Slow, sustained attention, and extended time spent with ideas
My top recs from my 2023 reading list plus one movie
I stole this idea from Kier Adrian Gray who recently made a similar list. Thanks for the inspiration Kier!
When I was a child I was a voracious reader. My practice of constantly reading as a child played a large part in making me into the person, thinker, and writer that I am today. Like so many of us, I’ve experienced a massive erosion of my attention span due to the predatory design of social media in service of surveillance capitalism. This has impacted my ability to read. On top of this, we are living in frenetic, urgent times in which one disaster follows another in quick succession, and even bigger disasters loom just on the horizon. This lends itself to an fast paced energy. We deal with these crises at the speed of the social media post, the sound bite, click, skim, and share. We do this from a good place: we are rushed, tired, don’t have time, don’t know where to begin. And a time of emergency does not feel in our bodies like a time to slow down.
And yet: when the building is on fire they say you should walk, not run, to the exits. Walk quickly, don’t doddle, don’t linger or spend unnecessary time grabbing items, but don’t run. Running in an emergency leads to chaos, trampling, and people being unnecessarily injured and killed. Maybe this is an oversimplification, and maybe this metaphor only goes so far. But I believe that our shallow attention spans, our social media damaged thinking, our pain fuelled dissociation, and our inability to think deeply and at length contribute greatly to the gigantic crises that face us: neoliberal capitalism, climate catastrophe, biosphere collapse, mass extinction, war, genocide, the erosion and privatization of everything we need to live, and cruelty at unimagineable levels.
I will admit that I am panicked, exhausted, and hoping to skim my way to easy solutions, easy actions. I want to click ‘share’ and feel like I’m doing something. I want to do something but I don’t know what to do. Part of what I’m doing is I’m trying to slow down. Slow down enough so that I can think and so thank I can feel and so that I can listen and so that I may be able to bring my full self, and all of my capacity, to the very pressing problems at hand. Part of this practice is taking up reading again, training my brain back to the practice of slow, sustained attention, and extended time spent with ideas. This is of absolute, fundamental importance.
This is a list of my top recommendations from the books I read in 2023 (with two I snuck in from the tale end of 2022) plus one movie (because the movie really is that good). I share them with the hopes of encouraging and enriching your reading practice. I also encourage the starting of a book club with some of your friends. This has the dual benefits of increasing the chances that you’ll stick with your reading, and decreasing your alienation by allowing you to think through ideas in a community setting.
I will also add: books matter, independent bookstores matter, small presses matter, and writers matter. Capitalism is eating up writing like it eats up everything else, and we can’t afford to let that happen. Amazon is the number one offender in this area. Amazon sells books at a loss because they can afford to, and they do so with the intention of driving small book stores out of business. The have atrocious labour practices and are the embodiment of evil: a total hostility to all that is living and vital in the world. I don’t say this lightly. I am in deep and profound solidarity with Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union, and every writer, press, and book seller who is attempting to stay afloat as Amazon greedily gobbles them all up.
I highly encourage you to source your books from somewhere other than Amazon. Do some research to see if you have a local bookstore. They can usually order in any book you want, and they will appreciate your support. You will also leave the house and interact with other people. Check out your local library. While you’re there, linger, browse, smile at strangers, sit down and enjoy one of the last truly public spaces. If you must order online, do some searching on duckduckgo first to see if you can find an online retailer that isn’t secretly owned by Amazon. If you prefer audio books, I recommend Libro.fm over the Amazon-owned Audible. Libro.fm partners with independent bookstores who receive a portion of every audiobook sale. If you like to track your books, I recommend StoryGraph as an alternative to the Amazon-owned Goodreads. Let’s take reading back from Amazon.
Finally, if you are interested in my reading practice and the various writers and thinkers who influence my work, you can check out my bibliography page that I regularly update.
Here are the books.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robison is one of my all time favourite writers. He is a science fiction writer but that is not doing him justice. He is a historian, an anthropologist, an economist, a philosopher, and a scientist. He does more thorough, wide ranging, and deep diving research for his books than any fiction writer I’ve ever come across. His container is fiction but he uses fiction to ask huge sweeping questions about humanity and he answers those questions with rigorous research as well as a narrative contemplation. His books The Mars Trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt were life changing for me. If you’ve ever seen me write the words the wild world itself is holy, this beautiful phrase comes from The Mars Trilogy.
The Ministry for the Future is about climate change. When Jay first gifted me this book I started reading it and had to stop. I find thinking about climate change so viscerally painful and overwhelming. Like so many of us, I go into panic, freeze and despair whenever my mind edges near the topic. As time goes on and environmental catastrophes increase, it becomes harder and harder to avoid. This summer the skies in Montreal were dark with ash from the gigantic blazing forest fires in Quebec. The smoke was darkening the skies in New York City, and even crossing the Atlantic to arrive in Europe. The fires dump carbon into the atmosphere and also destroy the precious carbon sequestration of the Boreal forest.
The Ministry of the Future is hard to read because climate change is hard to think about, but there is no writer I would rather enter into this painful and deeply complex topic with than Kim Stanley Robison. His intelligence and breadth of knowledge is staggering, and his honesty is a balm in a world of liars and denial. The Ministry of the Future gives me things to think about when I think about climate change. It breaks down a problem so gigantic and devastating into pieces that can be thought, considered, and acted upon. Robinson is rigorous and honest in his investigations of power. He offers no easy solutions, no “click, skim, share, done.” He shows us the seemingly immoveable force of capitalism, the insanity of the Market, and the way that government leaders can convince themselves they are not responsible, even when they actually do have great power. He reveals a world in which bankers are the secret, unelected government of the world, and in which a small number of people, drunk on their unimaginable wealth and power, drive us to the collapse of human civilization.
He tells the human story of climate change. He takes us back through history to learn what we can learn there. He shows us the seeds of other ways of organizing our world that have already been planted. He moves between factual accounts of history and speculative imaginings of the unfolding future. This is sci fi of the future happening in our contemporary times, because we are in the future, and at the end of history. He shows us that change is possible, but it isn’t easy. The most valuable gift this book offers us is the teaching that climate change is a problem that we can face, that we can look at straight on, and about which, something can be done.
The Ministry for the Future is the next book for the Fucking Cancelled Book Club, and we will be discussing it on the podcast in mid January. Read it now so that you can follow along with the book club discussion.
The Myth of Normal By Gabor Maté
The Myth of Normal is a book I want everyone to read. It’s a book that I feel utterly blessed and vindicated was released in my lifetime. It is a book that speaks clearly a truth I have known for most of my life, but was never believed whenever I tried to express it. It is a book I want to mail to the psych ward I was incarcerated in as a teenager with a note saying Told you so.
This is Gabor Maté magnum opus. It revisits, combines, and deepens the themes of his earlier books, addiction from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and illness from When the Body Says No. It peers into every area of our lives from the way we give birth to children, the way we were raised and the way we raise children, the way we work at our jobs, the way we are treated by health care professionals, the way we understand our illnesses, our suffering, and our pain, the way we treat each other and ourselves, and the way we understand love, purpose, and belonging.
In the lineage of thinkers like Bessel van der Kolk, Gabor Maté sounds the alarm that trauma and chronic stress are endemic. One of my strongest disagreements with some of my fellow anti cancel culture leftists, is the assertion that trauma today is overstated. In fact, we have not yet faced or transformed the pervasive reality of trauma and stress and their impact on our lives, bodies, relationships, cultures, and world. Gabor Maté thoroughly explains the way that adverse childhood experiences, attachment injuries, and traumas big and “small”, work to separate us from our authentic selves, and now we have an entire culture complete with powerful institutions like health care and school, that continue to force us away from our authenticity. The impact of this to our health, physical and mental, cannot be overstated. We also won’t solve any of the pressing global, political, economic, and ethical problems facing us, including climate change, if we are working from a traumatized, disempowered, stunted, and inauthentic place.
