Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.
It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.
And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design
Looking back through old posts at The Millions, one of my favorites is my post going through every New Yorker story in 2005. It was a somewhat grueling post to compile, but in the spirit of recent New Year’s resolutions, also very rewarding. I spend a lot of time each year reading the New Yorker and so it seems fitting that I might reflect on that time spent and revisit some of what I read. As perhaps the most high-profile venue for short fiction in the world, taking stock of the New Yorker’s year in fiction is a worthwhile exercise for writers and readers alike.As with my effort a few years ago, what you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I’ve also included some links to people who talked about New Yorker stories during the year. I’ll include Perpetual Folly here rather than with the stories below since it reflected on every story in the New Yorker over the course of 2008.In revisiting all of the stories, one major over-arching theme emerged for me, the conflict between stories that center on what I call “suburban malaise” (born out of “The Swimmer” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” among many others) and those that don’t. The former are what I think of as the base condition for New Yorker (and indeed all of contemporary American and UK short fiction) and the latter are the departures from that. The departure can be one of character, theme, setting, or style. The distinction is, of course, imprecise, and there are many riveting, impeccable examples of the “suburban malaise” story on offer from the New Yorker. The departures, meanwhile, can serve as a breath of fresh air and when done well, expand the boundaries of short fiction for the reader.January 7, “Outage” by John Updike – The New Yorker kicked off the year with old standby John Updike offering a story that begins somewhat quaintly with protagonist Brad being thrust into a reverie by a storm-caused power outage. The story continues on quaintly as Brad wanders through his darkened town, but changes tone when he encounters a similarly dazed neighbor Lynne and the plot shifts to one of more typical New Yorker-esque suburban malaise and infidelity. Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick was published in October. Links: Jacob Russell, Richard LarsonJanuary 14, “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow – Speaking of suburban malaise, Doctorow takes it to the next level in this long story of a disaffected husband and father who hides out in his garage attic, letting his family believe he’s gone missing. Like a stowaway on his own property, Howard Wakefield scavenges for food and spies on his wife as she steers the family ship. The central drama of the story hinges on how long Howard will keep up his ruse and the story’s end is tantalizing. This one, interestingly, is a retelling of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name. Docotorow has a new, as yet untitled novel coming out late this year. Links: One Real StoryJanuary 21, “Ash Monday” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Like many Boyle classics, this one is set in California where the fear of natural disaster is always present in the background. On the surface, this story is one of neighbors doing what neighbors sometimes do: hate each other. Though it is the New Yorker’s third story in a row about the suburbs to lead off 2008, this one, with its west coast focus, is far from typical for the magazine. Boyle, who knows how to end a story, closes this one out in a blaze of glory. Boyle’s new book The Women comes out soon.January 28, “The Reptile Garden” by Louise Erdrich – Goodbye suburbs. Erdrich’s story is about dreamy Evelina in North Dakota who is not adjusting to college life very well. She obsesses over Anais Nin and eventually ends up taking a job at a mental hospital where she meets Nonette, who, like Nin, is French. The type of friendship that could only bloom inside the confines of a mental hospital ensues. Eventually, Evelina makes the transition from staff to patient. The story is excerpted from Erdrich’s novel Plague of Doves.February 4, “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley – Hadley, like the four preceding writers, is a favorite of New Yorker fiction editors. Her stories seem to exude the grayness of lower middle-class English towns. This one is about a pair of women who do cleaning jobs. Pam owns the little business and Shelly helps out. Shelly’s son Anthony is in Afghanistan and this fact lends some definition to her otherwise mundane life. This is a story of dialog and exposition, not plot. It’s funny in parts and looks in on a life. Hadley’s The Master Bedroom was published last year.February 11 & 18, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro – Munro is a favorite of mine, though I’ve preferred several of her stories from over the years to this one. Still, it’s quite good and even gripping in parts. Even just now, skimming through it, I’m getting sucked back in. It’s about recently widowed Nita. Munro sets the stage with a lengthy introduction to Nita, her life proscribed and seemingly shrinking following the death of her husband. With a knock at the door and an unexpected visitor, however, the story takes an abrupt and darker turn. Munro’s most recent collection is 2006’s The View from Castle Rock. Links: Armenian Odar, Lemon HoundFebruary 25, “Shelter of the World” by Salman Rushdie – Channeling the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Rushdie introduces Akbar the Great who has “an imaginary wife,” Jodha. Akbar being who he was, “no man dared gainsay him.” Akbar’s people build him a city, he employs an “Imperial Flatterer First Class,” and he speaks in the royal “we.” Akbar’s inability to say “I” is a symptom of the great solitude that results from his great power and feeling experimental he tries referring to himself as “I” with his imaginary wife. As you can imagine, the story has the qualities of a parable. It’s also quite funny in parts. “Shelter of the World” is an excerpt from Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence. Links: Jacob Russell, N+1March 3, “Leaving for Kenosha” by Richard Ford – Fresh off finishing up his Bascombe trilogy, Ford offers up a story about another divorced father, this one in New Orleans. “It was the anniversary of the disaster.” and Walter Hobbes is spending the day with his teenage daughter Louise who wants to say goodbye to a classmate who is leaving the city for good, part of the ongoing, post-Katrina exodus. While Louise is at the dentist, it’s up to Walter to find a card for the occasion, “There was simply nothing he could do that was right here, he realized. The task was beyond his abilities.” The story offers up ample amounts of patented Richard Ford suburban malaise and the meeting at the story’s end – Walter and Louise and the departing family – manages to capture a certain feeling about what has happened in New Orleans. Ford’s most recent book is 2006’s The Lay of the Land. Links: Jacob RussellMarch 10, “Raj, Bohemian” by Hari Kunzru – A very quirky story. The narrator travels in rarefied social circles, attending high concept dinner parties in spectacular, rent-free lofts, that sort of thing. The circle is infiltrated by Raj, who photographs one such party and uses the pictures in an ad. The narrator gets ticked off, the party’s host says, “That’s so Raj.” Another says, “Get over yourself, man. You’re acting so old-fashioned, like some kind of Communist.” The narrator begins to suspect that all of his friends are trying to sell him something, that their “coolness” has become a marketable commodity. An interesting paranoia sets in, but Kunzru doesn’t take the concept as far as he might have. Kunzru’s most recent book