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Samuel Pepys Would Have Been Huge on the Internet

At some point during the 31st of May 1669, a learned if bawdy, witty if obscene, educated if scandalous, pious if irreverent rake, raconteur, and libertine who’d recorded over one million words about his life for almost a decade stopped his private scribblings, even though this gentleman named Samuel Pepys would live for more than another three decades. To the best of our knowledge, until that point no Englishman had ever provided such a complete accounting; such a scrupulous interrogation not of the soul, but of a life—a largely secular exercise in tabulating not just wars, but dinners; not just plagues, but nights at the theater. Beginning on January 1st upon the first year of Restoration, Pepys would record everything from when fire immolated the city of London to a particularly enjoyable stew of tripe and mustard. An entry dated March 10th, 1666 confesses that the “truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it,” and such a position could be the motto of Pepys’s diary. That document doesn’t reach the rhetorical heights of other 17th-century classics—it has not the poetry of William Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy in Hamlet, nor the intellectual sophistication of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or George Herbert’s The Temple. Rather, what Pepys offered was something different, but no less impressive—a complete map of an individual human life and mind during that defined period of time. As novelist Philip Hensher notes in The Atlantic, “there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did.”

Restoration was inaugurated with King Charles II’s triumphant return to London to avenge his father’s regicide, and Pepys would work as administrator of the Navy in the new regime. This was a fabulous era of theatricality after a decade of dreary Puritan Interregnum; when John Dryden’s and Aphra Behn’s elaborate set-pieces thrilled London audiences, when Isaac Newton’s New Physics transformed the very nature of motion, when wits from John Wilmot to William Wycherley injected English letters with a pump of aphrodisiacs.  An era ruled by an aristocracy that Peter Stallybras and Allon White describe in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression as being “carelessly demonic, nonchalantly outrageous, cynical in the way that only a class which despises its compromises can be cynical,” all of which Pepys was able to document. Pepys observed both the plague and the Great Fire of London, the first which decimated the capital and the later which purified it, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the English traded the tropical paradise of Suriname for a small village named New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. With large, soulful brown eyes, jutting lower lip, and curly auburn hair, Pepys cut a swath through London society, from the coffee houses and printers of Fleet Street to the book stalls at St. Paul’s, pushing the Socratic injunction to “Know thyself” to its extreme, the most self-obsessed man in a self-obsessed era. A man aptly described by Emily Cockayne in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England as the sort “not to make too much of a fuss about being accidentally spat on by a lady in the theatre—providing the lady was pretty.”

Yet after nine years of privately recording his movement in regal circles, his observation of scientific and technological changes, his attendance at the splendid plays of the Restoration, his intellectual intercourse with the era’s great minds (as well as the other type of intercourse), Pepys made his last entry on that spring evening in 1669. Fearing that he was going blind (he was not going blind), the diarist signed off with “The good God prepare me,” and so after one million words Pepys would fall silent in the record of his own life. A funny thing which literary anniversaries we choose to commemorate or not. Certain authors come in for posthumous honoring more than others—Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. This year sees the 200th birthday of the great, grey bard of Camden, Walt Whitman, and his work will be rightly celebrated with events throughout his cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Three years ago was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and it received a predictable amount of attention; 2023 will be the 400th year of publication for the first folio of the dramatist’s complete works, and it too will undoubtedly be commemorated with exhibitions, lectures, plays, books, and articles (I’m penciling such retrospectives into my own writing schedule right now). Pepys’s retirement as a diarist, by contrast, seems to largely be passing without much mention; the release of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint (which he was associated with) notwithstanding.

