I spent more of 2010 than I care to admit working through a spell of writer’s block, brought on not because I didn’t have a project, or even because I doubted that I could finish that project, but because I was briefly and thoroughly convinced that none of it mattered, that of all of the things a person could do with their time, writing a novel was the least likely to improve anyone’s quality of life. The disasters seemed so much bigger than words, and even those crises that were crises of culture rather than climate seemed impermeable. I would watch cable news and think that language had lost all meaning, that my faith in books as a vehicle for empathy and understanding had been naïve and misguided, because empathy was dead.
The two books that most stood out to me this year spoke broke through that haze by reminding me what language can still do. They spoke to the anxieties of the present without being nihilistic or unrealistic about the future. They reminded me, during a year when I spent so much time battling my own distraction that I actually went back to writing longhand, how it felt to be so completely absorbed with a book that I didn’t notice my laptop or my cell phone, or, on one occasion, my metro stop, but also left me ultimately feeling more responsible for the world I live in, instead of more isolated from it.
The first was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a beautifully written and researched account of the great migration. The book expanded my understanding of a story I thought I knew and did a wonderful job of balancing the epic scope of the project with the intimate details of the lives of individuals. It’s hard to tell the story of pre civil-rights movement America without some degree of optimism, because it’s hard to read accounts of the way things were—from the brutal violence of both the U.S south that African-Americans fled and the U.S north that burned down neighborhoods rather than accept them as neighbors, to the quieter brutality of travelers being forced into lonely, unsafe drives because there was no where in the country for a black travel to safely rest—and not think about how much we take for granted now. But Wilkerson resists the reductive optimism of leaving it at that by exploring the ambiguous nature of some of the progress made, and by refusing to force her subjects into being symbols rather than human beings. I think a lot about the ways in which the recent black experience in America has been in some ways similar to an immigration experience, and in making the case that for many families, it was an actual immigration experience, Wilkerson linked the past and the present and reminded me that the past was not so long ago and the future is never set in stone.
The second book was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan did a beautiful job of filtering large anxieties—about time, about technology, about pop-culture, about the limitations of human connection—and making them breathe on the page, through a cast of characters who felt fully alive. After spending so much time this year listening to people weigh in on technology—technology and the future, technology and the book, technology and empathy—it was exciting to see Egan play with that anxiety in the novel form, by letting the question of technology become a question of aesthetics. The aesthetic choices engaged the question without providing a neat or heavy-handed answer. By the time the book shifted to the imagined future, I was grieving less for the loss of the world as I knew it, and more for the private tragedies of Egan’s characters, which were somehow not lost in either the playfulness of the novel’s form or the shift in forms of communication in their new present.
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