Atlas of Unknowns

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A Year in Reading 2012

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The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).

So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.

And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.

With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 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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Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Lost Arts of Recitation

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Tania James is a graduate of Columbia’s School of the Arts and the author of the novel, Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf), which The San Francisco Chronicle calls “dazzling, original, and deeply absorbing…one of the most exciting debut novels since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” Junot Diaz called the book “an astonishment of a debut, so radiant with life, with love, with good old human struggle that I had trouble detaching myself from its pages.” Atlas of Unknowns was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for spring and will be published in eight additional countries. Tania lives in New York City. For more info on the book, visit that Aprille with his shoures soteThe droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote…These lines were once a plague to me, as they were for most of my middle school peers who, in English class, were forced to memorize the first eighteen lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Back then, it seemed a senseless torture of syllables as each student stood and stumbled their way through the verses, in Irish accents derived from a Lucky Charms commercial. Nevertheless, I memorized, because memorization was central to my schooling, and therefore, my life, in a way that it has ceased to be.It seems that these verses continue to torture students today. I found a recitation of the introduction on YouTube, and under the comments section, ejvc2003 wrote: “These some 18 lines are seriously cramping my style. Man, memorization blows.” I didn’t always think that memorization blew. In middle and high school, I memorized entire short stories and could recite them aloud without a single um. I would like to say that this was all due to a pure love for literature, but no, I memorized because I was on the Speech & Debate Team. My category was called Dramatic Interpretation, which required me to read an entire story aloud, or an abridged version, steering clear of the melodrama that characterized the category of Storytelling, wherein competitors resorted to crazy voices, wild gesticulation, and in the case of one memorable thespian: tears. To me, the drama resided in the writing, and I took very seriously the project of selecting a story to memorize, because I believed that the story would be remain in the warehouse of my brain forever.The process of finding the right story took me all around the library, through anthologies and collections, using no better gauge than the first few paragraphs of the story. I wanted to choose “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, because it seemed to me that there existed no better closing paragraph than that which began: “The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce.” Here, it was the voice that appealed to me, its calm inventory of the remembered and the unremembered, its accelerations and decelerations, its halting authority, its matter-of-fact rendering of the bullet’s path. But “Bullet in the Brain” was too structurally complicated, in its second half, for Speech & Debate.I still chose darker stories than most, with troubled narrators, like “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe, or “The Boogeyman” by Stephen King. I’m not sure what the judges thought of me – a seemingly quiet, shy Indian girl, launching into the speech of a sociopath or a baby-killer: “We had passed through long walls of piled skeletons, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs.” It was almost as thrilling as being newly fluent in another language. Recitation also gave me an early appreciation for the value of reading aloud one’s work and listening for the acoustics and rhythms of language. The story I most enjoyed reciting was “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, which I had discovered in a laminated library book called The Illustrated Man. It was a story that had possessed me as I read it for the first time, and later, as I spoke it straight from memory, I felt that I somehow possessed it.As I moved on through high school and college, my studies demanded memorization of a fleeting kind, and it seems that my reservoirs of memory have grown shallower each year, so much so that I can’t even recall the phone numbers of my best friends each time I misplace my cell phone. In graduate school, I took a poetry survey class with Alice Quinn, the former poetry editor at The New Yorker and at the end of the semester, she had each of us memorize three poems which we were to recite in her office. This took me an extraordinary amount of time and effort, but not so for Alice, who, if I remember correctly, memorized a new poem each day. I wish I could still remember Auden’s “Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love” or “The Veldt” or the intro to The Canterbury Tales. I’m reminded of a scene from Sylvia, a movie I didn’t much care for, when Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow) stands in a moving canoe and recites “The Wife of Bath” to a herd of cows on the riverbank. I have to say that I actually appreciated Paltrow’s Middle English, with its soft g’s and rolling r’s, its lilt and swing. I found myself muttering the word marriage (ma-ree-AZH), rolling the syllables around my mouth, as newly infatuated by language as Anders, who, in the final moments of “Bullet in the Brain,” fails to remember “the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will – not ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien,’ or ‘my God, I heard this day,’ or ‘All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All!'”

Surprise Me!