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I had the pleasure of being a National Book Awards judge this year, and I’m proud to have helped choose our winner, Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), and finalists Mary Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Marcel Theroux (Far North)
For this list, though, I’m returning to the comparatively tiny amount of reading I did this year BEFORE beginning to read the NBA submissions in May. I’ve been on an epic poetry kick inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is of course superb. Still, the work I got most thoroughly lost in was Lord George Gordon Byron’s Don Juan. Many editions are abridged, but there’s no reason not to take in the whole rollicking extravaganza: 17 cantos and counting… the work was unfinished when Byron died and ends mid-canto. Cut corners and you’ll risk missing the pirate scene, or Don Juan’s affair with Catherine the Great of Russia, or the part when he’s sold as a slave and then disguised as a member of a Sultan’s harem, or the shipwreck, or the ghost scene, or the battle… You get the picture; this mock epic is so crammed with adventure and wildness and great poetry that it will make your head spin. But none of that is the best part. The real achievement of Don Juan is the voice, unprecedented for its time: loose, casual, and utterly modern–full of asides about Byron’s daily life, his writing struggles, not to mention a lot of bitchy remarks about his peers, Coleridge especially. It’s an artifact so imbued with the essence of its maker that you can practically smell his sweat on its pages. And I call that a good thing.
I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
Eli Gottlieb’s The Boy Who Went Away won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterick Prize from the British Society of Authors. It also received extraordinary notices and was a New York Times Notable book. Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, Now You See Him, will be published on January 22, 2008. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.Once every few years, usually when I’m beginning a new book, I reread one or two of Saul Bellow’s novels to prime the pump. This year it was Humboldt’s Gift, the last great work in the high Belovian style. It’s a book which has always spoken to my “inner prompter” to use Bellow’s own phrase for the mysterious faculty within us that allows us, as writers, to “speak”. The novel, appropriately enough, was dictated and then transcribed, a process which accounts for the rather jaunty sprawl of its construction. It’s a big, loose, episodic thing, guyed entirely by the high-wire act of its prose, which has the innovation – surely that of a late style – of running adjectives together in way that leaves a painterly blur in the reader’s mind. So Lake Michigan has “limp silk fresh lilac drowning water,” and a woman is “roused, florid, fragrant, large”.The book is based on Bellow’s close friendship with Delmore Schwartz, the fizzled literary comet of the 1940s, who wrote a perfect book of poems at age 24, lost his mind not long thereafter, and eventually died in a Times Square flophouse hotel, convinced that his wife had left him for Nelson Rockefeller. Schwartz’s longtime shrink was a friend of our family, and I once found myself sitting in the home of the shrink’s widow, looking at the written results of Schwartz’s Rohrschach tests. They stated he was manic depressive, implied a repressed homosexuality, adverted to a probable alcohol problem, and concluded with a chilling definition of the poetic temperament. “It is probable,” read the diagnosis, “that the mania has infected his higher reason.” Ouch.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Wells Tower’s short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. His first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, will be published in March.Last spring, it started seeming insane that I’d never read Moby Dick, which, naturally, knocked me over. I’d been warned about the unending contemplations of harpoon hawsers, the glutinous curds in the sperm whale’s skull-milk, etc., etc., but I hadn’t braced adequately for the rabid exuberance of Melville’s language. Every sentence is like a maxed-out steam calliope. Melville could herniate himself describing a pencil. Also, he’s hilarious, e.g., that scene where the Pequod’s bearing down on the crippled whale whose maimed rear fin causes the water to bubble, simulating flatus, and Stubb cries, “Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys.”Other books that astounded me included Allan Gurganus’s short story collection White People (which deserves a place alongside the stories of Yates and Cheever for its gorgeously tooled sentences and huge, hurting heart), Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Dusk by James Salter, Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, and The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, which reveals E. Pound’s inspired vandalisms against the early versions.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Ever since its introduction a little over six (!) years ago, the iPhone and all of its portable touchscreen iterations have fundamentally altered the way we process information, interact with one another, and document our surroundings (through faux, overexposed photographs). The deceptively simple interface of finger against glass proved to be the key to unlocking an unprecedentedly intimate feedback loop between user and device. And yet I believe I am not alone when I say that such intimacy has left me straddling what feels like two warring halves of myself. On the one hand, there is the part of me that appreciates nothing more than the quiet smolder of a 600-page novel’s unfolding narrative. Such stories are slow, multivalent; they demand deep periods of our attention in order to attain a delayed payoff that ultimately resonates far beyond the pages of the book. And then there is the dopamine-addicted part of me that is constantly reaching for my iPhone to monitor a world that has essentially not changed since I last checked up on it five minutes ago. This part of me feels weirdly naked if I leave the house without that little rectangular chunk of metal and glass in my pocket.
Like many of you, I cannot help feeling that these two halves are locked in some kind of existential battle; that deep, long-form literary storytelling is incompatible not just with the 140-character lifestyle we are being to trained to embrace, but also with the very architecture of a small, handheld touchscreen. Such a device intrinsically demands to be continuously shuffled in and out of the pocket. Such a device demands—through its shape, size, and interface—enough of your attention to keep you satiated, but not enough to keep you truly engaged.
And yet, even in my moments of deepest technopocalyptic pessimism, I also know that there are many exciting opportunities to utilize the touchscreen interface as an innovative platform for telling stories. But let us be blunt: even just that antiseptic word “interface” usually spells doom for conjuring any kind of poetic experience. Print books are still far and away the best interface we’ve got. I’ve waded through enough of those clumsy, masturbatory hypertext disasters that were so en vogue in the ‘90s to know that, contrary to what Robert Coover or others might say, true interactivity is rarely a good thing when it comes to authentic literary pathos. At the end of the day, the reader wants to feel the soft hands of the writer guiding them down the path. Narrative strength arises from narrative finitude.
Several years ago, Jeff Rabb and I set about designing an iPad version of my first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Cognizant of the slippery slope offered by interactive platforms, we tried to embrace the unique opportunities that a boundless touchscreen has to offer — links, partially obscured (yet retrievable) text, birds-eye navigation maps — but then also temper these opportunities with the lessons of the bounded, curated (i.e. limited) printed page. In my mind, the goal for writers and designers should be to learn from print books and not simply emulate them on a screen, as the first generation of e-books did and continue to do (hello skeuomorphic page-turning animation????). Yet despite countless hours of careful consideration, the iPad adaption of my book was still a little bit awkward, in part because it was exactly that: an adaptation, a work designed for the page that had been exported to the tablet.
So perhaps it is fitting that one of my favorite works of this year, Device 6, is a book that was designed specifically for the touchscreen. Actually, I’m not quite sure if it’s even a book or even what a book is anymore. (Perhaps such a term is too limiting — maybe we need to develop a more sophisticated nomenclature like the Japanese in order to better describe a taxonomy of literary technologies.) Created by Simogo (Simon Flesser and Magnus Gardebäck) out of Malmö, Sweden, Device 6 is the first touchscreen literary creation that succeeds in blending the medium with its content to great and wondrous effect. Device 6 borrows from all kinds of sources, including the stutter-step pacing of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, the minimalist interactivity and wayfaring of early interactive fiction games like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the evocative, aural landscapes of classic radio dramas, the lush graphical enigmas of the Myst games, the nested, textual interplay of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and of course, the creepy, false-naive cat’s cradle of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yet somehow Device 6 manages to distinguish itself from all of these precursors by utilizing the very technology it is built upon — our dependency on our touchscreens — as its central conceit.
We navigate through each chapter of Device 6 by scrolling along little pathways of text and image, following our heroine Anna (a modern day Alice) as she explores a surreal island filled with automatons, looped recordings, and abandoned lighthouses. These textual pathways turn left and right, up and down, backwards and in spirals. We are asked to rotate the touchscreen around in our hands, to flick the words this way and that, and in so doing, we become complicit in the narrative; we are just as disoriented, just as searching as dear Anna. The modernist ‘60s graphics are reminiscent of Saul Bass — all clean dotted lines, Dewey Decimal labels, and translucent pastel arrowheads. Beneath it all, the impeccable sound-design perfectly undergirds your movement through the story with footsteps, door-clicks, or white-noise from an unseen radio. Like good prose, the sonic landscape suggests without demanding; it evokes without explicating. Indeed, during the whole reading/playing experience, you are taken by an unsettled feeling of urgency and descend into what feels like a finely calibrated mood, just as if you were working your way through a masterfully paced novella.
That question of verbiage — are you reading or are you playing? — seems to get at the heart of the matter. Late in the story, as your and Anna’s experience begin to converge, Anna, overtaken by deja-vu, muses about such confusion: “I know this place. I’ve been here before. No, wait. I’ve read about this place. But…how? Maybe it was a book. No…not a book. A…game?” Device 6 does break certain traditional literary conventions in that each “chapter” has a series of puzzles you must solve before you can move onto the next. For some, this may disqualify the piece from the genre of the literary and move it firmly into the domain of “video game,” but for me such a distinction is much trickier, for only occasionally do the puzzles feel superficially attached to the story. The format works because, in the end, the very process of your code-breaking becomes the story itself. This also goes for the strange interstitial questionnaires that come between chapters. Initially, they resemble some kind of quirky costumer service survey that Simogo might’ve cleverly woven into its product. But very quickly these questions go off the rails, leaving one to wonder what possible valuable information they could be providing for the game designers. And then you realize the questions are not for them but for you. Such is the nature of this creation: everything about Device 6 — including your reading/playing experience — is anticipated by the narrative framework of the book/game.
Do I want the trajectory of fiction over the next 50 years to be a slow slide from the 600-page novel to various iterations of game/story smartphone amalgamations like Device 6? Do I want some kind of interactive puzzle to become a prerequisite for any reading experience? Most decidedly, no. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Device 6 doesn’t so much feel like a shortcut as the beginning of a long, important conversation. It is that rare example of talented people crafting gorgeous, smart multimedia creations that push us to reconsider our love of mystery as well as our love of the home button. Can these two impulses exist in harmony? Read/play Device 6 and decide for yourself. Just be sure to send me a tweet afterwards.
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Liz Moore graduated from Barnard College in 2005. Her first novel, The Words of Every Song, centers on a fictional record company in New York City and the lives of a broad set of characters connected to it. A musician herself, Moore has performed at many of New York’s institutions. She released her first album, Backyards, now available on iTunes and CDBaby, in September. Her websites are www.lizmooremusic.com and www.myspace.com/lizmooremusic.I quit my full-time job and started an MFA program this year, which has given me the opportunity to both read a lot of great stuff and berate myself daily for not being as literate as my classmates.Nevertheless, here are some books I have read and enjoyed this year: Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Goodnight Sisters, selected columns by Irish journalist Nell McCafferty; and, because quitting my job has caused me to take up babysitting, quite an assortment of children’s books. My favorite are the Fancy Nancy series and every Barbie book ever written, mainly because some of them include photographs of actual plastic Barbie dolls stiffly pursuing various leisure activities, such as tennis and baking, and I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly weird and awesome this looks.I also re-read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. These are my desert-island books: I could read them monthly, I think, and still come up with new visions and versions of his beautifully imagined characters and their intertwined lives.More from A Year in Reading 2007