - but often I find those that aren't really functional are the ones I tend to love for entirely impractical reasons. The ones I've held on to are those which allow me to almost forget about clothing - they become practical and wonderful for the fact that they allow me to think about them less, and that doesn't tend to encourage favourites (but it makes them great for other reasons).

Brad wrote:

Having never liked cold temperatures in general, and then discovering a skin allergy to the cold at age thirteen, one might think that my favorite piece of clothing would be some great bestower of general warmth. Probably due to my luck of growing up in Southern California, though, I have had the luxury of avoiding almost all truly hostile cold (below 50°F/10°C). In fact, I love the warmth so much that I am not much of a fan of clothing at all when I can get away from it.
Footwear is another story. I am an aficionado of the simple sandal, or as they were called where I grew up, “thongs”, or in Austin where I currently live, “flip-flops”. I have had many great pairs of sandals over the the past thirty years, but my favorite was definitely a pair of brown leather Rainbow sandals. Acquired at the urging of my wife, they were uncomfortable at first to the point of curses and blisters. After a while, though, they became the most comfortable sandals I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing.
Beaches, deserts, islands, cities, countries, mountains, hikes, bikes, walks and lounging as the Earth spun around the sun one more time below the vast Pacific; I lived well in those Rainbows. I retired them a couple years ago and have not yet broken in a new pair. Nostalgia for footwear seems strange on reflection, but I’m already thinking about braving the blisters again for another half decade of sated soles.

Your turn

Fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere in-between?