I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government’s history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it’s difficult not to conclude they’ve researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency.
I read a lot this year, enough so that I’m not embarrassed about it, but I didn’t read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I’m contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I’m some kind of super fan but because I’m sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I’m wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you’ll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I’m the only one who’s struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit — one book in my pile is a doorstop.
When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity’s Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you’ll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant.
All this explains why, around the the time Can’t and Won’t came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. “Hi there, douchebag,” said the teen, his posture terrible. “Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?”
“Okay,” I said. “Please learn to shave and use deodorant.”
I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it?
Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it’s worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it’s worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that.
For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can’t and Won’t is any indication, she’ll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like “French Lesson No. 1” are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent “Idea for a Sign.” There is, I think, no “bad” Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind.
The problem with reading huge books is it’s hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That’s why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I’d read a few already, among them “Home” by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed “Going for a Beer” shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there’s the 78-word-long “Men,” a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can’t and Won’t.
I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don’t know. Do you like Jameson?
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Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York and is currently working on a second novel.I didn’t read so many new books this year, but three I loved were Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (probably my favorite final sentence of the year), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (expected to hate it but all of the effusive praise totally deserved) and Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker (deranged, Terkel-esque Q&A’s with the bottom rungs of Chinese society.)New (to me), and highly recommendable: Geoff Dyer’s self-described “method biography” of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which I loved despite having never read any Lawrence aside from a couple of short stories; James Merrill’s Divine Comedies, specifically the long poem “The Book of Ephraim,” which JM claimed to have written with the use of a ouija board (!); Lydia Davis’ great first collection, Break It Down; and William Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck, a perfect novel, and the best thing I’ve read in a very long time.More from A Year in Reading 2008