Shelf Life: Sarah Ruhl

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

Smile: The Story of a Face

When theaters closed last March because of the pandemic, playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote a New York Times op-ed encouraging people to read and write poems as Shakespeare did. Just a month before, she had published her first book of poetry. Now comes her memoir, Smile (Simon & Schuster), about her struggle with Bell’s palsy she was diagnosed with after giving birth to twins in 2010.

The Chicago suburb-raised, Brooklyn-based Ruhl is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Clean House in 2005 and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play in 2010, which was also a Tony Award nominee. The MacArthur Fellow and Whiting Award winner teaches at the Yale School of Drama and is a playwright-in-residence with Signature Theatre.

Her play, Eurydice, adapted into an opera for which she wrote the libretto, premieres at the Met Opera at Lincoln Center in November. (In writing it, she tried learning Latin to read Virgil and Ovid.) She also wrote the libretto to Elvis Costello’s forthcoming musical A Face in the Crowd.

Not counting a play on talking land masses written in 4th grade, Ruhl wrote her first play as a sophomore at Brown for playwright Paula Vogel, who would later perform the ceremony when Ruhl got married; participated in the online theater Homebound Project that raised money for No Kid Hungry; recently learned to make gravy; is inspired by rain; counts King Lear or A Midsummer’s Night Dream as her favorite play; wrote For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday for her mom’s 70th birthday; has dressed up as Moira Rose, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Yoda for Halloween; co-founded the 3Views theater website; and has a dog named Minerva, the Roman goddess of among other things, poetry and the performing arts.

The book that:

…helped me through a break-up:

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Nothing like a 16-year-old heartbreak to birth a feminist. I never saw the world the same way again after reading that book.

…made me miss a train stop:

In my twenties, I was madly reading The Magic Mountain on the subway and fell asleep into a strange Thomas Mann-influenced reverie on a long commute from Harlem to Bensonhurst. I woke up, missed my stop, and saw that a very sad man was kneeling at my feet, imploring me for spiritual sustenance. The whole train was looking at me.

…made me laugh out loud:

Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You. I love having a good belly laugh, and I would normally go to the theater for that kind of laugh rather than to a book (because there’s something about cackling with other people rather than all by yourself), but this book (given to me by my sister who also makes me laugh) made me cackle all by myself. I was trying to find the Irby line that made me laugh the hardest, so I had to search the word “ass” and there were 28 usages of the word, which made me happy; but the one that really got me laughing involved hot diarrhea and a blizzard.

…made me weep uncontrollably:

Many books have made me weep uncontrollably; for some reason Kafka’s Metamorphosis stands out, because it doesn’t seem usual to weep at a man turning into a bug. But when I read it, my father was ill with cancer, and his body had been transformed as if overnight into a different body, an immovable body. And the detritus of that sad insect was swept up like a piece of rubbish by the housekeeper in the end, while the daughter got up and “stretched her young body.” I must have felt some guilt that I could stretch my young body, and despair over the body’s betrayal—how nonsensical and tragic and absurd it is to be embodied at times.

…I recommend over and over again:

During the quarantine, I kept recommending (and maniacally buying for friends) A Year with Rumi translated by Coleman Barks, because reading a Rumi poem every day calmed me down. Rumi always seems to have a spiritual elixir for dark nights of the soul. And Barks’s translations are so alive, so contemporary; deceptively plain-spoken and profound.

…I swear I’ll finish one day:

War and Peace. Oh, and Moby Dick. I know it probably makes me a lesser writer/human that I have not finished these two books but I think this is as good a place as any to make my horrible confession; reader: I have not finished them. These two massive texts by men both seem to proclaim that they could make sense of the whole kettle of fish. Perhaps it is for that reason—the striving to make sense of the totality—that I resist. Not even during the pandemic, when many of my brethren were reading War and Peace in an online book club together—could I finish War and Peace.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

The Life by Carrie Fountain, an exquisite book of poetry with a lens on motherhood that’s existential, funny and tender. The Tradition, the stunning book of poetry by Jericho Brown. Also Essays in Idleness and Hojoki by Kenko and Chomei, two Buddhist monks’ spiritual autobiographies, from the 14th century. And The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, letters of profound wisdom that I’ve been reading slowly over the past year. And the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’s amazing memoir, My Broken Language.

…I’d gift to a new graduate:

The I Ching, a particular translation by Richard Wilhelm. New graduates, many of them, are full of indecision. I myself was full of indecision in my early 20s, and based many of my major life decisions on the I Ching. It comforted me that Carl Jung also consulted the volume, as did John Cage, and the narrator in Sheila Heti’s incredible book Motherhood. I might also have to give a new graduate Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke for good measure. Anyone in their 20s who is confused about love might need Rilke.

…has the best opening line:

The first line in the short story Bliss by Katherine Mansfield perfectly captures joy, even in the sentence structure: “Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.” And because I’m a playwright, I have to share my favorite first line of a play: How I Learned to Drive, by my teacher Paula Vogel, which pulls the audience in effortlessly. The line is “Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.”

…has the greatest ending:

The last couplet of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”: “It’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Those 20 words are big enough to contain both irony and deep feeling; then create an act of ritual inside the moment of writing the poem.

…I brought on my first solo trip out of the country:

Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace. The Betsy-Tacy books comforted me and guided me all through my childhood. I re-read the series until the books fell apart and I taped them back together, sometimes sleeping with them under my pillow. When I was 20 and went to England to study, I took Betsy and the Great World with me, and I followed in Betsy’s footsteps, traveling to Oberammergau where she saw the Passion Play. I got to wondering, what if the guy who always had to play Pontius Pilate wanted to play the role of Jesus? That became the germ of my first full-length play.

…everyone should read:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, because it’s arguably the most important work of fiction written in America in the 20th century. No one else writes with Morrison’s language, or her incisive combination of honesty and empathy, or her reach. Reading about the cost of slavery for one particular mother—Sethe—expands the moral imagination and the heart.

…I last bought:

The last novel I bought was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I devoured it; I think it is a contemporary classic. I don’t know how Lee is able to sketch so deftly an entire generation in such bold quick strokes, you feel you know every character intimately, and then time passes in an instant, and the reader is on to the next generation, and then the next—meditating on the complicated tragedy of how generations are interconnected, from one country to another.

…features the most beautiful book jacket:

My favorite book jackets are painter Vanessa Bell’s designs for her younger sister, Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse is a particular favorite. I think book covers are such a great mystery (why are so many so ugly? Why is it so hard to make them beautiful, and also suit the book? What makes people pull a book off a shelf?)—and I think Woolf solved the mystery by having her sister design the covers for her. If I ever asked the painter Richard Baker (who does intricate portraits of book covers) for a portrait of a book, I’d most likely ask for Bell’s cover of To the Lighthouse.

…I’d want signed by the author:

A Wrinkle in Time. I wish I could go back in time and find the first signed book I ever had signed by an author—it was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Maybe it’s appropriate that it’s lost, or damaged by water in a basement—or maybe that particular volume exists in quantum time—in a tesseract. I have such a clear memory of standing and waiting in line for L’Engle to sign the book—an author—a real live author—and one of my favorites—and how I looked her in the eye as she sat at the table in Chicago. I remember how she took her time to sign the book, and how she made me feel seen. I love that she is a fabulist, and also deeply moral.

…has a great title:

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. I love this volume so much, and the title is something of a Zen koan. The book isn’t really a how-to book on how to write an autobiographical novel, but like any good paradox, it sort of is—but just not in the way that you might think.

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