On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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When we posted our “List of Writers Who Met Death By Motor Vehicle” here recently, we acknowledged that the list was most likely far from exhaustive. Readers proved us right. Today, thanks to reader comments, we expand our tribute to writers who left us too soon:Italo Svevo (1861-1928) – Aron Ettore Schmitz was born in Trieste when it was still part of Austro-Hungary. In 1907 Schmitz, who wrote in Italian, hired an English tutor who had come to Trieste to work for Berlitz. Sixteen years later, in 1923, writing under the pen name Italo Svevo, Schmitz published his third novel, Confessions of Zeno. It was met with the identical reception of its two predecessors: stupefying silence.It was then that Schmitz/Svevo’s English tutor from years before, one James Joyce, began championing the novel and got it translated and published in France. Confessions of Zeno, which purports to be the journal of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, was hailed in France as a masterpiece, and Italian critics soon took notice. James Wood recently called the novel “the great comic document of modern stasis and neurotic introspection.”Svevo, who was notoriously absent-minded, was hit by a car while crossing a street in Motta di Livenza, Italy, and he died a few days later, on Sept. 13, 1928 at the age of 66. At the time he was working on Further Confessions of Zeno, a sequel to his most famous novel. On his death bed he told his daughter Letizia, “Don’t cry. Dying is nothing.”Horace Kephart (1862-1931) – Horace Kephart is best known as the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a non-fiction book about the people of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. Kephart also worked as a librarian, wrote books extolling the virtues of the outdoors, pushed for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and even finished writing a novel two years before his death. It wasn’t until 2009, 80 years after it was finished, that Smoky Mountain Magic was finally published.On the night of April 2, 1931, Kephart, who fought a life-long battle with alcoholism and mental illness, hired a taxi to take him and the visiting Georgia writer Fiswoode Tarleton to a moonshiner’s still. On the way back to Bryson City, N.C., the driver lost control of the car and crashed. Kephart was thrown 40 feet from the wreck and died instantly, as did Tarleton. The New York Times obituary declared that the writers had gone on a “moonlight sightseeing ride.”Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) – Frank O’Hara, a charter member of the New York School, was known for his breezy, intimate, seemingly tossed-off poetry. O’Hara was also an accomplished pianist, art critic and curator who counted among his many friends such celebrated artists as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Joan Mitchell.Here’s O’Hara on the New York School’s ebullient embrace of the absurd: “There was a great respect for anyone who did anything marvelous; when Larry (Rivers) introduced me to de Kooning, I almost got sick, as I almost did when I met Auden; if Jackson Pollock tore the door off the men’s room at the Cedar it was something he just did and was interesting, not an annoyance. You couldn’t see into it anyway, and besides there was then a sense of genius.”Early on the morning of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a dune buggy on a beach on Fire Island, where motor vehicles are prohibited. He died the next day of a ruptured liver at the age of 40. His biographer, Brad Gooch, has suggested that a fitter man might have survived the accident, but by then the hard-drinking, hard-living O’Hara was a burnt-out case. Once, during a game of “20 Questions,” O’Hara was asked, What do you fear most? He answered, “Living beyond 40.”Roland Barthes (1915-1980) – When I was in college, semiotics was the rage and Roland Barthes was a big reason why. Everywhere I turned someone was talking about the signifier and the signified, the death of the author and the birth of the scriptor, slippage, the delusion of the knowable text.A decade later, on Feb. 25, 1980, Barthes attended a lunch in Paris put on by Francois Mitterand, who was preparing to run for president and enjoyed the company of intellectuals. While walking across rue des Ecoles on his way home after the lunch, Barthes was struck by a laundry van. Though serious, his injuries were not considered life-threatening. In the hospital he complained to Michel Foucault about the “stupidity” of the accident. At the time Barthes had just published what he referred to as his “little book,” Camera Lucida, an essay in 48 fragments that was not the expected application of semiotic methods to intimate experience; it was, rather, about photography and love and grief, specifically the grief that followed his mother’s death in 1977.After a month in the hospital, Barthes’s condition deteriorated and he died of “pulmonary complications” on March 25 at the age of 64. When he’d left for the lunch with Mitterand he was working on an essay on Stendahl entitled “One Always Fails to Speak of the Things One Loves.”John Gardner (1933-1982) – John Gardner was a member of a breed that has all but ceased to exist in America, the man of letters. A silvery ventriloquist, he was equally at home writing novels, short stories, poetry, children’s books, a biography of Chaucer, criticism, translations, essays, and instructions for other writers. Gardner was also an inspiring teacher and a practicing alcoholic, and he wasn’t shy about saying what was on his mind.He said Kurt Vonnegut’s novels “have the feel of first-class comic books.” He said Saul Bellow is “actually not a novelist at heart but an essayist disguised as a writer of fiction.” He said Thomas Pynchon is “full of winking and mugging despair.” Occasionally he did – almost – have some kind words for his contemporaries, such as: “Malamud is a great artist, an enormously serious writer, but he keeps blowing it in his novels.” To which Bernard Malamud replied, “Whenever Gardner hands you a cake, it’s loaded with worms.”On the afternoon of Sept. 14, 1982, four days before he was to marry a former student named Susan Thornton, Gardner was driving his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on a rural Pennsylvania road when he lost control, went onto the dirt shoulder, and was thrown off the bike. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital at the age of 49. An autopsy revealed that his blood-alcohol level was slightly below the legal limit.Seth Morgan (1949-1990) – Like Richard Farina, Seth Morgan died in a motorcycle accident shortly after the publication of his first and only novel, Homeboy. The son of a poet who was also heir to the Ivory soap fortune, Morgan had a privileged childhood that included listening in on his father’s conversations with such friends as e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, and Dylan Thomas. There were demons in the house too. Morgan’s mother drank herself to death, and a brother committed suicide.Morgan had lock-up-your-daughters good looks, a trust fund, and a wild streak. He dropped out of UC-Berkeley in 1970 and moved in with Janis Joplin shortly before she died of a heroin overdose. Morgan spiraled into heroin addiction, pimping and armed robbery, eventually serving 30 months in prison. Homeboy lays out the rococo San Francisco underworld of pimps, junkies, hookers, strippers, and drag queens that Morgan knew first-hand. A New York Times reviewer raved that Morgan wrote with “the picaresque authority of a Joycean Hell’s Angel.”On Oct. 17, 1990, Morgan hopped on his motorcycle with Suzy Levine and proceeded to slam into a post on a bridge in New Orleans. Neither was wearing a helmet. Both died instantly. Their blood-alcohol levels were well over the legal limit, and Morgan also had cocaine and Percodan in his bloodstream. He was 41. A cop at the accident scene remarked that if Levine had been wearing a helmet she might have lived, and if Morgan had been wearing one he might have had an open casket.Finally, a reader identified only as “AWS” wrote, “I believe Annie Oakley died in or after a car crash. Was she a writer? No, but I wish she had been.” We know how you feel, AWS. So many creative, fascinating people die in motor vehicle accidents without having written their stories. A few who come to mind are the cowboy movie star Tom Mix, the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, the great erotic fashion photographer Helmut Newton, and that prolific producer of potent psychedelics, Owsley Stanley. The stories they could have told! As for Annie Oakley, she was in a severe car crash in 1922, but she survived it, recuperated, and returned to performing. She died four years later, from pernicious anemia, at the age of 66.Image credit: Unlisted Sightings/Flickr