A Year in Reading: Nathan Englander

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In the spirit of the unreliable narrator, I’m the unreliable end-of-year-wrap-up book recommender. Simply, I’m wildly loyal to whatever the last book I read (and loved) happens to be. Because when a book works for me, it doesn’t actually feel like I “happen” to have read it. It seems to me a plain miracle to have discovered the right book at the right time, just the one I needed for whatever I’m writing about or wrestling with, just the book to address the ideas bouncing around in my noggin. I want to lean over to people on the subway (never a good idea) and say, “Look, here are my notes, my notebooks. Here are the sketches I’ve been working on — now read this book that showed up out of nowhere and plain confirms everything I’ve been dreaming.”

So what I’m about to say can’t be very scientific, but the book I most want to recommend from my 2011 reading is one I’ve only just finished, and that’s Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I immediately fell in love with its loopy structure, and mapped every spiral (if a looping thing can also spiral) in the margins.

What I could not get over — and it’s the mark of any book that survives the test of time — is the sense of immediacy I felt while turning pages. It’s getting on toward 100 years later, and everything Orwell says reads as deeply current and bitingly accurate — that is, “everything” if you leave out all the parts about the Jews, the Arabs, the Irish, the Italians, the Russians, or, well, anyone who doesn’t look like what Orwell sees in the mirror every morning…but forget those bits, it’s the socioeconomic observations that amaze. Which means, either Orwell was a seer and could read the future, or the same horrible systems remain broken in the same way, near a century on. During these days when protest movements are rising up all over the world to challenge the status quo, I give you one sliver of Orwell’s take on the subject of wealth from 1933.
In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except “Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it”? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
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