A Year in Reading: Thomas Beckwith

December 15, 2018 | 4 books mentioned 4 min read

What did I read this year?

I read the news, in the morning, although I consistently didn’t want to, although I had trouble denying that reading it was hurting me in grave ways. I lay in bed and stared at my phone and scrolled through logs of disaster, finding out who tweeted, what burned, who died, what drowned, and who lied to authorities. I shut off the vibration alerts on my phone for incoming text messages, yet I somehow failed to do this for alerts from the New York Times. (This meant that when my phone buzzed at dinner, it wasn’t a friend, but the Gray Lady.) I never tweeted but I stayed on Twitter, my go-to source for polling nerdery. I got off Facebook and felt a lot better. I felt the way I did when I quit smoking.

I read a number of lists—of people, organizations and groups—that fight police brutality, that fight brutality that needs to be policed, that fight to enlarge a shrinking franchise and that fight to stop people from shooting other people when they want. I gave some money, then felt bad that I wasn’t giving more money, so I gave more money, but then I ran out of money, because I’m still in grad school and I don’t have a lot to begin with. I read advice from a number of activists who said: You do what you can. And I did! I did what I could.

I read, among other things, listicles, explainers, quizzes, parodies, anecdotes, tweet threads, and jokes. I read the details of pointless feuds that seemed to have a point when they were happening. I got very mad at people who deserved it, mainly those who think, for some reason, that Donald Trump is not a waste of oxygen, and I decided to banish those people to one of the lesser moons of Neptune. I know some people who say I’m draconian, and they’re getting banished, as well.

I had trouble sleeping, repeatedly, because I stayed up with my tablet and read all the takes, good and bad. I don’t think I learned a single thing but I did feel “with it,” somehow. I became convinced that I’m giving up a lot these days to be “with it.” I felt old, and wondered if it’s possible that everyone I like feels old now, that everyone I like is (in some form or other) immeasurably sad and exhausted. I found myself overwhelmed by the need to stop talking, by my sense that everything is now terribly, terribly loud.

I read fiction, also, in a way I didn’t have to when I was in college, when I thought writers were magical beings and I read obsessively, constantly. I have to make myself read now! There’s almost nothing about my life more shameful than this fact. I no longer treat fiction like water in a pool in Death Valley. I have to work at reading, plan for it, stick to it. I have to stay in my chair. And this begs the question (for people who don’t read): do I need to read fiction, now?

Of course I do, imaginary philistine. Nothing compares to it, still. There isn’t anything else I can think of that makes me believe in a God. And sometimes, it seems apparent that everything that simplifies my life, everything that bills itself as a shortcut to a better, smarter self, is in fact an elaborate distraction from the need to keep reading more books. That’s all Facebook is, in the end—a site that doesn’t want me to read. I’ll be the first to hold a party if the whole thing gets forcibly shuts down.

First among the books that saved me from darkness was The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I’ve been a fan of the author for years, and this is a staggering work—it’s finely plotted, brutally detailed and both unflinching and tender. I look forward to the inevitable movie, and knowing that the book was much better.

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Next up: The Visiting Privilege. Read together, the stories within it confirm a widely known fact: Joy Williams is one of the greatest writers of short fiction in this country. Her work is tight, surprising and strange, with an undercurrent of menace that never feels forced, or contrived. What I’m saying is: She knocked on my back.

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I also read My Brilliant Friend, finally, but so many people have praised this book I don’t think I need to add to the chorus. What I do want to praise, however, is Blowout, a collection of poetry by Denise Duhamel which is among the best things I’ve read in a very long time. Loosely tracking the end of and the narrator’s subsequent years of singledom, the book is affecting, mellifluous, and conversational, a rare book I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t read enough poetry in general, and Blowout made that fact clear.

Next year, I look forward to reading about the new Democrats in Congress, and reading little else apart from more books, and fewer things that aren’t books, of all kinds.

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is a staff writer for The Millions and an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins. Prior to coming to Baltimore, he studied literature and worked in IT while living in Dublin, Ireland. You can find him on Twitter at @tdbeckwith.

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