Essay: Finding Time to Read for Fun

As I’ve gotten older, busier, and generally more stressed, I’ve noticed something sad about myself: I seldom read for fun anymore. When I was a growing up in the truly riveting hubbub of Morro Bay, California I would make a conscious effort to sit myself down and read a gosh darn novel or even just a few short stories every week. Eventually I didn’t even have to try because reading was the most wonderful thing I could be doing. There was nothing like getting lost in someone else’s world for a few hours and, to be honest, that’s still one of the most incredible things life can offer us. When I reached college, however, I found my time increasingly taken up by technical readings for my courses in anthropology, philosophy, or whatever I was taking that semester. And let me tell you, after a week of reading Marxist theory and critiques of cultural ecology, nothing and I mean nothing sounded less appealing than sitting down with and trying to actually understand the copy of Infinite Jest that’s currently collecting dust on my book shelf. And after several months of doggedly ignoring all the books I’d been collecting, I finally realized something: I would have to force myself to read for fun or face the reality that I would only be reading technical pieces for the rest of my life. And I was not cool with the latter option.

The first strategy I utilized to make myself read for fun was by taking an English course. English courses are a lot of work and anyone who tells you differently is wrong and probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But in spite of the work (or maybe because of it), English courses are also unbelievably rewarding. English 27: Introduction to the Study of Fiction allowed me to read seven incredible novels that I would never have picked up otherwise (as someone who reads mostly science fiction it was a trip to actually have to sit down and read Heart of Darkness for a grade but you know what it was great). I got to read amazing books for units! And write about them, which is a reward in and of itself. It was so amazing to be able to read and critically engage with literature that I never would have looked at before. Had I not taken that English course, I wouldn’t have even discovered how much I love Thomas Pynchon. So that particular experiment in forcing myself to read non-technical writings was a complete success. But alas, the summer rolled around and with it the time in which I could take classes outside of my major came to an end, so I had to think of strategy number two.

Strategy number two was less about clever tactical course-planning and more about brute force. Amidst the balmy days of summer, my favorite author published an 880 page hard science fiction space odyssey and I vowed to finish it that summer in addition to about five other books that were burning a hole in my bookcase. So the strategy was basically to utilize my summer months to read as many books concurrently as I possibly could. I failed. But, boy, did I try. I got through probably about seven hundred pages of literature by the time summer ended just by sheer force of will, but it took me until the end of winter break that same year to finish the space odyssey. But that winter break introduced me to strategy number three: power reading.

My first experience with power reading was with Camus’s The Stranger. If you aren’t familiar with that particular title, all you really need to know is that The Stranger isn’t that long. Maybe 160 pages, tops. One night after Christmas, I decided to read The Stranger but given my track record with actually finishing the books I start I knew that I needed to finish it all in one sitting or I wouldn’t finish it at all. So that’s what I did. It took me two and a half hours of non-stop reading but I did it. And it felt amazing. And so, I decided to try this tactic with something a little longer over spring break. (In between winter and spring break I didn’t read a single book; it was really sad.) Over the break, I went on vacation to a place with no Internet and I attribute this in part to the fact that I finished a 660 page book in four days. I was a well-oiled reading machine. I don’t think I had ever read anything as quickly and as thoroughly in my entire life. This too, is more an exercise in brute force rather than in self-control and cleverness. As of right now, however, power reading appears to be my most successful tactic for dealing with the fact that during the school year I have less and less time and drive to read for fun.

Other strategies I’ve not tried myself but have seen others successfully employ include but are not limited to: having a book to read on your breaks at work, reading books of short stories, reading just before bed (I have tried this and fall asleep every time but other people do not), joining a literary journal (I actually do this one but some people don’t consider work fun for some reason), read poems, attempt to substitute Netflix with books at least sometimes, and many, many more!

And perhaps this issue isn’t as universal as I feel it must be given my complete and utter lack of interest in staring at more pages full of words after spending my week doing just that, but maybe someone somewhere is struggling with this is very same thing. And if you are, hi there. I am here for you. Reading is the best and it is possible to find time to actually finish books, it just might take more effort than you’re used to. But stick with it because one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the ability to get lost, at least for a little while, inside someone else’s reality and to learn from it.

Moira Peckham, BFR Editor


Essay: Perfume

Last semester, I took a class on the forgotten literary art of the epistolary. To drive home exactly how forgotten this art form is, I had to look up what epistolary meant. But hey, I thought, I write letters! I don’t usually send them, but if I’m interested in writing them, I should take a stab at reading them. And what better insight re: interpersonal relationships throughout time than people (almost) directly talking to each other? Fun fact: Victorians talked to each other exactly the way you think they did. In the class, what counted as letters was expanded to include text messages, and looking at that correspondence through a new lens gave my writing a new sense of liberty. So in honor of under-appreciated literary forms, I’m making a case for the unsung heroes of metaphor — perfume descriptions.

I once read an article in a magazine describing a woman whose personality matched her perfume; a brazen confidence was accompanied by a smell that evoked a Turkish brothel. My imagination ran wild; I spent ages trying to figure out the right combination of tobacco flower, musk, jasmine, sandalwood, etc, and what it all meant. And I developed an obsession with reading all of the descriptions of confusing, complicated smell. What does mystery smell like, and how can I find the words to match the feelings and associations it conjures? The smell of onions cooking in butter has an almost mystical ability to sooth the soul — somebody should figure out how to make that a wearable scent. Why isn’t it ok to smell like curry as a fashion statement, as an assertion of personality, as expression? Why do orange blossoms smell like promises and hope? Most importantly, what made me feel most like me?

Is there anything with more power to conjure deep seated and long standing emotion than a smell? Anything more ingrained to our subconscious? Regarded as the strongest of the five human senses, our olfactory senses, according to Marcel Proust, carry something special, a point he outlined in In Search of Lost Time. As the first to link scents with memory, the Proust Phenomenon actually made strides for scientists using neuroscience to figure out how our instant recall functions work. But beyond the technical, Proust weaves a wormhole for his characters. The momentary whiff of a particular smell traverses barriers of time and space, constructing and reconstructing our pasts and how we interpret them.

As abstract as it may seem, the distortion of time and memory plays a very real part in my life. The rare moments of homesickness I still feel happen when I encounter my mother’s perfume. Like her, it is charming, elegant yet not without its liveliness. It is warm and comforting, but defiantly confident.

My sister’s first perfume was donned in her early high school years. Tucked away in a drawer, I would sneak long whiffs of the unequivocally girlie Pink Sugar, yearning to know the adolescent secrets it seemed to hold. As she got older, her tastes became more complex; I recall a particularly unpleasant phase in my life, and an uncomfortably uncertain one in her own, in which she wore a scent I can only describe as “chocolate schnapps.” It was rough. My own taste gravitates toward CK One, the first unisex cologne. It’s androgynous, hard to pinpoint, a contradictory scent that is somehow both feminine and masculine, bold but not loud. It smells like how I would characterize the 90s. It feels right.

How perfumed women smell is a choice they make about how they present themselves. There is an element perfumes share with letter writing, and that is the plasticity of authenticity. Just as we chose the side of ourselves we reveal to others in our writing, just as we construct a literary persona, so our choices of the impressions to leave in each other’s olfactory cortices are contingent upon how much we decide to reveal or conceal. I can use a scent to project who I want to be, or to express in the language of unconsciousness who I am. I can express a feeling, a memory, a sentiment in a mere moment, I can change my reality and alter yours. And the people who are tasked with creating an image, an aura, a story for these fragrant creations have no insignificant role. It is one thing to describe something as “musky.” It is another thing to bring to life a place I haven’t been to, a feeling I haven’t felt, an experience I haven’t had. To be able to construct a Turkish harem using only scent and a pen is a fine tuned skill, and one that in a perfect world, I’d be paid to hone.

— Gohar Abrahamyan, BFR Staff


Essay: The Art of Letterpress

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

Writing is an art. The creative process takes time and skill to perfect and the product, the message contained in the sea of words, has the potential to influence an individual, a nation, or even the world.

But what of the vessel through which writing is conveyed? We live in a world where e-books are on the rise, bookstores are closing, and libraries are spending more of their budgets on databases than paper. The printed book, once responsible for revolutions, is becoming devalued in the face of digitization. It would be easy to let the book go the way of the record and phonograph. Digital publishing is easily accessible and often cheaper than its analog counterpart. But before we disregard it completely, we must remember that the printed book itself is a product of the creative process.

Last Fall I took a course at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library called The Hand-Printed Book in Its Historical Context. As a rare books library, the Bancroft has the feel of museum, and like a museum, its collections contain objects worth marveling at. Some of its materials are historical—a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl stamped by censors at U.S. Customs—while others are completely one-of-a-kind. Let’s face it: they just don’t make illuminated manuscripts like they used to.

But while I learned in this course that the Bancroft preserves ancient and beautiful books from the clutches of Time, I also found that the art of bookmaking has not died out. Next to the Reading Room of the Bancroft—the gallery for these ancient treasures—is a room that houses a working Albion cast-iron printing press from the 1850s and cases upon cases of moveable type. In this studio is everything an artisan would need to create a book, from handmade papers to ink to bindings.

During this class, I underwent an abridged apprenticeship and was eventually initiated into an artisanal process. Some things came quickly: I learned the lingo (dropping your plate of movable type is called making Pie) and refined the skills (arranging your type requires the ability to read both backwards and upside down!). But I also discovered that some things can’t be taught by someone else; sometimes you have to go with your gut. If the italic versions of two letters print so close together that the ink runs, you might have to add an extra space, even if it appears in the middle of a word. If the page becomes too indented, you might have to adjust the amount of force used to work the press. If the pages are thick, you might have to add to the amount of thread used in the binding. You might have to go against convention for the sake of aesthetics.

Like any great art, hand printing is only as good as the intuition and skill of the artist, the bookmaker. The book that I created—The Bookworm with selections from the writings of Robert Hooke (Berkeley: The Bancroft Library Press, 2014)—may not be a work of art. It was my first time at the press after all. But true artisans exist in the field of bookmaking, from the twentieth-generation bookmakers in Italy to the owner of Berkeley’s very own Pettingell Book Bindery.

Last Fall I took blank paper, ink, and a needle and thread, and I made a book from start to finish. And I learned that the pages themselves are just as important as the words they contain.


Personal Essay: Reading Murakami

Nika Nabifar, BFR Staff

There is something that happens almost every time I finish a Haruki Murakami story—something that I now feel I have the precedent to call The Murakami Effect. A quick google search has alerted me of the fact that this term has been used countless times before, but it’s fine. Murakami can have multiple effects.

I preface this by saying that I’ve read a very small handful of his novels—After Dark, Sputnik Sweetheart, and I’m currently reading both Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (I don’t know why I’m always reading 5/6 books at once; I feel like I may have a fear of finishing novels but that’s a different story for another time). I have, however, read many, many of his short stories. I most recently finished The Strange Library, which I guess is technically considered a short illustrated novel, but it read like one of his short stories to me. After finishing it, I realized once again that I was hit with that same feeling, a.k.a. The Murakami Effect. It was kind of hilarious to me this time, albeit sad, because I thought I had escaped it, maybe grown accustomed to it, but then the last page happened and it got to me. Again. It never ends.

It’s something that’s hard for me to explain in words. How do you explain the way something leaves you feeling when you yourself don’t fully understand it? The endings are gut wrenching, profound, introspective. Sometimes they literally sum up the whole story in a couple lines; most of the times they’re really just plain sad; but all of the time, they’re beautiful. They always seem to creep up on me and then it’s like one large wave of emotion that I become completely submerged in and can’t seem to escape. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but a good kind of overwhelming. A kind that makes me seek out his work time and time again.

I want to speak for Murakami’s corpus as a whole, but I cannot, so bear with me. Murakami seems to consistently write and grapple with the inevitable state of human loneliness. In fact, every Murakami piece I’ve read has to do with it (that and the moon are the two most consistent symbols I’ve registered in his works, but the moon is something that needs a piece of its own). I think the fact that his works affect me so deeply is because many of the protagonists have been in their 20s, or reflect on their time in their 20s, and Murakami writes specifically about a kind of loneliness felt by young people. His short story “Yesterday” deals with this most prominently–“But when I look back at myself at age twenty what I remember most is being alone and lonely.”

I don’t think I ever experienced The Murakami Effect as strongly as I did after reading “Yesterday.” Maybe it was the timing. I was in a new city. I barely knew more people than I could count on both hands. I also hadn’t read Murakami in a while. I think, though, it’s just him. His writing is so accessible, it’s easy and clear and doesn’t take much effort to comprehend most of the time, which is a nice break. But most of all, it’s lovely. He writes in a way that is poetic and the effect of it reflects that.

A bit of a tangent, but still related nonetheless: I recently read an article that was about the effects Marcel Proust had on Virginia Woolf and her writing. While yes, I understand Woolf when she speaks this way about Proust as I am also reading Proust at the moment (another one of my started-but-haven’t-finished attempts), and while I agree with her whole-heartedly, I also couldn’t help think about Murakami –as I always do. Woolf says, in a letter:

“My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped— and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical— like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

This “Proust Effect” Woolf felt is exactly like my Murakami Effect. The first time I ever finished a Murakami piece, I couldn’t imagine even bothering with another contemporary author, and felt like asking Woolf’s “what remains to be written after that?” question. I was desperate to discover the authors that influenced him, the people he drew inspiration from, anything and everything that brought me closer to his work. I couldn’t and still can’t get enough. There is something about him that seems so otherworldly, sometimes I can’t believe someone even has the capacity to write the way he does, but also completely relatable, making it so that every time I read a new piece of his, it’s like I’m conversing with an old friend.


Side Note: I wrote this while listening to a playlist of the musical references Murakami mentions in his works which is pretty entertaining on its own –




Essay: On Bookstores and Plastic Chairs

Summer Farah, BFR Staff

Although online shopping is amazing, the thrill of finding something unexpected in a bookstore is unmatched by doing so off any Amazon recommendation.

This summer I utilized Barnes & Noble greatly as a daily hangout. It was the perfect spot; there was an endless amount of books to look through, the employees hardly spoke to you, you could spend hours in a corner undetected by anyone, and the connecting cafe had cheesecake if you got hungry. Cheesecake.

I loved discovering cool, new poetry and looking at the newest additions to Teen Literature, seeing all of the different editions of classics I said I would read but probably never will.

The “no sitting on the ground” rule was the only thing in my way.

Some people love to stand while they read, probably. I am not one of them. After I find a book to skim through, my body automatically drops directly onto the floor. Reading and sitting are directly connected—I cannot do one without the other. Barnes & Noble, however, tried to take that experience away from me, when they sent an employee down the aisle to tell me I was not allowed to sit on the ground. Being the good customer I am, I apologized and got up, keeping all frustrated thoughts to myself.

For a while, this rule discouraged me from spending too much time in the store. This is where they got the loiterers. You couldn’t comfortably spend too much time enjoying a book without paying for it.

I soon found a loophole: the children’s section.

Barnes & Noble had two sitting options: either you could sit in the café and risk spilling cheesecake on your precious purchase, or you could sit in a small plastic chair in the brightly decorated children’s section.

I chose the latter.

With a friend, I tested my bounds. We each grabbed a novel and made our way to the children’s section, took a seat, and began to read.

Reading in the children’s section is very different from reading on the ground in an isolated aisle. There is so much more stimulus, even if you ignore the glares of the employees who want to tell you to leave but don’t because technically there is nothing wrong with 18 year-olds reading picture books. The floor was a bright wood, there were shelves and shelves of toys, the promotional material was of gaudy design, and sometimes there were kids. While the isolated aisles that contained the material we brought into the children’s sections were calm and quiet—optimal for reading—the children’s section was distracting.

The shelves of the children’s section were an intense mix of nostalgia and intrigue. I found so many books from elementary school that I had loved and forgotten about or given away. Seeing them still prominent filled me with so much joy. Whatever new literature that was being cranked out was probably just as great, but I love A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it would be a shame for kids to not still be encouraged by their school librarians to read those books. Harry Potter was still front and center, with beautiful new cover designs. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was still growing strong. I wondered how old that kid must be today.