An irony in this, because Pepys is in many ways a prophet of our own self-obsessed age. Pepys’s fragmentary, digressive, contradictory, messy diary (which was as voluminous in its output as it was disorganized in its execution) foreshadows our own individual self-fashioning. In Pepys we see Facebook; we see Twitter. British actor and web-programmer Phil Gyford sees in the diary a forerunner of blogging, and as part of an online project he spent nine years posting Pepys’s entries in real time. Lisa Schamess, in a delightful essay for Creative Nonfiction, considers both Gyford’s project and the general compatibility of Pepys’s diary with our own digital moment, arguing this his prose itself is “elegant evidence of how lustily the 17th century’s most famous diarist might have embraced the internet, tapping up its opulent charms deep into the night.” With an admirable eye towards close reading and comparison, Schamess reads through several of Pepys’s entries to demonstrate how in their half-formation, their digressions, and their exhibitionism, they’re reminiscent of Facebook posts. Schamess writes that Pepys’s “sharp eye and acid wit would be perfect for the restless internet, with its thin, glowing scrim between life and audience, its illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy.”

Much is convincing in Schamess’s observation, yet it’s undeniable that even if his prose would be copacetic with the internet’s “illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy,” Pepys’s actual writing was, at least while he was alive, completely private. Scholarly arguments abound about just how private Pepys’s expected his writings to ultimately be, and yet Gyford’s neat conceit aside, the historical diarist was not hitting “Post” after each one of his entries. Hewing to a more traditional interpretation of Pepys that sees him as a man of the late, late Renaissance, content to exist in wonder and curiosity, his editor Richard La Gallienne claimed that for Pepys’s “It is not so much himself that interests him, more merely the things that happen to himself, but the people about him and the things that are happening to everybody, all the time, to his nation as well as to his acquaintance.” Schamess’s and Gyford’s arguments about “social media Pepys” would be anachronistic coming from Pepys’s editor, a man old enough to have had an affair with Oscar Wilde, but perhaps La Gallienne would have concurred with them had he known what the internet was. Regardless, even in La Gallienne’s reading of the man’s character, there is something undeniable modern (or post-modern) in his vociferous appetites, his manner of absorbing, repackaging, and projecting his experience. In Pepys’s diary, there is an equivalence between his mind and the world, and what could be more contemporary than that, whether on paper or in 140-characters?

Written in a code-like short-hand developed in the 16th century, Pepys’s diary wouldn’t see publication until his writing was deciphered in the early 19th century; his previous reputation resting entirely on his role in civil government, ranging from membership in Parliament and being administrator of the Royal Navy to a position on the Tangier Council during the short years that the English governed a Moroccan colony. Pepys’s great colleague in self-introspection (or self-obsession), the Frenchman Michelle de Montaigne, may have invented the essay form more than a century earlier, but even he couldn’t match the Englishman for sheer magnificent, glorious, transcendent narcissism. The diary is what his name shall be inextricably linked with, not necessarily for the quality of the prose (though Pepys is often a fine stylist), but rather for the raw, honest, unguarded reflection on a sheer multitude of subjects ranging from politics to theater to medicine to sex. One of his 19th-century readers, the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, writes that Pepys’s style “may be ungrammatical, it may be inelegant, it may be one tissue of mistakes, but it cannot be devoid of merit.” With what seems like faint praise, Stevenson clarifies that the worthiness of Pepys lay in a style that is “indefatigably lively, telling and picturesque…[dealing] with the whole matter of a life and yet is rarely wearisome.”

At turns anxious and perverse, aroused and guilty, introspective and arrogant, horny and holy, Pepys’s diary was the most complete record of the Restoration era, and of the vagaries of a human mind in all of its splendid contradiction. Tolerant and humane, if skeptical, in his Anglicanism, Pepys was an often unconvinced enthusiast of church sermons, writing on January 19 1661: “To church in the morning, where Mr. Mills preached upon Christ’s being offered up for our sins, and there proving the equity with what justice would lay our sins upon his Son.” Yet he was also the author who was able to write of his wife discovering Pepys’s dalliance with her maid Deb Willet as “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl [with] my [hand under] her coats; and indeed I was with my [hand] in her cunny,” his indiscretions characteristically hidden in a hodgepodge of ellipses. Elsewhere he deploys a strange pidgin of English, Spanish, and French to mask his pornographic obsessions—idiosyncratic ciphers that if one can read his shorthand take most readers mere seconds to crack. That’s always been the enigma of Pepys, a man who spent so much time writing his apparently private diary, who took the most marginal of non-pains to cloak his indiscretions, and yet had the entire project bound in six volumes and categorized in his library’s bibliography with the apparent foreknowledge that it’d inevitably see posthumous publication. 

