essays to save your soul by in 2020 | book review

Hi I’m Deboki and this is okidokiboki, and
today I’m going to be talking about the
essay collection Here For It by R. Eric Thomas.
Here For It was one of the last books I picked
up from the library before everything went
into quarantine, and I was super excited to
read it.
I’d recently started reading Thomas’ column
on Elle.com.
And his column and weekly newsletter are a
great read if you’re in need of well-written,
snarky takes on politics and culture that
still have a real heart to them, that still
have a real central sense of sincerity.
And I’ve also just been in the mood for
essay collections.
But then quarantine started, and I opened
up Here For It and I tried to read it…and
I couldn’t.
The first line is about how he used to believe
when he was a kid that he was conceived via
immaculate conception.
It’s like this great strong opening line
when you are not in a place of complete and
total dread over the state of the world, and
are at least first confronting that.
I think like a lot of people, my pop culture
tastes over the past few months have been
in a very, very weird place.
Back in March, I opened up Here For it was
super excited too read it.
And then I got five pages in, shut it, and
was just like “Nope.
I can’t.”
It wasn’t the book’s fault, I was just
not in a place where I could handle a book
that had a very emphatic joyful but snarky
tone to it.
I’m leading with this preamble because back
in March, when this pandemic was hitting the
US and everything was shutting down, and everything
was awful…that was not the right time for
me to read Here For It.
But it turned out that several months later,
this would be for me to read.
Like I said, Here For It is an essay collection.
But it actually reads a bit more like a memoir
made up of loosely connected chapters.
The essays could stand on their own, but for
the most part, they build on each other.
The most obvious way they build on each other
is just chronologically.
The first essay is about Thomas getting the
opportunity to write for Elle.com after a
Facebook post goes viral, but after that,
he goes back to his childhood, which involves
him being one of the few black kids at a predominantly
white private school in the Baltimore area
, then moving to his college years at Columbia
and the University of Maryland, Baltimore
County, and then moving to the professional
and personal parts of his life that follow
after that.
But more than just the timeline that connect
these essays is a common narrative thread
of how we seek out our identity through our
interactions with others: how community and
relationships shape us every bit as much as
we shape them.
In these essays, Thomas most frequently investigates
the way he’s interacted with his own blackness,
sexuality, and faith—bits of identity that
are of course not distinct from each other,
but that inform and intersect as he comes
in contact with classmates, family, softball
teams, restaurant co-workers, and romantic
partners.
He does all this with a lot of humor.
Like I said, he does have a very snarky but
joyful tone.
But he also just includes like just very funny
stories.
Like there’s a birthday party that manages
to take that absurd combination, that mixture
of like social anxiety mixed up with a very
insistent desire for company—the ways that
those feel contradictory where it’s almost
like borderline funny because it’s otherwise
painful.
And he takes that and wraps it up in a moment
that’s almost too on the nose, which speaks
to some of the absurdity of trying to negotiate
these parts of who we are in a public setting.
There’s a story from like 2002 about how
he accidentally went viral because he wrote
a post about Black History Month that he meant
to be satirical, but that was so satirical
that it basically sounded like a racist white
person actually wrote it, and it ended becoming
a very big bad ordeal at his school.
And again, this is 2002 internet, so the notion
of vitality and what kind of issues it’s
creating—there’s just a lot of layers
to the ways it’s absurd but also meaningful
in terms of how he’s interacting with himself.
But those moments of absurdity and humor are
also wrapped up with sadder or more frustrated
parts of his life.
Thomas is a storyteller, he hosts The Moth
Radio Hour, and that shows in the way he mixes
and connects his stories across essays so
that you can feel the ramifications of one
anecdote pages later when you’re in a completely
different essay.
In one essay in particular that I think is
especially a punch to the gut, about his experience
in high school, he’s processing a very deep
friendship he had with a girl named Electra,
and it touches on a lot of those personal
aspects of his identity, especially race and
sexuality.
But it’s also largely about their friendship
and even love, and it builds to a very emotional
end that sort of left me winded.
The book isn’t building to a specific answer
or lesson or how-to when it comes to affirming
your identity, just the ways that this journey
has shaped for Thomas himself.
A lot of it just hit so hard for me right
now, but especially the way that community—or
sometimes the lack of it—informed the way
Thomas sees these various parts of his identity,
or how the ways he’s seen them has changed
over time
Like I said, this comes into play in different
ways, and I think the one that I found particularly
compelling was how it related to his sense
of faith.
