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, Marlena, The 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. [millions_ad] 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 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
1. The house vomits everything a family has accumulated over three decades. Appliances, utensils, tchotchkes, forgotten photographs, important documents—everything has to be packed away. Everything impinges on them, whining to be replaced, put back out of sight, left alone. As we make piles to help my partner’s parents sort through their effects the day before their kitchen will be demoed, his father stumbles across a basket full of books—Native Son catches my eye. Uncle, can I have it? He glances at the book, wondering why he’s still holding onto it. My partner’s parents have reached the end of their patience. It would be simpler to throw everything away, rather than figure out what’s worth saving. As more books resurface, uncle says, Rajat, you want this; I’m not sure whether it’s a question. The next day, my partner bristles at the books I cart home from the Performing Arts library, a few blocks from our apartment. I hold them the way my school librarian showed my third-grade class—palm cupping the spine, spine facing down. I set them in a cubby near my desk, next to books they may never have met or brushed up against before. My goal is to reorganize them, remove them from the system of classification inflicted upon them by the library. The essay I may write using some or none of these books feels like a dinner party I’m hosting—which books will play nice with one another? Which books will start up an argument? More books? my partner asks. So dusty! He’s resigned to the fact that I’ve never taken to using the iPad he gave me years ago. I once saw a booger fall out of a library book when I was a kid. Now I’m traumatized, he says. I roll my eyes—our little joke. I apologize for the lean of our shelves, which the previous tenants had affixed to the walls, a lean that seems to get more precarious each week. Without any shelf space these days, I try maintain tidy piles of magazines, printouts, and books, on the floor, piles that grow taller by the day. I know when I’m ready for each book I acquire. I touch it and feel it. But until then, the stacks become shakier. All the while, I pretend they’re not on the floor. The Old English word “dustsceawung” means, literally, “a contemplation of dust.” It’s an understanding not of what’s been lost, or the transience of things, but of how the past persists in the present. To consider dust, however, is also to consider the work left to do with things that impinge on us. Dust collects because I haven’t circulated in a book’s ideas, or had a chance to let their words inhabit me. 2. What is it about books left on the sidewalk that makes me weep? As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” I take it upon myself to pluck used books off a stranger’s stoop or from a trash can lid. This is how they sneak into my life, crawling with traces of the people who held them in the past, who touched them, who were touched by them. Strangers, like germs, cling to the pages of the books I steal for myself. Books don’t belong on the floor, my mother always said to me. For South Asians, the logic is twofold: books are considered sacred objects, as vessels of knowledge; and two, our feet are considered unclean. We keep books off the ground, above where our feet travel. This responsibility toward books confers on them a quiet dignity. Accidently grazing a book with my foot today makes me shudder—I instinctively reach for it, touching it to my forehead as if to offer an apology, a little idiosyncrasy I’ve even performed in public. I promise myself I’ll treat books well, for they’ve done the same for me. Books left on the street are contaminated on account of their not belonging there. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing in 1966, “dirt” is that which a society considers out of place. What we deem dirty demonstrates how we draw the boundary between what we think of as sacred and profane. Accordingly, things became polluted because they find themselves existing outside of a neat category. We avoid pollution for its potentially threatening effects on us. Douglas’s idea maps neatly onto the South Asian construct of dirt that I grew up adhering to. 3. Most Saturday mornings, I’m woken up by the sounds of the garbage truck as it churns outside my building. Glass bottles shatter as they’re crushed, and the truck lets out a low grumble, its belly full on the things that have exhausted their value, that no longer give us pleasure. As I climb out of bed and see the stack of books on my nightstand, I wonder whether any books have been left downstairs, and what future awaits them. No one would leave a book to be thrown away and compacted, would they? The sanitation workers are attentive and considerate. They wouldn’t let such a fate befall a book. In the afternoon, my partner and I pass long tables on Broadway piled high with bargain books. I wonder where they all came from, and why I don’t spend more time sifting through them. They’ve been spared the violence of dumpsters and compactors. Kind Haitian men sit next to them, never interested in helping you finding what you’re looking for, but always available for a friendly chat. I’m not even sure I’m looking for anything in particular. I twist around myself that I cannot approach these tables and locate anything for myself. The books lack order, or at least the curated appearance of a bookstore. The burden falls to me to scan everything, or walk away empty-handed without trying. 