Pepys is the virtual font of an age for those of us who are weirdly enmeshed in the 17th century, attracted to a melancholic era of stunning contradiction, which White and Stallybras describe as being both “classical and grotesque, both regal and foolish, high and low.” To read Pepys is to inhabit his world, and while among the great prose stylists of that century he lacks the metaphysical acumen of Donne, the philosophical flights of Thomas Browne, or the psychological insight of Robert Burton, Pepys makes up for those deficiencies by simply being there—day after day, for the better part of Restoration’s first decade. Consider the eeriness of his first-hand account of the plague which leveled London in 1665, forcing the court to rusticate themselves as the buboes spread through the capital:

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord Have Mercy upon Us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind… that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension.

Such a fusion of the horrific and the prosaic
conveys an immediacy that is still present three-and-a-half centuries later, a
sense of “This must have been what it was like.” Or consider his account of the
Great Fire of London from that satanic year of 1666, which remains haunting in
its specificity, the small details of tragedy illuminating the experience more
than maps and demographics ever could hope to:

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

Hensher observes that from a “seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to assert any kind of moral about people’s scrabbling after their possessions, and the eccentric, unpolished syntax.” And yet Pepys’s is a novelistic sensibility, apt more for Dickens or Gustave Flaubert than for his own century; an empathy that understands that there is infinitely more to be conveyed in the image of singed pigeons than the sophistries of theodicy that impose false meaning on such tragedy.

In making record of the 17th century, there is certainly something innately attractive in gravitating towards those particular dates that loom large, but what’s most evocative in Pepys are the personal details, the mundanities but which by virtue of his having recorded them now belong to the annals of eternity. On April 4th, 1663 he makes record of dinner “most neatly dressed by our own only maid,” in which Pepys and his guest feasted upon a “fricassee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.” There are, it should be said, numerous entries of this sort. Think of it as the Restoration equivalent of an Instagrammed food picture. He’s less charitable in his theater recommendations; writing on September 29tht, 1662 that he went to the “King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” But what’s Shakespeare next to a lamprey pie?

Or Pepys harrowing reminiscence of a surgical procedure, more than two centuries before anesthesia, which removed a kidney stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine that “invasive surgery was limited in scope; lengthy operations, or ones demanding great precision, were out of the question.” Nevertheless, “A brave man—Samuel Pepys was one—might risk having a bladder stone removed surgically.” We should be thankful that the physician was the rare 17th-century doctor who saw fit to wash his hands before venturing tasks urological, for had there been for a bit more grime upon his digits when he performed surgery on Pepys’s peep and we’d never have had the diary to read. Pepys had his anatomical memento mounted as a trophy, writing March 26th, 1660 that “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone…and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival.” Supposedly Pepys would plunk the stone into glasses of wine.

Then of course there is all of the sex in Pepys, with squeamish Victorian editors deleting whole entries where the diarist both luxuriated and punished himself over perversions both imagined and enacted. Pepys enumerated the women, from aristocrats to maids, wives and daughters of friends and colleagues, whom he fucks; women united in the status of not being his wife. Obsessed with not only his own erotic adventures, Pepys spends ample time hypocritically chastising Charles II’s own notorious appetites, while fantasizing about the monarch’s mistresses, from the actress (and “Protestant Whore”) Nell Gwynne to the aristocratic Barbara Villiers, whom Pepys claims he had a sex dream of that was “the best that ever was dreamt.” Still substantially less problematic than the entry from May 21st, 1662 in which Pepys writes that he came across Villiers’s underwear being hung out to dry in the palace at Whitehall’s privy garden, being “the finest smocks and linned petticoats…laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them.”

Cockayne writes that Pepys was “often led by his libido,” and indeed there is something disquieting about the author spending all of this time lusting after scullery maids and servants, duchesses and actresses. Critic Warren Chernaik writes in Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature that the infamously scurrilous theater of the period was “fundamentally conservative in its sexual attitudes.” Reading all of those lustily guilty passages of Pepys, and you can get a sense for the fundamentally reactionary nature of the diarist’s priapic concerns, where prurience and puritanism are twined pairs. Chernaik writes that “With nothing to rebel against, no taboos to be transgressed, blasphemy would lose its power to shock. It can be argued that society creates its rebels,” so that far from an exercise in liberation, Pepys’s orgasmic encounters were a type of prison, with nobody trapped in the neurotic cycle of release and guilt more than the author himself. Evelyn Lord in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, writes about Pepys’s encountering, while perusing book-stalls with his wife, a lewd French volume entitled The School of Venus (infamous for its illustrations of society women purchasing prodigiously endowed dildos). Lord writes that after expressing disgust at the book, Pepys “put it back on the shelf. However, he was unable to resist it, and eventually went back and purchased it in plain binding, took it home, read it and then burned it.” One imagines that Pepys perhaps had more onanistic concerns with the book that even he wouldn’t put into record. 

Denouncing The School of Venus to his wife, while later purchasing it in plain paper—was Pepys a hypocrite? Of course, he was a hypocrite. Did he feel guilt over his indiscretion? The ashes of his smut should leave little doubt that he did. Something modern in that position, the enigma of the neurotic. Pepys is our contemporary in that he dwells in a certain negative capability, a fractured ego strung as it is between the public and personal, the spectacle of accountability and the private web browser. In that manner, I see less of Twitter and Facebook in Pepys, less of the carefully manicured self-creation implied by our collective digital subterfuge, and more of a different post-modern literary genre—Samuel Pepys was the first writer of autofiction. That form, defined as it is by the presence of a narrator who is largely the same as the author but who dwells in the massive complexity of the individual, including all that is hidden (perhaps even from the author themselves). The true inheritors of Pepys’s ethos aren’t all of us clicking away on Twitter, it’s not the vulgarities of those writing status update while sitting on the toilet. Rather it’s those obsessive writers cataloging the minutia of their lives; poet Ben Lerner in 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Teju Cole’s Open City, and especially the Norwegian completist Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume My Struggle.

In that 3,600-page door-stopper, Knausgård contemplates both his conflicted relationship with his father, and the breakfasts he prepares for his children—with as much detail as Pepys once did. Knausgård writes of days that were “jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when ever opportunity filled me to the brim.” The task of My Struggle was for Knausgård to write deliberately and simply, to dwell in the prosaicness of detail. By comparison, Hensher describes the minutia of Pepys’s diary as being such that most of its entries couldn’t be “considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of being interesting, which is much stranger and harder to achieve. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it down.” That is the cracked wisdom shared by both Knausgård and Pepys, the understanding that we don’t write about things because they’re important, but rather things become important because we write about them. Jonathon Sturgeon claims in Flavorwire that the best description of the autofictional novel is a book where “the oeuvre is the soul. The artist’s body of work…has come to replace the religious ideal of the immortal spirit.” If that’s true, I’d venture that Pepys’s profane, grubby, earthy, secular diary is the first autofictional novel, in all of its over-determined detail, with all of its insignificant meanings, and especially with all of its contradictions of spirit, so very human in their deployment.

