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Robin Rinaldi on Self-Knowledge

Robin Rinaldi is the author of The Wild Oats Project, a memoir applauded by critics and readers alike. "A sexual-awakening romp wrapped in a female-empowerment narrative," wrote The Washington Post. The book has been published in 12 countries and translated into eight languages.

Writing about love, sex, food, travel, psychology, and culture, Rinaldi's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, and has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show and on BBC Radio. She lives in Los Angeles.

"The main reason I read is to learn about life," says Rinaldi. "How do others live it? What can authors teach me about experiences we have in common and experiences I’ll never have? Reading is the best method we have for delving into another person’s consciousness at length. Every book, regardless of genre, is a snapshot of the author’s mind."

"Of course, in memoir," she notes, "the snapshot is a bit clearer, the transmission more direct. There's no hiding in the shelter of fiction. The straightforwardness of memoir makes it my favorite genre. I’m so grateful for talented writers who’ve had the guts to honestly document the confusing thoughts, conflicting feelings, and moral struggles of their own lives, in beautiful language."  

Robin Rinaldi offers the following three good books on the subject of self-knowledge:
by Vivian Gornick

This slim memoir, the most recent of longtime critic, memoirist, and writing teacher Gornick, is an irresistible introduction to her elegant, intellectually vibrant prose. It explores her 20-year friendship with her gay male friend Leonard against the backdrop of New York City, where Gornick has spent all of her 80 years. It will make you want to go back and read Fierce Attachments, her memoir about the perennial mother-daughter struggle, and The Situation and the Story, a craft book that should be on every memoirist’s shelf. Gornick is a literary treasure, a slightly less melancholy, more extroverted version of Joan Didion who, though highly regarded, probably hasn’t gotten the acclaim she deserves.

New York—the city of Whitman and Crane—that fabled context for the creation myth of the young man of genius arriving in the world capital, as in a secular tableau of annunciation, with the city waiting for him and him alone to cross the bridge, stride the boulevard, climb to the top of the tallest building, where he will at last be recognized for the heroic figure he knows himself to be.

Not my city at all. Mine is the city of the melancholy Brits—Dickens, Gissing, Johnson, especially Johnson—the one in which we are none of us going anywhere, we’re there already, we, the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger.

The eleven volumes of Nin’s lifelong diary, covering 60 years, often get swept aside by critics and modern writers due to the omissions and untruths contained within the highly edited versions and—to be fair—some very florid writing about sex. Still, they are noteworthy in that Nin may have faithfully recorded more about the human experience than anyone before or since. Nin’s diaries can be read as a time machine (who wouldn’t want to traipse through Paris drunk with a young Henry Miller?), as a roadmap through some of the trickier terrain of feminine desire, and as an incisive commentary on the personalities, aesthetics, and psychological trends of the mid-20th century. There is so much life in these journals. And though much is made of her sexual shenanigans, her middle- and old-age musings more often contain insights such as this entry recorded soon after her mother died when Nin was 51:

I saw my mother’s small eyes looking at the hills and fields, which were sepia colored. I should have known she was looking at them for the last time. And I could have been tender and said: “Mother, I love you.” After death, that is what you weep over, but after death the one you love is not there to place an obstacle before your tenderness. Mother inhibited my tenderness. 
by Jonathan Franzen

Feminist writers like to dismiss Franzen: for his fictional characters’ sexism, for his ungenerous ivory tower rants against more populist writers like Jennifer Weiner, and, let’s face it, for his perch atop the totem pole of great white male American novelists—a spot this feminist believes he deserves. I can barely make it through a chapter of Philip Roth because I sense smugness beneath every word, and though I love David Foster Wallace’s essays, I’ve tried and failed three times to get past page 50 of Infinite Jest. But I devour everything Franzen writes the moment it’s published. Regardless of what his characters do or say, a broad consciousness underlies Franzen’s prose, an awareness of ambivalence and opposing forces. In this volume of memoirish essays, he makes a marital confession that few would have the vision to perceive, never mind admit:

At this late date, I seemed to have only two choices. Either I should try to change myself radically—devote myself to making my wife happy, try to occupy less space, and be, if necessary, a full-time dad—or else I should divorce her.

Radically changing myself, however, was about as appetizing (and likely to happen) as volunteering for the drab, homespun, post-consumerist society that the “deep ecologists” tell us is the only long-term hope for humans on the planet. Although I talked the talk of fixing and healing, and sometimes I believed it, a self-interested part of me had long been rooting for trouble and waiting, with calm assurance, for the final calamity to engulf us.

In another essay detailing his college years, Franzen describes a professor named Avery who claims a central spot in young Franzen’s mind and who gradually reveals himself to be a man of contradictions. These contradictions are mirrored in Avery’s lectures on Kafka’s The Trial, in which he posits that Kafka’s protagonist Josef, far from being an innocent victim, is actually, on closer read, guilty.

It was this other side of Avery—the fact that he so visibly had another side—that was helping me finally understand all three of the dimensions in Kafka: that a man could be a sweet, sympathetic, comically needy victim and a lascivious, self-aggrandizing, grudge-bearing bore, and also, crucially a third thing: a flickering consciousness, a simultaneity of culpable urge and poignant self-reproach, a person in process.

Victim, villain, and an overriding consciousness of both—the trinity of self-knowledge.


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