is last year’s My RevolutionsMarch 17, “The Bell Ringer” by John Burnside – In Scotland, Eva’s father dies, “still, the fact was that in the aftermath of the funeral, when it had seemed as if the whole world had fallen silent, what had troubled Eva most was her marriage, not her father’s absence.” Her husband is the distant Matt. To escape her solitude, Eva signs up for a bell-ringing club, out of which a love triangle of sorts emerges. The story fits into the modern British and Irish short story tradition of William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, and Tessa Hadley and is a decent example of the style. Burnside has a new novel, The Glister, coming out in March.March 24, “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen – The narrator insinuates herself into the odd friendship of Jacob and Ilan. The two men are talkers, name-dropping intellectuals who delight in both low and high culture. The narrator is mesmerized by them and they see her as a sort of “mascot.” Then she gets caught between the two men. They seem to be quarreling initially, but a mystery emerges, something involving time travel and all sorts of odd meta-physics. This one is an excerpt from Galchen’s debut, Atmospheric Disturbances.March 31, “Great Experiment” by Jeffrey Eugenides – This is a memorable story, one that seems even more timely now than when it was published. Kendall is a poet with a day job working for eighty-two-year-old Jimmy Dimon’s boutique publishing house, helping Dimon publish whatever strikes Dimon’s fancy, an abridged edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in this case. Kendall is bitter, underpaid, and unsupported by his equally bitter wife making him easy prey for Dimon’s crooked accountant, Piasecki, who ropes Kendall into an embezzlement scheme. Eugenides strikes a nice balance in this one. The reader feels sympathy for Kendall’s predicament but also a loathing for his tendency to blame all his ills on others. Eugenides hasn’t had any new books out in a while, but he recently edited the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. Links: Good ReadingsApril 7, “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” by Ha Jin – Awkward, innocent Wanren is living in a rooming house for prostitutes in Flushing, Queens. Short on rent, Wanren is pushed into service as a driver by the landlady (and madame) Mrs. Chen. Wanren becomes like a brother to the three girls he lives with, but falls for one of them, Huong and hatches a plan to start a new life with her. Jin offers up an engaging peek into a hidden subculture of illegal immigrants, sweatshops, and sex workers. Another memorable story from the magazine this year. Jin’s most recent book is last year’s A Free Life.April 14, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Boyle was the New Yorker’s first repeat visitor to the fiction department last year, and by mid-April no less. This story offers a somewhat more generic vision of suburban malaise than is typical of Boyle (again in California), but it also goes for the gusto. Like Wakefield of Doctorow’s story in January, Boyle’s Lonnie plays a sort of disappearing act, not with himself, but with his baby instead. Unable to stop himself, Lonnie dismantles his life almost in slow motion and it’s hard to look away, though you want to. No natural disasters here, though.April 21, “The Repatriates” by Sana Krasikov – Grisha and Lera spent a decade in America finding opportunity but Grisha, though he finds plenty of success and remuneration, becomes disillusioned and has visions of greater things back in Russia. As the title indicates, this is a story of repatriation, rather than the expatriation that has been an inspiration for so many expats writing in America. That unique element, plus the exotic locale of Russia (I’m a sucker for exotic locales), made this one a winner for me. This story appeared in Krasikov’s debut, One More Year. Krasikov also appeared in our Year in Reading and penned a guest post for us.April 28, “Bullfighting” by Roddy Doyle – British suburban malaise takes wing to Iberia. In this very memorable story, Donal and his middle-aged buddies plan a guys’ trip to Spain, where Doyle serves up a compelling mix. The guys all have fun, getting away from the families and all that, but Doyle also makes clear how circumscribed their lives really are and how finding real joy and escape is a near impossibility. Doyle’s latest is a collection of stories, The Deportees.May 5, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – This was a very affecting story that stayed with me a long time and that I still remember vividly eight months after first reading it. Proulx captures the frontier, Western spirit as well as any writer ever has, but she certainly doesn’t romanticize it. The hardships and loneliness faced by homesteaders Archie and Rose McLaverty are unfathomable to us today. A must read. This story appears in Proulx’s most recent collection, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.May 12, “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li – This is a strange story with a surreal quality that seems common in contemporary Asian fiction. At its heart though, the story is about an older generation being bewildered and wounded by the younger. In China, where the story takes place, modernization has come quickly, and one imagines that the older folks must look upon the younger ones like aliens. In Li’s story, an allegedly unfaithful father has been publicly pilloried on his daughter’s popular blog and become something of a national scapegoat. Teacher Fei is sympathetic and tracks down the man, as much to commiserate with him as to try to understand. Li’s debut novel The Vagrants comes out in February.May 19, “East Wind” by Julian Barnes – Another entry in the British suburban malaise column (though technically the malaise is felt by the seaside). Vernon lives in a small beach town. “He’d moved here to have no weather in his life.” He isn’t looking for love but unexpectedly finds it (or something like it) with Andrea, an immigrant waitress with East German roots. She’s got a skeleton in the closet, one that was particular appropriate for an Olympic year. Barnes’ latest is his memoir Nothing to be Frightened of.May 26, “The Full Glass” by John Updike – Updike makes his second appearance of 2008, and he’s feeling old in this one, kicking off with the senior citizen narrator’s pharmaceutical regimen. It’s not long before he’s reminiscing about growing up during the Great Depression and then alighting from one reminiscence to another with the notion of his various habits tying the memories together. A solid story that has a very different narrative arc from most of what appears in the magazine. Links: Ward SixJune 2, “A Night at the Opera” by Janet Frame – This brief story was a previously unpublished piece by the late writer from New Zealand. It is essentially a reverie – a distant memory – that bubbles up in the mind of an institutionalized woman as she watches a Marx Brothers film. Another more “experimental” piece than is typically seen in the magazine. Frame wrote Faces in the Water and several other novels.June 9 & 16, The Summer Fiction issue: “Natasha” by Vladimir Nabokov – A lovely line: “With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time.” Last year, Verses and Versions, a collection of poetry translated by Nabokov was published. “Tits Up in a Ditch” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – Proulx paints tough life for Dakotah, born to a teen-aged mom, raised by her cruel grandparents. She gets married, has a baby, the marriage falls apart, and she joins the Army. The tragedies are laid on thick from there, but it’s a vibrant, gripping read. “Don’t Cry” by Mary Gaitskill (registration required) – This has a very “issues of the day” feel to it. Janice goes with her friend Katya to Ethiopia where Katya is looking to adopt a child. There are roadblocks both bureaucratic and emotional and all in all it’s a solid story. The rendering of Ethiopia is nicely done. This is the title story in Gaitskill’s forthcoming collection.June 23, “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A sweeping story about a woman named Nwamgba, almost epic in its scope, and in following her life, we are witness to the many changes over the decades that overtake her land and people. Nwamgba bears a son Anikwenwa after many miscarriages but then is widowed. She sends Anikwenwa to school where he learns English. Adichie explores the distance that grows up between Nwamgba and Anikwenwa, she knowing only the old ways, he becoming steadily assimilated by the new. By the time Grace, Nwamgba’s grand-daughter is born and comes of age, the generations are separated by a gulf, and the story itself becomes an intriguing parable of the changes that came to Africa in the 1900s, what many things were altered and what few things nonetheless endured. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won much praise when it was published.June 30, “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro – Munro makes her second appearance of 2008. This story, like the prior week’s story, covers decades. In this one, a family disintegrates and then two of its members come back into contact. It’s not quite as good as “Free Radicals,” but, being an Alice Munro story, it’s still quite good.July 7 & 14, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – With the year only half over, Boyle logs his third appearance in the magazine. There are few “literary” writers that can base a story around the outlandish and pull it off. Were Boyle’s stories to actually take place in real life, the climactic moments would be fodder for those “strange but true” stories that get forwarded to everyone’s email inboxes. It’s a quality that not all readers appreciate. This story, as the title suggests, involves quite a few rats. In my opinion Boyle pulls it off. But then, I’m a Boyle fan. Links: Too Shy to Stop.July 21, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – A very fun read. This story takes us into an elementary school, among harried, altruistic teachers and their petty gossip. I loved how Bynum adopts the proscribed vocabulary of the elementary school, referring to all her characters as Ms. or Mr. The big news in the teachers’ lounge is that the flighty Ms. Duffy has returned pregnant from a long trip overseas. There’s much to love here. It doesn’t have the ponderousness of emotion that so many New Yorker stories bear. The story is an excerpt from the novel Ms. Hempel Chronicles.July 28, “The Teacher” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – A rather strange story and fairly memorable, though we’re getting into the last half of 2008 here, so I suppose I didn’t read this all that long ago. This one could have been tightened up a bit, but I loved the off-kilter characters: the narrator, two spinsters, and some sort of latter day mystic. I have no real-life analogs for them, yet they leaped off the page for me. The plot was less intriguing to me, however. A little tighter, and this story would have been a favorite. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize in 1983 for Heat and Dust. Links: EmdashesAugust 4, “Clara” by Roberto Bolaño – 2008 was the year of Bolaño, and the New Yorker took part in the surge of interest surrounding the late author. This brief story seems almost in a dream. The narrator is in love with Clara. They write letters to each other and talk on the phone from afar. The distance between them seems more than just physical. It’s as if the universe has willed it. Bolaño’s 2666 was published in translation to much acclaim last year.August 11 & 18, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris – More suburban malaise. This time of the variety that takes place in Brooklyn. But it’s not about a dinner party so much as waiting for a dinner party to occur. The dinner party is one of the mundanities of life – the couple hosting the party clearly thinks so – but much as we rebel against these mundanities it doesn’t take much to make you realize that bitching and moaning isn’t rebelling. This story has suspense and a very nice narrative arc that I won’t ruin by divulging its details. Ferris’ debut Then We Came to the End was a National Book Award finalist. Ferris appeared in our Year in Reading in 2007. Links: Too Shy to Stop, I Read A Short Story TodayAugust 25, “Awake” by Tobias Wolff – This tiny story is a well rendered little sketch. Wolff takes us into the head of Richard, lying awake in bed, musing on various things and wanting to put the moves Ana, his girlfriend, lying next to him. The story captures well the competing influences in the mind of the young man: sex and all the complications that come with the pursuit of it. Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories came out last year. Links: Under the Midnight Sun, One Real Story, Too Shy to StopSeptember 1, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame – This is the second story by the late Frame in the magazine in 2008 and this one is pretty mind blowing. Written in 1954, it’s about a dwarf named Naida, who, living very much in her own head, believes that she will be released on her 21st birthday from the institution that houses her. She also believes that she will get married and live some kind of glamorous life. It’s clear that Naida is mentally disturbed and that she would likely not fare well on the “outside,” but she is also incredibly sympathetic. Frame captures Naida’s odd mindset that fuses child-like thoughts with adult desires. It’s a powerful, affecting story that is a major departure from what is typically found in the magazine.September 8, “Face” by Alice Munro – Munro lands in the magazine for a third time in 2008. Like “Deep-Holes” from earlier in 2008, “Face” covers almost a whole lifetime in a short story. The narrator has a troubling childhood featuring a cruel father and a large birthmark on his face. The narrator grows up and becomes a successful radio actor and announcer (“He has a face for radio” was the juvenile thought that crept into my head) and in his old age is reminiscing about a childhood event that haunts him, when his birthmark came into focus for him and when his life was seemingly set on the course that has taken him through the decades. Munro makes one think that many novels might be better served as short stories, particularly in the hands of a master like her. Links: I Read A Short Story TodaySeptember 15, “A Spoiled Man” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – I found this story to be irresistibly charming because its protagonist was so irrepressible. Rezak insinuates himself into a job among the large staff on the estate of a man and his American wife. He lives in a home of his own construction that might be best described as a crate and breaks it down and moves it with him wherever he goes. Much time is spent describing Rezak’s ingenious modifications to the crate. Rezak is, it seems, a man who would be happy almost no matter what. He even finds himself a wife. But the realities of Rezak’s circumstances eventually close in on him. Mueenuddin’s debut collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will be published in February. Links: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was one of Manil Suri’s Year in Reading picks.September 22, “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon – I’m generally a big fan of Hemon’s work though I’ll acknowledge that it seems like he goes back to the same well for all of his fiction, plumbing his own experience of leaving Bosnia before the war and trying to assimilate into American life (and particularly American academic and literary life). In this story Hamon’s narrator is back in Bosnia, returned from the U.S., but he is still at prey to the awkwardness of his double life, illuminated when through a confluence of events, a famous American author visiting the country ends up joining him at his parents’ house for dinner. There is a neat story within a story element to this one as well (another hallmark that crops up in Hemon’s work). Hemon’s latest is 2008 National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.September 29 “Three” by Andrea Lee – Three vignettes about three people who died. This story didn’t do much for me. Even though I read it just three months ago, I had trouble remembering it. Did I inadvertantly skip this one? Could be. Lee’s latest is Lost Hearts in ItalyOctober 6, “The Idiot President” by Daniel Alarcon – Alarcon appears in the New Yorker fairly frequently. This story, like his others, takes place in Latin America. In this one, the narrator expects to be leaving for America soon, but in the meantime he has joined an acting troupe, traveling around. They put on a memorable performance in a mining town for the workers there. There’s not much drama here. It’s mostly a tale of the narrator’s stasis. Alarcon’s most recent novel is Lost City Radio. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.October 13, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Lee – The second story by Li in 2008 and this one is also very good. It is about a middle-aged, unmarried man, Hanfeng, and woman, Siyu. Hanfang’s mother, Professor Dai, was Siyu’s teacher. Dai is the formidable sort and would like to see the two married, less out of compassion that out of a desire to see the two of them squared away. Siyu and Hanfeng pursue the relationship in order to please Professor Dai, but the pleasure in the story is the way Yi explores the relationships and teases the back story out of the various interactions.October 20, “Sleep” by Roddy Doyle – This is Doyle’s second story of 2008, and it’s a snack of a story filled with musing and reminiscing. In some ways the story is about being with someone and what you think about while they sleep – when you are alone, but not really because that person is right next to you – but the story is about a lot more too.October 27, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea” by J.M.G. Le Clezio (registration required) – Le Clezio raised his profile quite a bit in the U.S. this year with his surprise Nobel Prize win, but I regret to say that this story was a major dud for me. There’s just nothing to hang your hat on in this one. Daniel is the boy of the title, and though he has never seen the sea, he is obsessed with it. So he leaves his boarding school and heads to the water. I didn’t enjoy the thoroughly dreamy language in this one, nor the lack of specifics. It was told like a myth or parable but for no reason that I could discern. It was as if Le Clezio was using the dreamy style to excuse himself from the constraint of constructing a believable narrative. Links: After Le Clezio won the big prize, we heard from one of his American publishers.November 3, “The Fat Man’s Race” by Louise Erdrich – The New Yorker continues to go back through its roster of writers as Erdrich makes a second appearance on the year. This one is the magazine’s most bite-sized of the year, an amuse bouche as all eyes turn to the election. It’s about a woman who is sleeping with devil, which maybe makes it fitting for election week. This story may or may not be in Erdrich’s new collection The Red Convertible.November 10, “Leopard” by Wells Tower – A very inventive story from Tower whose fiction and non-fiction I’d love to see more of in the New Yorker. This one is told in the second person about (by?) an unpopular eleven-year-old boy. Tower gets into the boy’s head incredibly well – the perpetually wounded pride, the outlandish fantasies that punish those who have wronged him. This story appears in Tower’s excellent forthcoming collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Links: Sana Krasikov picked Tower’s collection for her Year in Reading and Tower appeared in our Year in Reading as well.November 17, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem – This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in the New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a “Lostronaut” aboard some sort of space station, to her “Dearest Chase.” She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story. Lethem has an as yet untitled novel slated for September. Links: DiscoverNovember 24, “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat – This story takes us way out of the New Yorker comfort zone to the rundown neighborhoods of Haiti. It looks at Pascal, a young man who occupies two worlds. His parents run a fairly upstanding restaurant but Pascal has been befriended by the gang members who patronize the place. Pascal gets in a bit too deep with them and the result is quite gripping. Danticat’s most recent book is her memoir Brother, I’m Dying.December 1, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – It took me a while to get into this very long story but in the end I liked it quite a bit. It basically chronicles the relationship between an old Pakistani patriarch Harouni and his young mistress Husna. Husna is not of the same social standing as Harouni but her proximity to him allows her to experience an extravagant life. She seems to understand the trade-off, but not enough to maintain her position once Harouni’s daughters appear on the scene. This story, along with Mueenuddin’s earlier in 2008, shows off an expansive, almost lyrical style. This is the title story in Mueenuddin’s forthcoming debut collection.December 8, “Waiting” by Amos Oz – This was an engaging story about a daily routine interrupted. There is a bit of mystery behind it. Instead of meeting small-town Israeli bureaucrat Benny Avni for lunch as she always does, Avni’s wife has sent him a cryptic note. Avni is very rigid in his ways and so we follow him through all of his perfectly sensible rationalizations for Luda’s sudden change in behavior. The enjoyment (if that is the right word) comes in watching a sense of concern creep into the actions of this otherwise aloof man. Oz has a new book Rhyming Life and Death coming out in April.December 15, “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor – Trevor, perhaps the most frequent fiction contributor to the New Yorker over the last decade, makes his first appearance of 2008. I’m not a huge fan of Trevor’s gray, damp landscapes and characters but he is no doubt a masterful storyteller and a genius with the British version of suburban malaise. This one is unique in that it places a pair of itinerant, immigrant painters at the center of the action. Told partly through their eyes, the story of the woman living as caretaker for her crippled cousin is seen from an outsider’s perspective. The prolific Trevor’s most recent collection is Cheating at Canasta.December 22 & 29 – The year closes out with the annual winter fiction issue (slimmer than usual this time). There were four stories in this one. Here they are in order from my most favorite to least: “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim, “Some Women” by Alice Munro (a fourth New Yorker appearance in 2008!) (registration required), “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead (registration required), and “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño.And to wrap up this already overlong exercise, my favorite New Yorker stories of 2008 were “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame, “Leopard” by Wells Tower, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem, and “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim.Bonus Link: The 2008 Year in Reading series
If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
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Bill Marsh. “It’s All Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis.”
