I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
I have two items to mention.
1. I have long enjoyed the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, owner of the most prodigious imagination of the twentieth century. The reader probably is familiar with that body of work; if not, I suggest laying hands on “Funes the Memorious,” or “The Library of Babel,” or any of his other short stories. In the likely event that you find them delightful, you might become interested in spending additional time in the company of Borges to learn what he had to say when he wasn’t writing those remarkable tales. For that purpose I recommend a book that I enjoyed immensely this year and that is a bit less familiar: his Selected Non-Fictions.
The book collects more than 150 essays, biographical sketches, book and movie reviews, and other miscellany that Borges wrote over the course of about sixty years. Every piece is short. The range of his curiosity and knowledge is astounding. There are comments on Virgil, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Melville, Henry James, William James, and dozens of other writers and thinkers, many famous and many obscure. There are his contemporaneous reviews of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and of King Kong and Citizen Kane. He writes about the history of the tango, and about the blindness that overtook him in middle age. There is an essay on the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, another called “The Art of Verbal Abuse,” and another on sixteenth-century projects of John Wilkins that would be at home in a Borges short story. And on and on; these hints only start to suggest what is here (and what is here is but a sampling of his gigantic output).
Borges is provocative, eccentric, ingenious, peremptory, and often funny. He leaves the impression of having been one of the best-read people ever to walk the earth, with an ability to deploy all that he knew on short notice and with a light touch. I don’t find every one of the entries interesting. Perhaps nobody would. But open to any page and you are in brilliant company, with an excellent chance of being edified and amused.
2. I’ll bet few readers of this site have heard of John Jay Chapman, let alone read anything by him; in any event, I had not until this year. He deserves better. Chapman was one of the finest American essayists of the early 20th century, and a very singular character; after starting an unjustified fight as a young man, he punished himself by putting his hand into a fire until the skin burned off, forcing its amputation. Fortunately he did his writing with the other hand, and was prolific with it. He wrote with learning, passion, moral energy, and rhetorical skill about all sorts of topics, most related to American political and cultural history. An excellent example is his piece on William Lloyd Garrison, the great anti-slavery agitator. Garrison might sound like a dull subject; I only bothered to read the essay after much badgering by a friend. I’m glad I did, though, because Chapman’s fascination with the man, his work, and his place in history is sufficiently intense to infect the reader from a great distance. Unfortunately most of Chapman’s writings are out of print, but many can be found online. Here is the one I just mentioned.
If I am fortunate enough to count you as a reader of Classical English Rhetoric, you are especially likely to enjoy Chapman’s work. He writes very clearly, but in an older tradition; he makes vigorous and skillful use of figurative language. Chapman merited inclusion in the rhetoric book, and I am sorry not to have provided it. He will certainly appear in any sequel.
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Edward Champion’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications. He blogs at Return of the Reluctant and podcasts at The Bat Segundo Show.I’m reserving my hosannas for this year’s lit for another place, another time, another Bizarro universe, another silly excuse to rip off my clothes, dive into the almighty ocean, and shout (“Holy shit, it’s freezing!”) the ten names of the ten greatest books to the heavens and presumably Xenu himself. There was one writer I rediscovered this year after a ten year absence, a guy who knocked my socks off, a man who I understand was passed up for a special National Book Award because he was considered too experimental, too out there, too not right for the vox populi. Never mind that his instinctive perversion of carnal and literary conventions is exactly the apposite kick in the ass the American public needs right now and exactly the kind of subversive thrust that can galvanize today’s young writers.That man is John Barth, who, at 77, is indeed still alive and still writing and may face a Gilbert Sorrentino-style shutout in his last years if we’re not careful. You’ll even find one of his tales, “Toga Party,” in this year’s Best American Short Stories. And this story of anxiety and distress and growing older demonstrates that the old guy still has it.But if you need convincing in novel form, start with his first three books, all of which I reread this year. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were each written in three months, amazingly during the same year. Each volume is a glorious decimation of Puritanical values, whether they be sex, psychiatry, the legal system, or even the manner in which one obtains employment. But the piece de resistance is Barth’s third book, his masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor, a picaresque 17th century monster that befuddled and delighted even the great Darby M. Dixon III! Not only is this book an immensely entertaining satire of a real-life Maryland poet named Ebeneezer Cooke, but it features lengthy explanations on arcane historical topics, perfectly fabricated notebooks that rethink the John Smith-Pocahantas relationship, and a sustained examination on how absolutist ideologies are inextricable thorns in the grand American rose. This is a book that a capsule post cannot do justice to. That it is not uttered in the same breath as Gravity’s Rainbow or The Recognitions or Gormenghast is a sure sign that literary standards have fallen.More from A Year in Reading 2007