A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

December 11, 2011 | 10 books mentioned 7 6 min read

coverIt’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.

coverAs for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.

coverEdouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)

Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.

coverThe same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.

coverThe novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.

covercoverI read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

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

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is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece! I am trying an experiment in my reading at the moment-I’m reading two “classics” at the same time (usually when I read one of the canonical works of fiction, I read something contemporary and/or non-fiction along with it), and Anna Karenina is one of them (the other is Musil’s The Man Without Qualities). I’m only 100 pages into it, but I’m struck at how different it is than War and Peace (which I read about 18 months ago)–and how fantastically written and compulsively readable it is. While reading both these books (Anna Karenina and The Man Without Qualities), I am struck at how qualitatively DIFFERENT these books are than even other outstanding works of fiction–much as Proust strikes one, I believe.

    I’ve read two of Robinson’s three novels (Housekeeping and Gilead–Home is on my to-be-read shelf) and agree whole-heartedly with your description of her prose and artistic powers–and I’m an atheist!

    Finally, if you haven’t read Bolano’s Savage Detectives, definitely read it. I’m looking forward to tackling 2666 soon.

  2. Thanks, Jim. Anna Karenina and The Man Without Qualities at the same time? That’s the craziest feat of stunt-reading I’ve ever heard of.

  3. Mark,
    Like Jim, I also loved your piece. I try to catch all your posts.
    I read Anna Karenina years ago and could not believe how contemporary (timeless) it felt. One of the most enjoyable books ever. I laughed out loud many times on the bus ride home.
    Also, when you first wrote about how impressed you were by David Vann, I took your recommendation and read Legend of a Suicide. I was stunned. I don’t think I will ever forget that story; I still find myself pondering it from every angle.
    Please read Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. It is an original. Dyer reminds me a bit of de Botton.
    Oh, and right now I am also reading two heavy-hitters simultaneously: Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Goethe’s Faust (the Everyman’s Library edition).
    Keep reading and telling us about it.

  4. What an interesting list of books, not only in the original post but also in the comments! I also enjoyed Anna Karenina, several years ago. I just finished Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage over the weekend. It really is a fun book to read–very original and laugh-out-loud funny. And Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite still-living writers. Housekeeping in many ways is different from Gilead–I’m really not sure which one is my favorite of the two. I found Aunt Sylvie such a wonderful creation–I would want her with me during a flood–or any other time, for that matter–despite her eccentricity and general sense of befuddlement.

    I loved The Man Without Qualities, though I cannot imagine reading it with anything else. The same with The Recognitions. Great fun. The only other Gaddis I’ve read is J.R., another laugh-out-loud book. A book that I would recommend would be Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer. Weiss was a contemporary of Musil’s, and also Austrian. Letham is a classic unreliable narrator, and the book does have moments of humor, but it is also not for the squeamish, and features stories within stories within stories. One of my favorite books of the last few years. Enjoy!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Elle – glad my recommendation on David Vann worked out. It really is a fantastic book, isn’t it? Actually, he’s contributed a Year in Reading piece himself, which will be up shortly (I think), so keep an eye out for it. I’m actually reading Out of Sheer Rage right now, and I love it so far. Thanks!

    Faust and The Recognitions is, if anything, even more impressive than Jim’s Tolstoy/Musil juggling act. I had a pretty rough time with The Recognitions myself, actually. (I wrote this essay after reading it: https://www.themillions.com/2011/05/the-stockholm-syndrome-theory-of-long-novels.html). It definitely has its moments, though.

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