Conversations with Authors - Jane Hirshfield

Sunday, May 31st • 7:00pm ET/4:00pm PT

Jane Hirshfield

in conversation with Alison Gopnik


We are so grateful to all the people in the Book Passage community, longstanding and new, who tuned in to our conversation (or rather, to this latest installment of what's now become a 20-year conversation). And we are so grateful also to Book Passage, to Elaine and her staff, and to ExtendedSession for conceiving of and making possible this extraordinary series of writers' conversations and inviting us in.

It's the gift of literature to shape-shift, to find a something to say and ways to speak in any weather and circumstance. When people can't gather in person, we can gather in ink—and now, in pixels, on screens. And we do. Because that's how our lives become larger than they could ever be without the dialogue books bring, without this big table, into which new leaves keep being added, where we banquet together on words, ideas, images, inventions, questions; on our momentary, shared stays against confusion.

Here's some suggestions for further reading that came up, some in our public conversation Sunday, some in the conversations we had leading up to it—

Mentioned in our conversation, some only briefly or just alluded to:

 Jane's list:

A few other books that are foreground for me these days:

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
    • This is the book I reached for, in the hours immediately following George Floyd's death, and over the days of rising response to it. No voice, no thoughts, no fiercely accurate and capacious vision is more needed.
  • Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
    • One poem uncannily apt for this time of both pandemic and political division is “The Stare's Nest by My Window,” a section of a longer work, “Meditations in A Time of Civil War.” Also, “Easter, 1916.” Both poems warn of the hardening of the heart that comes with division into partisan sides.
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters by Sean B. Carroll.
    • We're living in an age of extraordinary writing about scientific developments—I offer this book as one example of a work that brings scientific concepts, and their discoveries' stories (in this case about keystone species, lambda repressors, and the balancing act that allows living beings and ecosystems to flourish), into pages a layperson can both understand and be thrilled by.
  • Figuring by Maria Popova
    • Another unparalleled book conveying the lives and spirits and expansion of knowledge and life brought to us by scientists. The reminder in this book of Rachel Carson's life, eloquence, observation, and world-altering gift to us all would, on its own, be completely fulfilling. (In our conversation, we referred to her newsletter, one of the great, sustaining reminders of collective wisdom in our time.)
  • Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of  Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel and The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in An Age of Extinctions by David Quammen, are the two final masterworks of discovery-communication I'll offer here.
  • Selected Stories by Alice Munro
    • This is the book I'm about to reread, since it's the next choice up for my 20-year-running book group, made up of research scientists and a few random others. We read only fiction, plays, and poetry, mostly classics— Gilgamesh, Sophocles, Conrad, Melville, Chekhov, Austen, Borges, Auden, Whitman, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, Tomas Transtromer, Elizabeth Bishop, Orhan Pamuk, Colson Whitehead, Helen DeWitt, Toni Morrison... The group has lasted long enough and changed enough over time in participants that this will be our second session with Alice Munro's stories—but this time, on the must-read list is her tour de force novella-length story, “The Albanian Virgin.”

Finally, two other books I know of (there are probably others) that share with my own new book Ledger the distinction of having been published on March 10, the exact day that our life in the U.S. seemed, to me and others, to change.

Alison's list:

  • Along with The Ink Dark Moon, another wonderful and surprisingly universal book from the same era, filled with observations as sharply true now as in Japan a thousand years ago is The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon:
  • For other examples of what in our conversations I called Nerd Valentines—work that combines science, philosophy, fiction and poetry—Jane and I have just been talking about the stories of Ted Chiang, collected in two books, Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. “The Life Cycle of Software Objects,” in Exhalation, is among the best philosophical accounts of childhood and being a parent I know.
  • Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska
    • Among the poets Jane and I have talked of for years, the most frequent has been the great Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, whose work offers a model of work combining science, poetry, insight and politics across a long life, and troubled times.
  • Finally, I'll mention The Philosophical Baby, the one book of my own that we didn't mention by title. It's the book where I talk the most about childhood “lantern consciousness” and the contrast with adult “spotlight consciousness," which we touched upon.


THANK YOU ALL, please keep safe and well,

—Jane Hirshfield and Alison Gopnik


Below, please find links to purchase all of the books recommended by Jane and Alison, as well as a selection of their own books.

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Classics) Cover Image
By Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikibu, Jane Hirshfield (Translated by), Mariko Aratani (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780679729587
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - October 3rd, 1990

These translated poems were written by 2 ladies of the Heian court of Japan between the ninth and eleventh centuries A.D. The poems speak intimately of their authors' sexual longing, fulfillment and disillusionment.

Ledger: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525657804
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf - March 10th, 2020

A pivotal book of personal, ecological, and political reckoning tuned toward issues of consequence to all who share this world's current and future fate, from the internationally renowned poet.

Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780060959012
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper Perennial - April 2nd, 2002

In this luminous and authoritative new collection, Jane Hirshfield presents an ever-deepening and altering comprehension of human existence in poems utterly unique, as William Matthews once wrote of her work, in their "praise of ceaseless mutability as life's central splendor."

The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind Cover Image
ISBN: 9780688177881
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow Paperbacks - December 26th, 2000

This exciting book by three pioneers in the new field of cognitive science discusses important discoveries about how much babies and young children know and learn, and how much parents naturally teach them. It argues that evolution designed us both to teach and learn, and that the drive to learn is our most important instinct.