There is not a single person I would not recommend this book to. It is a map not only to our own individual healing from whatever ails us, but also a map toward a holistic and authentic way of being together. The Myth of Normal shows us both that our illnesses and sufferings are not individual problems but collective and cultural ones, and also that our own work toward wholeness, healing, and authenticity is part of the collective work necessary to transform the conditions that are making us sick.
Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
Everyone I know is always lamenting their screen addiction. I know so many people who have overcome so much serious shit and so many serious addictions but they are at the absolute mercy of their screens. I, unfortunately, count myself among these screen addicts and have tried everything from working the 12 steps to using apps designed to keep me blocked out. I always fall back into insane screen times. Given that I have a history of addiction recovery and a strong understanding of addiction, I have always felt skeptical of the many articles, books, and methods that claim to liberate people from their phones. I’ve flipped through some of those books and the suggestions to turn off notifications (I haven’t had notifications turned on in like ten years lol), turn my screen black and white (tried it), keep deleting and reinstalling the app (tried it), track my use (tried it), and so on, alway feel hollow and empty and hopeless.
Stolen Focus is a different kind of book. It’s a comprehensive look at attention: what it is, how it works, and the many forces undermining our capacity for it. Like the other books on screen addiction, it lays bare all that we lose when we are constantly staring at and checking our phones. But instead of simply offering quick fixes and handy tips, Johann Hari gets really honest and diagnoses the problem of screen addiction as a case of surveillance capitalism. He writes that there are certainly things we can do as individuals to try to lessen our screen time, and they might work sometimes, but our human brains are up against a technology that was maliciously designed to keep us hooked, in order to profit off of our stolen focus. The only solution to this problem, he argues, is a movement against surveillance capitalism.
This is an incredibly important book for our time, both in its in depth exploration of the problem, and in its honest but also hopeful solution. The answer is not individual, it is collective. A movement against surveillance capitalism will be a necessary part in us reclaiming our humanity from capitalists, and also a fundamental part of any other social or political movement. We won’t achieve much when our very minds are bought and sold.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel
Katherine Angel is a philosopher and her exploration of consent, desire, and violence may be challenging for some readers to penetrate. It is worth it to stay with this book, and if you find her philosophical prose difficult to understand, all the more reason to read this book with a group of friends.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again was on my radar for awhile. As someone who challenges what I call the contractual model of consent, the “verbal, enthusiastic, sober, ongoing” model, Katherine Angel has been mentioned to me as another feminist who calls this model of consent into question.
The first part of the book was difficult for me in its seemingly uncomplicated acceptance of the legal system as a potential avenue of justice for survivors of sexual violence, if that system were unencumbered by the sexist tropes and misunderstandings about desire and consent that currently pervade it. As a survivor who went through a rape trial, and had several legal interventions into the various violences I have been subjected to, I always get a bit riled up when the legal system is associated with justice. In the case of the domestic and sexual violence I experienced in an intimate relationship, my ex partner did spend time in jail. The domestic violence services I sought support from, steeped in carceral feminism, unfortunately presented the legal system as a straight forward way to defend myself, empower myself, and seek justice. The incarceration of my ex partner was not justice, for me, for him, or for anyone. But more on that another time.
As the book progressed I became more and more drawn in by the arguments Angel was making, and by the end, I was literally throwing the book across the room (in a positive way) and exclaiming what I’d learned to anyone who would listen. Very often when I read really good books I feel like they affirm something I knew on some level but didn’t have the words to express. Angel took me there, but then she took me way further and blew my mind with a framing that I did not expect or see coming, but that I definitely affirm as accurate.
Her main argument is that the current model of verbal and ongoing consent puts all the responsibility for consent on women’s shoulders at the expense of the unfolding of our own felt desire. Desire, Angel argues, is emergent. It’s not something that can be declared ahead of time, but something that unfolds in a social context. The idea of women’s sexuality, in particular, as context based or responsive, is not new, but Angel puts that idea in conversation with our current model of consent and shows how they do not function well together. She insists on women’s right to not know what we want, and to not frame this unknowing as an invitation to violence or an irresponsibility that must be done away with in order to have consensual sex.
