Books are timelessly trendy . . . though it doesn’t always feel that way. Read more about this topic in my new post on the Silent Book Club blog. It’s called “The Timelessness of Books.” Check it out here. Let me know your thoughts on this topic after you read the article!
Speaking of confidence—it’s something that’s very difficult to project in social situations, no matter what color your dress is. Possessing the rare talent of confidence is like possessing a bag of scratch in a yard full of free-range chickens. It’s guaranteed to make everyone come running, or at least look up at you with curiosity and interest.
Let me tell you a secret about confidence: when one has it, it’s simple and easy, or at least comes off that way. It’s as simple and easy as carrying a bag of dried corn into a yard full of chickens—that is, if you have the strength to walk and carry stuff, and aren’t afraid of chickens. If you have to alternate between singing fight songs and whispering empowering quotations while drinking whiskey as you walk with that scratch into the chicken yard, that’s not confidence. It might be bravery or foolhardiness or generosity or persistence, but it’s not confidence.
Confidence arises only from long practice, and its appearance of ease masks the years of effort it took to achieve. Confidence is simple and easy because the action has been done so many times before. It’s not the donning of a good luck charm as all your friends cry, “You got this!!”; it’s the calm and grounded reflection, “Of course I can do this. Duh.”
Some writers need several pages to describe a character; Penelope Fitzgerald, with the confidence of a seasoned writer, needs only one short and simple sentence. Here’s an example of confident mastery in writing from her novel The Bookshop. It describes the husband of a woman who is hosting a fancy party in their house:
“Her husband, the General, was opening drawers and cupboards with the object of not finding anything, to give him an excuse to wander from room to room.”
So much is contained in so few words! And, go figure—the passage is about confidence.
Why is the husband, a.k.a. the General, performing meaningless, repetitive actions? It must be because he doesn’t have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests.
Why doesn’t he have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests? It must be because he always performs meaningless, repetitive actions at parties, and thus never acquired enough practice in talking to people in social situations to do so with confidence.
Of course, such practice is hard. And it involves a lot of trial and error, failure and success, wretched embarrassment alongside heart-fluttering joy.
It’s much easier to open cupboards and wander from room to room. The thought of doing otherwise almost makes one pine for the good old days, when, though people’s lungs were black and sooty, at least they had something sophisticated to wave in front of their faces!
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with doing little things to help oneself along in the social game, such as sipping wine or pretending to be interested in a knickknack on the host’s mantlepiece. We all do it. But reading Fitzgerald’s description of the pitiable husband/General does not inspire admiration of him . . . just of her.
What skill have you been slowly building confidence in lately?
In a play I saw recently, the heroine first appears onstage wearing a red dress . . . with her head bowed and turned away, due to social anxiety. The contrast is striking. There’s something about a red dress that shouts, “Look at me!” To see one on a young woman who so plainly wants to be invisible is painful.
Why is it so obvious that “the lady in red” (from Chris de Burgh’s 1986 hit song) projects confidence on the dance floor—even though the lyrics say nothing about how she carries herself?
“She caught a glimpse of herself in a glass . . . and wished that she had not worn red.”
—from The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
This passage is from a scene in which the shy protagonist attends a fancy party.
She has recently decided to open a bookshop in a small, rural, and insular town by the sea. The people do not think their town has any particular need for a bookshop. They think that a townsperson—particularly a woman—who would open a bookshop must be uncommonly bold.
The woman herself does not feel or act bold, while wearing her red dress.
Q: Should I wear this red dress to the party?
Q: It’s a costume party.
A: Oh, then that’s all right.
Q: Kidding, it’s a normal party. But I spent a lot of money on this dress. It would be a shame not to wear it. It looked fabulous on me in the fitting room!
A: Are you a model, or do you play one on TV?
A: Then no.
Q: I’ve decided to wear the red dress! What’s the best way to wear it: with what jewelry; with hosiery or without; with which shoes?
Q: Are you sure about all this?
A: Since I happen to be wearing a red dress right now, I’m going to say YES!
Would a lady in blue need as much confidence as “the lady in red” has, to pull off the scene described in the 1986 hit song?
“‘Why are you wearing red this evening?’ he asked.
“‘It isn’t red! It’s garnet, or deep rust!'”
—from The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Where did I hear of Penelope Fitzgerald? I can’t remember, but I believe I read about her recently.
It’s a subtle feeling, one I can’t substantiate. I could, I suppose, spend hours paging through my precarious stacks of magazines. There’s also the finger-snapping quickness of the Internet—which informs me that some 30 New Yorker articles in the past couple decades have made mention of her. None of these, however, jog my memory.
Perhaps this is fitting, as Penelope Fitzgerald is a writer of subtlety, who has herself, as an author, tended to fly under the radar. But she’s far from an unknown: even, apparently, to me. So when I was recently browsing through a little bookshop, and noticed a little book called The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald—I snatched it up.
The Bookshop is about an unassuming woman who opens up a bookshop in a remote corner of England. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and rightly so. The following passage, which ends a chapter, is a good example of the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing:
“She herself was going to take the ferry across the Laze, as it was early-closing day, to deliver thirty Complete Wild Flower Recognition Handbooks to the Women’s Institute. Remembering this, she took the top book off the crisp pile and looked through the illustrations for the green marsh plant which Raven had shown to her. It was not mentioned.”
Ah! So delicate, this passage. But why was the green marsh plant—the one plant, of all the plants on earth, most meaningful to the protagonist, as it was shown to her by a true friend, of which she had very few—not mentioned in the “complete” guide?
Perhaps the green marsh plant was not scientifically classified as a wildflower. Or perhaps the plant’s omission from the book was an error. But this is beside the point. The point is more filamentary. It has to do with the overlooked, the missing, the forgotten phenomena of the world.
What, after all, is the value of minute remembrance? What is the value of the overlooked, all those who are ignored by the public at large? What, indeed, is the value of books and magazines, when they never seem to contain what you’re really looking for?
During a Meetup event, the inquisitive one was chatting with an acquaintance. The acquaintance mentioned an unfortunate need to take a trip to the local department of motor vehicles. As it happened, the inquisitive one had the same unfortunate need. The two decided to visit the DMV together.
Early one chilly morning, an hour before it opened, they met at the DMV. There was already a long line. They stood together, in the cold wind, for an hour. With frozen fingers, faces, toes, and bones, they finally entered the building. They each took a ticket. Then they sat for hours on hard plastic chairs that didn’t fit the curves of their butts. The high, flickering florescent lights were round and ugly. The floor was spectacularly dirty. Finally, the acquaintance’s number was called, and the acquaintance stood up.
“If I don’t see you on my way out, have a nice afternoon!” said the acquaintance.
“You, too,” said the inquisitive one. “This was fun!”
“It was!” said the acquaintance.
At the next Meetup event, the inquisitive one and the acquaintance fell into conversation again. The inquisitive one mentioned an unfortunate need to file taxes. As it happened, the acquaintance had the same unfortunate need. The two decided to meet at the inquisitive one’s house and work on their taxes: separately, but simultaneously in the same room.
The acquaintance arrived at the inquisitive one’s house with a laptop and a large stack of papers. For many hours, they separately muscled their way through various forms and schedules. They puzzled over whether their dividends were qualified, ordinary, extraordinary, or woefully incompetent. They tried to recall how the Washington hockey team had played during 2018, so they could claim their Capitals gains (or losses). They had both, fortunately, kept records on how many times they had passed sugar around their tables, so they easily filled in their respective lines next to “Lump sum distributions.”
Both the inquisitive one and the acquaintance had several setbacks and restarts, upon realizing they had made mistakes. The heads of both the inquisitive one and the acquaintance started to hurt very badly. The two of them toiled and toiled until, finally, the acquaintance announced completion.
“Congrats on finishing your taxes!” said the inquisitive one. “I’m almost done, too. Goodbye, and have a great evening!”
“Good luck, and see you later,” said the acquaintance. “This was fun!”
“It was!” said the inquisitive one.
At the next Meetup event, the two approached each other.
“Hi!” said the acquaintance. “One of my favorite musicians is performing at a local venue next month. Do you want to go with me?”
“Why on earth would we do that?!” the inquisitive one cried out.
“Oh!” the acquaintance cried out.
“Just kidding!” said the inquisitive one.
“Yay!” said the friend.
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A Mind Unraveled Kurt Eichenwald
Eugénie Grandet Honoré de Balzac
The Body Keeps the Score Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Bookshop Penelope Fitzgerald
Digital Minimalism Cal Newport
The Sisters Brothers Patrick deWitt
Dare to Lead Brené Brown
My Year of Rest and Relaxation Ottessa Moshfegh
Almost Everything Anne Lamott
Born to Run Christopher McDougall, Bruce Springsteen
The Ladies’ Paradise Émile Zola
The World Beyond Your Head Matthew B. Crawford
All the Birds, Singing Evie Wyld
Barracoon Zora Neale Hurston
Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury
Home Fire Kamila Shamsie
The Weather Detective Peter Wohlleben
Play It As It Lays Joan Didion
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck Mark Manson
Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata
Perfect Me Heather Widdows
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace Patty Yumi Cottrell
Why Buddhism Is True Robert Wright
What Is Real? Adam Becker
Kudos Rachel Cusk
The Days of Abandonment Elena Ferrante
F*cked Corinne Fisher & Krystyna Hutchinson
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine Alan Lightman
Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf