We like to go on about why we read, the power of literature, etc. Literature can transform indifference into empathy, we insist, transubstantiate ink on bleached papyrus into flesh and blood. It’s all very “Kumbayah” and, coming from writers, a tad grandiose. A little defensive, even. “It may look like I’m diddling unwashed in my pajamas in a room by myself — but no! I’m weaving an immortal thread on the great tapestry of the human experience!”
Delusions of grandeur are comfy, but this year they’ve forsaken me. This year I’ve picked up lots of books and found not the transcendent but the smug, the affected, the dull. It started to feel like “the power of literature” was a product I’d been sold, which I was now employed in schilling. Teaching will do this.
But then came Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. What I found in Bynum’s second novel was not the Power of Literature™ but something less leaden, more meringue. As I read, an old feeling came to me from back before I treated Literature like medicine or a communion wafer. It was joy! And the best kind of sadness! Plus heaps and heaps of laughter! I read with the same studious fervor with which my sister and I once stayed up late listening to the radio, teaching ourselves the freaky subspecialties of punk and metal — a memory Bynum’s “Creep” excavated for me. Her chapters (stories? who cares!) kept doing this, dredging up parts of myself I’d completely forgotten. So I deem Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles the best book I read this year, for reminding me of my favorite reason to read: pure joy.
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