Finally she drives home a compelling argument that shatters the framing that while women need appropriate context in order to access desire, for men, sexuality is a more of a biological drive. She argues that it only seems this way because we are living in a culture that provides ample context for the creation and fulfilment of male desire. Whereas women are often left bereft of a context that works for us, men live in a culture that actively creates desire producing context for them at every turn. This intervention, while simple and rather obvious when you think about it, is fundamentally important and necessary in order to challenge a subtle but pervasive biological essentialism that pops up in discussions between the obvious differences in men and women’s desire.
Don’t settle for this brief synopsis. If you have sex, you owe it to yourself to read this book.
After Black Lives Matter by Cedric Johnson
I won’t go into too much detail about this book here because I already discussed it at length on the Fucking Cancelled Book Club and had the pleasure and honour of interviewing Cedric Johnson about the book, also on Fucking Cancelled. So check out those episodes for a deeper dive, and also definitely get your hands on a copy of the book!
After Black Lives Matter considers whether Black Lives Matter was successful in its stated aim of abolishing the police, or even, in its less grandiose aim of eliminating or even reducing police violence. Concluding that Black Lives Matter did not achieve its stated goals, Johnson considers why it failed to do so, arguing that a major reason for this is that the framework of race and racism as the primary factors in police violence and mass incarceration misunderstands the issue and so therefore does not provide effective strategies. Johnson looks at the role that class plays, pointing out that the victims of lethal police violence are primarily people living under poverty, particularly those driven into criminalized forms of labour for survival.
Not only a critique, After Black Lives Matter takes up the work that Black Lives Matter was hoping to achieve, asking what would effectively work to decrease police violence and mass incarceration. Part of his answer is the creation of employment by investing in impoverished and abandoned communities through the creation of public works. Jobs can be created by providing services that communities desperately need.
Practical and hopeful, Johnson moves us away from performative outrage, posting, or self improvement / self admonishment as politics, towards real world strategies that would empower and protect communities being targeted by police violence. He shows us that true compassion and humanization is rooted in an honest assessment of what people need, and then setting out to meet those needs, rather than using other people’s trauma to further our own political agendas. Essential reading for anyone interested in the connected issues of poverty, racism, police violence, mass incarceration, crime, and gun violence. Every discussion of police violence in the United States needs to include this book.
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Esther Perel is fucking brilliant. She defines the erotic as a life force, as a kind of vitality, that can be expressed through sexuality, but is not confined to it. Eroticism is our imagination, our responsiveness, our curiosity, our openness to new and emergent experiences. I see the erotic emanating from Perel, in the way she speaks and expresses herself, and I find it absolutely beautiful and compelling to see an older woman embodying the erotic in a way that thoroughly outshines the objectified and youth-obsessed images of sexual desirability we are fed by a sexist culture.
Mating in Captivity is a must read for everyone who either is or wants to be in a longterm partnership. It explores the way that our desire for security, safety, and dependability in a partner can be at odds with our desire for novelty, excitement, risk, and adventure in our romantic and sexual experiences. This is why the spark so often fades in longterm relationships. We may have a solid and fulfilling partnership but long for the excitement we felt in the early stages of relationship, and many people go looking for that spark outside of their partnership because they don’t know how to revive it within the partnership.
The key take away from Mating in Captivity is that, despite the reassuring fantasy that we’ve figured our partners out, that we know them completely and can therefore depend on them totally, our partners remain a mystery to us. No matter how well we know someone, they are always fundamentally unknown to us. They have an entire inner world that we may never enter, no matter how much they share. On top of this, they are always changing, becoming someone new. Recognizing this strangeness in someone we love can be terrifying because it reminds us that nothing is a sure thing, everything is new and everything is risky. When we are able to connect with and remember this strangeness and its associated newness and risk, eroticism returns.
