For much of 2017, a writer’s diary has been on my nightstand. I started with Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, his diaries from 2005-2015; then Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, written in 1970 and 1976; and finally, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding, covering a quarter of a century starting in 1977. The genre is not a staple for me. It was a coincidence that three writers I admire published such books within seven months of each other. That I consumed them in rapid succession attests to my previously unrealized appetite for information about their lives.
Before I started reading William H. Davies’s 1908 book, Autobiography of a Super-tramp, I was only familiar with his most famous poem, Leisure, the opening lines of which are:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Armed with this minimal knowledge of his canon, I was hopeful Davies’s memoir about life as a tramp in North America and Britain might illuminate a new perspective about labor that I, who was complicit in the traditional notion of career, sorely needed. As Tomos Owen wrote in his afterword to the book, “the tramp threatens and challenges the prevailing ideas of a society predicated upon stability, rootedness, and commitment.”
This sounded promising. I wanted to threaten my prevailing ideas and those of society. It was particularly on my mind in the wake of a US presidential campaign, during which we were repeatedly reminded by both major parties of the centrality of work to the American mythos—that access to the good life is premised on a willingness to work hard—without any thought that human beings may be built for more than just work, that perhaps idleness may be our greatest aspiration. Continue reading
Patti Smith’s most recent memoir, M Train, was my amiable, occasionally absent-minded companion through the frigid first weeks of January in Berlin. Work commitments kept me apart from my husband for the early part of the year, and my solitude created an ideal state of mind to absorb M Train, which in large part is a meditation on being a woman alone in the world—and the search for a great cup of coffee.
Smith writes about her home life in New York City, which centers around a now-shuttered coffee shop, Café ’Ino, and Rockaway Beach, where she impulse-buys a modest bungalow she nicknames the Alamo. She takes us with her on her travels: French Guiana, London, Mexico, Japan, Yorkshire, Tangier, and, as luck would have it, Berlin. At loose ends one weekend while reading the book, I retraced her steps around the city.