If you haven’t read George Saunders’ short story collection, Tenth of December, I can’t recommend it enough. Saunders is the New York Times best selling author of Lincoln in the Bardo, and he’s back with a new “book” this year—A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The book is derived from 20 years-worth of Saunders’ teaching at the Syracuse MFA program. It’s paired with iconic short stories and essays and all-in-all, is a master class in Russian literature for anyone who might be interested in how fiction works. I spoke with Saunders about five books he’d recommend.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
The theme Saunders landed on was “books that will turn your mind to the big questions.” He told me that, “This last year struck me as a chance (a harsh, cruel chance) to step back from my habits and, afforded by the universe a brief look at its actual indifferent self, to do a sort of reboot.” He wondered whether when the pandemic is over, he’ll go back to living the way he did before, or if he’ll even want to. To him, “The pandemic feels somehow analogous to the experience of watching someone you care about go through a terminal disease. All of the usual bullshit is shown to be means of evasion—evading the idea that whatever is happening to that unlucky person will happen to you; evading the realization that, when times are happy, that is chance and good luck, that will, in time, recede. So… why are we doing what we’re doing? How are we spending our time? Might we, in this painful little interregnum, redirect and save ourselves?”
Opening Heaven’s Door
Reading Opening Heaven’s Door ,” Saunders says “[He] felt a door swing open: what if our materialist assumptions about the separation of the body and mind are...babyish?” The book delves into out-of-body and near-death experiences to examine and make sense of these moments and how the living perceive them. Saunders wondered, “Wouldn’t it be kind of surprising if, stuck here with our finite bodies and limited, task-useful brains, we just happened to know everything that is actually true about the greater universe?”
In Love with the World
“You don’t have to be Buddhist to read it,” Saunders says of In Love with the World. He described it as “one of those books the mere reading of which has the potential to alter one’s path.” The book provides a “simple, story based entree,” framing Dharma as “whatever is true and helps us love one another more fully and actually be here, while we are.” It made him consider the idea that “we are making huge decisions in every instant: where we put our attention, choosing between positivity and negativity, and so on. There’s not an instant that doesn’t matter, that isn’t, by definition, a ‘moral’ moment.” “No pressure,” he says.
Hope Against Hope
“Especially in these politically agitated, virus-laden times, it’s good, or at least useful, to remember that every now and then, human affairs go so far off the rails that life on earth is more hell and less paradise.” The events described in Hope Against Hope as well as Hope Abandoned, by the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandlestap, “happened not very long ago at all.” And yet, Saunders says, “Reading these books puts me in a state of gratitude – I’m grateful that I live in a time when, mostly, human interaction is sane and our material conditions bearable. Because…it can be otherwise. Gratitude might be seen as an essential ingredient of any political stance. Otherwise, we run the risk of being history-ignorant whiners.”
How to Change Your Mind
This is the book where Michael Pollen takes LSD and discusses its benefits, like how it can help with depression. Saunders described Pollan as “a wonderfully free and curious writer” and found that after reading this book, he was “full of questions that seemed urgent: What is it that happens to the mind during meditation? As it is creating a work of art?” Through it all, Saunders found hope at the end: “It seems that this is where the most exciting future lies: in the realization that there are ways of working with the mind that can make the world better.”
The Death of Ivan Illych
“Tolstoy was all about the big questions,” Saunders said. He recommended setting an afternoon aside and reading The Death of Ivan Illych “if you ever feel you are getting lackadaisical in your life – taking it for granted, as if you’ll live forever.” He compared it to A Christmas Carol, saying “I always comes out a little frantic like, ‘Ok, ok, I’m still here, there’s still time! What must I do?’” With that rejuvenation, Saunders recommended picking up Wise Thoughts for Everyday next. He said “If you’ve ever felt that all religions, really, at their highest and most humane levels, are one religion, this book will affirm that notion.” It’s almost like a “quote-a-day-book,” and he said he used it as such because “it created at least one brief moment every day when I was not distracted and overwhelmed with …the small questions.”
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