What caught my eye the most were the picture books. One book in particular: The Day the Crayons Quit.

I put down my big-kid chapter book, picked up the pretty, hardcover picture book, and got to reading.

One of the most healing experiences is unexpectedly finding a story that so completely and utterly fills you with joy. It’s been a rocky road the last few years, and I’ve sought out books that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with if I died while reading.

The Day the Crayons Quit was a masterpiece. It follows the correspondence of disgruntled crayons with their owner whom they believe has not been using them to their full potential. The illustrations combine a sketchy, kid’s-drawings-style with a more defined, cutesy “real object” style for the crayons and the letters.  

Reading this book set off a string of picking up picture books and seeing what the next generation was learning from. Just like when I was learning to read, some of them are beautiful and have deep messages about creativity. Some of them are just sort of silly.

I have always lost myself in books. The type of books changed as I got older, but they were always the cure. Even though I love the ease of online shopping, random findings are always more exciting than deliberate purchases. Amazon recommendations never would have introduced me to The Day the Crayons Quit, or the other magical mix of books I have found by loitering in Barnes & Noble.


Essay: The Written Advantage

Regan Farnsworth, BFR Staff

Why even bother?

That’s a question perhaps worth asking of the written word. We have movies, we have television, we have videogames. Why go to the trouble of reading at all? It’s a lot more effort, with a lot less—well—production value.

Movies are single, big, events. Explosions (literal and figurative) and grandiosity galore. Television shows have continuity, length, and the potential for constant variation. Both are easy to consume – just sit and watch, some barely even ask that you listen. Video games ask more of you, but in return grant you agency.

Books ask that you sit down with minimal potential distractions – and for a lot of people that includes even being in a moving vehicle – and put forth a great deal of focus, for consumption you have no control over. There are no fancy graphics, big special effects, or surprise Christmas episodes. So I posit the question again:

Why even bother?

But books are not without their own merit, even in the face of our new age of technological supremacy, because all such media rob the consumer of the one thing books grant: imagination. A book challenges its reader to quite literally read between the lines – to fill in the blanks as they come – and in doing allow access to an infinity of variety.

I don’t mean to sound like a grandmother, futilely attempting to persuade her grandchild to put that blasted watchamacallit down and pick up a book for once. What I hope to express is that books were not step one of an evolution, and that they do not compete with movies, and TV, and video games. The reason movie adaptation of novels are infamous for infuriating the readers of said novels optimistic enough to go and see them is related to this same concept. Movies can’t do the same thing – they’re marketing towards a different audience entirely, because if they weren’t, that audience would have been happy to just read the book instead.

So, no, I’m not saying books are better than movies and you all need to get your heads out of your screens – I love screens. This is a blog post for crying out loud; you’re on a screen right now, probably with Netflix on another tab. And that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s great. Stories are stories! But know that the story is only so much the story, and all the rest is in the telling. What a book does is give its consumer creative freedom. Not agency in the action but agency in the understanding. Different stories grant different levels of this freedom, but all of it is more than you can ever attain when a TV show, movie, or video game is showing you precisely how they envision it, not how you do.

Perhaps this is all rather old news to anyone well-read enough to bother reading this blog post, but in that case perhaps it might help you articulate to your less literary-enthused contemporaries.

And if not, well, hey, would it have been any better if this were a vlog instead?


Essay: The Faceless Artist

Leah Tyus, BFR Staff

Who is the artist behind this piece? Is the individual male or female? What ethnicity? If we were to imagine that individual’s story, what might it be? How would their tale unfold? Regardless of the artist you’ve envisioned, it’s important to consider how our conception of an artist comes into formation.

If I told you the artist is a twenty-six year old African American male, with the physique of a D-line football player, would you believe me? Well, guess what? The artist is all those things plus more. What’s astonishing is how few people would associate such artistry with the true artist. Our preconceptions of what and who constitutes the art world lend themselves to biases. These biases have the potential to be detrimental as they impose pre-judgments. We allow our perceptions to create a limited normality.

Our faceless artist is named Julian.