Perhaps you, like me, came across a delightfully elegant, delightfully lucid interactive chart of the European financial crisis in the online edition of The New York Times last fall. Clicking through its various cataclysmic scenarios, watching the arrows shift and the pastel circles grow pregnant with debt, I was able to comprehend, for the first time, the convoluted and potentially toxic lending relationships between Greece, Italy, and the rest of Schengen Europe as well as the implications of this toxicity for the wider world. The reduction of such messiness into such neatness filled me with a familiar, slightly nauseating feeling of delight, a feeling I have since dubbed the infogasm. This fleeting sense of the erotic occurs only when a graphic perfectly clarifies complex phenomena through the careful arrangement of its visual data sets. The infogasm is instantaneous, overwhelming, and usually transitory in nature, leaving you oddly exhausted. Plain old text does not function with quite the the same epiphanic climax; by comparison, the written word’s magic is elusive and lingering, often revealing its fruits much later, after the article has been finished and put away.
In 1976, neuroscientist Douglas Nelson definitively described the cognitive potency of the image as the pictorial superiority effect. He and others have shown that our brains are essentially hard-wired for visuals—the very architecture of our visual cortex allows graphics a unique mainline into our consciousness. According to Allan Pavio’s somewhat controversial dual-coding theory, imagery stimulates both verbal and visual representations, whereas language is primarily processed through only the verbal channel. While there has been considerable pushback to Pavio’s theory since its introduction in the 1970s, numerous experiments have shown that imagery activates multiple, powerful neural pathways of memory recall.
Detail from Ingrid Burrington, “The Center for Missed Connections.”
For instance, when we look at Ingrid Burrington’s hand drawn map of all the missed connections posted onto NYC’s Craigslist in May 2010, we react instantly to the familiar visual representation of Manhattan and Central Park, but we also extend our own mnemonic narratives around the graphic. We replay our own experiences of the cityspace, our own missed connections at these “hot spots” of loneliness. We remember the girl with red geek-glasses who stooped down to give us back our pen outside of the LensCrafters on 81st St. We place our own mental pin on the map alongside the others. But what color do we choose? Are there different categories of missed connections?
We turn to the key for answers. Of course:
We turn back to the map, reexamining the city with a new filter. What’s with the trio of W4Ms at 85th and 2nd? Were these all the same person, a missed encounter on repeat? And why so few W4Ws? Who was that W4W in front of the Museum of Natural History? Was she about to enter the museum, or was she already emerging—basking in the wondrous glow of science—when she spotted the other woman? (Maybe the museum never entered into it.) Hundreds of possible stories like these spin forth from Burrington’s map, and from the visible sum of these individual happenings a larger narrative of urban voyeurism emerges. In straddling the visual/verbal divide, infographics like this map first gain entrance by using the succinct allure of imagery, but then linger in our imagination by nurturing our hunger for cultural narration.
It is no surprise, then, that our media are now saturated with such infographics, both on-and off-line, as a host of publications such as The New York Times, Good, The Guardian, Wired, Time, The Economist, The Believer, and The Wall Street Journal all regularly depend on data visualizations to provide their readers with that on-the-spot, quasi-highbrow sociological analysis. As one might expect, the output is decidedly mixed. Faced with a glut of mediocre charts and diagrams, there is now a backlash among designers and journalists against the overuse of meaningless infographics.
Here, graphic designer Alberto Antoniazzi pokes fun at the media’s ongoing love affair with the snappy graph:
Alberto Antoniazzi’s “Most Popular Infographics You Can Find on The Web”
His point is certainly taken: just because something looks good, doesn’t mean it says anything of value. And yet, as someone obsessed with the methodologies of storytelling, I cannot help but wonder about the hidden narrative mechanics behind the infographic. Perhaps my infogasm is not as superficial or ephemeral as it might first appear.
A large part of the infographic’s intrinsic appeal seems to lie in its visual reductionism of complex information. Reductionism itself is not inherently bad—in fact, it’s an essential part of any kind of synthesis, be it mapmaking, journalism, particle physics, or statistical analysis. The problem arises when the act of reduction—in this case rendering data into an aesthetically elegant graphic—actually begins to unintentionally oversimplify, obscure, or warp the author’s intended narrative, instead of bringing it into focus.
Effectively pairing depth with breadth is not a new problem. In his sprawling history of information, James Gleick describes how the invention of the semaphore, telegraph, telephone, and the first digital computer all posed significant discursive dilemmas by offering a simultaneous increase in the ease of data delivery alongside a necessary contraction of the language around this data. “The bit” was invented in the 1950s by Claude Shannon to describe the most basic unit of information, essentially an on-off binary—the amount of information required to decide a coin flip. The more possibilities, the more uncertain the eventual outcome, the more bits are needed. As Gleick writes, “Information is uncertainty.” In this context, the last thirty years have been particularly revolutionary because of uncertainty’s unprecedented growth—we’ve been forced to radically adapt the ways we interact, exchange, and conceptualize our society’s information currency. The gigabyte—one trillion bytes of digital information—has now entered our everyday lexicon not just in reference to a computer’s storage capacity but as a metaphor (however inaccurate) for the memory in our own brains. Surrounded by a rising sea of uncertain bytes, our culture has become desperate for effective ways to visualize and synthesize all of this data, lest we become completely overwhelmed, brought to our knees by a state of total noise (to borrow David Foster Wallace’s term).
