All three of these books, from the past year, are similar only in that each wrestles with daily existence in ways that have startled me, made me rethink everything I had done up to that moment, and made me reevaluate how I want to move forward. Reading each of these books is an active, rather than a passive, experience. In each I have found moments—several moments—where something I’ve never seen conjured in language before somehow rises up, before my eyes. How each writer—a poet turned essayist (Biss), a poet channeling Ginsberg with long, rangy meditations (Zucker), and a novelist arriving at his first memoir (Elliott)—arrived at these moments is both mysterious and seemingly simple—each picked up a thread of thought (racism, motherhood, murder), an image (telephone poles, zapruder films, adderall), and followed them, or, rather, allowed themselves to be led, into an unknown place. Each of these books is thrilling, in their plainspokeness and in their brilliance.
Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Cafe. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been the recipient of a Michener Fellowship, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Ledig House. Furst is also the author of the story collection, Short People, as well as several plays that have been produced in New York, where for a number of years he taught in the public schools. He lives in New York City.Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which I read this past summer in an out-of-print Collier edition called 3 X Handke, but which I’ve since learned is back in print thanks to the crusading efforts of the New York Review of Books, is the most searing example of prose literature doing what no other art form can do – engaging the conflict between thought and emotion, building a narrative out of the intersection between ideas and lived experience – that I’ve come across in years. It’s a hybrid form – not quite memoir, but not exactly fiction either – about the life and suicide of his mother, written in the months immediately following her death. Handke struggles with whether or not it’s possible to fully comprehend and articulate her experience, given the depth of feelings this event triggered in him. But this makes the story sound dry and academic. It’s not. It’s shattering, one of those books that invade your consciousness and forever alter your reality.The most interesting work of new fiction I’ve read this year is also a hybrid form. Mike Heppner, the author of The Egg Code and Pike’s Folly, has been carrying out a literary experiment of sorts. He’s written a series of short fictional pieces questioning the role art plays in the world and the relationship between artists and their own work. Each of these pieces has been brought to the public via a different mode of dissemination. The first, Man Talking, about a mid-career writer’s loss of faith in his ability to communicate, can be downloaded from his website, which also explains the project in depth. The second, Talking Man, about a young child being lectured by his scientist father about all the reasons he shouldn’t waste his life making art, has been published as a chapbook by Small Anchor Press. The third, Man, is a fictional biography of a failed writer named Mike Heppner. If the means of production were the only thing of note about this project, I’d be tempted to call it a clever trick. It’s not though. Word for word, sentence for sentence, these novellas come closer to rendering what it’s like to live right now than most anything else out there.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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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Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.
And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.
I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in January of 2016, back when the year, like all fresh years, seemed full of hope. I came across it in a second-hand English-language bookshop in Paris. It had been published to great acclaim a few years before, but I’d been living abroad, I’d missed the hype, and so I encountered it with that rare feeling of private wonder that comes from reading a great book one doesn’t know everyone else has already read. And it is, as I am far from the first to note, a great book — one that spans decades, continents, and cultures. Adichie’s Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., takes apart the American constructions of race and identity as only an outsider can. Like all great books, it is also a deeply personal story, with lines that pierce and transcend: “Sometimes she worried that she was too happy. She would sink into moodiness, and snap at Obinze, or be distant. And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.” I wanted to give the book to everyone I knew, but many of them had read it, so I gave it to my mother. She had immigrated to New York from Paris as a teenager, and she found kinship in that outsider’s eye.
By the spring of 2016, I had gotten myself a copy of Adichie’s brilliant essay, now in book form, We Should All Be Feminists. I considered myself a fan, but then in August I found myself on stage, unwillingly competing in a literary spelling bee, blushing bright red as I misspelled Adichie’s final “ie.” Compared to some of the Polish authors included, I had been given one of the easier names to spell. 2016 had begun to take its nose dive towards the worst. In November, I no longer wanted to read novels. I wanted something to dispel the grief I felt for my country, something so current, so now, that novels, with their grand slowness, couldn’t get there fast enough. But Adichie could. Her article on the New Yorker’s website, “Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About,” reached out to me with its steady drum beat rhythm. “Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time,” Adichie repeats, as if answering the Jewish theologian Rabbi Hillel’s age old question: “If not now, then when?” Her sentences cut sharp and unforgiving. “America loves winners, but victory does not absolve,” she writes. Her clarity, the precision of her proscriptions, stopped my hands from wringing. The essay swayed me from stasis towards fervor. In the end, she reminds, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” And it doesn’t. A new year begins.
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