Neda Semnani is a former political journalist whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, the Baffler, the Week, and Roll Call, among others. These days, she writes and curates a column at the Washington Post called Inspired Reads. She’s also working on a memoir about her parents, who were Iranian revolutionaries. And I thought that since she so often finds herself pestering others about what they can learn from books, perhaps it was time she was pestered about what she’s reading. Neda has unsurprisingly been feeling a wee bit down since a completely random day last fall. For comfort—and as a safe and effective (sometimes) sleep aid—she turns to books about wanderers, Harry Potter, and reading over people’s shoulders. Read along as she tries, and mostly succeeds, to avoid Twitter.
I haven’t been sleeping well for months. Since November if I’m being honest. It is the middle of the night and I’m scrolling through Twitter on my phone and feeling anxious and exhausted. They say you shouldn’t stare at screens at bedtime, but my insomnia is demanding bite-sized pieces of information.
I take a break from social media vertigo and open Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in Rowling’s series. Harry is insufferable in this book, having come down with full-grown teenager all of a sudden. I’m not falling into the story. I am interested in how we understand the rise of autocracy and resistance in popular culture, so while the rest of the world is reading 1984, I’ve turned to Harry Potter and friends. At this point in the series, the story isn’t about a little boy getting the hang of a fantastic new life; it’s about what happens when history shows troubling signs of repeating itself. So Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters are almost back, the Ministry of Magic is showing signs of cronyism and corruption, and there is a resistance taking hold! But, good lord, Harry is grumpy and whiny. I feel a little grumpy and whiny myself. It’s after 3 a.m. when I fall asleep.
Several hours later, I’m awake and caffeinated sitting at my desk reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie for a freelance assignment. The play will be opening on Broadway soon. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, and the narrator’s opening strikes me as prescient: “To begin with I turn back time,” he says, and goes on to recall the economic strife of the 1930s, fascism’s rise in Europe, and class unrest across the United States. Only Tennessee Williams could get away with lines like these: “the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.”
The Glass Menagerie (photo by Julieta Cervantes)
Trouble sleeping again, but I have to be up and out of the apartment for an 8:30 a.m. shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op. It’s only my second month as a member and I’m manning the cash register, taking money and making change. I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but it’s a slow morning. I take out a book, The Odyssey by Homer. I’ve never read it before, at least not straight through. As the people come through the line, they remark on the book.
“Keep reading it,” says my first customer. “Excellent translation,” says an older woman, as I apply 35 cents worth of store credit to her purchase of three Narragansett tallboys. My co-cashier recommends I read Chaucer next. I will not be reading Chaucer next, though maybe I should. I picked up The Odyssey, because I wanted to read about wanderers and refugees. A story about a man who takes a decade to get home and is on a quest for safety seemed like a good place to start. I also am curious about “nostalgia” and “xenophobia”—words and concepts that can be traced to ancient Greece.
The book has been a surprise. It has a funky structure. The opening chapters are about Odysseus’s son Telemachus who is overwhelmed with life: he’s longing for his missing father, trying to support his grieving mother and trying to get his mother’s dick-ish suitors to leave the property. I’m at work on a memoir about my parents and am surprised that I relate so strongly to Telemachus. He is absolutely right. Life is overwhelming and sometimes the only thing a person can do is start crying in front of people. Happily, I do not cry at the co-op.
I race to the subway to make my next gig. The rest of the day is a series of anxious social media scrolling. I edit a story. I listen to the manic surrealist poetry that was Donald Trump’s 77-minute press conference. That night, in bed, I fall asleep after a page of Harry Potter. A few hours later, I’m awake again.
(Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
I don’t get up from bed right away. I’m exhausted. Will Schwalbe, an author I spoke to a couple months ago, says a person should read first thing the morning rather than last thing at night. I decide to take his advice and laze in bed an extra half-hour with Potter No. 5.
I should be getting ready to go to work, but I don’t want to get up until I feel that click that takes over when you’re reading a story and the story becomes everything. Maybe this book hasn’t grabbed me yet because it’s the second time I’m reading it? Maybe it’s because I didn’t start the series from the beginning? Whatever the reason, the click doesn’t come, but the lounge time was lovely. I get out of bed.
On the way to the subway, I listen to the beginning of the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the subway. I had uploaded the book to the Audible app on my phone months ago after it was chosen for book club and still haven’t removed it. It’s the story of two young Nigerians, Ifamelu and Obinze. Ifamelu is a young woman who immigrated to America, won a scholarship to Princeton, and found some success. Obinze, her first love, was supposed to follow her to America but couldn’t, since after 9/11 they stopped giving visas to Nigerians. He went to London instead before deciding to return to Lagos to build a life. Through their love story, Adichie investigates issues surrounding race, ethnicity and foreignness. I’m not doing it justice—read it if you haven’t.
I’m listening to the book this morning because of my current preoccupation with wanderers. But I’m also feeling scratchy, like I don’t fit into my own skin. I want a story about outsiders. Plus I could read the opening of this novel a hundred times. I’m in love with how Adichie writes the African hair-braiding salon in New Jersey, the women who work there and the texture of Ifamelu’s hair. She uses the salon to frame the beginning of the novel and, through this narrative choice, she’s able to put race, gender and foreignness at the center of the book. It’s brilliant.
I’m asked to write about a piece of writing that has most affected me over the past year. I consider the question. Just after the election I had read an essay by Rembert Browne called “How Trump Made Hate Intersectional.” Months later and it is still the most compelling reflection of the outcome of the election that I have read. I cried the first time I read it.
When I reread the piece this morning I don’t tear up. There is a distance between then and now. But what Browne writes is still powerful. He writes about the genius of Trump’s rhetoric, how the president won by using intersectionality against the progressive movement. How he weaponized ignorance and stoked fear; how he encouraged his followers to hate with impunity and inclusivity. Civil libertarians, liberals, and civil rights workers weren’t able to respond as a united front, siloed as they were in their separate communities.
“Hate like love is infectious,” Browne reminds the reader. The piece is not uplifting, but it is a call for people to unite against Trumpian values—it is also a passionate piece of prose written in raw aftermath of the election. So I write about that.
I check my AstrologyZone horoscope.
Riding the subway home from the office, I read an US Weekly magazine over another person’s shoulder. I wonder if she knows I’m reading because I have a clear view of the words. I suspect she’s sharing on purpose. She gets up at the next stop. I pretend I haven’t been leaning over her and take her seat.
I have two books with me: the Odyssey and Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes. I choose to read Hayes’s book, because I’m interviewing him next week and should start preparing. Also my new friend insomnia has made me curious about how others cope without sleep.
I get home earlier than usual. I dig out my book, but think better of it. I pour wine and steal an hour alone in front of the TV.