Crystal Lee (she/她)

Twenty-three books in 2023

In the past year, I've tried my best to live a very full life outside of academia: I don't work on the weekends, I read and write things that have nothing to do with work, and I've been trying to fashion an identity that is completely divorced from anything connected to a paycheck. This has been difficult for a number of reasons. One of my mentors reminds me that being an academic is a vocation more than anything else -- a calling. Others remind me that being a scholar is akin to Anne Hathaway's job in The Devil Wears Prada: a job that a million girls would kill for. I've found that this combination of luck, privilege, and pernicious professional expectation throws even the most well-adjusted academic for a loop. As someone who is not particularly well-adjusted despite years of therapy, this is perhaps why I'm trying so hard -- maybe too hard -- to play it cool. (One could argue that trying so hard to be cool makes you, by definition, not cool. But I digress.) I wish I could say that I had a few learnings from my first semester as a faculty member; if anything, all I can say is that I have been languishing and not particularly productive. I don't think I've quite gotten a rhythm of working on projects that I deeply care about and can sustain. In the past six or so months, I feel like I've chased elusive projects that seem like fabulous collaborations with shiny ideas but they've ended up slipping through my fingers like fine sand. I recently read Stephen King's On Writing, and one thing that made me feel personally attacked was what he had to say about fantastic writers who produce relatively only a few pieces of work:

On the other hand -- the James Joyce hand - there is Harper Lee, who wrote only one book (the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird). Any number of others [...] wrote under five. Which is okay, but I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do the rest of their time? Knit afghans? Organize church bazaars? Deify plums? I'm probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?

Damn, Steve King. Call me out. Tell it like it is. You, my dear sir, along with the prolific Taylor Swift, inspire me to do better and write like the wind. Saying something like this at the beginning of the year always feels like yet another new year's resolution that will be difficult to sustain; the promise to write every day (for two thousand words, according to our dear Steve) feels like the intellectual counterpart to the daily five-miler. While writing is something that, to academics, can feel like torture, I know of a few souls for whom writing is pure therapy (I am not one of them). Stephen King is one of these anointed few, for whom writing a couple hours in the morning is just his way of having the most fun in the world. Just like the people who are so addicted to running they can no longer imagine not doing it every day, so too do I aspire to writing and biking in kind. I know this sounds like something that is quite orthogonal to the idea of divorcing myself from my work; I guess what I mean to say is that like writing this blog, I want writing to be something that I do for me, and for it to become an outlet for both intense joy and quiet calm. Writing is not simply the mercenary task that gets me from thought to peer-reviewed article (though it's nice, of course); I want to reclaim it as the thing that lets me swim in wordy waters, ready for sunshine and a good, leisurely lunch.

Writing and reading are inextricably intertwined, so I thought I might share the list of twenty-three books I read explicitly not for work (with maybe one exception) in 2023. This is partially an accountability mechanism for reading 24 books in 2024, as I read voraciously for the first three months, about a book a week, until I completely fell off the wagon and had to cram in three books in the last three days of the year. I'm hoping that one day I'll organically get to where the inimitable Tiffany Li is at 52 books per year, but I'm not going to try to run a marathon after just finishing the 5K. Baby steps. Without further adieu, the list of 23 (in no particular order):

  1. Jonathan Sullivan and Lev Nachman, Taiwan
  2. Stephen King, On Writing
  3. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
  4. Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering
  5. Ed Yong, An Immense World
  6. Maurene Goo, Throwback
  7. Aytekin Tank, Automate Your Busywork (a slight cheat on "not related to work")
  8. Jennette McCurdy, I'm Glad My Mom Died
  9. Jill Santopolo, The Light We Lost
  10. Julia Whelan, Thank You for Listening
  11. Kathryn Jones, Automate Your Routine, Guarantee Your Results (ditto, one of my resolutions is to read a lot less self-help/improvement in the coming year)
  12. Paul Silvia, How to write a lot (another slight cheat, but I think it was a way to reclaim a healthier relationship to writing)
  13. Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
  14. Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
  15. Jennifer Saint, Ariadne
  16. Peng Shepherd, The Cartographers
  17. Matt Haig, How to Stop Time
  18. Scarlett St. Clair, A Touch of Darkness
  19. Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
  20. Tiago Forte, Building a Second Brain
  21. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles
  22. Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster
  23. Rachel Lindsay, Rx: A Graphic Memoir

I didn't do a very good job of keeping track of the monographs that I read for work, especially since it's easy to dip in and out of them based on whatever I'm thinking about at the time. It's a rarity for me these days to read an academic monograph from beginning to end in one go (unless, of course, it's a book like Automating Inequality), but maybe it's high time I get back to that the same way that I've been able to rediscover the joy of reading fiction (and creative non-fiction that is mostly not related to work whatsoever!).

If you have book recommendations to share as I compile my reading list for the coming year, please don't hesitate to email them to me at crystall [at] mit [dot] edu. Here's to a book-filled 2024!