A Year in Reading: Alex Shakar

December 15, 2011 | 3 2 min read

coverLate on the uptake and plenty of attention for this one already, but the novel that engaged me on the most levels this year was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. The first large section, about the Jesuit priest Corrigan, is by far the most impressive, and could almost be read as a novella on its own. But fortunately it doesn’t have to be, as the rest of the vignettes build on and complexify it, to prismatically round out McCann’s fever-dream vision of New York in the 70s.

Another fun novel for me this year was Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Yan’s style here is maximalistic, headlong, sloppy to be sure, but bursting with life; or rather, lives — human and otherwise. A Chinese landowner is executed at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, and the story follows him literally to hell and back, again and again as he’s reborn in a progression of animal incarnations. Each time, he winds up near his former family and participates in its dramas, goes on animal adventures, and witnesses the hardships, cruelties, and absurdities of life in China over the last half-century. Mo Yan himself shows up as a character from time to time.

coverAs for nonfiction, through a chain of references in other reading, I arrived at The Evolving Self, written by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan in 1982, and found it illuminating. Kegan’s topic here is how consciousness evolves over the course of a human life in a progressive spiral of individuations and communal reframings. He posits five main stages of mental evolution, from ones roughly corresponding to infancy and childhood to later ones tracking growing leaps outward as our sense of self and otherness shifts and refines. Some people land on tribal identifications; some get trapped in ideology (which, given the election year coming up, may help you at least start to comprehend some of your fellow citizens). Each stage allows for new stabilities, and each can eventually bump up against its limits, at which point anxiety and depression ensue. Not everyone arrives at the fifth stage, an “interindividual balance” that can take as its object its own psychic administration. It’s a nuanced argument, full of colorful examples from case studies and quite a few literary allusions too. What about stages beyond these — are they possible?  Well, there’s a shelf of books I could recommend on that subject too.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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's first novel, The Savage Girl, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and Booksense 76 Pick, and has been translated into six foreign languages. His story collection, City In Love, was the winner of the FC2 National Fiction Competition. A native of Brooklyn, NY, he now teaches fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Olivia Block. His new novel is Luminarium.


  1. After reading Shakar’s post on the Year of Wonders, I went out and bought The Savage Girl and found it to be a really excellent read. Looking forward to Luminarium, and very happy to get his year in reading. Am adding The Evolving Self to my list now, and would be VERY interested in the shelf of books he could recommend re: stages beyond. Any chance for a follow-up post?

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