I think I’m like a lot of Hindu kids growing
up in America where my experience of religion
has been more of a cultural one than a spiritual
one, which is a little bit ironic given how
Hinduism has been repackaged for white people’s
performance of spirituality…but that’s
a different story.
I’m in a place now where I’m much more
curious now than I used to be about how other
people, especially people who have grown up
with religion, how their experience with that
has and hasn’t guided them, and as in the
case of these essays, how it builds a sense
of community.
For Thomas, this is related both to like community
and his own personal relationships because
he is married to a pastor, and so that is
both a meaningful but also funny journey to
watch him go down and process in these essays.
The key word that I keep coming back to in
this review and while I was reading it is
community, and I’m guessing several months
into a pandemic, it’s obvious why.
Community is a thing that I have been thinking
about for like a year or so now, and I think
the past few months have put that into sharper
relief.
The reason why I’ve been thinking about
this for a while now is grad school was the
last major community I was a part of, especially
now as someone who freelances and works remotely,
I’ve had a tough time figuring out how to
get a sense of community back.
I was putting more of a concerted effort into
it this year and felt like I was actually
making progress, and I talked about that a
bit in my “First Year of Freelancing video.
And it’s funny because I filmed that right
when everything was about to go into lockdown,
and I was like, “I don’t know if this
is gonna hold.”
And then it turns out it didn’t really hold.
And on an individual level, I have to say
that I’m pretty lucky in terms of dealing
with this situation.
I’ve got my husband and it turns out that
I’ve got good taste and he’s very good
company, especially during a pandemic when
you’re a high anxiety person like myself.
He is a very grounded person, it is a good
thing to have him.
So I don’t feel lonely in that individual
sense.
But there’s a difference between having
someone that you’re with, having that individual
relationship, and having a bigger sense of
a community that you belong to and that you’re
contributing to.
And there’s this quote that really stuck
with me when I was reading Here for It:
“The feeling of being alone, I’ve found,
is the poison that has no taste.
It seeps in slowly and easily; it never seems
unusual.
Isolation presents as an undesired state but
nothing serious, nothing permanent, until
the lonely nights become lonely months.
Community goes from being a distant goal to
a forgotten idea.”
I’ve thought about this due to the pandemic
and then with Black Lives Matter, where I
was thinking about like what am I doing in
my communities, and then I was really stuck
on, “What even are my communities right
now?”
Which is a function of a bunch of different
shifts in my experience, but is also my own
personal lack of initiative and accountability.
Like a very trivial but obvious answer to
the question of “what are my communities?”
Is booktube.
This is a community that I’ve been a part
of, but have also been feeling very distant
from, maybe in part because I started it when
I was in grad school and was looking specifically
for an escape from talking about science all
day.
Not that is not as much of a specific need
that I have, like I’m not looking to decompress
from running lab experiments all day.
And so now I’m thinking what booktube is
for me.
And as a result, I’ve felt pretty disconnected
from the community, which translates into
a lot of things, but most obviously in me
not contributing as much.
Which is fine, that happens!
I’ve gone through my phases of various different
internet corners, and booktube could always
be one of those things that was really meaningful
to me for a period of time and then I moved
on to the next thing.
But thing is for me is that I know that it
is not, like I don’t feel like I’m at
that point with booktube.
And so more importantly, I don’t want to
half ass my participation in the community
in a way that leads to a lack of self-accountability
for what kind of content I consume in general
and how that translates into what I make for
this channel.
Sorry, this navel-gazing, and it doesn’t
have a firm conclusion, and I might be getting
a bit indulgent with it.
But if there’s a book that feels conducive
to navel-gazing about writing on the internet
and also about how that connects to community,
then this book would be it.
The full title of this collection is Here
For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America.
And I don’t know if my soul is saved yet
because there’s still a whole second half
to 2020 to get through, so who know what the
fuck will happen.
But this book did make me think more about
what is a better way to rethink myself and
my position relative to the communities I
want to be a part of.
I’m glad I gave this book another read.
For where I was at that point, it helped me,
simple as that.
It’s not a self-help book, even if the subtitle
makes it kind of sound like one.
So I’m going to just end with one last quote
from the book that has still been useful for
me to think on, and then also encourage you
to check it out if you’re looking for an
essay collection to read right now.
“How are we supposed to live without a meteor
bearing down on us?
How are we supposed to find the best parts
of humanity without a brutal regime at the
door?
How are we supposed to tell the people we
love that we love them if we’re not five minutes
from being destroyed?
That’s the challenge of being alive.”

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