This is such an important book that teaches us how to return to our vitality, inside and outside of our relationships.
The Creative Act by Rick Rubin
The Creative Act made me feel utterly seen as a writer. Very often I feel alone as a creative worker. I see being a creative worker as being a spiritual worker. Creative workers are doing essential, world transforming, spiritual work, and yet we live in a time when we are stripped of our mentors, made to hustle under capitalism, are constantly pressured to commodify, sterilize, or otherwise domesticate our work, and it is frowned upon for us to be honest about the exact nature of the work we are doing.
This book lays bare the creative process, in both its receptive and its active elements. The fact that creatives are channels tapping into something, and that a huge part of our job is to be open to that process, is something rarely acknowledged or understood. And the constant nonstop hustle of capitalism makes it very hard to have the space to do this more receptive, but utterly essential, part of the work. The Creative Act encourages and validates the receptive process while also diving into the active process of shaping and molding what we receive.
A lot of people feel called to creative work but are stuck in perfectionism, imposter syndrome, or otherwise feel blocked. This book is an absolute gift to those people, showing that the creative process is not about perfection and actually requires ample room for experimentation, play, failure, and mess. If you are an established creative worker with a practice this book still has so much to offer you. It will bring you into a lineage of creative workers and give words for what you are doing. Whatever kind of creative worker you are, whatever your own tendencies, this book will find ways to challenge you and deepen your practice.
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Sex at Dawn makes the compelling argument that human beings are not a monogamous species. Monogamous people can be very defensive of monogamy and roll their eyes at this type of argument, but the case that humans are not a monogamous species is very solid, both in our own behaviour and in the behaviour of our closest relatives in the evolutionary tree. And yet the assertion that humans are naturally monogamous is upheld across the majority of cultures and even within science. This represents a confounding amount of denial. There are no monogamous species of Great Apes “except for humans”, and humans, despite longstanding and strict cultural and sometimes legal enforcement of monogamy have pretty much consistently failed to be monogamous. Our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, Chimpanzees and Bonobos are both promiscuous, and I don’t know how to tell you this but — so are human beings.
Saying that humans are a naturally nonmonogamous species is not to say that nonmonogamy is morally superior or mandatory. People can definitely choose to be monogamous and can do so in ethical and fulfilling ways. We do lots of things that aren’t natural for our species and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the longstanding and continuing stigmatization of social sex with multiple partners can be remedied through a thorough reckoning of the role of sex for our species. It is not and has never been solely about reproduction. As a highly social species, we have sex for social reasons — to connect, to be close, to maintain relationship, to feel good together, to deepen intimacy. Understanding this liberates sexuality from the dysfunctional and stigmatized position its been stuck in and flies in the face of arguments that people who are nonmonogamous are “selfish.”
This book was deeply healing for me.
It fell off a bit for me at the end in the discussion of women’s sexuality, and the unimpressive retreat into “women are mysterious and unknowable.” I recommend reading this alongside Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again.
Falling Back in Love With Being Human by Kai Cheng Thom
I come from a lineage of queer poets and memoirists who write beautiful, heartfelt words full of longing that crack the heart open. There are many of these writers and being immersed in their work fuelled my own and helped in the development of my creative voice. I feel seen by this type of writing in a spiritual way, and it feels absolutely necessary for my soul. Unfortunately, queer world and cancel culture profoundly overlap, and I am now mostly exiled from this lineage of queer writers and memoirist that used to be home to me. It has been a heartbreaking process not only to be peronally rejected by many of these writers who used to be colleagues of mine, but to feel cast outside of the world of poetry. It has also felt like a painful betrayal that these writers with their gigantic hearts and deep love of humanity refuse to look critically at the cruel practice of cancellation.