Writing of Pepys shortly after the diary had been rediscovered and published in the 19th century, Stevenson provided gloss for Pepys’s protean character: “We all, whether we write or speak, must somewhat drape ourselves when we address our fellows; at a given moment we apprehend our character and acts by some particular side; we are merry with one, grave with another, as befits the nature of demands of the relation.”  Such a mercurial nature is our common birthright, and in the sloppy, imperfect, anomalous medium of a diary we can see a certain process made naked. A polished essay is like the woman or man dressed formally for a job interview, clothing dry-cleaned and hair perfectly coifed—the individual self-fashioned into the most presentable of versions. Diaries are how we actually are more or less all of the time—messy, confused, and impolite. Le Gallienne argues that “The record was a secret between himself and his own soul, not forgetting his God… whom he invokes on many curious occasions.” Written for the Lord and for posterity, Pepys’s diary is a record of the soul before editing and revision, which is to say a record of the soul as it actually is. No deletions, no rearrangements, no strike-throughs, but rather a manuscript as a man, all error and contradiction—and the more perfect for it.

A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener

I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

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A Year in Reading: Lisa Halliday

It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby.

For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including:

 

 

Little Women
Elizabeth Costello
The Garden of Eden
Tropic of Capricorn
Bartleby & Co.
A Sport and a Pastime
Yann Andréa Steiner
NW
To the Back of Beyond
Charlotte’s Web

For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth.

I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom.

In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland.

In Tobermory I read about the history of lighthouses and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in The Cicerone Guide to Walking on The Isle of Mull.

On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long.

On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched.

I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels.

I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied.

 

I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have.

I re-read Strunk & White.

I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died.

 

And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book.

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A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
 

The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016.  I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, MarlenaThe Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker.  The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.

In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.

This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future.  When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.

Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.

Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.

But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.

It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies.  My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.

During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.

Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.

I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Beyond Digital vs. Print: On How We Consume Media

A few weeks ago, during an eerily slow Tuesday afternoon, I skipped out of work to visit the Strand, one of the few remaining bookstores in Downtown Manhattan. My day job in digital media, two subway stops uptown, involves combing through the pulse patterns of the Web, analyzing the flow of traffic across different websites; escaping the endless cascade of numbers and content can be intoxicating — turning away from the screen, silencing the phone, losing myself in a sea of paper.

Over 18 miles of books line the tables and shelves of the Strand, according to the red sign above the storefront. That day, after beginning with the NEW FICTION PAPERBACKS table on the main level, my attention drifted towards the dusty back corner of the basement, where I discovered a used copy of The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms. The book, published in 2004, was mistakenly placed in the MISCELLANEOUS NONFICTION section and contained an alarming introduction.

“We are living in the middle of a [real-time] epidemic,” says novelist Richard Powers, in said introduction’s opening paragraph. He points to the surge in technological features — such as split screens, picture-in-picture modes, multi-tasking software — that enable people to “[cram] two moments…into one.” He observes that empowered with the ability to maximize every second of our day, society has developed such a mastery over time that “nanoseconds now weigh heavily on our hands.” He tells us that reading presents “the last refuge” from this epidemic; the collection of stories and poems that follow are assembled by “the length you might steal from the flow, and still get away with.”

Powers’s introduction expresses a sense that contemporary culture is accelerating towards some kind of metaphysical breaking point. In reality, he was writing two years before the launch of Twitter, three years before Apple put the first iPhone into our pockets, and six years before Facebook released the beta version of its mobile app. Powers is of course still alive today, at the ripe age of 58, and I hesitate to think about how he might be weathering the present circumstances. On a recent bus ride from Boston to New York, I sat next to a middle-aged man in a Tommy Bahama shirt who spent the duration of his four-hour trip submerged in the “real-time” flow of his smartphone, bouncing between apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, YouTube, Snapchat, Tinder.

When Powers laments the unsustainable pace of technological change, he is channeling an almost ancient paranoia that has become existential amongst literary circles, given the economic anxiety being wrought by the digital transformation.

