nonrequired reading: the master herself

… And now for something somewhat different. Yesterday was World Book Day, today is the beginning of Fashion Revolution Week, and I found myself at a crossroads. Reading is one of the crucial ways we have available for thinking and feeling our way into the lives of others. The Rana Plaza disaster from April 24, 2013 did not get adequate coverage in the news (that’s one thing) and outside of online sewing circles I don’t hear it mentioned, to be honest. What we can do is keep remembering it and letting others know that it happened and trying to make sense of what it means not just in terms of global economic ties but also in terms of human life, labor, and what we think of as the right to happiness — or the right to a decent life.

I’m still trying to understand the impact of the Rana Plaza collapse — the impact of how we consume fashion in general — and the consequences of our responses to it all. So this post is not about that.


You don’t know this, but I have several overgrown unpublished posts sitting in my blog’s draft box. They are all about books. I’m better at pumping the writing brakes with sewing, and each one of those posts kept growing, making me less confident in my ability to shrink them down to size — and into a usable shape.

I could let it go, but I really like reading about reading, and I really appreciate any mention or review of a book that crops up on the blogs I follow. I don’t think writing about books belongs solely on book blogs. I think books belong anywhere they want to wander in. I have one sitting on top of the blouse I just finished.

It’s a copy of Wislawa Szymborska’s book reviews New Nonrequired Reading. I’ve had this particular copy since I was a teenager. It’s been on trains and planes with me. At home, at work, and on vacation. It’s moved with me between several countries and many apartments and houses.  You don’t have to read Polish to enjoy it, now you can read it also in English. The cover of the American edition, I’m happy to say, looks very inviting.

The book that’s moved with me so much is the second volume. I did read the first one (Nonrequired Reading) at some point but, somehow, I only have this second one. I’ve read the witty reviews in it numerous times. Some of them are at this point like a lullaby for when I struggle to fall asleep.

Out of the books reviewed by the poet I’ve maybe read a couple. In a way they don’t even matter that much. The anecdotes about her reading them is what really makes this volume worth throwing into your suitcase to take it wherever you go. It’s the experience of reading more than what was read, and it’s how it was read, and how that is shared that makes it cool and delightful years later. You read it for the image of Szymborska, slight lady that she was, trying to run out of a burning museum with one of Klimt’s Birch paintings (a hypothetical she closes with when talking about a biography of Klimt — written by whom? I don’t remember), for her heartfelt defense of smoking (even when you don’t buy it, like I don’t), her long ironic look at new linguistic developments (I wonder what her take would be on the word “selfie” and its really nasty but poignant Polish some-time equivalent…). You read it because it’s like a great conversation in which you don’t need to say a thing. I’d say it’s a lot like Before Sunrise without needing to bother with a romance plot.

I discovered the English edition via Brain Pickings. Here, Maria Popova writes about her experience of reading one of Szymborska’s essays. And to top it off, there are also links to Amanda Palmer’s reading of two of Szymborska’s poems (“Possibilities,” “Life While-You-Wait“).

My one tiny but serious reservation about the recording of “Possibilities” is how Palmer pronounces the name of the river Warta. The “w” is not the “w” in “water” — it’s pronounced like “v” in “vat.” These days, it’s really easy to look that up. Wikipedia has the pronunciation right. That said, I’d want nothing more than for English textbooks that include Szymborska’s poems to get the pronunciation of her name right. I’ve seen some monstrous nonsense out there… Maybe it’s just confusion with Hungarian, but “sz” is never a “z” in Polish. It’s like “sh” in “shine,” and it’s never silent.

Okay, quagmire spotted, rant over.

Please tell me what you’re reading right now.


Published by


I write about sewing, knitting, and may sometimes be tempted to talk about books.

8 thoughts on “nonrequired reading: the master herself”

  1. I really like sound of this book, I’ll need to request it at the library. I’d love to read more book-related blog posts. I remember starting to read again after my son was born, he was almost 1 before I picked up a book again and it felt so good to get back to reading. It was Anjelica Huston’s autobiography. I’m currently reading a book of short stories by Lucia Berlin ‘a manual for cleaning women’ which I’m really enjoying, though I find I want a break between each story just to properly absorb them. So I’m also rereading ‘finding sanctuary – monastic steps for everyday life’. Goodness it is hard to be succinct once you start talking about books isn’t it?!


    1. I saw your photo of Berlin’s book on IG and wrote down the title 🙂 I’ve had a few periods when reading wasn’t going well. I’m always really happy to be out of one and looking for new things to read.
      I mostly read fiction but good essays can be a really exhilarating read. For me it’s Szymborska’s book reviews, Fadiman’s Ex Libris, and Angela Carter’s collected essays… and I’m looking for more titles to add to that list.


  2. Ooohhh the perfect pre-bookclub post. I’m going to hunt this one out!
    Have you read ‘If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler’? Another amazing book about books. Or ‘The Curtain’ by Milan Kundera?
    I’m currently reading ‘The Diary of Jane Somers’ by Doris Lessing. It’s the first book of hers that I have read. I also spend some time reading ‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf today as part of a rehearsal for a work with some dancers I’m involved in.
    I always have an ongoing note of recommended books going, and of course the bookclub I run is always fantastically rich in recommendations: we don’t read the same book, we have a theme (which is optional) and we all talk about different books. It’s wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like a great book club! I wouldn’t mind reading on a theme. It’s the idea of reading one specific book that usually puts me off. Although I was a member of a reading group at university for several years and that went okay. But once that was done I craved absolute freedom in my reading choices, skipping from one association to another in choosing what to read next.

      I’ve been meaning to read more Lessing. I’ve only read The Grass Is Singing and that’s an early novel, so there’s much more to check out!

      You know, I haven’t read The Waves but I like to revisit Orlando every now and then — both the novel and the Sally Potter movie.

      Right now I’m reading three books (which is not my preferred strategy but it happens moe often than I’d wish): Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I started years ago but somehow didn’t finish, Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry, a volume of wonderfully uncanny stories, and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which I read at work because I’d be too sad reading it before bed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t read any of these. I will look them up! I like the idea of theme based reading as it means there’s no issue with talking about a book in it’s entirety. In my old bookclub in holland, the organiser had never finished the book so we could never talk about the end!


        1. Oh no, never being able to talk about the ending… That’s a rule I’d always break and each time by accident, most likely. I need to finally read Italo Calvino… his books have been on my mental to-read list for years now and it’s time I picked them up.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh that’s a great idea to have a themed read for a book club. I can still remember the impact If on a Winter’s night a traveller had on me, I’d never read anything quite like that before!

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s