Kai Cheng Thom is of this lineage. She writes beautiful, heart wrenching words that make me cry and crack me open. She reminds me of my humanity and of everyone’s humanity and her words fortify me for the hard work of love in such a painful world. She opposes cancel culture, publicly and clearly, and she weaves this stance effortlessly into her poetry and her ethics of love. Falling Back in Love With Being Human leaves no rock unturned in Thom’s mission of extending the heart as far as it will go. She challenges all of us to love bigger and braver than we think we can, to extend that love outward toward everything that hurts us and confuses us, and inward to every part of ourselves we want to exile and reject. She loves monsters. All types. Because she knows there are no monsters — only those who carry the weight of the projections of the things we don’t want to face in ourselves, each other, and the world.
I recently had the pleasure of being on a panel with Kai Cheng, discussing cancel culture on the Left. It’s worth a watch.
You Better Be Lightning by Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson is another one of these queer poets who sees you right through to your bones and past that to something deep and endless. Andrea Gibson is also one of the few in this lineage to enact an ethic of love and compassion by openly opposing cancel culture. Jay and I had the absolute pleasure and honour of interviewing Andrea on Fucking Cancelled, and it’s one of the most beautiful interviews we’ve ever done.
I listened to You Better Be Lightning as an audiobook which I recommend if you like audiobooks, because Andrea narrates it and their incredible skill as a spoken word poet comes through clearly. I was in tears immediately. Andrea has this skill of being with the reader exactly where we are, facing all of it, loving all of it, turning none of it away, while simultaneously expanding the reader, bigger and bigger, into the wisest, most loving, most grateful and graceful parts of ourselves.
The line “a difficult life is not less worth living than a gentle one” which Jay and I used to title our interview with Andrea, encapsulates the medicine of these poems. I have dedicated my life to telling the world: whatever it is you can face it. You can be here with it. Andrea carries this work with such power and grace, dissolving all our fear and aversion, and letting us finally arrive at what is. You owe it to yourself to read this book.
Tomorrow Ever After directed by and starring Ela Thier
I know this is a list of books but I’m putting a movie on it because I can. No one can stop me.
Tomorrow Ever After is a movie that not enough people have heard of, and that everyone should watch. Directed and starring Ela Thier, it is hilarious, heartfelt, and transformative. It shines a clear and compassionate light on the absurdity and cruelty of alienation under capitalism. It returns us to what is human in us, to our natural unadulterated instinct to connect and be together, which remains, no matter how repressed it is by capitalism. I encourage everyone to gather their friends and loved ones and watch this movie together. It will show you both what is wrong, and what is right.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier
Thank you for taking the time to read through these reviews. I hope you feel inspired to get your hands on some of these books and start reading.
Thanks for being here. This is my online home and the place where you can stay updated about my work, read my writing, and support my practice.
ClementineMorrigan.com functions as an archive of my writing, and a newsletter you can subscribe to. Subscribing is the best way to stay informed about new things I’m doing. I try to keep about half of my posts free for everyone, and half are for paid subscribers.
You can choose to receive all posts as emails, or, if you want to receive less emails, you can opt to receive semi-regular digest posts that list all the recent posts. You can decide whether to subscribe to all posts or just the digest posts by clicking here. Scroll down to the notifications sections and uncheck the section that reads “receive emails for new posts” leaving the section titled “receive emails for new posts in digest posts” checked. Alternatively, you can uncheck the digest posts if you only want to receive the long form emails.
ClementineMorrigan.com is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Announcements and new things
If you took part in the perzine challenge, I am finally sending you your zine. Sorry for the delay — life is chaotic! If you don’t receive your zine by January please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mailing address.
Contemporary Spirituality: Meaning and Mysticism in the Modern Age (Upcoming course I’m teaching in) — Use the code TEACH-CS-MORRIGAN for a discount.
Things I’m reading, listening to, watching or thinking about lately
Palestinian deaths count for less in Canada’s newspapers. Data proves it. by Martin Lukacs, Katia Lo Innes & Ben Cuthbert
Love Letter From The Afterlife by Andrea Gibson
Clementine Morrigan is a writer and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, ethics, relationships, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and a proponent of building solidarity across difference. She is a socialist, a feminist, and a vegan for the animals and the earth.