In 1983, Edward Tufte—considered by many to be the Godfather of information design—published his now-seminal The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which began to articulate an ethos for what was then still a relatively nascent discipline. Since then, much has changed in the field of data visualization, especially once the graphically flexible web page became the standard information carrier and the rise of Web 2.0 essentially allowed anyone—whether they were a professional or an amateur—to effectively present vast datasets. But as futurist George Dyson points out, while our access to raw information has grown exponentially, our time to process this information has declined rapidly, which has placed an unprecedented premium on the act of meaning-making. Since we no longer have the time (or at least we don’t grant ourselves the time) to generate our own analysis, sift through the evidence, or weigh competing narratives, we find ourselves inevitably looking for shortcuts. And given a) our brain’s preference for the visual and b) the current complexity of our world, we’ve learned that the very best shortcuts usually come in graphical form, preferably with lots of arrows, preferably with some kind of interactive element that makes us feel like we too are actively crunching the data. Consequently, we’ve given today’s visual storytellers considerable power: for better or worse, they are the new meaning-makers, the priests of shorthand synthesis. We’re dependent on these priests to scrutinize, bundle, and produce beautiful information for us so that we can have our little infogasm and then retweet the information to our friends.
Ever-present but often unexamined, the expanding discipline of information graphics has been in desperate need of a comprehensive survey, a checkpoint to measure the field’s varied progress. Luckily, Berlin-based Gestalten Books has provided us one in the brilliant Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language. Like most cool things in my life, I first heard about Visual Storytelling from Maria Popova’s masterfully curated Brain Pickings. Sometimes design compendiums can come off as uneven affairs, but Visual Storytelling is a thoughtful, curated tour de force—it effectively encapsulates a watershed moment in information design while still managing to hold up as a standalone volume.
The book presents over 100 designers from around the world (not surprisingly, much of the best design work comes for Europe), gracefully organized across five chapters: Seeing the News, Viewing Science and Technology, Looking at Travel and Geography, The Modern World, and Observing Sports (the active verbs are telling). Perhaps my favorite part of the book is a section entitled “The Visual Storyteller,” which features a series of interviews with leading designers (including Steve Duenes, head of the visual journalism section at The New York Times) about their techniques, influences, and concerns for the future of the discipline. Several of their sketches and drafts are also presented alongside their finished work and it was helpful for me to see their work in this kind of context. Pulling back the curtain on their process made the sometimes overly slick infographic feel like a very human creation. These practitioners, like us, are constantly struggling with how to represent the world around us. Such an ambitious pursuit will always remain a work-in-progress.
Most of the graphics in Visual Storytelling are terrific. Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are completely confusing. Taken in its entirety, the book feels like an honest, wide-reaching portrait of the field. But be warned: this book is strong medicine. When faced with a cornucopia of such infographic pornography, the brain begins to shut down, so in order to avoid infogasm overload, I recommend getting your dual-coding fix in small, measured doses, and then putting the book down and slowly moving away from it.
Several of the more successful examples in Visual Storytelling showed me just how nuanced the infographic’s narrative alchemy can actually be. Indeed, looking through this volume, I came to realize that skillfully rendered visuals, like any effective medium, present the reader with a layered release of storylines. An initial narrative will shift and deepen under sustained scrutiny, raising a series of questions that build off one another.
A terrific example of this is the illustration of the country’s overall democratic shift in between the 2004 and 2008 elections (also from Steve Duenes’s team at the Times):
“For Much of the Country, a Sizable Shift.” The New York Times. (11/6/08)
More effective than any text-based narrative, this graphic quickly illuminates how and why Obama got elected. Here we can easily see how almost all of the West (save McCain’s Arizona) shifted considerably to the left. This does not mean all these states went Democrat—of the Mountain states only New Mexico and Colorado voted for Obama—but rather that the barometer of the average American voter changed significantly. The only regions that went remarkably right of 2004 were Appalachia and the so-called Bible Belt, both places which would later become fertile grounds for the Tea Party.
There are also many questions here: What happened along the Texas/Mexico border? What about eastern North Dakota? Did Massachusetts vote more conservative simply because John Kerry was not running? Or was there another factor at play? The whole narrative of the election is not encapsulated in this graphic, nor should it be—infographics are at their best when they help you visualize one particularly illuminating trend that could not be told in any other way. The most successful infographics operate with elegance and restraint, and it is this restraint—this withholding of other information so that you can see a point clearly—that forces you to ask the big questions. When firing on all cylinders, infographics are almost always the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it.
Other graphics in Visual Storytelling demonstrate the fraught collision point of art and data, a grey area that has caused a lot of tension among designers and statisticians alike. There is the startling 100 Years of World Cuisine, a powerful composition that uses various containers of blood arranged across a kitchen table to tell the history of bloodshed in the 20th century.
Clara Kayser-Bril, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Marion Kotlarski. 100 Years of World Cuisine.
By tackling such a complex subject as human bloodshed with the metaphor of food preparation, the graphic risks oversimplifying the historical and cultural forces at work in all of these conflicts. Indeed, when pressed, the metaphor begins to unravel, or at least raise unintended questions: who’s preparing this food? Why the creepy suspended ladles? Why are the Congo Wars about to get the KitchenAid mixer? Such quandaries highlight the sometimes thin veneer that can lie beneath a visual’s initial sensational impact. Then again, maybe this graphic is not asking for such close reading, nor does it claim to explain every piece of historical nuance. Its purpose is to be sensational and help you visualize what were previously murky statistics. What it does do well: show how relatively few people were killed in the Yugoslavian conflict (130,000) compared to the wars in Congo (3.9 million) or even the 1941 partition of India (500,000). Is this purpose enough to forgive the exploitative overtones of the piece? I’m not sure, but it certainly got me thinking about what infographics should and shouldn’t do.
