Reading, as much as writing, is a key element of learning in a creative writing program. This is not surprising since understanding how others write is instrumental to improving one’s own skills. For my fiction class in this first semester of my MFA, we’ve been assigned several books and I’m reading two concurrently. One is The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and the other, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe.
On beginning the Wolfe selection, I quickly thought to myself, this is reading for a simpler time. While I appreciate the intricacy of her prose and how deftly Wolfe uses echoes and long sentences and paragraphs which require you to follow her on the literary journey, I also find it hard to read. More specifically, it demands a lot of attention that I can’t seem to muster on command. Despite my recent attempts to extract myself, I still live in New York City and Virginia Wolfe’s beautiful writing simply does not gel easily for me with modern urban life.
Jenny Offill’s book, however, does. Broken down into bite-sized nuggets of perfect prose, it is ideal reading for even the busiest New Yorker. I read the entire book in less than a day. 24-hours that included errands, an evening class, homework, consulting, a few meals and several subway commutes to and fro. In short, a typical New York day.
Ms. Offill leads us through the days of a nameless character and the life she builds for herself: the ups, the downs, the in-betweens and, in particular, (and of most interest to me) the inner thoughts of the main character referred to only as “the wife.” Her writing is smart and funny and quickly absorbed. The references throughout, furthermore, are totally relatable to day-to-day life in 2014.
If you have a busy life but want a good read, this is an excellent pick. If you are curious to know what life is like in New York City, this story gives an accurate depiction. And if you simply want to read an extraordinary piece of literature, this is a winner. My humble suggestion, however, is to read the book with a pack of post-its – or if you’re a marker-upper like me, a pencil – to take notes and mark quotes.
In that vein, I will leave you with this passage which I marked on page 11 at the start of Chapter 3:
There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.
A special thank you to our professor, Susan Minot, who graciously provided hardcover copies of the book for us.