Generations of “Gutenberg Men,” raised on printed books and first identified by Marshall McLuhan in 1962, assert that true literary experience necessitates people to actively unplug from the ether. If a book is being read on an Internet-connected device, the fight towards deeper, independent thinking may already be lost. Changing the Subject, the latest book from cultural critic and author of The Gutenberg Elegies Sven Birkerts, expands Powers’s metaphor into the blatant “language of the battlefield” (as described in Jenny Hendrix’s essay for the Boston Review), employing verbs like “confront,” “attack,” “strike,” and “win.”

Critics of the “print” versus “digital” debate consider this dichotomy to be not only foolish, but potentially dangerous: technology will inevitably alter the way that future generations gather knowledge and assign meaning to the world, and it’s vital that literature plays a role in those new contexts. “Most people walk around with some kind of device…that allows them to choose how to use their time,” said Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Amazon Kindle content, to The Washington Post in 2014. “In a world with…ubiquitous choice, books need to continue to evolve to compete for someone’s time and interest.”

The collisions between “print” and “digital” have indeed yielded positive developments, even given the vantage point of a Gutenberg Man living in a digital world. The combination of free online publishing and the massive scale afforded by social media has enabled more people to have access to literature and writing and well-regarded publications than ever before. The recent revivals in long-form, narrative journalism and radio-style podcasts — from organizations like Byliner, the Atavist, Longreads, Audible, Slate, and Gimlet — rippling across digital media, present an exciting development for any lover of language and narrative.

The Gutenberg camp has also received encouraging news from the old world of “print.” E-book sales slipped for the first time in 2015, reaching a plateau at around a quarter of the overall market, and the number of independent bookstores across the country has grown by over 30 percent since 2009. Many in the book trade claim they are witnessing “a reverse migration to print” (as reported in The New York Times). For all the paranoid speculation over the “The Death of Fiction” or “The Death of the Novel” or the way that “Books Are Losing the War for Our Attention,” the latest figures from Pew Research Center show “no indication that the intensity of book reading over the years has permanently shifted in one direction or another.”

But ever since last summer, maybe around the time that media journalist John Herrman’s column on “The Content Wars” began getting viral attention, there has been a creeping anxiety around the risk inherent to any kind of digital media interaction. Every major technology company in the world is trying to reconfigure the way that people discover and consume media on a daily basis. Projects such as Apple News, Snapchat Discover, and Facebook’s Instant Articles claim to serve users with a more “immersive” experience, while conditioning their broader media habits to coalesce around the culture and tempo of the platform.

Last month, several independent publishers — including Electric Literature, Pacific Standard, and The Awl — abandoned their stand-alone websites and migrated their digital presences onto Medium, a buzzed-about online publishing platform created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and popularized as the unofficial blog-of-choice for politicians, CEOs, academics, and other “thought leaders.” Medium’s minimal page design is meant to hide the platform and elevate the words, but in the corner of every article there is a timer that automatically predicts how long an article will take to read (rounded to the nearest minute). The announcement was covered by Digiday, a popular news source for me and my colleagues in the digital media trade, whose site now offers a feature called TLDR (an abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read”) that can be turned ON or OFF like a light switch, and displays a 50- to 75-word “summary” for an article instead of the full 500- to 700-word length.

The relentless pull of an always-on digital media environment inevitably brings us closer to a complete submersion in the flow and economics of “real-time,” making any attempt to look away from the screen feel like a radical and necessary act. Rather than compete with “digital” on its own turf, a wave of recent literary projects around the world are mobilizing Powers’s 2004 mission through some ingenious and unlikely tactics. Vending machines in downtown Grenoble, France, are dispensing short stories on narrow slips of receipt-like paper, organized into one, three, and five minute intervals. Chipotle is publishing two-minute essays by esteemed authors on its take-out bags, an idea first proposed by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Blockbuster crime author James Patterson is starting a new imprint called BookShots that will only publish stories that can be read in a single sitting, aiming to win over the 27 percent of Americans who haven’t read a book in the past year (according to Pew).

