The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Category: essays

This Will Be My Undoing

By Morgan Jerkins

This was a great book, a fascinating look at intersectionality but also just a great read. I loved hearing about her experiences in Japan (where she is not really considered black but rather just a foreigner) and in Russia (where she is definitely and negatively considered black), because I hear so little about American identity issues when we are overseas. She wrote about her desire to be a cheerleader in primary school, getting labioscopy (?) surgery in her twenties, her move to Harlem, her time at Princeton, her efforts to get a job after college, her lack of a love life and that’s intersection with her identity.

The writing is great, a powerful voice. I managed to get it from the NY public library even though it was only released in February.


Changing My Mind

by Zadie Smith.

This series of essays is cobbled together from a number of projects Zadie Smith has done. They are loosely grouped into themes, the themes loosely group into a book, but more I found it just a dipping into Zadie Smith’s mind, which is my favorite thing about essays. She writes about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, about movies, about Middlemarch and Kafka and E. M. Forster, about Barthes v Nabokov, about Zora Neale Hurston, on Hepburn and the Oscars and her father and David Foster Wallace.

The stories about her father, especially on how her interviewing of her father about WWII was so clearly about her and not him, how she used his stories in White Teeth, to learn more about Zadie Smith’s history and see how it trickled into her writing was interesting and rewarding from a writer’s perspective. I want to dig into some of these essays again, the personal ones, to learn a little more about the craft of those essays.

I also want to reread her essay on Wallace, who I love, such that I can better articulate what I love about him. First, though, I think I need to read Brief Interviews, the Wallace book of short stories she talks about.

Overall a good read with some essays I want to return to.

Consider the Lobster

By David Foster Wallace.

I’m on a David Foster Wallace kick since loving Infinite Jest so much over the summer. In these essays I’m starting to notice his neurotics more — which maybe you’d think would be impossible to ignore in Infinite Jest but the novel generally was in the perspective of the character, so separating out whose neuroses were whose is trickier.

Which isn’t to say I liked these essays. I did.

I like his candid questioning of the reader of animal rights in ‘Consider the Lobster’.

I like his distraction, almost to a fault, in ‘Up, Simba’ (about the 2000 McCain primaries campaign.)

I had already read ‘Authority and American Usage’ and again liked his obsession with fiddling out why a dictionary could be great.

I liked the strange disappointment in professional athletes in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’.

I disliked the way the footnotes were arranged in ‘Host’ and wasn’t sure I really understood much more about right-wing talk shows at the end, though it was classically entertaining to read him intellectually futzing around with some theories about their success.

‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’ was a touchingly hilarious account of 9/11.

(Essays I didn’t mention: ‘Big Red Son’ about the porn industry Oscar equivalent, ‘Certainly the End of Something or Other’ about Updike’s book that Wallace didn’t like, ‘Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness’ of which the topic is obvious, and ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’ which is about Joseph Frank’s books about Dostoevsky.)

I will say I ended the book with less unadulterated love of David Foster Wallace, not because it’s bad but because it demonstrated in several places his humanity and ability to write silly thoughts and be neurotic to the point where it isn’t helping anyone. I think what draws me to him is his amazing portrayal of similar neurotic and cynical thoughts to those that I have — it’s like someone saying “oh, yeah, I do this crazy thing in my head all the time” and I respond with “holy shit me too.”

Managing Oneself

By Peter Drucker

This is actually just an essay, but it comes in small-book form. It’s a simple but clear essay on… well, it’s partly on how to be, with a focus on how to be in the work-place. Here are my notes:

feedback analysis:

  • what do you expect to happen?
  • revisit in 9-12 months
  • what are your strengths? (we are bad at knowing this about ourselves)

reader or listener?

how do you learn?

work well with people or loner?

decision maker or advisor?

stress or highly structured?

big org or small?

In addition he talks about why we want second careers and how not everyone is going to be amazingly successful in life, which is why family and hobbies are important.

Seeing Voices

By Oliver Sacks.

This collection of three essays Sacks wrote about deaf culture and sign language has so many amazing stories and neuroscience factoids in it that I can hardly contain myself when I tell people about it. He talks about the history of deaf people being considered ‘dumb’ because they were not given the opportunity to acquire language, the strange and horrible history of deaf people being forced to learn to speak and denied the opportunity to learn and communicate with sign language, the fascinating phenomena of sign language being seated in the left hemisphere of the brain even though we generally considered spatial and visual tasks to be seated in the right, the way children will naturally develop a certain kind of grammar in sign language that doesn’t demand the sequential operations spoken language does… It is incredibly interesting and cool and a short read to boot. It has inspired me to try to learn a little bit of American Sign Language.


By Oliver Sacks.

This short book is a collection of four essays by Oliver Sacks. One celebrates his eightieth birthday but the other three are in reaction to his terminal illness. I was inspired to read it by the Brain Pickings article on the small little thing. The essays are all short and feel like glimpses through windows into Oliver Sacks’ great mind. I love his delight in old age:

My father, who lived to be ninety-four, often said that the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.

Ultimately they are of interest because Oliver Sacks is of interest, because Oliver Sacks is interesting. I think this must be the case for personal essays: the writer must engage you with their own self in order to take you along.