Books to Measure Time By

Staff PicksMartin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Books to Measure Time By

With the imminent arrival of spring, it feels like maybe a bit of lightness has been entering folks’ collective consciousness.

For the past year, it has seemed to me like I was estranged from time. I would do a little bit of work, worry, cook dinner, wash dishes, rinse, and repeat. Every day felt much the same. I know this hasn’t been everyone’s experience; some people have had a better year than I’ve had, others have had a much worse one. Over this past year, I’ve turned to art and story for a sense of stability -- whether I’ve found it through books, movies, music, or something else, I’ve tried to root myself in the work of others, reaching sometimes for a novel experience and sometimes for art that is familiar and comforting.

One thing I found myself drawn to was books with a definitive sense of time -- an ability to demonstrate that time is moving forward. The books in this list are very aware of the time that the characters are living through and, in a way, helped me to recognize that I was moving through it, too.

Note: All titles are linked to their physical copies unless otherwise noted, and all are available as library e-books and/or e-audiobooks with OverDrive.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is one such book. The protagonist, Jane, is almost a simulacrum of Ozeki but Ozeki’s empathetic consciousness holds more than just one point of view. The book dips in and out of several narrators -- staying most consistently with Jane and Akiko Ueno, the long-suffering wife of one of Jane’s bosses. As the plot shows both their stories drawing closer to one another, we’re given an opportunity to peer through a late-1990s perspective on women’s anger and autonomy. The book is startlingly progressive in terms of its feminist politics and explicit take on the meat industry. I’ve long been an Ozeki fan and think this book, with its empathy and understanding of moving forward, is a really, really great read.

My Year Abroad by Chang Rae-Lee
Both entertaining and slightly melancholy, Rae-Lee’s book jumps back and forth between two timelines, the titular “year abroad” and a time post the narrator’s travels. The book begins with Tiller, a seemingly average student who is taken away from his life to intern with charismatic entrepreneur Pong in various Asian cities. Once there, all sorts of semi-fantastical changes occur, and to say more would spoil the book a bit, but the narrative is both fun and propellant. The second timeline we join is an examination of his life with his partner and her child in a sleepy New Jersey town, a life that is built of being in hiding as a result of her enrollment in the witness protection program to prevent her ex-husband from finding her. How we get from one timeline to the other, and what happens in between is an engaging, mysterious and weird adventure for readers -- one that touches on Western culture, violence, late capitalism, and real connections. Like life, it poses many questions -- and, like life, it leaves it to the reader to decide if, at the novel’s conclusion, there are any real answers.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Another book that has a plot spiraling like a nautilus shell around a year’s worth of time is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A sort of throwback-thriller, I’d say this is definitely worth reading if you never got around to it when it was being hyped as “the book you must read”, as long as you know that you’d be able to stomach some pretty extreme violence (often sexualized, often against women). The book kicks off a series of novels about Mikael Blomkvist as he steps away from a libel scandal at his magazine job in Sweden to investigate Harriet Vanger’s disappearance for Henrik Vanger, her octogenarian uncle. Paralleling this story, until she crashes through the median that separates them, is the life of Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old hacker who’s been through more than her share of trauma. Together they investigate the disappearance and come to a pretty startling conclusion. The book’s fast pace and subject matter make it a bit harrowing to read, but it’s interesting and thoughtful and, in my opinion, provides a good opportunity to root for the antihero.

Sorry I’m Late I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan
The first of vibrant non-fiction books on this list, Pan’s book details the results of challenges she sets up for herself to overcome certain tendencies that relate to her introversion. After a year of staying inside, it will seem, I think, a little strange to start taking social liberties and this book provides a unique perspective on how to overcome the desire to just stay home. Hilarious and sort of painful, Pan’s experience may mirror our own in some respects during this coming year, and as such, might be worthwhile as an affirming and companionable read.

Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
Another non-fiction title, this book could also be called, “how to fall in love with your life”. It follows a year in Grey’s Anatomy (et al.) creator Shonda Rhimes’ life after she re-evaluates her perspective when a friend tells her that she “never says yes to anything”. She sets a resolution and this book traces the path she takes and the realizations she has as she sets out to conquer certain fears and negative ways of thinking. It feels like a good book to read after such a hard year, especially if you could use some reassurance and, maybe, a bit of a push to change.