A Year in Reading: Lillian Li

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This was the year I found out Art Garfunkel has kept a list of every book he’s read since he was 28 years old. You can see them on his website, under “About Art,” in the sub-menu “Library,” and even then you don’t get to the books themselves, but rather a list of lists arranged as “Book List for 1968-1978,” “Book List for 1979-1983,” and on through the unevenly distributed decades. I’m a big fan of this bad web design because you can see, in the years stacking up, that with every book, Art’s life passes also.

This was the year I began my own book list with the vain
hope of surpassing Art Garfunkel’s record of 52 years (and counting), and what was
started as the always surprising spume of my competitive spirit has become an
artifact of the year we all went indoors, waved goodbye to screens, and
acknowledged one another by crossing the street.

In January, we were still traveling. I went to Japan with my family and brought with me Strange Weather in Tokyo, and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations. I cried in a coach bus at the last line of Hiromi Kawakami’s odd-duck of a love story, and tried to find a Japanese translation for purely sentimental reasons.

In March, my two sides of crisis management emerge in the only two books I read: Station Eleven and Option B. Some people would have avoided a book about a flu pandemic that wipes out human civilization. Others would have said it was premature to read a book on grief. I wanted to see an imagined catastrophe, and a real one. Not to compare the two, but to learn from both, and what I learned is that nothing prepares you. You just get through it.

In April and May, I read to be useful. As Literati, the bookstore I work at, and its brilliant two-man events team (John Ganiard and Bennet Johnson) created an entire online events calendar from thin air, I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, Little Gods, and Days of Distraction to prepare for Q&A’s with the wonderful authors. Three debuts that deserved undivided attention, and I was excited to give that and convince others to give theirs too.

Over the summer, I read Alexander Chee’s tweet about how years of reading have required him to start physical therapy for his eyes. One more terrifying medical eventuality! Until, ever helpful, he mentioned that manga (read right to left) is a kind of remedy. I went back to some of the manga that raised me into the histrionically romantic lady I am today—Skip Beat and Ouran High School Host Club. My eyes will thank me.

The final book on my 2020 list is What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. Fifty-two years later, someone might ask me to remember what it was like in 2020, and I don’t think any of the words we’re using today will bring me back as quickly as seeing the title to Carolyn Forché  memoir. Forché has written a testimony of her time spent in El Salvador in the years before the Civil War, when she was brought down simply to watch with her poet’s eyes what was happening around her. This book brought the possibility of witness, a pathway out of being a bystander. “You want to know what is revolutionary?” her mentor explains. “To tell the truth.”

Years ago, I created a playlist titled “Obsessions Right
Now,” which I added to whenever I had a song I couldn’t stop playing. This
playlist was never actually played in its entirety because I would have grown
absolutely sick of each entry around the time I added it. I keep this playlist
because the titles alone are enough to sweep me back into every fanatic crush
and unrequited heartbreak I experienced over the 6 years I contributed to its
annals.

Going over this new list, one year strong, has proven that
books have their own unrelenting undertow. A year later, I’m glad I can still
do things for purely sentimental reasons.

(Thanks, Art!)

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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