Like many others, reading happens in all parts of my life: reading for work, reading cookbooks, reading to my children, and reading for pleasure, which includes all of the above but is also a distinct, hallowed category. I spent a lot of time this year rereading the German Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, a three-volume tome that outlines a (rather unorthodox) Marxist philosophy of hope, written between 1938 and 1947. I find solace in Bloch’s argument that even while the present moment degrades humanity (and all living matter, I’d add), it is an unfinished moment that contains traces of a better future. For Bloch, our imagination activates the utopian function of hope; it is a bridge between the horrors of the present and the future possibilities of which we dream. The book is written in a forceful but slippery style. It abandons academic form while at the same time showing us the work of an erudite mind whose references range from the archaic to Hollywood. I wouldn’t recommend these volumes to everyone, but they have been encouraging companions, leaving a cast of utopian residue on my everyday life.
At the end of 2020, weary from what Bloch calls the totalizing aspect of the “here and now,” I vowed that in 2021 I would read less contemporary literature and instead turn to authors living different historical realities. If you could see the journal where I keep track of my reading in consecutive order, you would see that it didn’t take me long to give up on this plan. It turns out that my response to the pandemic was to afford myself any reasonable pleasure, which included throwing away any rules that might direct my reading. I read with my usual gusto, but I read whatever I wanted, undeterred by worries of frivolity or trendiness, or falling behind, or reading the right (or wrong) authors. I felt affirmed in this indiscriminate approach when I read Heather Cass White’s Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life, which sees in reading itself a kind of hope.
Four very different books captured my attention in the first weeks of the year. Writers and Lovers seemed to be everywhere and I temporarily made the mistake of letting that dissuade me. I am now eager to get my hands on everything written by Lily King. The voice of Lovely, one of the three protagonists of Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, would not leave my head for weeks after reading this searing and difficult novel. I reread Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, somehow finding even more in it now than when I first read it a decade ago in my late 20s. Amy and Isabelle is the second book I’ve read by Elizabeth Strout. Among its many admirable qualities, this book has one scene of inappropriate romance that is unfortunately also terribly sexy.
I greedily consumed Joanna Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age, precisely the kind of thick, juicy novel full of meticulous detail about the everyday lives of characters that sticks with you long after the book ends (“what would Sadie Peregrine do?” is a question I asked myself in an awkward post-2020 social situation), and a sense of place so precise and immersive that I found myself longing to visit a New York that is no longer there. From there I needed more, so I read Rakoff’s very funny and tender memoir (that reads like a novel), My Salinger Year. I then proceeded to read many of Rakoff’s book recommendations, including the astonishing The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter.
Food is a big part of my life and yet I have been mostly disappointed by novels that explicitly announce food as a theme or subject. I was therefore thrilled by the wild appetites and pleasures on offer in Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed, truly one of the most surprising books I’ve read in the past few years. Liv Stratman’s Cheat Day denied Kit, its main character, many pleasures, as it cleverly probed the question of what satisfies us. I am excited to see what Stratman does next.
Even as memoirs constituted some of the best reading of the year—Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy coming in at the very top—I found myself struggling to enjoy this genre, which includes a lot of books that seem to lack focus and are much too long. Another notable exception was Ashley C. Ford’s Somebody’s Daughter, which continues to inspire me with its vision of love, growth, and acceptance. I read Eleanor Henderson’s strange and consuming Everything I Have Is Yours as part of a very fun Zoom book club organized by Edan Lepucki.
In keeping with the theme of surrendering to my desires, I didn’t seek guidance from self-help books this year, allowing myself to (finally?) just live in the mind and body that I have. That said, I did turn to American sportswear designer Claire McCardell’s peculiar 1956 book What Shall I Wear? as the world was opening up again and I could no longer bear my 2020 wardrobe. When, in the final months of 2021 and nearing the end of a precious research and writing leave, I began to panic a bit about time, I desperately reached for Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. This is a book that at first glance could be mistaken for another manual promising to teach us how to wring productivity from our every waking second so that we can labor and consume more. I will be honest that what I wanted from this book was to tell me how to do more with my time. But Burkeman’s book is decidedly not interested in giving this kind of advice. What I found there instead was resounding support for filling time with what we truly enjoy, accepting finitude, and the hope that by surrendering to it, we come to more fully be in the time that we have.
Over a week in July at a rented cottage on a lake in northeastern Ontario (the traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg Peoples), I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning and Robin Black’s Life Drawing, both of which took me intimately into someone else’s experience, albeit in quite different ways. Minor Feelings was both painful to read and felt like coming home; as an Iranian, I very much appreciated Hong’s capacious discussion of Asian identities. Life Drawing is perhaps the definition of a quiet novel, if a quiet novel can also veer toward suspense. It depicts the daily life of two working artists, a married couple who live in isolation in a rural Pennsylvania location, and whose lives change with the arrival of a new neighbor. I have read a lot of fictional portrayals of marriage, even this year alone, and none of have been quite as honest and grim, yet hopeful, as this one. Both of these books were worthy of ignoring my children while on “vacation.”
Immediately prior to writing this piece, I finished Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. It chimed with all of my thinking and reading on hope this past year. If I can take just a little bit of the energy of its last pages into 2022 with me, the passage will be hopeful.
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