A Year in Reading: Michelle Dean


You don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a horribly misbehaved cat of a year, careening after poltergeists, tearing up the furniture, and generally knocking over the usually steady water glasses of your soul. The tumult didn’t leave me with as much space for reading as I would have liked. I suspect I’m not alone in that.

The upside is that the books I did manage to read, the ones that briefly unscrambled my brain, stuck in my mind a bit better this year than they would in most. It’s only a small blessing, but you can’t have everything.

I try, mostly, when I am not being paid to read something, to read only old books. Books born before 1990, for example. Time has a way of sifting out much of the crap that humanity publishes. What’s left are only the more interesting artifacts of what writers are writing, some books more successful at being art than others. Plus: old books remind you that we have been through bad things before, and will go through bad things again, and we will live through the tiny interstitial moments of joy that we get in dark times. Not because it is fair, but because we have to.

I am not talking about famous famous books, per se. I tend to pick up odd little artifacts just for the hell of it. For example, in September I ended up with a copy of Calvin Trillin’s Killings, at the suggestion of a friend and by the good graces of the folks at Abebooks. (Though now out of print, mercifully the book will reappear in a Kindle edition sometime this April.) This is a book of Trillin’s articles about random murders around the country, all filed as New Yorker pieces in the 1960s and 1970s, during the tenure of William Shawn, who believed in letting writers do what they loved.

“Reporters love murders,” Trillin writes. He is right. But not all reporters can write them up the way Trillin can. These stores all have the kind of careful narrative construction you don’t see much of anymore, not in the sprawling “investigations” of a Serial or a Making a Murderer. Trillin believes in beginnings and middles, though not in clear-cut Hollywood endings, which is something that was on my mind when I did some of my own murder reporting. The lack of an ending is starting to haunt me a bit, if I’m honest. I am beginning to wonder if anything is ever really, truly over.

In a single evening in May, at a point in my life where I was beginning to wonder if my attention span would ever return to me, I consumed the whole of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s memoir of, among other things, being married to John Berryman. Spoiler: he was a difficult man. I had read bits of the book before, in service of other research projects, but never had I sat down to read through the whole thing. It was delightful.

Fair warning: I am more susceptible than the average person to the intrigues of mid-century-poet gossip. I like them, even the drunk, dissolute, and occasionally abusive ones: in between royally fucking up, they seemed to be doing such meaningful work. They were not constantly publishing, of course, but also they were not tweeting. They were not debating the end of tweeting. They were not participating in whatever passes for the “cultural conversation” at all. Instead, they were trying to live lives that allowed them to write whatever the fuck they wanted. This, I have decided, should be a mission statement for me going forward in 2017. I am trying to make arrangements for the freedom to write what I really mean to write.

Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. I spent a good chunk of this year completing a book manuscript for which Hannah Arendt is something like an organizing principle. So for most of the year, I had her entire body of work at my side. Obviously she is a popular choice right now. People on Twitter claim to be reading her constantly, though sometimes it looks like they’re just scanning for quotes to tweet, particularly quotes from The Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem.

But rather than tell you about the content of Arendt’s arguments — some of which map onto our current moment better than others — I want to make an observation about the attitude that underwrote all of them.

To brutally oversimplify her for a moment (and sweep all the arguments about the factual underpinnings of her arguments in Eichmann aside): Arendt worried most, in authoritarian regimes, about people who could not think. Thinking, for her, was both a function of intellect and a quality of attention. It was not mere ordinary stupidity. She had, in her lifetime, watched both very stupid people and very smart ones fall prey to the delusions and lies. She had known some pretty dark times. But still, she’d write in the preface for one of her books, that she believed:
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…
Pulled out of context, that also seems to me a brilliant reason to keep reading in a time that threatens to upend almost everything the world thought it knew about itself.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

What Harry Potter Knows

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This is one of those weeks in which everyone talks about Harry Potter, and in which it’s tempting to be that writer, you know that writer, who does the jaded contrarian take on it all.  There would be some grounds for it.  At times like these, the force of Pottermania can feel like an eclipse, blocking out the light of sense and reason.  Try to engage someone in a serious conversation about the merits of the movies this week, and you’ll see what I mean.  Even professional critics have always trod softly around these films, generally thumbing them up.  But you can excavate hints of ambivalence from even the most positive reviews, when they do things like call The Sorcerer’s Stone “fun and harmless” (Salon) or note that The Half-Blood Prince; “opens and closes well” (Ebert).