4. September 1 feels like the most popular moving day in New York. Thousands of people either bid farewell to this city with a sigh of relief; arrive with trucks and boxes and high hopes to be welcomed here; or are simply—not so simply—moving from one part of New York to another. This new neighborhood will be more bearable than their old one as long as it feels fresh. For days before and after September 1, the traces of our neighbors’ lives get tossed out and left behind. Near trash cans sit anxious heaps of books. I feel lucky that they aren’t discarded so much as displaced. A friend who was visiting my partner and me asked me, one night, Who in New York is your person? Who can you count on for anything, even just for being lazy with on the couch? Her question pricked me. I realized I’ve spent almost a decade in New York with only one or two or three relationships like this. Some friends have moved away, others are near and we’ve let time fill the gaps between us. That night, my friend stirred something within me I didn’t know I yearned for. Discarded, possibly contaminated books seem precious—even if I’ve never heard of the titles. They are the “unconsoled,” Arundhati Roy’s word—ever whining. But the possibility that books might rescue me is why I pluck them off the street. I protect them so that one day, they may save me. 5. Somewhere on the Upper West Side, I walked away from what must have been a decade of National Geographic magazines, with their canary-yellow spines neatly fanned out, catching the sunlight. The shade of yellow varied subtly from issue to issue, as if time in the sun had faded some issues left out on coffee tables and not others, the ones toted around in New Yorker canvas bags. I left them all behind, however, and walked away. If I couldn’t cart away all the issues, how could I choose just a few? I realized, a block later, that my logic was flawed: this treasure didn’t represent the full material output of the magazine since its founding. I should’ve just rescued what I could and let the rest go. I couldn’t save all of them. A year later, on my way to the hair salon, I passed a handsome leather armchair in good condition that wouldn’t take much effort to bring home, with help. By the time I stepped out of my appointment, freshly shorn, a white boy was sitting smugly in my armchair. I presumed, with indignation, that he was waiting for a friend to give him a hand to get it off the street. Half an hour ago, it was trash. Then it was mine. Now, it disgusted me that I saw a stranger with his butt in something I’d wordlessly laid claim to. 6. Books were never mine to buy. Still, I grew up in a house of books—a double-volume of Grimm's’Fairy Tales in pistachio green and gold-flecked pages stands out in my mind. Even if I never saw my parents open their copy of The English Patient or Sons and Lovers, I came to respect books, never mishandling them, or casting them aside. I spent a summer with Vikram Seth’s 1,500-word tome A Suitable Boy, humbled to have borrowed something I didn’t own—both book and time; humbled to immerse myself in 1950s Delhi, the world my parents were born into, a world I’d never experience. Even the Yellow Pages had a place in our home, with its supple shape, its soft, onionskin pages bearing thousands of inches of digits. Parents who leave the South Asian subcontinent teach their children, a world away, an epoch later, how to save everything for an era to come. Kitchen countertops and coffee tables spill over with reading material. They teach us who we’ll become. 7. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the mnemonic power of smell to conjure up childhood. With just a sniff, our past selves come flooding back to us. And the French noun sillage, from the verb meaning “to trail behind,” literally means the drift of perfume lingering in the air after a person departs. More poetically, perhaps, sillage is the subtle impression a person leaves behind. If a body can leave this trace, cannot the smell of an old book do so, too? Can selves pass from one body to another? Hinduism may have taught me to treat books with respect, keep them off the floor, never throw them away. But according to Hindu philosophy, the soul lives many lives during its journey toward self-realization. During these rebirths, a soul passes from body to body until it’s eventually released, freed from the material world. How stirring, then, to consider books as liberated from their dusty covers, their words sent into the ethers. What could this mean other than the disembodied, sanitized iClouds that my partner urges me to pull my books down from? Books represent our fundamental unwillingness to dispose of knowledge, as well as our desire to connect with one another. Do books ever wonder whether they’re going to better homes from the ones they came from? Do they delight in being chosen from a random heap? Do they smile when we crack open their pages, gazing on sentences we’ve never read, or sentences we’ve loved for years and they get to show us again, as if it were the first time?  Since the days of colonial New York, May 1 used to be considered “Moving Day.” On this day, all leases in the city expired at 9 a.m., causing thousands of tenants to change their residence at the same time. Image Credit: Pixabay.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
I bought my copy of Midnight's Children in a book shop in Pondicherry in 2006 during an earnest personal campaign to read things about India while in India -- a gesture of a piece with a ladies' auxiliary "around the world" evenings or literary dos where participants discuss To the Lighthouse and eat boeuf en daube. Before Midnight's Children, I read A Suitable Boy, and read it while sleeping on trains with my pants tucked into my socks against forward bugs. (This made for evenings of psychic dissonance roughly analogous with reading Edith Wharton on a cross-country Greyhound bus. The difference is that no Greyhound bus depot is as nice as any Indian train station of my limited experience.) Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one's guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one's hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me -- the gift of going places and seeing things -- to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor? Re-reading Midnight's Children this summer was such a transporting experience, however, that I am compelled to mention those days on the road, when Saleem Sinai revealed a world beyond the dingy windows of unremitting buses and trains. Dunya dekho, "see the world," as the dugdugee man Lifafa Das cries, with his postcard peepshow of Indian wonders. I traveled with two friends, and we dutifully cultivated our up-for-anythingness. In Mumbai, picked up off the street in a routine roundup of foreign faces, we had our hair combed and -- with Hungarians, with Kenyans, with Finns -- played the Nascar fans of Bollywood's imagining. We trudged across Chowpatty beach and up the Malabar hill and looked solemnly in the direction of the Tower of Silence, entrance barred the non-Parsi. There in the valley of the shadow of death, we spent our filmi proceeds on Pizza Hut and felt bad about ourselves. We saw Don in the cool movie theater. We sweated and itched through the night in gender-segregated wings of the Salvation Army. Our strategy was speed and distance, and we were up for anything in New Delhi and Pushkar; Agra and Varanasi; Kerala and Munnar and Madurai. By Bangalore, we were no longer up for very much -- that's when we saw The Departed. In Chennai, we were like limp rags. Throughout our peregrinations, the feeling was not all we had seen, but all we hadn't. The map was big enough for years of days of train rides and new towns, different holidays and seasons. When you go somewhere new, without the funds to elevate you to the echelon of luxury that is its own country, inevitably there comes a moment when you look around and realize that you have no idea what the fuck is going on. In these moments my Indian book club of one succored me, gave context to the long days of new sights and sounds. My companions protested when I disappeared into my book at train platforms, abandoning them to the stultifying boredom and endless mini-backgammon of extended travel. I suppose it was bunkum, methodologically speaking, but Midnight's Children was Lonely Planet and spiritual Baedeker. Pondicherry was all bicycles and sea breeze, but from the pages of Rushdie's novel I gazed back-to-Bom and imagined what it might have felt like to understand the secret dimensions of those afternoons, "hot as towels," when we felt tired and bewildered and alone. We had come to India, in a route that makes us sound much more cosmopolitan then we are, via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia I had been astonished and soothed by the discovery of an immense and flexible web of cognate Turkic languages. With middling Turkish, it seemed a miracle to be able to pay a taxi driver, to find Exits and Entrances, to identify the Interrogative Mood, if not the nature of the interrogation. Reading Midnight's Children, another web asserted itself. From Salman Rushdie I learned about what I now think of as the Janum trail, a Persianate path circling a third of the earth, demarcated by the term of endearment meaning "my life, my soul," which made its way into every language the Iranic tongue touched. Midnight's Children was peppered with other words I knew, carried across around the continent in their original Persian or Arabic: words like dunya (world) and hamal (porter), the booze-prescribing Doctor Sharabi (from wine). Just a few little words, but they packed a wallop. Reading this novel I realized for the first time that language is a map of history, and wondered how it had been drawn. And better than any guide book, Midnight's Children suggested the extreme variety, the multitudinous tongues and what the anthropologists call "lifeways" of India. Saleem Sinai, he of the classy Lucknow Urdu and the topographical face, who wanders into the language riots, whose mind is a cacophony of children's polyglot voices--if language is a map, he is the compass rose. More methodological bunkum, but I'm on the record as getting 70 percent of my history learning from novels. And talk of history! Some greater percentage of Rushdie's allegories remain obscure to me, but some things are clear: India was chaos, Saleem tells us, and yet its artificial rivening was a profound human tragedy. Across a new line on the map, Saleem's interior radio can no longer broadcast the voices of his compatriots. In an abandoned battlefield in contested territory, he runs across a talking pyramid, the mutilated remains of his old playmates from the Methwold estate. The tragedies pile up; the people in charge make criminal, monstrous errors. There's history on history. The great polymath Sir William "Oriental" Jones went to India and to him was revealed the Indo-European language family, a discovery which would later pave the way for the racialist theories of the blood, the traits and so-called purity thereof. What's in Saleem Sinai's blood, besides snake venom and chutney? He's the the natural child of a be-toupeed Englishman (ba-toupee and be-toupee, if I may venture a modest Urdu pun) and a cuckolding Indian wife; unnatural grandson of German-educated Kashmiri-turned-Indian; faux Mughal (which is really a kind of Turk); soldier in the Land of the Pure. In the words Mary Pereira, a Bombay Goan ("those Anglos," tuts Saleem's mother): "Anything you want to be you can be: You can be just what-all you want." Until Indira Gandhi steals your balls, that is. Saleem Sinai looks back on his narrative finds his dates don't add up. I looked through my emails -- with ticket stubs and postcards, my only record of the period -- and there is one mention of this novel, an unfavorable comparison to The Tin Drum. How can this be? How could I have been so ungrateful after all Midnight's Children did for me? What else have I gotten wrong in my own recollections, inconsequential as they may be? (Did I even know the word hamal back then? It seems unlikely.) No matter; I see it all clearly now. Another thing I learned from this transforming novel: To write the past, you "have to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet."
