Two books come to mind. One is Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, probably the book I have thought about, talked about, and quoted from the most this year. It concerns, among other things, a guy whose trauma-induced brain damage prevents him from recognizing his own sister. Powers manages to dramatize humanely and poignantly how the postmodern notion of the self as a series of fictions, which might appear to be quite anti-scientific, is actually supported by recent neurological research into the nature of consciousness. The other book is a collection of poems called All You Have to Do Is Ask, by Meredith Walters, which I discovered a few weeks ago, and many poems of which I have already returned to more than several times. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects (death, airplanes, soldiers, art, starfish, ecological depredation, love), elegant in their forms, exhilarating in their leaps from thought to thought, often funny, and in any given line one senses a mind on an urgent quest to discover what it believes and knows.
In 2011 a new baby and a new home led to a summer-long reading drought. For the last five years I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read. From May (The White Tiger) to October (1Q84) the log was empty — the longest such stretch in memory. But if this wasn’t a year of quantity it was one of quality.
Not at first, though. My year in reading began with David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor and, though I didn’t say it there in quite these terms, was, I thought, a nice demonstration of what happens when a writer becomes too in love with his own perceptive powers.
Things got better from there, however, when I read W. Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, which had just been reissued by the Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. It’s a first-person journal account of a daring World War II mission to kidnap the commanding general of Nazi forces on Crete. Moss and his British Special Ops colleague Patty Leigh Fermor pulled it off without so much as a blip in their pulse rates, all the while getting hammered nightly on local wine and consorting with all manner of Cretan misfits. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
My first fiction of the year came on a friend’s recommendation: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like me, my friend likes good young adult fiction and Octavian Nothing was one of the most unsettling stories about slavery in America I’ve ever read. If I’d picked it up when I was 10, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks afterward and to this day might still be calling it the best book I’ve ever read.
After Octavian I turned to another gut-wrenching political novel: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, about caste inequality in modern India. In the mid-2000s I spent a year in India and left taken by the country’s kaleidoscopic culture and effusive spirituality. I knew, even then, that those views were caricature, and that they ignored or rationalized the pervasive human suffering I’d seen while traveling. But it wasn’t until reading Adiga’s novel that I gave up that rosy view altogether. After finishing the book I passed it to my wife, making The White Tiger the first book we’d read more or less together since Pride and Prejudice back at the end of George W. Bush’s first term.
White Tiger was not the most widely shared book in my family this year, though. That honor goes to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. My neighbor gave it to me, I passed it to my brother, who passed it to my sister-in-law who passed it our brother-in-law who, as far as I know, still has it. For months we debated the merits of bare-foot running and the perniciousness of the modern sneaker industry. When we all ran a 10K in Maine over the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law brought chia seeds, mail-ordered special from the Internet.
In the end, though, 2011 was the Year of Murakami. For three breathless weeks in October I read 1Q84. Following on months of transition and many sleepless newborn nights, Murakami’s rare, strange story gave me back my human shape.
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Edward Champion is a New York writer with a receding hairline. He sometimes answers to the name Alfredo Garcia, but is known to respond to Phyllis if you coo nicely into his ear. In addition to writing reviews and essays for the likes of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and various outlets that have “New York” in them, he also produces a strange radio interview program called The Bat Segundo Show and blogs quite prolifically at his website, www.edrants.com. He hopes that you have enjoyed reading this biography.You’ve probably expended hearty chunks of 2008 dodging the hot and feverish advances of Bolaño acolytes, hoping that you wouldn’t lose your job, and waiting for the January 20th regime change with the same mad patience practiced by Vladimir and Estragon. Yes, there were plenty of exciting books that sparked the heart, touched the soul, and had some running down the streets with the mad looks of unvetted Visigoths who forgot they needed to listen to the attack plans before sacking Rome. Lost in the shuffle of these year-end lists were the many intriguing essays that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and blogs.The following list of essays doesn’t necessarily represent the best of 2008, but, for me, these pieces presented some of the most memorable contributions of what it means to live in our time.One essay forgotten in the Human Smoke controversy was Nicholson Baker’s “The Charms of Wikipedia,” in which The New York Review of Books’s stodgy tone was momentarily disrupted by an all-too-brief flicker of passion and excitement. Not only did Baker dutifully review the book in question, but he became so hopelessly dedicated to improving Wikipedia (under the handle “Wageless”) that his essay transformed into an unexpected call for civic duty, with the author himself demonstrating how one goes about preserving information.Maud Newton’s “Conversations You Have at Twenty” was one of the bravest essays of the year: an unflinching account of wild youth, unapologetic confession, and how one person believed too much in the wrong person at the temporary expense of her own identity. Richard Powers’s “The Book of Me” looked at the notion of identity from an altogether different end of the telescope, chronicling his own genome being mapped while unexpectedly revisiting his personal notions of security and identity.The two essays that stood out in The New Yorker this year were Malcolm Gladwell’s “Late Bloomers,” which wasn’t so much about a dubious dichotomy, as it was an evocative portrait of a young and arrogant writer who may not know how washed up and socially maladjusted he really is. Tom Bissell’s “The Grammar of Fun” put human faces to the men who design first-person shooters, subtly revealing how technological innovations reflect the lives and decor of those working long hours before the computer.Tim Wise’s “This Is Your Nation on White Privilege” was a riff on John Scalzi’s 2005 “Being Poor” essay, with the phrase “white privilege” standing in for “being poor.” But Wise was one of the few writers who dared to be explicit about the racial division that has fragmented this nation. And if Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” counts as an essay, then I likewise have to include it in this list for the same reasons.Frank Bures’s “A Mind Dismembered” earns an honorable mention on this list, if only because of its gripping lede, “No one is entirely sure when magical penis loss first came to Africa.” Another close contender is Junot Diaz’s “‘Grand,’ but No Godfather.” This appears to be the first essay written by a Pultizer Fiction winner that is unapologetically passionate about video games.But the year’s best comeback has to be Roger Ebert. After losing his voice, Ebert has funneled all of his energies into expressing himself on the page, most often through his blog. And he’s been a delight to read, whether he’s demolishing Ben Stein or making mischief by reviewing only eight minutes of a movie. While other essayists have ossified in their old age, Ebert appears to have developed some much-needed piss and vinegar. His writing has become more iconoclastic and provocative. And I’m convinced that this new direction has much to do with the freedoms of blogging. When you’re writing in an unfettered medium, you can pretty much do anything you want. And Ebert’s phoenix-like transformation into an astute, take-no-prisoners writer for the people should serve as a lesson to the bitter and lifeless dunces who complain of “blogger tics” because they know deep down they’re drier than the Gobi Desert and have no business writing in the first place.More from A Year in Reading 2008