The Act of Creation Cover Image
ISBN: 9781939438980
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: One 70 Press - April 1st, 2014

The Act of Creation begins where this view ceases to be true. Koestler affirms that all creatures have the capacity for creative activity, frequently suppressed by the automatic routines of thought and behavior that dominate their lives.

Swann's Way (Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One) Cover Image
By Marcel Proust, C. K. Moncrieff (Translator)
ISBN: 9781420933086
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: - January 1st, 2009

The first volume of Proust's seven-part novel "In Search of Lost Time," also known as "A Remembrance of Things Past," "Swann's Way" is the auspicious beginning of Proust's most prominent work. A mature, unnamed man recalls the details of his commonplace, idyllic existence as a sensitive and intuitive boy in Combray.

The Unnamable Cover Image
ISBN: 9781505535488
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform - December 13th, 2014

"The Unnamable" is a short story by American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 - March 15, 1937) - known as H.P. Lovecraft - was an American author who achieved posthumous fame through his influential works of horror fiction.

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393337136
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - October 5th, 2009

“A landmark book in the science of emotions and its implications for ethics and human universals.”—Library Journal, starred review

The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht Cover Image
By Bertolt Brecht, David Constantine (Translated by), Tom Kuhn (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780871407672
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Liveright - December 4th, 2018

Times Literary Supplement • Books of the Year ("The most generous available English collection of Brecht’s poetry.")

A landmark literary event, The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht is the most extensive English translation of Brecht’s poetry to date.

Candide Cover Image
ISBN: 9780553211665
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Bantam Classics - April 1st, 1984

Candide is the story of a gentle man who, though pummeled and slapped in every direction by fate, clings desperately to the belief that he lives in "the best of all possible worlds." On the surface a witty, bantering tale, this eighteenth-century classic is actually a savage, satiric thrust at the philosophical optimism that proclaims that all disaster and human suffering is part

The Fire Next Time (Vintage International) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679744726
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - December 1st, 1992

A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation, gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement—and still lights the way to understanding race in America today.  

Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Wordsworth Poetry Library) Cover Image
By W. B. Yeats, Cedric Watts (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781853264542
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Wordsworth Editions - September 5th, 2000

With a new Introduction by Cedric Watts, Research Professor of English, University of Sussex.

The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters - With a New Q&A with the Author Cover Image
ISBN: 9780691175683
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Princeton University Press - March 7th, 2017

Now the subject of an Emmy Award-winning film the New York Times calls spellbinding

Figuring Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525565420
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - January 28th, 2020


Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802779656
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Bloomsbury USA - September 4th, 2011

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein c

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions Cover Image
ISBN: 9780684827124
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Scribner - April 14th, 1997

David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo, is a brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope, far-reaching in its message -- a crucial book in precarious times, which radically alters the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in that world. It's also a book full of entertainment and wonders.

Selected Stories, 1968-1994 Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679766742
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Vintage - November 11th, 1997


At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393608298
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - March 10th, 2020

A profound meditation on accepting, and celebrating, one’s solitude.

In the Lateness of the World: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525560401
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Press - March 10th, 2020

“An undisputed literary event.” —NPR

“History—with its construction and its destruction—is at the heart of In the Lateness of the World. . . . In [it] one feels the poet cresting a wave—a new wave that will crash onto new lands and unexplored territories.” —Hilton Als, The New Yorker

The Pillow Book Cover Image
ISBN: 9781784352332
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Jiahu Books - February 26th, 2017

The Pillow Book is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shonagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002. In it she included lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry, and some opinions on her contemporaries.

Stories of Your Life and Others Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101972120
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - June 14th, 2016

An award-winning book from the author of Exhalation, this short story collection “blend[s] absorbing storytelling with meditations on the universe, being, time and space. . . . raises questions about the nature of reality and what it is to be human.” —The New York Times

Exhalation: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101947883
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf - May 7th, 2019




Map: Collected and Last Poems Cover Image
By Wislawa Szymborska, Stanislaw Baranczak (Translated by), Clare Cavanagh (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780544705159
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Mariner Books - April 12th, 2016

“Both plain-spoken and luminous . . . [Szymborska’s] is the best of the Western mind—free, restless, questioning.” — New York Times Book Review

A New York Times Editors’ Choice

“Vast, intimate, and charged with the warmth of a life fully imagined to the end.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312429843
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Picador - July 6th, 2010

In the last decade there has been a revolution in our understanding of the minds of infants and young children. We used to believe that babies were irrational, and that their thinking and experience were limited.

The Beauty: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780345806857
Availability: Backordered
Published: Knopf - February 21st, 2017

An incandescent collection from one of American poetry's most distinctive and essential voices 

Come, Thief: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780375712074
Availability: Special Order
Published: Knopf - February 5th, 2013

A revelatory, indispensable collection of poems from Jane Hirshfield that centers on beauty, time, and the full embrace of an existence that time cannot help but steal from our arms.

After: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780060779191
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper Perennial - February 20th, 2007

An investigation into incarnation, transience, and our intimate connection with all existence, by one of the preeminent poets of her generation

The Lives of the Heart: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780060951696
Availability: Special Order
Published: Harper Perennial - August 2nd, 1997

A new volume of poems by the award-winning author of October Palace.

One of the world's leading child psychologists shatters the myth of "good parenting"