For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed. Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s.
Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William’s. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity.
Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book.
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