Caveat emptor: when I have watched the movies, it’s usually been at home, so that I can keep my finger hovering over the fast-forward button, skipping from one transcendent glimpse of Alan Rickman to the next.   (That voice, that voice!)  Even when one did upend my expectations – like Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban – much depended on my private image of Cuarón in the enemy territory of a boardroom, raising his fists at the Hollywood suits, insisting that Hermione must wear that pink hoodie as a matter of Art, Beauty and Truth.  In other words: I fed my enthusiasm with a parable about the liberation of the creative class, and not so much the movie itself.

But this is a week in which I keep wondering what I’m missing by being, well, like that.  The easy money for a critic is to rail on about the corporate pablum of the monoculture.  But on some level people do want their Potter-inspired tears, it truly means something to them.  Hollywood PR flackery is at best only a partial culprit.  Most of the people who will arrive at the movie theatre in nervous anticipation this Friday night are not mere automatons of a capitalist machine.  Listening to them on the news, in all the endless End Of An Era pieces, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the depth of the longing in their voices.  It’s like the memory of something very good is just beyond their reach, and the movie promises, if vaguely, to remind them of it.

There is something bittersweet and even, I know, I know, we shouldn’t use this word anymore but, sacred in that.  Something we should be less afraid to acknowledge.  Glib analysis of the means of cultural production is comparatively comforting, I know, because dollars and cents are concrete, things we can put in a spreadsheet, calculate out, close the file on.  But just because the ink dries up when we go to set this other thing on paper doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

See, the great mystery of Rowling’s skill is that she just knew how to elicit this kind of attachment.  We can talk about this in litcrit-approved terms, if you like.  The usual line is that the Potter books are storytelling in the old vein, stuffing their readers so full of plot they haven’t a moment to consider anything else.  There’s a truth to that: I do not think of Rowling as a “good writer,” exactly.  Her skills are better classified as imaginary, which I, for one, don’t think of as a consolation prize.  (The imagination is a good chunk of the distance between writing good, lasting fiction and writing criticism on the internet.)  There’s a wide and often mysterious abyss between the transporting power of Rowling’s ideas and her ability to set them down in language.  And let’s not overstate the dichotomy between the where, what, why and how of a story, and the way it is written; trip over too many bad sentences, too much stiff dialogue, and all the Fawkeses and Pensieves and Rooms of Requirement will be lost to you, no matter their other powers of enchantment.

But all those observations explain very little, because I’d bet you know those references.  Because even if you are an excessively cerebral, overly verbal, altogether too critical person (like me), you probably lived the cliché, and on at least one, and perhaps several, nights in the last ten years, stayed up til four a.m. devouring all of this imperfectly articulated fancy.

There is the element of age to consider.  I am actually a bit older than the generation who actually grew up with Pottermania.  I only remember hearing of the series around the time Goblet of Fire came out, which would have made me 21 that first very late night.  And even to 21, adventures composed to appeal to 11 through 14 seem a bit naive, a bit, you know, young.

But I keep thinking of this: a few years ago I was at a dinner party, where the particular cross-section of my friends in attendance was decidedly bookish in character.  They were of the I-have-a-corporate-job-but-also-an-English-degree type, prone to direct all casual talk to reading (past, present, and future).  The ferocity of their quasi-literary posturing can be surprising, sure, but it’s just that the rest of the life they’ve built is predicated on the irrelevance of something that once meant so much to them.  (The sincerity of that hunger is what keeps these people from seeming pretentious to me, if you’re wondering.)  At one point in the conversation people began comparing favorite books, by which they seemed to mean books that had been integral to the way they saw the world, to the way they understood things.  And I remember suddenly developing an enormous interest in the (bad) wine, drinking rapidly to keep from talking seriously, because the prospect of saying something tipsy and silly was less embarrassing than reporting the actual truth.

Which is that there is no book in the world that has had quite the effect on who I am as L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  In imagining the epitome of beauty, my mind still defaults to violet eyes and alabaster brows.  I find myself unreasonably susceptible to falling for jerks because my paradigmatic suitor was one who first hinted at his love by way of calling her “Carrots.”  Whenever I do cringeworthy things in my life, which is to say every day, the Mrs. Rachel Lynde that book installed in my psyche intones anew: “Anne. Shirley.  You are HEEDLESS and IMPULSIVE.”  (Forgive the italics, another Montgomery indulgence.)

But I know, as well as you do, that in dinner party conversations like that one, some such pedestrian book is not The Right Answer.  I have loved my copy of Anne to literal pieces, the spine cracked and fragile, the edges of the pages grass-stained from the backyards and parks I used to read in before I grew old enough for bars and coffeeshops.  But I know it is not a “literary masterpiece.”  So the inner buzzer sounds, do not pass go, try again.  Once more, with Roberto Bolaño or A.S. Byatt or David Foster Wallace, please.