These projects may only excite the already-converted print enthusiasts, but they represent an important movement towards resisting the mechanics of “real-time” and recalibrating our relationship with digital media — if only temporarily. Social media theorist Clay Shirky has speculated that the so-called resilience of “print” may actually be the last calm before the final storm, the intermediate stage in a much “darker narrative” where the print industry is following a “fast, slow, fast” model of revenue decline, the extermination event very much on the horizon and likely imminent.

In her Boston Review essay about Birkerts’s book, Changing the Subject, Jenny Hendrix urges the literary community to move past the “print” versus “digital” debate, to stop working against the tides of technology and refocus our efforts on artistic projects that help us correctly see and better understand how our way of life is changing. She defers to creative tinkerers that are “approaching ones and zeros in the spirit of language,” building websites and Google Chrome extensions that help us investigate daily life, such as “tanglr,” an anonymous shared browsing extension. She hopes that such projects can represent a “new confession” in the American transcendentalism movement, following the tradition of those writers — such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller — who championed individual experience in the years following the Industrial Revolution.

Hendrix’s discussion is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a semi-autobiographical, collage-as-story, self-described “novel” of a book, which is entirely obsessed with how people accept and reject different narratives in an age characterized by the confluence of overload and fragmentation. An emblematic scene from his book involves the narrator’s visit to a movie theater to watch The Clock, a video art installation by Christian Marclay. The film comprises a 24-hour montage of scenes from cinema and TV, each clip in Marclay’s master clock arranged and stitched together according to the “real” time in the “fake” narrative. Lerner writes that, “Marclay had formed a supragenre that made visible our collective, conscious sense of the rhythms of the day. When we expect to kill or fall in love or clean ourselves or eat or fuck or check our watch and yawn.”

Humans are by nature curious and distractible. There are plenty of published books that deserve less of our attention than vast swathes of the Internet. Before Upworthy and Distractify, there were gossip magazines and over a dozen issues of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. Language itself is fraudulent, as British writer Tim Parks recalls in his own review of Birkerts’s book, quoting Samuel Beckett’s contention that “language is of its nature mendacious and to be made fun of at every turn.” But in our attempt to piece together those precious stolen moments, a world apart from the flow of daily life, there is a distinction between diversion and immersion that transcends any particular medium. Miscellaneous trivia feeds a different part of our selves than an intentionally-crafted story, regardless of length or format — two minutes or two hours, text-based or visual, GIFs or emojis, ephemeral Snapchats or six-second looped Vine videos.

After getting lost in the Strand for over an hour, I returned to the office and hid in the men’s bathroom, reading poems from the ELEVATORS section of the Paris Review collection, pieces by Billy Collins and Jamaica Kincaid and Suji Kwock Kim and Agha Shahid Ali. I could hear people in adjacent stalls streaming live news clips and Snapchats and clicking through their social media feeds. Crumpled newspapers and magazines were tucked between the stall doors, the vestiges of our agency’s old-timers who still rifled through the pages of The Times or the The Journal every morning, while hovering over the admin desks and exchanging quips about the headlines. The act has become a well-rehearsed tradition. Passing interns and new recruits insist that the old fogies are reading yesterday’s news. The elders crack wise that the young people can’t remember anything that happened earlier than five minutes ago. Neither side is entirely wrong, and there is plenty of substantial territory for both camps to explore, as long as they decide to look for it.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.

(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)

But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.

Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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A Year in Reading: Alexander Chee

My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.

To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.

My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.

In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.

Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.

I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.

Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Bijan Stephen

I don’t know how to think about the passage of time except in cliché — pieces completed, leases signed, commutes commuted, lessons taught, moments Instagrammed — but recollecting years in terms of books read, books loved feels more vital than trite. A bookshelf marks time in the same way seasons do, or the way that old blog posts tell us who we were then, those people in photos laughing at jokes no one’s heard in years.

This year, I read books mostly on the recommendation of friends; despite that, each title I finished seemed somehow appropriate to what was happening, to me and in the world. While I can’t recall all of their names, I could probably tell you the things I absorbed from their pages. Here are the best ones I remember.

There was I Think I’m in Friend-Love with You, by Yumi Sakugawa, which I read twice because it was so beautiful in its illustrations and its evocation of totally consuming friendship; and then later, I read Lit, Mary Karr’s third memoir, which thrilled me with its electrifying description of substance abuse. I loved Michael W. Clune’s heroin memoir, White Out, for its chaotic and careening prose — “Dope gives me a new, dope body. And the way the world looks from deep inside the dope body! From high atop the white tower. The world. It would break your human heart to see it.” — and his second memoir, Gamelife, for the same reason. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was brilliant in its plotting and conceit, and I enjoyed it so much I lent it to a friend impulsively over glasses of champagne.

I left my copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts with a person I love, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with books that completely understand the subject. I read Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, in its entirety, drunk on different trains. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, on the other hand, I read entirely on my phone in a bed that was temporarily mine. I was in motion when I read Eileen Myles’s Inferno, which I consumed between leases and between the subway stops that cover the distance from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

I read a galley of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stunning (and now National Book Award-winning) Between the World and Me in a frantic afternoon, and finished it, in tears, by sunset. I didn’t Instagram that view, but I did post a picture of the book. It got 21 likes, and I was a different person then.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Cogs in an Enormous Machine: The Millions Interviews Paul Murray

There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010’s Skippy Dies. Because this new novel — which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity — really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely — or maybe not strangely at all — it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general.

There aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements — string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys — into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel.

Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at.

The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss.

Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn’t think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn’t feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn’t have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they’ve raised children and grandchildren. So they’re well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies.

As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don’t read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it’s in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don’t get me. And now it’s like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I’m a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that’s it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you’ve had your moment in the sun.

TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that.

PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can’t write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn’t really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you’re going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you’re quite familiar with these things, because you’re just looking at your screen, and thinking “I’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You’re back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There’s this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can’t quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you’re an anxious person.

TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art.

PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn’t want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we’ve seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It’s no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask.

TM: Right. That’s now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy.

PM: That’s it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker’s success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we’re all going, “Okay, that’s how it is, and that’s fine, as long as I’m on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn’t really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he’s chosen is one that’s designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer.

TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we’re friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can.

PM: Well…

TM: I know what you’re going to say now. You’re going to say there’s much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul’s not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader…

PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I’d started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure — I was really into Barthes at the time — who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn’t enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn’t.

TM: Was it that it didn’t feel worth doing?

PM: That’s it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time.

TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn’t neoliberal enough or something.

PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we’d ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you’d taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It’s sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino’s in it, and he’s a writer with writer’s block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it.

TM: But isn’t writer’s block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write.

PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that’s going on. People know what it’s like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you’re doing nothing but failing. I don’t know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing.

TM: And yet there’s often this weirdly romantic idea of writer’s block in fiction and film, where it’s seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void.

PM: I read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms recently. It’s not a great book, but there’s this terrific last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” I don’t know that that’s a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as “a momentary stay against confusion.” It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul’s problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn’t care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don’t know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don’t want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you’re faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That’s all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why?

TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers’ need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception.

PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. “The meaning monkey,” as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don’t necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy.

TM: It’s possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don’t necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it’s out there, that people are still doing it.

PM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn’t fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that’s the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that’s where it’s happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that’s exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal.

TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn’t work there ever thinks about. It’s a kind of non-Dublin.

PM: It’s very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it’s very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It’s an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that’s illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it’s kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality.

TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right?

PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we’re right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about.

TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland’s “Great Writers” play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are.

PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you’re not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they’re serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn’t care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York.

TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea.

PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer — of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years — that’s gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you’re putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that’s dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they’re untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they’re telling you the truth — the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That’s something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.

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