Whoops, you’re unemployed! How did that happen?
Well, however this particular turn of events came about, the fact of the matter is that you now have a lot more free time than you had before. Sure, you could spend this newfound freedom binge-watching an entire television series and stuffing your face with an entire box of Thin Mints, but might I suggest a slightly healthier time-killer? Instead catch up on some of the reading that you weren’t able to during that 9-to-5.
Here’s my list of five books to read once you’re newly unemployed. It’s not directed towards being self-helpy or even towards you finding a new job—just a toolkit to help you get the most out of this free time.
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
Ok kid, now that you’ve got all the time in the world ahead of you, it’s about time you read that hefty classic novel that’s been on your ‘to-read’ list since college. Something totally dense and time-consuming. Maybe for you it’s Ulysses or Moby Dick, or maybe you’re more modern and it’s Infinite Jest. Proust is more my speed, though, because he’s so intensely introspective and his prose is so lush and engrossing. It’s a good novel to get lost in.
Sure, you will also get lost between commas and semicolons, his endless lists of adjectives. But you will be totally absorbed into his rich landscapes, and his meticulously described social scenarios. On some days when you pick up this book, your eyes will drag unthinkingly down a page and you’ll realize that you can’t get into it at the moment. It’s ok—go for a walk and come back to it, or else set it aside for the day. This is not a book you can read while preoccupied, it requires and deserves every ounce of your attention. Which is why you picked it up in the first place, right?
Can’t and Won’t: Stories, Lydia Davis
In case you don’t know about her, Lydia Davis is America’s new short-short story darling, with quite a list of literary awards under her belt. Many of the stories in this collection clock in at one or two sentences long, meaning that they’re perfect for those shorter attention span days.
The beauty in Davis’ style lies in how detail-oriented and loving her descriptions of everyday life are. She frames a single, simple moment as a sort of slice-of-life vignette, a beautiful candid photograph of a story. The effect is to make us observe and appreciate the everyday — these mundane moments that we all experience, and thus, tie us all together in a way.
One of my favorites from the collection is the story “The Bad Novel”:
“This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on this trip—I keep trying to read it. I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend. My old friend the bad novel.”
The Promise of Happiness, Sarah Ahmed
You didn’t think you were getting off easy, did you? Time to get your theory game on.
In this work of queer theory, Sarah Ahmed questions our notions of what’s supposed to make us happy. A heterosexual marriage, a six-figure salary, 2.5 kids and a nice house in the suburbs—this dream is dated, reactionary, and—in a late-stage capitalist society where inflation is rampant and non-nuclear families are becoming the norm—more and more unattainable. Ahmed proposes we attempt to root out these antiquated ideas for newer, queerer forms of happiness, forms that we make from scratch.
What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way by recommending this book to you is—hey, don’t be bummed about being out a job! Employment is a socially fabricated way of making you feel that your existence is validated! It probably wasn’t really making you very happy anyway, right? Find (or make up) something that does.
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Ok, some days you might not want to dive into Proust or some heady queer theory. I feel you. Maybe you need something a little more catchy, a page-turner to hold you spellbound for a while. Enter Ancillary Justice.
This is Ann Leckie’s first novel, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. NO BIG DEAL. It’s an amazing work of science fiction that I have recommended to countless friends since it came out in 2013.
The protagonist, Breq, is both a soldier in the galaxy-spanning empire the Radch and an Artificial Intelligence. She was once the sentience of an entire spaceship, the Justice of Toren, but was explosively sabotaged by the power-hungry and suspicious emperor Anaander Minaai. The Justice of Toren AI barely escaped in the body of an ancillary (Breq), and now she’s on a mission to end the colonial juggernaut of an emperor that created her. It’s a stunningly good story, with interesting and fleshed-out characters and drama that is as nuanced as it is exciting. While the novel is set in a lushly fabricated fictional universe, the themes of colonialism, slavery, gender and identity suggest that Leckie is drawing from some real-world history for inspiration.
(Oh, and just so you know—the third title in Leckie’s trilogy was released on Tuesday, October 6.)
How to Find Fulfilling Work, Roman Krznaric
So, I saved the slightly self-help title for last.
All that stuff about the futility and normativity of employment being said—most of us need a source of income. Yeah, I know, it sucks. But there are less soul-crushing and more fulfilling ways of making an income out there—you’ve just got to look for them.
The School of Life publishes self-help books that are very non-self-helpy. How To Find Fulfilling Work is one of their titles with a sympathetic tone and practical action steps, along with a good dose of history and sociology to appeal to the out-of-work academic in you. It not only advises you on how to find that next job, but how to thrive in that job and how to survive the potentially disheartening period of unemployment in the meanwhile. As an alternative or a supplement, you can read the School of Life’s free Book of Life online—I highly recommend the chapters on Capitalism and Work.