I’m in the middle of Wuthering Heights as I write this, anxiously anticipating the greatest scene in all of English literature. You know the one. As I pass through what might be my fourth or fifth visit at the Heights, I wonder if it’s Emily or Charlotte I admire most. But then they’re both so wonderful. I can’t decide. My apologies to Anne whom I’ve yet to read. Thank god for these sisters though and their world to which I can escape the pre-apocalyptic nightmare of 2019.
Never one to shy from the cheerful thought of possible extinction, this year I slowly meandered through The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, whom my best friend tells me writes great articles at The New Yorker, though I never read them because I find New Yorker articles far too long for my Twitter-addicted eyeballs, except for the one about sound being “permanently” recorded with sand. On every page of The Sixth Extinction is some criminally ignored fact—or warning—about the threat to humanity’s future on this planet. At the outset of the book, we’re introduced to a spore that is rapidly killing off the world’s frogs. Can you imagine a world without frogs? Or even less of them? What is the night without a symphony of croaks? I want to ask that to everyone. The threats to civilization pile high. The end is coming. I want to run down the street screaming this at people. A desire so fiery I couldn’t even keep a lid on it for this Year In Reading list. Dark days ahead my friends.
The salve for this existential worry is sometimes writing, poetry, big-time novels like Prey by Michael Crichton, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, all of which I giddily consumed in bed in the dark on my kindle—my third such device after the first was broken on a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Mexico and the second was left in the backseat pocket on a flight from London to San Francisco.
But if I’m being totally honest, and if the editors of The Millions allow me, the greatest salve is The Relentless Picnic podcast. Obviously, a podcast won’t count as reading per se, but let me defend this. The three Picnickers are voracious and erudite readers, often sustaining two hours of discussion with recitations from philosophical treatises, strips of poems, incantations etched into the underbelly of pine bark. You’re their greatest friend, but also a humble receiver of what I imagine is like a more immediate version of an audiobook. Finally, and maybe most importantly for this venue, the Picnickers have led me to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Mark Leidner’s Under the Sea, two collections that not only display the writers’ brilliance but point at the possibilities of a new literature.
Another trio of books that has alternately cooled my jets and had me dreaming of the guillotine is The Xenofeminist Manifesto from Laboria Cuboniks, Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino, and Pink Privacy by Jessica Yatrofsky. Facebook’s recent invitation to have its technology and platform seized by the federal government fortifies XF’s central point that it is in our future’s interest to repurpose and redirect technological advancement. Across the board, companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Uber have shown they are incapable of working toward the good of human civilization. Like the Old Guard of Capital who have sold off the Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta, poisoned Flint’s water, bleached out the Great Barrier Reef, and committed countless other equally catastrophic environmental and human offenses, the new disruptors of economic development have proven too irresponsible to entrust with the tools of human thriving.
If we are to take back control of the future, Trevino’s Cruel Fiction is a poetry collection I hope every person has memorized—its lines splashed in red over a confederate monument or on the lips of a youth throwing a brick through Bank of America’s window. A song we might sing over communal dinners. Much of what Trevino writes appears self-evident to me, but then from that I assume maybe she’s speaking directly to me or at least people like me. In this Fake News-Trumpist Idiocracy, there aren’t people to “win over” after all. The site of rational political discourse is the fiction. Trevino writes not to worry about those who work against you. In an echo of an earlier manifesto from France, Trevino emphatically tells us it is through the fires of mass struggle that we will “see each other.”
When I think of the joy I might feel on the eve of revolution, I think of Jessica Yatrofsky’s Pink Privacy. Though less overtly political than Cruel Fiction and The Xenofeminist Manifesto, Pink Privacy sustains a personal-political project Yatrofsky has forged across a wide range of media from film and photography to neon installations and music. Pink Privacy disarmed me with its humor, often sexual and brutal, while proclaiming clearly the independence and vulnerability of its author. Like the dizzying dance at the crescendo of Midsommar, Pink Privacy elucidates as much as of the world as it inducts you into the as-of-yet-unrevealed experience of women in the 21st century. Also, as in the feel-good-hit of the summer, you’ll rejoice in watching Yatrofsky burn everything down.
I reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I’m no Woolf scholar, but this is her greatest book, right? No? I wept at her writing, thinking, Oh my god, this is what a novel could do, this is the power of writing… Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I went to a cafe for a cappuccino and a vegan lemon cake. The barista saw my book and told me she had been studying Woolf in school. Not wanting to seem like a weirdo I didn’t tell her the book was making me cry and instead mumbled something about how beautiful the prose was. I returned to my table outside with my cake and drink and, forgetting the barista, read as long as I could, until my cup was emptied.
I also reread The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which, though I still found it affecting, did not have quite the same impact as when I first read it 16 years ago while on a solo trip through New England. Back then I was a young and broken-hearted college senior and found myself renting a room at a Franciscan monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young Werther was my only literary friend at the moment—well, him and Bartleby. Now, Werther just seemed sad to me and not in a good way. He is like a younger brother who has taken life way too seriously. A majority of my enjoyment rereading Werther was simply the nostalgia it created for the person I used to be, the gratitude that I had made it out of New England with only a bloody nose but dispossessed of the broken heart.
I read Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, In the Distance by Hernán Diaz, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. Chen’s novel about time-travel and protecting those you love resonated strongly for me, but nothing prepared me for how deeply I would be affected by its ending. I want to say something like Chen’s writing is deceptively good but I don’t want that to sound like a backhanded compliment. What I mean is his characters and their story work their magic beyond the text while you’re just flying through the pages. By the end of the book, I was so enthralled to the story I couldn’t help but ugly cry. Only Les Miserables has elicited a similar response, so bravo, Mike Chen. Similarly, In the Distance performed some emotional miracle, almost without my notice. Diaz’s writing confounded me at times in the best possible ways. His language is lush and rhapsodic but balanced against the austerity of the American west of 1850. I look forward to returning to Diaz’s novel when my own writing is missing something.
Kiesling’s The Golden State is a novel I’ve found impossible to escape. For me it was quite easy to slide into the familiarity of its Northern California setting. The ridiculousness of the State of Jefferson movement. The beauty of the wild and untouched vastness of California. There’s this joke about how tourists not from California think they can visit San Francisco and Los Angeles all in the same day. What? It’s only a drive down the coast right? No, it is not. (I also remember working at The Gap at Fisherman’s Wharf and selling sweaters and jeans to Swedish tourists clad in only t-shirts and shorts who believed the movies and thought California was always sunny and 75 degrees.) This state is HUGE and a lot exists here. Kiesling consolidates that vastness, the deserted menace of Northern-NorCal, into a lightning strike none-day road trip for Daphne and her small child, Honey. I think of all the books I’ve read this year, The Golden State has been the one I’ve recommended to friends the most. This is partially because over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Lydia and partially because I consider myself a “California Kid” and I love that there’s a contemporary novel out now I can point to and say Hey, look, yes, this is what it’s like here!