Recent Reads #2: Graphic non-fiction

Featuring Kristen Radtke, Lynda Barry, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddel

Continuing from the previous post, here are three more books I’ve read recently that I recommend.

All three of these books are not your typical non-fiction works. They’re closer to graphic novels, but even that’s an inadequate description. You’ll see what I mean…

Seek You hardback cover

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
Kristen Radtke

Potentially the best thing I’ve read all year. Kristen Radtke’s Seek You is not your typical graphic novel. In fact, graphic novel feels like the completely wrong description. It’s akin to a documentary but recorded in comic form rather than film.

Loneliness is an epidemic not being taken seriously enough. We need connection. We are social creatures, and our natural state is to have community of people around us. But our culture has changed. Now we aspire to live alone, and it’s to the detriment of our health.

This was the book I most needed to read when I was struggling with my own mental health and loneliness back in the early days of summer. It’s also what I desperately wish I could have read in 2018 when I was studying my Master’s and was writing a play about loneliness.

Radtke inserts her own personal narrative alongside scientific research and investigative journalism. She also includes a huge section on the research of Harry Harlow, whose monkey experiments — whilst horrifically unethical — fundamentally changed how we raised young children forever. If I could go back in time and give my younger self an idea for a play, it would be to write a theatrical take on Harlow’s research and how he mistreated both his subjects and the women in his life.

I’ll come back to this book one day. In fact, I suspect I’ll return to this book many more times in the coming years. The feelings it evoked were powerful and the questions it poses to our culture are important.

Hardback cover of What It Is

What It Is
Lynda Barry

Earlier this year, I read Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, which has been the book I’ve most recommended to people this year. With Barry’s encouragement, I’ve started to draw again.

As I loved Syllabus so much, I’ve wanted to read What It Is. It’s the book Austin Kleon recommends to all writers and the one he most often references. Whilst I didn’t love it quite as much as Syllabus, this book was still an incredible read.

The collage style Barry uses throughout makes every page unique and beautiful, and it’s loaded with thought-provoking questions about creativity. Barry’s books are unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered and they’ve made me rethink what a book can be.

There’s also a lot of useful tips for writers, too. For example, Barry recommends writing slowly and to always keep the pen moving. This is something I’ve tried to adopt in my daily journaling practice by writing big to slow down my hand.

Lynda Barry is fast becoming one of my favourite artists and a go-to reference for insights on creativity. This is another book I know I’ll keep coming back to over the years to come.

Hardback cover of Art Matters

Art Matters
Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddel

I borrowed this little book from my local library, but I’m going to need my own copy. This is the kind of book you want within arms reach so that you can easily pick it up and be reminded why you do what you do. Because as the title asserts, art matters.

Neil Gaiman shares his own experience of writing and offers some advice. Chris Riddel has then taken Gaiman’s words, separated them across numerous pages and illustrated Gaiman’s wisdom beautifully.

One piece of advice I loved was Gaiman’s perspective on writing as a career. Rather than a typical career plan, he had a list of things he wanted to do and then worked his way through the list. That’s it. No five-year plan or milestones by a specific age. It has worked out quite well for him.

It prompted me to think about what my own list of writing achievements would look like. This might be a smarter way to think about writing. I once said my goal was to publish a book before I’m 30. Time’s rapidly running out, so maybe reframing my goals is a good idea.

Gaiman also highlights why it’s a great thing to have no idea what you’re doing at the start:

People who know what they’re doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

Reminds me an awful lot of what Austin Kleon says about embracing obscurity.

All the wisdom Gaiman has is gold, but rather than me just paraphrasing the whole book you should read it for yourself.