Birthed within a name is the individual’s personality. Julian possesses a story that reveals his particular journey as an artist. He and other artists are more than fantasized ideas because they are living, breathing individuals. Because Julian does not fit within the societal norm of who an artist aught to be, does that make him any less of one? Have we considered how biases limit success for an artist? Doesn’t Julian deserve to be recognized for his artistry rather than an ability to perpetuate an artist stereotype?

I precaution us all to remember the impact our preconceptions have on artists. Let us not be limited in our understandings but become expansive in our thinking. Let us dismantle our concept of the idealized artist to that of the totality of the artist.

*Art by Julian Tyus


Essay: Ego-Less Writing

Jenna Lee, BFR Staff

A writer, above all other professionals, ought to be self-aware. Nothing is more detestable than writing that is hypocritical. To prevent hypocrisy, a writer ought to walk the talk. She ought to wield truth like a sword and hack away at herself—especially at those parts of herself that would inspire ridicule in any reasonable reader.

What might inspire ridicule? For one, arrogance. Arrogance is a most dangerous thing for a writer to nurse. Those who are arrogant should take care to be perfect, for the slightest slip of tongue, slip of the pen, slip in reputation would be greeted with delight, rather than sympathy, laughter instead of sadness. An arrogant writer has no friends—and those friends she has are like herself, so respect is scarce in her midst. Arrogance is the antithesis of respect, so a writer should never pander to herself when the seeds of arrogance sprout in her breast. Hack away at those sprouts! The pen is only as mighty as the writer who wields it.

In that vein, it is imperative that a writer bring a fresh perspective to things. Banality is unforgiveable in writing, as in life. People will put up with satire, with something that inflames their passions and anger, but will rarely, if ever, put up with writing (or speech) that bores them. A reader’s attention is a precious thing, and should never be squandered. Risk saying too little rather than saying too much. Brevity conveys meaning better than a superfluity of words.

And the final thing that inspires ridicule is anger. A writer must not write from a place of uncontrolled passion. If a writer can be lucid about their passion, put words to their rage, that is one thing, but uncontrolled anger is something ugly to behold. Few people will applaud such an exhibition of unbridled angst. If you must be angry, find the appropriate words to explain your anger. Articulate anger is something to be respected.

Of course, I have done all of these things myself. I have been arrogant, boring, and angry. So of course I agree that writers deserve some leeway to grow and make mistakes. But writing is ineffectual unless it contains seeds of truth. Journalism lacks purpose unless coupled with character. And the character of a writer is doubly important, for she is a ledger for a section of humankind. Writers ought to be their own worst critics, to an extent. While the act of writing should be playful and spontaneous, subsequent readings should be done with an intent to “kill our darlings.”

Let us not pander to our egos. Let us see the negativity in the world as an indication of internal negativity that we could work through in ourselves. Let us not blame others. Let us seek to take responsibility for our own feelings. Let us find happiness and confidence in ourselves, so we can be a light illuminating, rather than a sound and fury signifying nothing. Words, in their most exalted moments, take on the importance of deeds.


Essay: ‘Ilana Showshanah’ and the Value of Writing for Oneself

Ilana Pessah, BFR Staff

When I was twelve, I began to write my first book since my debut novel, Ilana Showshanah, which I wrote in the first grade — the story of a girl who overcame the perceived obstacle of her short height in order to achieve her dream of becoming a famous singer. Needless to say, I had set the bar pretty low for myself. With fresh motivation, I scribbled the new story across a multicolored pocket-sized notebook for the better half of a summer. For a time that scrappy notebook was my pride and joy. The storyline needed a bit of work and the overuse of profanity that I thought made me sound older didn’t help, but all in all, I was content with my work.

Of course, when one twelve year old finds out that another twelve year old is writing a book, news spreads quickly, and for a few weeks my work-in-progress floated from friend to friend. As I continued my work, I wrote openly, and my friends didn’t hesitate to recommend changes to the storyline. I tried to accommodate everyone’s wishes, because even if I didn’t necessarily agree, they had to know what was best. It didn’t matter if I liked it; it just mattered if everyone else did.

