This year I finally read Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which a friend had been recommending for years as tailor-made for me. The friend was right. I also read Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I enjoyed nearly as much, and several pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a new collection of his work. In short, I became a big Dyer fan in 2011.
I normally devour Michael Lewis’ books as soon as they’re published, but for some reason I didn’t get around to The Big Short until it was in paperback. While you’re reading it, you feel you understand collateralized debt obligations, which is no mean trick.
John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title. It recounts two movements to confront and transcend mortality — the psychic researchers of the 19th century (William James and Henri Bergson among them) and the “God-building” Bolsheviks of Russia who pursued the end of death for man, among other utopian goals. These two main sections are fairly narrow historical slices of the overlap between science and spirit in intellectual life, but Gray builds upon them to write a sweeping, impassioned conclusion that argues against the fetishizing of science’s solutions and for a humble, even inspiring acceptance of death’s finality.
Simon Reynolds’ Retromania brings a lot of intelligence and cultural breadth to bear on a thesis I only partially agree with about the stale dominance of established musical genres. I interviewed him about it here.
But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.
The other, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, follows the friendship of the two famous southern writers, who first met in their early teens. Many years of Percy’s letters weren’t saved, so the first 130 pages or so only feature Foote’s side of the conversation. He comes across as funny and spirited, but so arrogant early on — and the type who tries to hide it under jokes about arrogance, just making it worse — that you wonder how Percy withstood it. To his credit, Foote later in life reached the same conclusion. Reading over their letters, he says, “I was amazed to observe how didactic I was over the years — I don’t see how you managed the grace to put up with it all that time.” Percy is widely considered the better fiction writer, but got a much later jump than Foote, who adopted the tone of mentor throughout their correspondence. What lingers most clearly in the end is not shop talk (though there’s plenty of that) or even the evolution of a friendship (ditto), but Foote’s voice. Mostly commanding, sometimes conciliatory, his outsize enthusiasms and dictates dominate the book even after Percy’s letters start appearing. He urged Percy time and again to read Proust, Plato, Dante, and many others. (“Don’t underrate Shelley. He’s a kind of a sort of a shithead in an ideological way, but he sure as hell burned with a gemlike flame.”) He cautioned his friend to avoid seeing fiction as pamphleteering — to keep neat and orderly prescriptions out of his stories. And he talked incessantly about his own projects, including an ambitious novel called Two Gates to the City that he worked on periodically for more than 30 years, never completing.
I’m about halfway through James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a single volume history of the Civil War, at the moment. It’s safe to say it will also end up being one of the best things I read this year, and I’m lining up a few other books about that period in history. Foote’s massive trilogy about the war is his best-known work, and I imagine at least the first installment of it will be on my reading schedule in 2012.
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