A Word on Weddings Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings -- a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the "waiting" (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: "marrying my best friend," and "it's not the wedding, it's the marriage," uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers. Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens' interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree. It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin's Today's Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations. In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace. Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters -- a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor's wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. "Had it in the backyard," they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution -- just another example of our sick culture. Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties. My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called "wedding planning" which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee. What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings -- a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the "rustic" and the "vintage." And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: "vintage books"), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own. I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing. How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need It is now customary in many weddings to write one's own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom's individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to "death do us part." And brevity, ironically. Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high. As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety -- Philip Larkin's "High Windows" and "This be the Verse" -- are so far from wedding-worthy it's hard to imagine anything worse: "When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he's fucking her and she's/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise." (Or "They fuck you up, your mum and dad," obviously.) I love "The Whitsun Weddings," which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain." "Broadcast" is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: "...Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering." Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin -- more on him later. My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot's "Preludes," the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: "The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots." In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in "The Couple," if a touch erotic: "The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting." But that ending: "They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces." It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like "Preludes." Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before -- sonnets, for example -- but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn't seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called "Habitation," evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, "We are learning to make fire," hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave. I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison's "Jazz" -- "It's nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers" -- but that's so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage "chippie" and "stud." I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone's mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes' wonderful Flaubert's Parrot. Here's a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don't send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that's what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I'm like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.” Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: "I drip out of a spout drop by drop -- But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces." (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish -- but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: "What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know." Context matters, and that's really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature's great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim's Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don't typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it's a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment. On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: "That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove." But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem "To Vera" is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. "How I Love You" is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: "...gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles..." There is the religious angle -- a friends' wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: "When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned." But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson's cheerful "Wedding Prayer" is enough: "Lord, behold our family here assembled" (which one could also read: "Oh Lord, they're all here.") Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me -- unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can't survey the text of every book you've ever read all at the same time. And if it's not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it's equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that's how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year. What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with "...marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again..." My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charlie, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charlie is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes "ffft." I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There's Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can't. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch's novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann's Way -- they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble: A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects...Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such -- and a thousand more -- dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition. It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do: ...Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also. That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out. In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone's advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, "Bermuda," which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: "and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island..." It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I'm a gloomy old bastard. There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn't going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins's "Litany" ("You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine"), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It's funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: "You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and -- somehow --/ the wine." There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved. After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It's on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher's Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a "a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors." But I don't care, I've got my love to keep me warm. Image via camerakarrie/flickr
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so. That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him. The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year -- in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that. Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard. Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity -- both in size and subject matter -- every 10 years sounds just about right. Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?) Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.” So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share. Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
I first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie very rapidly and while reading made quiet moos of concern and befuddlement. There was a Miss Brodie in her prime! Her girls were the crème de la crème! Rose Stanley was famous for sex! When I finished I put the novel down and took a moment to contemplate. "What a weird little book," I said to no one in particular, and closed the file on Miss Brodie. Later, thinking this analysis unsatisfactory and contrary to the spirit of the Modern Library Revue, I decided to have another look. As this novel does have the advantage of being a little book, I read it twice more. Today I can say confidently that it is, indeed, a weird little book. Now, though, my use of "weird" incorporates more of the word's bewitching and macabre aspects, and fewer of its heeggh-I-don't-get-it ones. Brief books are dangerous for me, because I am a swift reader and not always a careful one. Big books, when they are not too patently formal experiments, seem better suited to my taste and temperament. I have something of the philistine in me and short important novels, for no really good reason, threaten artsiness and unfulfillment. They seem as though they are harder to write, and I worry their authors have more to prove. How will you make your novel memorable when it it looks so diminutive, sitting there on the shelf? They require an economy that is against my nature. I had been meandering through A Suitable Boy, which is familiar and soothes my soul, and I had to forcibly change gears to appreciate Muriel Spark. This novel is not something huge and engrossing to help you forget the common round of day. It is over quickly, and you have to pay attention all the way through. It is a dark and lovely poem, written by the possessor of a sinister wit. It is a deep pool in an enchanted forest. Muriel Spark wrote a very nice piece for The New Yorker in which she described her years at James Gillespie's High School for Girls in Edinburgh, the inspiration for the Marcia Blaine School of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. What I like about the piece, and what I find remarkable in contrast with this sort of creepy novel, is the lightheartedness, warmth, and happiness with which Spark remembers this bygone epoch of young ladies' education. This is an education which seems in small ways rather gruesome to me. Most of the young men are gone, for example, because they died in the Great War, and if they didn't die they were maimed. The science teacher tells the girls "Poor little Tommy Jones/ We'll see him no more,/ For what he thought was H2O/ Was H2SO4." And there's Mr. Gordon, the history teacher, in connection with whom Spark writes, "The innocence of our minds and the universal decency of our schoolteachers' comportment can be gathered from the fact that he used to make me sit at the front of the class so that he could stroke my hair while teaching, without anyone thinking at all ill of him." And yet this time, which seems prime with the makings of a dark novel, inspired Spark's childhood friend to write, "we had the best life." Spark concurs: "In spite of the fact that we had no television, that in my home at least we had no electricity all during the thirties (only beautiful gaslight), that there were no antibiotics and no Pill, I incline to think that [she] is right." Then Ms. Kay, the inspiration for Jean Brodie herself: "In a sense, Ms. Kay was nothing like Ms. Brodie. In another sense, she was far above and beyond her Brodie counterpart." Ms. Kay was immediately recognizable to all her former students in Spark's novel, and remembered fondly by the same. Spark records Ms. Kay's position on rain gear: Why make a wet day more dreary than it is? We should wear bright coats, and carry blue umbrellas, or green...I would like to see a gray coat and skirt for the spring, girls, worn with a citron beret. 'Citron' means 'lemon'; it is a yellow with a sixteenth or so of blue. One would wear a citron beret in Paris with a gray suit. How heavenly to come under the tutelage of Ms. Kay! Reading the happiness with which Spark described her childhood, I vacillated between thinking I had perhaps read too much grotesquery into the novel, and admiring the artistry which turns a picturesque figure of memory and the interwar spunkiness of the youth into the dubious heroines of an unsettling book. Because I was unsettled by this book. What I read into it is the particular weirdness and villainy of women; both the author and her subjects have that hint of the stuff for which they used to burn ladies at the stake. The recurring sentences become incantations, some of them biblical, like an inverted cross. And how else to take the death of stupid Mary Macgregor who, we are reminded with cruel repetition, "ran hither and thither till she died"? Poor Mary! Miss Brodie tells the girls that silence is golden and calls on Mary to repeat: Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, 'Golden.' 'What did I say was golden?' Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, 'The falling leaves.' 'The falling leaves,' said Mary. 'Plainly,' said Miss Brodie, 'you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.' The novel is cruel, and often comic in its cruelty. A man exposes himself to Jenny, one of the Brodie set, as she walks by the Water of Leith. After the initial shock and the subsequent parental hindrance of Jenny's movements, the event "brought nothing but good. The subject fell under two headings: first, the man himself and the nature of what he had exposed to view, and secondly the policewoman" for whom the girls form an intense passion (the Brodie set in their sex talk sound very like the Mitford sisters in theirs). Spark, who wrote in her memoir of school that she was "destined to poetry by all my mentors," in her novel uses the tools of poetry to change the sense and meaning of prose in an unnerving way: That spring she monopolised with her class the benches under the elm from which could be seen an endless avenue of dark pink May trees, and heard the trotting of horses in time to the turning wheels of light carts returning home empty by a hidden lane from their early morning rounds. There is a rhythm to her writing, even apart from the periodic repetitions. Sandy, the saboteur of the Brodie set, the betrayer of Brodie, converts to Catholicism, joins a convent and attracts a following by writing a treatise on "the nature of moral perception" called "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." Spark, with her incantations and her twisty prose and her new words like "unbrainfully," in her own way transfigures the commonplace on both the spiritual and literal planes: the sunset is "streaked with blood and puffed with avenging purple and gold as if the end of the world had come without intruding on every-day life." The girls of the Brodie set compete with each other on the "windswept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb." And then one pretender to the Brodie set is actually martyred--the nonentical Joyce Emily, urged by Miss Brodie the fascist to venture off in aid of unspeakable Franco. The novel is not wholly sinister; it has something of the piquant flavor of Spark's happy school days. I think it is a fine place novel too, with Edinburgh (which, as Sandy finds when she enters the convent, is actually a multiplicity of Edinburghs) making itself felt as the backdrop to the book's action. The hills that surround them are the Pentland hills, the writers in the girls' cosmos are Stevenson, Burns, Walter Scott. There is Scottish pride here. This novel is like Sandy's eyes--famous for being small, but photographic, and containing manifold secrets. It is a weird little book. I didn't quite like it first, but now I reckon it among the crème de la crème.
I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now). A year later, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for my sixth grade library project. I chose the novel for the sole reason that I had heard it was the longest book ever written. It took me a semester to read, and though my presentation (in verse, obviously) lasted only ten minutes, the social repercussions of being such an outrageous, unprecedented show-off lasted easily until I (inevitably) changed schools. It seems far too grandiose to presume that we are what we read. But if our persona as a reader is shaped, perhaps not by the books we choose, but by why we choose them, then this was my ignoble beginning: as a stubborn, competitive show-off. I wish I could say that I was drawn to those books because of a precocious curiosity in their subjects. I wish I had lingered over Fowles’ Darwinian pontification rather than viewing it as bland nutrition that made the (disappointingly few, considering the title) love scenes seem that much more flavorful. But apart from the reasons given above, my outside interest in reading those two books was, at the time, negligible. It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read. And the latter category won over the former time and time again. No doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove - right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons. Until recently, when I began writing about literature, I’d all but forgotten about that exercise in Pynchon, and what I wrote to my teacher at the time. But though I’m no longer particularly fixated on the psychology behind my persona as a reader, I now desperately want to define my persona as a writer. I’ve heard it said that when you’ve found your style - whether in writing or any other form of creative expression - like a successful love affair, it just flows. For a long time, I fantasized about writing the sort of obsessively analytical criticism that involves impossibly vast theories and encompasses broad surveys of literary works. (Admittedly, this is a peculiar fantasy.) But now that writing is actually supposed to be, well, lucrative, doubts begin to arise. That genre of writing, for me, is far more about effort than flow. It doesn’t always come easily. It isn’t always so natural. Oh, well. Perhaps not all of us, as writers, are cut with the analytic capabilities of Harold Bloom. Given years, of course, I might be able to achieve something passably close to maybe the worst thing he’s ever written. But it might be a waste of my potential as a writer (not to mention my finances) slaving to be a second-rate Bloom when I could be a first-rate someone else entirely. The existential struggle of settling into the sort of writer I am is not so different from coming to terms with the sort of reader I am. Perhaps not all of us are meant to read Gaddis. That’s not such a curse, is it? We all can read Gaddis, we should certainly try, but to fruitlessly labor - at the expense of reading books with which we share a natural chemistry - might once again be a waste. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at reading, just as we should stick to what we’re good at writing. But, my inner Vikram-Seth-reading obnoxious brat whines, I don’t want to just write what comes naturally. I want to write the harder stuff. If writing about literature, for lack of a less irritating word, is my “art,” then what do artists do if not struggle and suffer for their art? And implement unsound financial policies? I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be. Since then, as a reader at least, I’ve come to see the struggle in a very different light. A few years after Gravity’s Rainbow, I struggled through Of Human Bondage - which made the process of reading the novel actually resemble human bondage. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his New York Times review of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, described the use of the “deliberate stimulation of the reader as part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience.” Struggle is such a stimulation. I was as frustrated by my compulsion to finish the book as I was frustrated by the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist Peter Carey, and the inexplicably poor decisions he made again and again. Peter and I commiserated in our frustration. We united against the author, our common enemy. Finally, on the last page of the book, Maugham writes, “It may be that to surrender to happiness is to accept defeat, but it is a defeat better than many victories.” I knew exactly what Maugham meant right then. And just like that, all three of us were free.