On a regular morning as you’re on the train or bus ride to work, there’s nothing better than a good story to distract yourself during your commute. And although you might be inclined to dig into a dense novel first thing in the a.m., I often prefer to read something short. Why? For a variety of reasons. Firstly, I often find it hard to remember (especially when I’m still half-asleep) where exactly in the plot of the book I was, forcing me to go back a few pages to refresh my memory. Secondly, my backpack is usually already heavy enough with my laptop, notebook and all types of chargers in it, so the last thing I want is an added brick to weigh me down. And most importantly, I often get so sucked into the novel that I end up missing my train or bus stop…
All this to say, my favorite literary companion for morning commutes (or for when I’m at the doctor’s office waiting to get called in, or at the airport waiting to board a flight) is something a little bit shorter. For me, short form literature is basically anything that can be read in one gulp, one sitting. In other words, short form literature includes poems, essays and short stories.
In the past year I’ve read over 30 books in the short form literature category, so I figured I’d share a few that I consider true must-reads:
Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture by Jace Clayton
If you’re a music head like me, this set of short essays tackles everything from marketing strategies (comparing Jay Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West’s music releases), to the pros and cons of corporate brand sponsorships, to the history and roots of a plethora of different musical genres across the world.
In 2001, Jace Clayton was an amateur DJ who recorded a three-turntable, sixty-minute mix called Gold Teeth Thiefand put it online to share with his friends. Within months, the mix became an international calling card, whisking Clayton away to a sprawling, multitiered nightclub in Zagreb, a tiny gallery in Osaka, a former brothel in São Paolo, and the atrium of MoMA. And just as the music world made its fitful, uncertain transition from analog to digital, Clayton found himself on the front lines of an education in the creative upheavals of art production in the twenty-first-century globalized world.
Uproot is a guided tour of this newly opened cultural space, mapped with both his own experiences and his relationships with other industry game-changers such as M.I.A. and Pirate Bay. With humor, insight, and expertise, Clayton illuminates the connections between a Congolese hotel band and the indie rock scene, Mexican surfers and Israeli techno, Japanese record collectors and hidden rain-forest treasure, and offers an unparalleled understanding of music in a digital age. Uproot takes readers behind the turntable decks to tell a story that only a DJ–and writer–of this caliber can tell.
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
If you want a set of essays that’s easy to read and that will simultaneously make you laugh out loud, then this book is for you. Bell deconstructs the U.S.’s contradictions through the prism of his own life, through short meditations on the Democratic Party, Denzel Washington, Doc McStuffins, the “Rocky” films, intersectionality and a host of other pop-cultural and political subjects.
Of Being Dispersed by Simone White
I actually came across Simone White for the first time after coming across an amazing interview she carried out with Vince Staples. And while I’ve only gotten properly into poetry in the last year or so, Simone White’s work was without a doubt the one that blew me away the most. I’ve found myself putting this book down when I thought I was done with it, only to pick it up days, weeks and months later to revisit a few poems. I read White’s volume as a poetic lens on the specificities of the diaspora and the dispersed, written with baroque skepticism and a strong feminist vision.
Against Everything by Mark Grief
What I loved the most about this collection of short essays, was the breadth of themes covered. Mark Grief jumps from criticising our generation’s obsession with fad diets, to explaining differences in different happiness philosophies, to tracing the history of hip hop. All the topics he covered were not only random, but also interesting and thoroughly informative.
In Against Everything, Mark Greif makes us rethink the ordinary, taking our own lives seriously, exploring how we might live an honest life in these dishonest times. In a series of coruscating set pieces, Greif asks why we put ourselves through the pains of exercise, what shopping in organic supermarkets does for our sense of self-worth, what the political identity of the hipster might be, and what happens to us when we listen to too much Radiohead. From such counter-intuitive observations, Greif exposes the fundamental contradictions between our actions, desires and the excuses that we make to ourselves in hope of consolation. With the wit and seriousness of David Foster Wallace, Against Everything is the most thought-provoking study and essential guide to everyday life under 21st-century capitalism.
The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman
This collection of short essays resonated with me simply because it carries the message that many of us may not yet have learned how to recognize the art in our own lives, and that to do so is something of an art itself.
Michael Kimmelman, the prominent New York Times writer and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, is known as a deep and graceful writer across the disciplines of art and music and also as a pianist who understands something about the artist’s sensibility from the inside. Readers have come to expect him not only to fill in their knowledge about art but also to inspire them to think about connections between art and the larger world – which is to say, to think more like an artist. Kimmelman’s many years of contemplating and writing about art have brought him to this wise, wide-ranging, and long-awaited book.
It explores art as life’s great passion, revealing what we can learn of life through pictures and sculptures and the people who make them. It assures us that art – points of contact with the exceptional that are linked straight to the heart – can be found almost anywhere and everywhere if only our eyes are opened enough to recognize it. Kimmelman regards art, like all serious human endeavors, as a passage through which a larger view of life may come more clearly into focus. His book is a kind of adventure or journey.
*All synopses courtesy of Good Reads.