Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
by Rachel Dean
Just as some prescribe to the notion that “you are what you eat,” I choose instead to believe “you are what you read.” I’m sure this seems silly, particularly in an age of immediacy, when so much of our regular communication with others exists across mediums of social media through the convenience of 280-character tweets, direct messages, or disappearing Snapchats. Perhaps because of this, it has become far more common to take for granted the possibilities of language, particularly as they relate to the more modern problem of personal and collective apathy—how it is easy to believe we are advocating, or enacting change, or being present in our own lives, simply by sitting behind a screen and double-tapping a post. Am I really contributing to a cause when I share an activist’s post? Is it easy for me to forget my own responsibilities each time I log off of these apps and resume the privileges of my own life?
These days, I often feel disconnected from what’s going on around me, particularly when I engage with forms of media that feel anonymous and indirect. I recently deleted my Twitter in an impulsive attempt at reordering my morning routine; I was tired of spending so much of my time staring at the app’s newsfeed, jealous of everyone else’s more interesting lives. It was equally easy to submerge myself in the muck of daily news and cynicism just by scrolling for 30 minutes—social media became a kind of addicting elixir of disengagement and despair. This is not to say, of course, that social media is the crux of our modern problems; I also must consider the privilege that enables me to turn away, at least for a moment, from the world’s issues. But rather than checking out altogether, I’ve tried to replace that time with reading, and although one is not a purer form of engagement than the other, my mornings feel calmer.
Reading for connection is task I’ve decided to take up with fervor. When I consider books that have invited this connection, I think first of Too Much and Not the Mood, a collection of essays written by Durga Chew-Bose. Last summer, while at the Brooklyn Book Festival with my friend Genesis, I picked up a copy of the book. I was in a phase—maybe I should stop calling it a phase, as it’s been nearly two years—of reading almost exclusively nonfiction written by women. I was searching, and still am, for words that make me feel both seen and understood. I find this, almost always, in work by women. As Lorrie Moore writes in her new collection, See What Can be Done, “in fact, very little written by a woman seemed foreign to me. Books by women came as great friends, a relief. They showed up on the front lawn and waved.” Too Much and Not the Mood did just that—it waved—and so I took it home and read it, moved as I was by its allure of connection.
As a child, reading was, for me, an educator of independence. Books were small worlds—between a front and back cover, I could explore the landscape and characters of someone else’s imagined reality. My favorite books were fantasy stories. I enjoyed Greek mythology, stories about King Arthur and Mordred, and anything else that featured magic. I was an anxious kid, often worried about one thing or another, and reading offered an escape from the obsessiveness of my own fears. These days, my first impulse to find that same escape is to open Twitter or Instagram. More often than not, though, I close out of those apps feeling less like I’ve escaped my own life and more like I’ve entered a rabbit-hole.
Picking up Too Much and Not the Mood reminded me again of those early days, when devouring books for the sake of reading was the purest form of joy I felt. But more than that, and maybe more importantly now, I can identify that reading was a practice of training myself to observe more carefully. In a world where we have become increasingly prone to the headphones-in, head-down mode of living—a habit I will, despite this essay, never completely abandon—reading books is a form of worship, a religion that neglects convenience in favor of hard-earned attention. One that eschews consumption in favor of slow digestion—that of words, ideas, and stories.
The essays in Too Much and Not the Mood require this slowness, this careful scrutiny. And, maybe without intending to, Chew-Bose makes a case for being present and for the rich clutter of thought that accompanies it. At times, the book reads like a diary, flushed and harried. Chew-Bose interrupts her meandering narratives with bites of wisdom so succinct, so crushing, that I often had to set the book down and take a breath. In her essay, “Heart Museum,” she writes, “I’m fairly confident my compulsion for stockpiling has kept me at a distance from possessing answers to my own questions. I suspend them—the questions, that is—in my writing.” Too Much and Not the Mood not only makes a case for the art of observation, then, but also for the glory of questioning. We learn, in Chew-Bose’s book, through the inconclusiveness of her essays, that there is more to life than knowing. That the real accomplishment resides in our ability to consider, sometimes frustratingly, who and what we are.
Still, regardless of the fact that Too Much and Not the Mood seeks a slow read, I must admit I read the collection quickly, maybe too quickly, and returned to it many times. I would put it back on the shelf, and within hours it would be on my desk again. I always read with a pen in my hands, and I realized later, as I flipped through its pages, that 3-quarters of the book were underlined—I could never loan it to another person; they’d think I was crazy for defacing it with blue pen. But so much of Chew-Bose’s interiority felt specific and personal to me. I needed to remember it.
At one time, I would seek out books completely separate from my reality. I liked these books because they could transplant me, mysteriously, into the lives of characters much braver than myself. I still believe in those stories, and I still recognize their purpose. Part of literature is to strangify, to invite people to imagine perspectives different from their own. But the role of good writing is also to name, to call to mind feelings or behaviors so intimate that a reader feels identified and seen even in the smallest of details. Books like these ask readers to keep two feet in their own world and to notice the brilliance of everyday life. Chew-Bose accomplishes this specificity through sentences that are both exacting and yet also simultaneously slippery. She writes, “there’s strength in observing one’s miniaturization. That you are insignificant and prone to, and God knows, dumb about a lot. Because doesn’t smallness prime us to eventually take up space? For instance, the momentum gained from reading a great book. And after, sitting, sleeping, living in its consequence. A book that makes you feel, finally, latched on” (17). As I read, I imagined all the ways I lived in the world—the spaces, both large and small, that I took up. The constancy of fluctuation,how being a woman is all at once a compromise and a victory, how I look to books like Chew-Bose’s to latch onto, so that I can feel, in my utter confusion, still afloat.
There’s a uniqueness to Too Much and Not the Mood that is difficult to encapsulate. Whenever I find myself trying to describe it to a friend with the intention of convincing her to read it, I find myself at a loss for words. What is the book, exactly? I don’t know. It is a collection of essays, but it is so much more than that—it’s a roadmap, a lyrical consideration of atmosphere and art, a careful rumination on love and family. It cannot be contained, not by a review, and not even, I’m afraid, by its gorgeous cover.
The real courtesy of Too Much and Not the Mood is that it’s infinite, in the way that only the best books are. Each time I read it, Chew-Bose’s words take me to new places. It’s a different kind of escape than the one I longed for in childhood, but it’s an equally worthy one. In an age of succinctness and rushing—when everyone, including myself, is trying to get somewhere without having to surrender attention—reading this book became a sort of personal practice. I open it again whenever I feel stuck in my own writing, unable to find worthiness in my small thoughts. This book seems to make the case that no inner thought is never too minute to be mined, and that, in fact, we can meet our miniaturization, our incompleteness, and our desires with the most empathy when we slow down and ask the right questions.
— Rachel Dean is a Siblíní Book Correspondent.