Visual Storytelling also features a fine selection of work from Nicholas Felton, one of our more gifted manipulators of visual information. Feltron, as he is know professionally, is particularly adept at allowing an emotional resonance to rise from the coalition of what would otherwise be fairly stark data. His graphics and typography are pristinely rendered, with ample whitespace, but like all great storytellers, he knows that cultural (and personal) pathos arises from what data you leave off the page.
Nicholas Felton. “Rising and Receding.” McSweeney’s.
In “Rising and Receding,” Felton collects a surprising range of social indicators and measures their shift since the economic downturn. Aside from the 300% upturn in familicide, none of these markers are all that extraordinary on their own—people are buying more Kellogg cereals, donating more sperm, having safer sex. Pollution is down, sleep issues up. Yet this infographic succeeds because the collective collation and bare presentation of this data against the backdrop of a recession offers us a fleeting peek into intimate moments during hard times, albeit intimacy that is repeated across millions of households. Felton knows that to convey a trend most effectively, you must leave room for a dual narrative—the reader needs to process the information on both a public level (“Births are down?”) and private level (“Could we afford a child right now?”).
Felton has become well known in design circles for publishing his own annual report, in which he collects, graphs, and maps his personal life in numbers: miles walked, number of music tracks played, pages read, shoes purchased. He undermines our expectations of how a corporate annual report should function by co-opting the form to examine the banalities of the everyday: Social Stella consumption: 157, down 46% from last year. Occasionally he will throw in a category that is not so much a category but rather a story left untold: Burglars confronted: 1, at apartment window. These reports are so seductive because of their clinical composition and yet from this austerity, a kind of universal vulnerability emerges. We know it is much messier than these clean lines of data suggest. In his attempt to summarize a year of his existence entirely through statistics, Felton essentially points to the beautiful impossibility of this task.
Nicholas Felton, “2010 Annual Report.”
Visual Storytelling includes an excerpt of his 2010 annual report, in which he turns the lens of examination onto his recently deceased father. Many who have lost a parent are familiar with the task of sifting though a lifetime of mementos, receipts, and photographs, but Felton takes this process a step further by using all of his father’s detritus to fashion a comprehensive notitia memoriae—charting the life of a man who was born, who lived, who worked, who bore children, who loved, who died. We are more than sum of such evidence, but the evidence itself is at once heartbreaking and triumphant.
Beyond these data-driven graphics, Visual Storytelling contains an array of more abstract, artistic pieces that provide a nice counterpoint to all of the nerdy number-crunching that often dominates the field. These are not infographics per se, but they ask questions of our intense relationship to images by playing with familiar visual tropes. We have grown so comfortable with graphics in our lives that we often forget to maintain any kind of critical awareness about how infographics function, how they lure us in, how they tell their stories, how they can lie to us.
Toilet Paper magazine’s segmented fingernail feels sensual and subversive, yet utilizes a visual language of declension that we immediately recognize from our chart-heavy lives:
Yet there are no scales, no reference points, no key: what is growing smaller here? Is it us? Or are we the culmination of the graph? By leaving so much unspoken, the image implicitly asks us what happens when our bodies become the new pallets for information design. How will we mark out units? And what will the units be? Perhaps this process has already begun.
Maria Fischer’s Traumgedanken is a book on dreams that employs colored threads to connect and cross-reference ideas, calling into question the physical manifestation of the hyperlink:
Maria Fischer. Traumgedanken.
HTML linking is so familiar to us now that it has essentially become invisible: we rarely stop to think about the implications of these virtual threads on sourcing, intellectual property, clarity of thought. We think: there is a link, so it must be connected. But is this bit of code enough? Will association eventually replace all exposition?
This is not to say that everything contained in Visual Storytelling is a perfect culmination of the genre. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the volume also contains several overburdened examples of information design, where the visual language of the graphic has completely obscured the meaning. Yet these failures were some of the most interesting images for me. We can learn a lot when the designer has lost the forest for the trees:
Francesco Muzzi’s illustration of the Italian education system is graphically busy, like a Terry Gilliam movie gone wrong, but it’s also trying to do way too many things: to cover daycare through graduate school, to chart dropout rates, hours at school, and numbers of teachers, to list teacher salary, student debt, and graduates searching for work abroad. The designer makes the mistake of thinking complex data needs complex presentation, when in fact the opposite is true. One sees this same kind of visual cacophony all over the media. Readers (myself included) are guilty of succumbing to such colorful temptations: we see lots of bells and whistles, and even if we don’t really understand what’s going on, we feel as if we are absorbing (via osmosis?) something potentially deep and prescient from all that data.
Ironically, Andrew Losowsky’s introduction to Visual Storytelling, the most text-heavy section of the book, is one of the few sections that is poorly executed, suffering from some of these same symptoms of over-design:
Heavy quotations, unresolved and unexamined, slap you in the face as you try to follow the meandering text columns. The physical congestion of words on the page quickly overwhelms the actual content of the words themselves, as if the act of reading was a mere afterthought. It’s comforting to know that text still needs quiet order to function well, and particularly in this age of hyper-stylized form, there’s the constant risk of gilding the lily. I often feel this kind of pummeling when I’m trying to work my way through certain webpages with multiple, unrelated threads all vying for my attention.
Fittingly, in this same spatially fraught introduction, Losowsky touches upon the dangers of graphic imprecision when he points to the epidemic of errors in infographics that depicted Osama Bin Laden’s death. These widespread mistakes, picked up and repeated across a wide swath of publications, prompted graphic designer Antonio Giner to pen the Statement Against Fictional Infographics, subsequently signed by 107 designers from 27 countries. The six-point manifesto culminates in this demand:
6. Infographics are neither illustrations nor “art”. Infographics are visual journalism and must be governed by the same ethical standards that apply to other areas of the profession.