Isn’t it funny that this is what happens to us?  That even if you love books, if you start to dedicate your life to them, a light goes out, somehow.  You come to know them with your brain rather than your soul.  Maybe it’s just one more sad example of how you’ve grown up.  And I know, I know, in some ways these books aren’t just “un-literary” – there are parts of them that are flat-out dishonest, sentimental, destructive.  It’s not that all those endless lessons on technique I’ve internalized aren’t right, strictly speaking.  But it isn’t the least bit of hyperbole for me to say that as an adult who is a voracious reader, I know that I am going to spend the rest of my life not quite managing to love a book the way I loved Anne, to read it the way I did the first, second, thirty-fifth time.  I know that the rest of my reading life is just a thinly-disguised effort to forge a path back to that, but I’ll never get there.

So I admit that when I read Harry Potter, the main appeal of it is how it tries to reach me the way Anne once did.

Maybe you find that a strange thing to say.  I wouldn’t argue with you that the Anne and Harry Potter books are worlds apart in diction, tone, setting.  Anne’s milieu is anti-magical, its animating spirit best stated as the well-scrubbed Canadian practicality of your favorite great-aunt.  Meanwhile, Harry rarely cracks a book in the Potter series, much less seems to want to write one.   But there is one important sense in which the books are kindred spirits, as Anne would say.  Annes and Harrys – and their intended readers – are people with whole lives of possibility before them.  They do not have cars and mortgages and 401(k)s.  If they are acquainted with certain grim facts of life – are orphans – the promise of more disappointment, or even just of the status quo, does not yet seem the only thing that life could hold.  Annes and Harrys belong to a time in one’s life when living is a glass you’ve yet to fill.  When you can be a writer if you just want it badly enough.

Perhaps most importantly: when it is still dimly possible that on any given afternoon a giant will sweep you away from your ugly little life and inform you that you are the savior of all Wizardkind.

The kind of critics who find all human joy suspicious use accusatory tones when they call this sort of thing “escapist.”  Here, for them, is a bit of realism: I can still tell you, without looking it up, that The Deathly Hallows was released on the 21st of July, 2007.

I was then living in New York, working at a corporate law firm.  A friend of mine was in town that month, visiting her boyfriend.  Uncharacteristically, she kept cancelling our appointments to go out.  But I thought very little of it, because I was too busy contemplating the corner I had backed my own life into.

Then one morning her boyfriend sent me an email at work: “I am at the hospital.  S. is sick.  Please come.”

A thing you wouldn’t know, if you’ve not much personal experience with medicine, is how breathtakingly uncertain everything can be.  How many procedures are “exploratory.”  How much time you’ll spend waiting for an answer that amounts to, “We just don’t know.”  How the wrong thing to do is to hope that they will say that they have located the problem, that they have a plan to fix it, that they will hold off the siege of the illness in the following well-defined and concrete list of ways.  The best thing you can expect is to have the strength to expect nothing.

It was in such a context that it was determined, after a number of days, that the thing they would try to do for S. was a procedure with a fancy name that, to you and I, translates as cutting into someone’s skull.  It was determined that this would happen on the morning of the 21st of July, 2007.

That morning, her boyfriend and I took a walk around the West Village.  It was very sunny, which offended for the obvious reason and also because neither of us had slept much.  Over the past few days he and I had talked each other out, so we said little.

We got coffee at one of those shops where they make designs in the foam.  The barista made me a heart.  I was not in the mood.  I took a sip, dissolving it.

Then I saw all those credulous people lined up outside a Barnes and Noble, and I remembered what day it was.  When the store opened, I bought the book.  And then we went back to the waiting room.

I had not read anything longer than a tabloid magazine in days, but I got about halfway through before they wheeled her back.  And told us everything had gone well.

This was the climax of the story, the return, the recovery.  But I admit, a bit shamefully: it took my eyes a moment to focus, looking up.  I didn’t come directly back.  But the next breath I took, out there in the real world, was that of someone surfacing after a long stretch underwater.

And some of you will call me a credulous, sentimental fool, but maybe reality had been too much for me.  When I got to the end of the book, which was that day or maybe the next, I don’t remember, but when I got to that part of Harry’s death-dream where:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry.  “Is this real?  Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth does that mean that it is not real?”

There’s no less embarrassing way to say this: I wept.

But whether it was for Harry, or Dumbledore, or for the child I used to be, who was once comforted by such pretty nonsense, I could not tell you.

See Also: A History of Magic: A Children’s Librarian Reflects on Harry Potter, and Offers a Post-Hogwarts Syllabus, Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games