A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

December 6, 2014 | 8 books mentioned 8 3 min read

Most Revelatory Second Pass
covercoverIn January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal — usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read.

Best Serendipitous Literary Connection
There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment — one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother — one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy.

Best Read of the Year
coverI still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us.

Most Life-Changing
I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake.

Most Conflicting
coverCloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section — the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point — really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend — like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future.

Most Aggravating Historical Legend
President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. I don’t know. I was expecting so much from “Pulphead” but it couldn’t deliver. Probably the blurbs referring to DFW are seriously detrimental as they set an expectation of verbal fireworks. And despite a few nice pieces, I think some of the conservative & oddball opinions really left a bad taste in my mouth…uhm…brain. This now reminds me of my present reading of “Independence Day” by Ford….suddenly I come across these passages where it seems like the guy, Ford not Bascombe (though the latter probably too) is maybe, despite his lyrical brilliance, sort of an intolerant and prejudiced person. And despite everything I’ve absorbed about giving a rat about the writer, I can’t help that sour taste forming… sour slime… engulfing whatever neurons should focus on the beautiful prose and character development and ravishing monologue….
    Looking forward to Dyer though. He’s piece on the Olympics (in Harper’s?) was marvelous.

  2. I’m weirdly bummed that the Taft bathtub story might not be true. I also know that he was later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but, alas, that’s all I know. I’m going to add that bio to my reading list.

    Themba Mabona, I’m glad that I’m not the only one that disliked Pulphead. I only made it about halfway through and I had to stop. It was a while ago, so I don’t remember exactly what I disliked, but I remember the tone being weird and being really annoyed.

  3. The Bone Clocks disappointed me too. It felt too blockbusteresque, especially that last section. And I loved maybe 3 essays in Pulphead, but found the rest quite forgettable.

  4. themba,

    you should probably seek out a list of pre-approved writers so you won’t have to worry about reading an opinion that doesn’t completely agree with your mindset.

  5. ???
    I elaborated a little, as much as seems reasonable within the format of these articles and subsequent comments. Neither Janet, nor I, nor many other people would call for total agreement of mindset; Obviously & in fact, the interesting thing is to compare these differing opinions. As for aggressive put-downs, it is hard to see how they further the debate. There were some strange conservative opinions expressed in Pulphead which didn’t agree with me and it seems I might have to go back and look them up :)
    Still, I’d be interested to know what you think about these books, as you clearly have a strong opinion on them. I’d appreciate to read it.

    Best & have a nice day, Themba

    p.s.: …just in case anybody’s wondering, not a big fan of irony, so whatever it says, that’s close to what I actually mean to signify….

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