Textbook: An Unconventional Book Review
I found Textbook by Amy Krouse Rosenthal in the new book section of the library last weekend. Rosenthal’s first memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, sits on a shelf in my bedroom between the collected letters of John Steinbeck and a Toni Morrison novel.
I read Encyclopedia shortly after I graduated college. I was working two part-time jobs and scribbling in my journal every chance I got.
I hoped that the thread of words would lead me to a better life: a life more like the one I'd envisioned as a child. One where I worked as a journalist or an author and wrote meaningful things rather than the weekly bar specials I copy-edited for ten bucks an hour.
Encyclopedia blew my head right open. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to write a book like that. One that felt both subversive and sweet. Unconventional and ordinary. Serious and silly.
To get a true sense of [a] book, I have to spend a minute inside. I’ll glance at the first couple of pages, then flip to the middle, see if the language matches me somehow. It’s like dating, only with sentences. Some sentences, no matter how well-dressed or nice, just don’t do it for me. Others I click with instantly. It could be something as simple yet weirdly potent as a single word choice (tangerine). We’re meant to be, that sentence and me. And when it happens, you just know.
—From Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
In the 1960s, a group of French writers formed a society called Oulipo, or “workshop of potential literature.” Writers within Oulipo used a variety of constraints to heighten their creativity and test the boundaries of language. Member Georges Perec, for example, wrote a 300-page novel without using the letter “e.” Raymond Queneau recounted a minor altercation ninety-nine times, each time using a different style.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal isn’t a member of Oulipo, nor is she French. But Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and Textbook both encapsulate Oulipo’s mission. Encyclopedia tells the story of Rosenthal’s life in alphabetical order, with encyclopedia-style entries on everything from books (see excerpt above) to tipping. Textbook takes a similar approach. It’s divided into nine academic units, a pre-assessment, midterm essay and final review, with an interactive texting component that makes you feel like the author is by your side, whispering in your ear.
12 years of primary school + 4 years of college + 1 internship + 3 shitty jobs + 2 pretty good jobs ÷ one cross-country move from Pennsylvania to Arizona and back again (2,178 miles multiplied by two)
Time it took me to read Textbook: about two and a half hours in one sitting.
It put me in a good mood. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I just felt a new sense of optimism in the days after reading Textbook. I felt like I could find delight anywhere, if I just looked hard enough. Like I could document my life in any way imaginable and find new beauty there every time.
- Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit by Corita Kent and Jan Steward
- How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum by Keri Smith
- Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec
- The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon