My old friend Derek and I used to trade books back and forth in high school, and we spent many hours lurking in used book stores looking for collections of Richard Brautigan poetry and other such things. Several years later, we were roommates in Los Angeles, and one day he showed me his “blog.” I thought it was a silly hobby and resolved not to be interested, but the seed had been planted and soon The Millions was born. Derek’s in law school now and his blog is mostly defunct and spammy comments litter the posts, but I’ve been urging him to free up his schedule for another blogging endeavor. In the mean time, he graciously offered up his books for the year.I haven’t had time to actually finish a book this year, between school and work and baseball, but as my exams have approached, I’ve read about half of Spanking the Donkey, Matt Taibbi’s book about the 2004 presidential campaign. My feelings about the book are mixed: on the one hand, Taibbi is ripping off a lot of Hunter S. Thompson’s schtick, for example when he tried to interview a former ONDCP guy in a viking costume with a head full of acid; on the other hand, is that such a bad thing?, and this approach can bring out truths about the people and the process that more imbedded journalists will miss.A head nod, also, to Man in Black, Johnny Cash’s first autobiography, on the occassion of the release of a romantic comedy about his life.The best book of next year will be the Washington Post’s Nationals beat writer Barry Svrluga’s take on the Nats’ first season, National Pastime, due in March. Pre-Order today!!!Spend liberally, dear readers, and with your resolve maybe America can win the War on Christmas after all.Best, D. Howard Teslik
Five minutes ago, I was in my car on my long drive home from work in Geneva, Switzerland, to the French side of Lake Geneva, and reflecting on my year in reading while listening to a literary podcast. In an interview between two of the best writers of the last 20 years, I heard the older writer, the interviewer, ask the novelist who had just published a new novel the question dreaded by most authors: What are you going to do now? Take a break? Or are you like Anthony Trollope who, legend has it, upon finishing writing a novel, would relax for an hour, and then write the first sentence of his next novel?
Then it hit me: I am so not Trollope. In 2015, I had the best year in my literary life. Actually, no need to front: It was the best year of my life. A novel I’d written lustily and fairly quickly, and then bitterly struggled to find a publisher for, was published to nice reviews from my favorite writers and media. And then the book took a life of its own and found new audiences and fans in communities of readers around the world. During the 11 months of touring 12 cities in six countries in two continents on a budget so small a shoe-string budget would find it insulting, I had lived out a dozen novelist fantasies and experienced some surprises that were so cool and weird they deserve novels of their own, or, prudently, should be taken to the grave.
I could die now, I said one night in bed, saturated with bliss.
No, you can’t, my wife, and mother of my two children, sharply reminded me.
Yet there was one thing I had no interest in doing: writing. At first the lack of interest was mild, the result of extreme exhaustion, a mere reminder that, yep, I wasn’t 22 anymore. That dysfunction quickly dissipated. I had energy, a story, and the usual vampiric schedule and sleeping patterns to go for it again. The problem was I didn’t know what “it” was. Or what the point of it should be. Second novels are less linear a progression in one’s life than getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school or getting a master’s degree after seeing how far a bachelor’s will get you, which is not very far at all.
So for the first time in 45 years, I checked out life outside of a life in letters. I taught myself how to swim. I let my New Yorker subscription lapse. I took a non-teaching job. I worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances. And I enjoyed my children. I mean, really enjoyed them. The stories of their days were not stories to be heard for problems to be anticipated or solved, but for each child’s humor and pleasures. Our routines of meals and tickle-fests and movie-watching and chaperoning to practices and parties and dates (Yeah, dates. They really do grow up too fast.) were no longer duties to be carried out during pauses in between writing the next chapter or paragraph or email to my agent. They were the jazz, the stuff, the boom and the bap, life itself. I became so at ease with the modest pleasures of non-writer life in our bucolic corner of the world that I left town, like, only twice.
And get this: I barely read any books. Oh, I bought them as frequently as usual, and I read them too. But I didn’t read them read them. I didn’t read them as a novelist mining source material or looking for that turn of phrase that blazes my literary id like those third down Eli Manning passes that won the Giants Super Bowls. The books I read weren’t foreplay before an evening of writing, the main reason I’d read thousands of comic books, novels, magazines, and newspapers since childhood. I’m not one of those writers who discovered I would be a writer gradually as teachers, girlfriends, editors, and readers’ praise trickled in. I was a writer since sentience. Or better yet: I was a insatiable reader who had to write because the end of Farewell to Arms and the Death of Phoenix saga and Pulp Fiction were so amazing that I felt duty-bound to have a go at giving a reader a variation of those thrills. The rest of life were the things I did to pass time, to please my elders and neighbors in between curling up with a good book and firing up a fresh page on MS Word. My writing was where I hollered, and howled, at my ancestors.
Curiously, my Year of Not Reading ended not after I read a fantastic feat of literature. (Nice try, Colson.) But after I took the kids up to Paris to see “Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” a retrospective of African-American political art at Quai Branly late in the fall. The show knocked me up with literary possibilities. Of the many disturbing and wondrous pictures, collages, and paintings in the small and pointed showcase of African-American artists’ responses to Trumpism’s historical antecedents since the “end” of slavery in the late-19th century, the painting that slayed me was a colorful canvas, “Rendezvous” by Wilmer A. Jennings. It show a guy casually lighting a cigarette with his back turned to a black preacher firing up the faithful while that preacher’s own back was turned to an advancing cavalry of Ku Klux Klansmen, carrying the flaming cross that signaled their promise of sadism.
My God, that painting, that moment, that wit, they deserve novels.
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They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss.
It went like this.
I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.” It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat.
Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start.
On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal — the frail, the tender, the humane — to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging.
I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works.
I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism. When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at.
I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel.
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