I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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If you’re a slob, you’re a pig. If you’re sneaky, you’re a weasel. Cowards are chickens, and followers are sheep or lemmings. If you give bad loans, you’re a shark. If you’re fat, you’re a cow, or maybe a whale. If you’re lazy, you’re a sloth. Crazy folks are batty; people who talk shit are catty. Villains are snakes, women are bitches, and the lowest of low are dogs. The president of the United States of America recently said of undocumented immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.”
In the English language, at least, being compared to an animal is rarely a compliment. (Even if you’re called a fox because you’re oh so sexy, there’s also the implication that you’re sly, tricky, and untrustworthy.) In fact, comparing people to animals isn’t just unflattering, but dangerous. According to Genocide Watch, equating members of an ethnic group with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases is the third stage of genocide, as this type of comparison “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” During the Holocaust, Jews were called rats; during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called cockroaches. This made them easier to kill: They weren’t humans. They were animals. They were less.
But if you called Sy Montgomery a dog, she wouldn’t be insulted; she would be flattered. In Montgomery’s new book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, the renowned nature writer best known for her book on eight-armed mollusks focuses her observant eye on her own life and the creatures that shaped her. “Though I’ve been blessed with some splendid classroom teachers—Mr. Clarkson, my high school journalism teacher, foremost among them,” Montgomery writes in the introduction, “most of my teachers have been animals.” In her memoir, Montgomery argues the point that not only should being compared to an animal be taken as a compliment, but we should be humbled in the presence of our fellow creatures. We have so much to learn from them.
The first creature Montgomery introduces us to is, naturally, her beloved childhood dog, Molly. A strong-willed and independent Scottish Terrier, Molly seemed to be more of a roommate than a pet, and she enjoyed her days freely roaming the Brooklyn army base where Montgomery grew up. “She wouldn’t come in when we called her in at night,” writes Montgomery of Molly. “Eventually my parents figured out we could blink the front porch lights on and off to signal that we would like her to come home. It was merely a suggestion.” Perhaps because of the independent nature of Scotties, Montgomery never seemed to feel control or power over the dog—Montgomery was not Molly’s master, but her peer. “Many young girls worship their older sisters. I was no expectation,” writes Montgomery. “But my older sister was a dog, and I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly, in Montgomery’s eyes, wasn’t just a dog; she was a superhero. “I was entranced by Molly’s otherworldly powers,” writes Montgomery. “She could hear my father’s approaching staff car long before it arrived in the driveway. She could smell an opened can of Ken-L Ration from the moment my mother took it out of the refrigerator. She could see in the dark.” Dogs are so much more than cute fuzz balls to curl up with on the couch or toss a Frisbee to, Montgomery reminds us—they quite literally have superhuman abilities. No wonder Montgomery followed Molly around like, well, a puppy.
The image of a little Montgomery in a muddied dress and Mary Janes chasing after her Scottie dog, in turn chasing after a rogue Brooklyn rabbit, is a charming visual. “Cute,” one might think. “She wants to be just like her dog. What a delightful phase.” But the thing with Montgomery is that this desire to emulate the animals in her life was not a phase. She has spent the past 60 years admiring animals and following them to some of the most obscure locations around the globe to study and write about them.
“I was never, my mother told me, a ‘normal’ child,” writes Montgomery. It’s true: People—children, and especially adults—who obsess over animals are seen as odd. It’s okay to like animals; it’s okay even to love them, but not too much. It’s not “normal.” It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as one of those over-the-top animal people: She is a vegetarian, she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has had pet dogs, turtles, ferrets, parakeets, cockatiels, chickens, and even a pig named Christopher Hogwood (who not only gets his own chapter in How to Be a Good Creature but about whom Montgomery already wrote another entire book). She’s the crazy animal person who would hold a tarantula. It’s too much, right?
It’s not. In the same way that we are told that being compared to an animal is an insult, people are taught to believe that it is unhealthy to be too fond of animals. It’s all social conditioning. “People aren’t born with a fear of spiders,” argues Montgomery. “You can quickly teach a young person or animal to fear anything, including a harmless flower,” she writes in her chapter on Clarabelle, a tarantula she came to know and love when doing research in French Guiana. Montgomery herself wasn’t too fond of spiders before going on this South American expedition with a biologist who specializes in studying Goliath birdeater tarantulas. But eventually, she found herself holding a tarantula when “something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal.”
It’s all about changing your perspective. Montgomery was able to hold a tarantula after she learned that spiders rarely bite people and that, actually, encased in their exoskeletons, tarantulas are quite delicate. In this same way, Montgomery makes the point throughout her memoir that if you open your eyes to the complex beauty of the natural world, you can see that being called an animal is actually something extremely remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. If you’re called a pig, you’re super smart. If you’re called a weasel, you can hold on tight to the things you want. If you’re a chicken, you’re affectionate and have many friends. Animals have so many admirable qualities that we would be better humans if we worked harder to emulate our non-human friends.
When President Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon had been “dumped like a dog,” Jennifer Weiner wrote an essay for The New York Times called “What the President Doesn’t Get About Dogs.” According to how Trump uses “dog” to insult his enemies, “dogs are failures, dogs are unattractive, dogs are unworthy of faith,” writes Weiner. But anyone who has ever had a dog knows otherwise; if someone calls you a dog, it should be because you are loyal and kind. Trump is one of the only American presidents not to have a pet at the White House, and as Weiner writes, “It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for a man whose life goals seem to be deepening America’s divisions, lining his pockets and starting a third world war on Twitter, not necessarily in that order. But it’s hard not to be a little sad for anyone who won’t ever know the singular pleasure of a dog’s companionship.”
Sy Montgomery’s latest book is all about the pleasure that comes from a life rich with many creatures. How to Be a Good Creature, though, is about more than appreciating animals: It is about learning from them. It is about how to be a good creature. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” writes Montgomery. There is something about animals that is pure. Animals are observant. Animals are loyal. Animals only attack when threatened. Animals respect the world they live in. Animals would never break up family groups into separate cages or discriminate against people for their religious affiliation or make a thinly veiled rape joke. Animals love homeless people and members of the 1 percent equally. Animals don’t care about your job or your power or your fame or your status. Animals value you for the content of your character. This is why we should follow Montgomery’s advice and be more like animals ourselves.
While How to Be a Good Creature is Sy Montgomery’s memoir, it is actually much more about our current political climate than Fear or Fire and Fury or any of those “fuck Trump” books. What Montgomery seems to be saying, underneath her personal story, is that when our human leaders fail us as role models, we should look to animals. “I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or even eight; some with internal skeletons, some without,” writes Montgomery. “All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.”
When you feel despair at the actions of your fellow humans, turn to other species for guidance.