Over many years of reading, I moved through books either passionately or grudgingly, retaining only a trace of each in memory. But last December, presented with a handmade journal, I started jotting notes about each book I read. Looking back now, I find scribbles of exhilaration and of disappointment (and several “NF,” meaning “Not Finished”). It’s like the preserved dialogue between myself and each work, and I’m deeply sorry not to have kept such a journal years ago. (Do consider starting one.) Reviewing my notes, I find three especially memorable works I read in 2010: one fiction, one non-fiction, one poetry.
1: The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. This is the tale of young Maggie Tulliver and her brother, Tom, she bursting with impulse and intelligence but held fast by the social restrictions of early 19th century England; he, haughty, dutiful and cold, yet the object of her deepest affections. Eliot’s psychological acuity is exquisite. The siblings’ lives change sharply over 15 years and each twist is a surprise, yet their responses are perfectly true to the personalities each manifested in childhood. The pace of 19th century literature can be an adjustment in these impatient times, but this book is worth it.
2: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. The political treatise of a dying man speaking to a future he will not see. Reviewing our recent history, Judt describes the elevation of self-interest during the past decades and the deprecation of a common good. Social empathy and shared effort must be restored, he argues. One of the sharpest intellectuals of our time, Judt died in August at age 62.
3: Sestets by Charles Wright. Simple, desolate, beautiful. A book of poetry that I read cover-to-cover, gripped, pausing only to make tick-marks in the table of contents beside the masterpieces to which I will return for many years.
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