By the end of the summer, I still hadn’t finished my book. The high of my fifteen minutes of fame eventually wore off and I became frustrated with a book that was no longer my own. I didn’t recognize my own writing and, in the end, I decided that writing books wasn’t for me. I threw the notebook in a drawer and never picked it up again.

Then, during my eleventh grade year, I had a core group of incredible teachers who inspired me to re-evaluate my relationship with myself and how I viewed my self-worth. For some reason, as I was doing this extensive self-reflection, I began to think about the book I had tried writing four years earlier. With a few additional years under my belt, I began to examine my disenchanting experience, trying to figure out what had caused me to resent something that once was my passion. With fresh eyes and the continuing support of my educational mentors, I found where I went astray.

I had loved my book when I was writing it for myself; I wrote what I wanted to and found joy in the process of doing so. But, due to my lack of self-confidence, I tried to please everyone else rather than staying true to the story I wanted to write. I had such a low opinion of myself that I didn’t trust my own judgment about the thing I loved most. I was too afraid to embrace myself, quirks and all, to allow myself to fully open up and write with confidence. Even in Ilana Showshanah I had made my character grow a few inches taller instead of embracing her shortness and loving herself for who she was.

With my new perspective, I sat down in November of 2013 and began a new book, this time committing to writing it for me; nobody else. It took seven months, but I eventually finished my first book since Ilana Showshanah, and this time I did so with confidence. I love my book; it’s quirky and complex — just like its author. My manuscript is currently sitting in some cubical at a branch of Penguin Publishing waiting to be evaluated by a member of the firm. But while it would be nice to be a published author, whether or not I hear back won’t change how I feel about the experience. For the first time I created something that was completely mine, and that’s a gift only I had the power to give myself.


Essay: Losing Myself (And My Wi-fi) In Venice

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

I once read a short story by Daphne du Maurier about a man in Venice who got lost in the winding alleys and trapped by the canals. As he walked faster and faster, finding himself more and more lost with each turn, he grew desperate. But I didn’t care about his dilemma; the man was just a vehicle to move the story along. The real main character was Venice. The alleys and canals were a network of arteries, and the buildings were alive. As I read, one thing became clear to me: the man wasn’t simply lost—the city overtook him.

For years, I wanted to visit this Venice and immerse myself in the strange reality the city of the story had seemed to create. Last summer, I got my chance. I packed my backpack, flew into Marco Polo Airport, took the train to Santa Lucia Station, and when I stepped onto the street… I found Wi-Fi. And souvenir shops. And signs in English, and German, and Chinese. I found that the GPS on my phone could locate me even on an island with no cell phone reception.

My vision of getting lost on my first day and making uncharted discoveries in an ancient city was clearly unrealistic. Major sites were mapped, and no matter how many times I chose a random alley to wander down, I eventually emerged on the Grand Canal, just a few yards from where I had started. No one had told me that Venice was so small.

By the end of the next day, I had given up trying to lose myself. I looked at a map and set out to see some landmarks. I used my GPS. And halfway between a hospital that looked like a palace and a palace that looked like it was about to crumble into the Grand Canal, I stopped thinking, wandered through a doorway by accident and found the strangest bookstore I had ever seen.

I was in awe. Masks hung on the walls. Gondolas filled to the brim with books on Venice’s high tide season crowded the main room. A cat lounged on a bookshelf. Wandering through the narrow aisles I choked back ecstatic coughs as I tried not to inhale half a century of dust. I picked up books that were yellowed around the edges and smelled of must. And I reveled in the fact that the store was empty. I had done it! I had discovered something!

Making my way to the back, I saw a staircase made of books. The climb was unsteady, but from the top, I could see all the way down a canal to where it met the main street. I planned my next move and readied myself to make my next great discovery. And on my way out, a group of nearly thirty tourists pushed past me into the bookstore, shattering the silence and sending up clouds of dust.

So, maybe I hadn’t been the first to discover the book-filled gondolas or the Venetian masks. As it turned out, quite a few people knew all about it—it had a 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor. Maybe in a world with travel sites and free Wi-Fi I could never fully lose myself in a deserted street. Maybe a city would never overtake me. But from the top of that staircase built of books, just for a minute, I lost the crowd. I felt I had found something amazing, something I had never known existed.