Debt: The First 5,000 Years

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A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years — Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas — nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character — inspired by Naipaul’s father — so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl.

Other books that made my year — besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune — include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses — it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

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A Year in Reading: Paul Murray

For a long time I was put off reading Wolf Hall by the several pages of Tudor family trees and dramatis personae at the beginning; trying to hold this information in my head before even starting the book reminded me unpleasantly of cramming for a history exam. It took a rained-out summer for me to overcome my prejudices and find out just how wrong I was. Hilary Mantel’s multi-layered, multivalent, cracklingly intelligent recreation of Henry VIII’s tortured Britain, told through the rise of political operator Thomas Cromwell, reminds you just how much reach and power the novel as an art form can have.

My two favourite novels this year, though, were debuts. Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a gifted but disillusioned young poet on a fellowship in Madrid, supposedly researching an epic poem on the Spanish Civil War, but actually smoking weed and entangling himself in various webs of untruth in the course of trying to persuade young Madrileñas to sleep with him. That this monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner’s dazzling prose, which switches effortlessly from deadpan to ironic to salty to tragic and back again.

No one could argue that the Nazis are underrepresented in literature, and Laurent Binet spends much of the first part of his novel HHhH agonising about why he’s adding to the pile. Thankfully he gets over this, and the story he tells is totally compelling. Reinhard Heydrich was Himmler’s right-hand man — or as the SS put it, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich — and a vicious character even by the standards of the Nazis. Binet’s novel recounts the bid by two Czechoslovakian resisters to assassinate him. It’s completely electrifying, and in an age when our concept of courage has been overtaken by cliché, it manages nevertheless to evoke the astonishing selflessness of its heroes.

Right now I’m reading Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, by David Graeber. Graeber was heavily involved in the Occupy movement, and here he uses his background in anthropology to dismantle the foundational myths of classical economics, and illustrate just how weird, anomalous and downright antisocial contemporary capitalist society is in the light of the foregoing 5,000 years. His accounts of money’s ancient association with violence (e.g., the invention of coinage to pay conquering imperial armies) and our morality’s roots in the language of debt are revelatory. It’s brilliantly done and far funnier than any book on economics by rights ought to be.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

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

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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