Whether this distinction can be made in practice remains to be seen. Visuals are a notoriously slippery medium. Thousands of minute decisions (or non-decisions) go into a graphic’s formulation—everything from color to scale to line thickness to use of symbols. Seemingly simple questions of graphical form can have powerful implications.
This was never more evident than during the health care debates in 2009, when Rep. John Boehner produced a maddening flow chart of the Democrats’s health care proposal at one of his press conferences, presumably in an attempt to underscore the plan’s inefficient bureaucracy:
This deliberate obscuration of the issue by way of poorly assembled visuals rubbed many designers the wrong way. Boehner’s flow chart set off what data visualizer Alex Lundry called “Chart Wars,” in which tasteful redesigns of the same graphic demonstrated just how subjective and influential the visual presentation can be. This is always true, but with data visualization, the old adage is essential: the form is the content.
Beyond political fisticuffs, poor design decisions can have serious, even deadly, consequences. During the critical days prior to the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, while the damaged shuttle was still in orbit, a team from Boeing was asked to make a diagnostic Powerpoint presentation to senior NASA officials predicting the extent of damage to the wing and the risks of the shuttle reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Boeing’s presentation was incredibly convoluted, hampered in large part because of the inept visual delivery of its information. Edward Tufte, a longtime critic of Powerpoint’s bureaucratic clumsiness, painstakingly analyzes one of the Boeing slides:
From Edward Tufte’s “Powerpoint Does Rocket Science: Assessing the Quality and Credibility of Technical Reports.”
Tufte points to the elaborate, meaningless hierarchy built into the Powerpoint program that here manifests in six levels of information, denoted by a range of dashes, shrinking bullet points, and throwaway parentheticals. In fact, the executive summary at the top of the slide is slowly undermined by each successive point, though this is lost in the slide’s garbled techno-speak. “Significant” or “significantly”—a vague but promising word—is used five times, each time with slightly different meanings, none of them referring to “statistical significance.” The lack of clarity in this presentation eventually contributed to NASA’s conclusion that it was safe for the shuttle to return to earth, a decision that would end up proving fatal.
Despite the great pleasures of the infogasm, it is evident that now, more than ever, we must be cautious with our information design. Visuals are easy to make, but they are also easy to fake, and their allure can turn them into potentially dangerous pieces of evidence. Despite Giner’s manifesto for clear standards in visual journalism, infographics—guided by designer, journalist, statistician, and artist alike—will probably continue to operate in that grey area between fact and fiction, egged on by our insatiable hunger for their graphical eros. I don’t think such fuzziness is all bad—most new fields, particularly those with wide-ranging sociopolitical implications, need time to find their footing and carve out a particular disciplinal language. This does not mean such negotiation should be a passive process. We need more excellent surveys like Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language to help us celebrate quality, shun mediocrity, and articulate the criteria for how infographics can remain luminous and profound. Beyond just disposable feel-good fodder for the Twittersphere, data visualization is the emblematic medium of our times, and the natural evolution of its form might be the greatest predictor of what is to come.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
What if right now is the golden age of the book, or even the golden age of literary fiction? What if we are living in the golden age of reading, writing, and criticism? But all around us, the dominant trope of the day is death.Is it possible that a decade of poor management at newspaper companies amid shifting media paradigms has led people to think that literature is on its deathbed? Are books dead? Is literature dead? Is criticism dead? Are we facing, as a panel hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review asks tonight, “The Case of the Vanishing Book Review?”Speaking on a Literary Writers Conference panel a year ago Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, taking measure of the times, said,Young people don’t read newspapers… The big reviews don’t have the impact that they used to, and I think that one of the things that I’m worried about and trying to figure out is what are we going to do, how’re we going to get people in the conversation about literary fiction, and I don’t know the answer… Barnes & Noble and Borders have wonderful selections of books, and they’re in communities that never used to have bookstores, but they don’t always have the same relationship with their customer that a local bookseller did, and what you used to be able to do with literary fiction was seed it within those local booksellers around the country, get them reading and talking about it.He goes on to say, “The Internet is an obvious way to do it with community.” While Entrekin, if you read the rest of his remarks, is actually fairly optimistic, the rhetoric from many (and particularly from some of the National Book Critics Circle’s more vocal members) has centered on loss, even as the rush to fill the gap with not just blogs but with communities like LibraryThing and GoodReads has created a literary landscape that, while it may not serve the critical establishment, represents a net gain for anyone likes to read and to talk to other readers. In fact, some find being a reader right now to be genuinely exciting.Back when I first started this blog, before it seemed possible to me that it could be anything more than a place to share some thoughts about books with some friends, I used to talk about something called “a trusted fellow reader.” These are the people whose book recommendations are sought out and with whom discussing books is as rewarding as reading them. When this formulation first occurred to me, I happened to be working at an independent bookstore, surrounded by trusted fellow readers among my coworkers and the store’s patrons. I left there in early 2004 and have spent my time since trying to recreate that dynamic here at The Millions. With much help from readers and contributors, I think we’ve succeeded. (In fact, our annual end of year series is an attempt to flood the zone, as it were, with trusted fellow readers.)If anything is dead, it’s the so called “print vs. online” debate and the interminable series of panels discussing our dying newspapers. Symposiums and editorials aside, the reality is fluid; writers and readers and critics consume and create in both media with regularity, and the focus on an empty debate and on column inches may be keeping us from recognizing that there are now many trusted fellow readers at our fingertips. We are in the midst of a shift, maybe now a revolution, in national (and international) literary discussion, which has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open. Readers have fueled this shift, many critics and writers have joined in. We’re excited to be a part of it.Further Reading: If you think that the disappearance of book reviews and book sections in newspapers is a result of anything more than a broken business model, read this. And, from the manifesto, an explanation of why we all need trusted fellow readers: “Given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy”