Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, “just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again,” I decided I didn’t want them to be right.
Ferrante? Not my style, I said.
Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong.
After recovering from my obsessive tear through Ferrante — and it did require an actual recovery process, it felt like weeks before the novels really left me — I took up The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Since this was also the year I went back to school for a master’s in journalism, Didion’s biography was both an interesting, inspiring read and a welcome relief from the AP Stylebook and The Elements of Journalism.
As far as literary biographies go, it’s difficult to imagine much better than The Last Love Song, a writer’s take on a writer’s writer. And, in an election year that seemed to make less sense with every passing day, Didion’s fascination with the flaws in the national narrative seemed somehow appropriate, disheartening, and bracing, all at once. Political Fictions, indeed.
But my most impactful and longest-lasting read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, The Givenness of Things. I thought it would be a light read, something I could pick up and set down again and again, the way I often read collections. An essay while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, while I take an evening bath, while I wait for dinner to finish, while I wait for a friend to call. Something to pass the time, to broaden the horizon but not too much.
I quickly realized my mistake; I should have known better. These are not essays to read when you have a spare minute, they’re essays to wrestle with. Robinson has never written anything “light,” really, but this collection is particularly heavy. The essays are almost meaty, thick with her usual intelligence and insight, quiet and calm on the surface but deep in both feeling and meaning. I couldn’t walk away from these and come back to find them unchanged.
This is the best kind of reading, and the slowest. I’ve been digesting Robinson’s collection on and off all year, coming back to think through each piece one more time, uncovering another bit of wisdom and then another.
I found Robinson’s essays most comforting and challenging this November, for reasons that are probably obvious. One piece in particular stuck with me, and I revisited it again and again. Simply titled “Fear,” it served as a much needed reminder that, though “contemporary America is full of fear,” “we owe it to [each other] to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.” That’s the thought that will carry me through 2016 and that has me ready for whatever 2017 brings.
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