Inferno (Robert Langdon)

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The Best of The Millions: 2016

As the year winds down, it’s a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most-read pieces from The Millions during the year. We’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2016.

1. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. We also ran not one but two non-fiction previews. Our 2017 book preview is coming soon.

2. An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70: Christian Kriticos brought our attention to the 70th anniversary of a watershed moment in 20th-century journalism, the New Yorker’s devotion of an entire issue to John Hersey’s powerful recounting of what happened in Hiroshima on the day the bomb fell. “In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that ‘Hiroshima’ is as relevant as ever.”

3. Dear Any Soldier: Vonnegut during Wartime: Odie Lindsey penned a powerful reflection on discovering fiction — becoming a reader in a war zone — through a box of Kurt Vonnegut novels shipped in an “Any Soldier” care package to Operation Desert Storm, 1991.

4. Are you a planner or a pantser? Akilesh Ayyar broke down the two ways to write a novel: plot it all out meticulously or fly by the seat of your pants. Virginia Woolf? Planner. Mark Twain? Pantser. Vladimir Nabokov? Planner. James Joyce? Pantser of course.

5. In July, the literary set was buzzing about (and rolling their eyes over) The New York Times T Magazine’s publication of a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer. Our own Jacob Lambert then uncovered Portman’s correspondence with none other than Cormac McCarthy.

6. Somehow, your typical summer escapist reading didn’t feel right for 2016. Our own Claire Cameron took stock of things – and some great new books on offer – and crafted A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery. (Spoiler alert: this list works any time of year, as it turns out.)

7. Attention all poetry haters: Our own Nick Ripatrazone made this list just for you.

8. Ernest Hemingway: Middlebrow Revolutionary: Our own Michael Bourne penned a compelling and provocative reconsideration of Papa Hemingway that feels even more relevant today. “Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor.”

9. Infinite Jest in the Age of Addiction: We continue to plumb the depths of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In July, Mike Broida wrote about Wallace’s masterpiece as a “grand overture on humans and addiction.”

10. The Private Library: What Books Reveal About Their Readers: As Millions readers surely know, there is little more illuminating about a person than that person’s library. With that in mind, Andrew Pippos looked for treasures in the libraries of history’s greatest literary minds, from Gustave Flaubert to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Flannery O’Connor.

11. Only partway done as I compile this list, our star-studded Year in Reading has been a big hit across the internet.

12. In February, Gerald Howard, vice president and executive editor of Doubleday, took us into the halls and history of New York publishing. In this clubby world, much has changed since Alfred Knopf published Thomas Mann. But there are constants: ego, insecurity, irrational exuberance…

13. An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times: E. Thomas Finan’s piece is one I have returned to more than once since we published it in September. “Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.”

14. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Amateur Auction Theorist: In this curious bit of history, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan relate how Goethe invented a new kind of auction to avoid being swindled by his publisher. Alas, Goethe’s agent had other plans.

15. You can call yourself a planner or a pantser (see above), but the fact remains that there is no handbook for being a writer. In June, Marcia DeSanctis tried to make sense of the unbounded but messy life of the writer.

16. Books Should Send Us Into Therapy: On The Paradox of Bibliotherapy: Books are often recommended for therapeutic purposes: Read this book and it will help you solve this problem. In November, James McWilliams argued that instead, “We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.”

17. Do you notice what characters are wearing in novels? Do you notice how often authors get this wrong? Rosa Lyster does.

18. Look, it probably wasn’t you who wiped boogers on Jacob Lambert’s library book, but we can’t be sure, right? Just read this.

19. “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it,” writes Drew Nellins Smith. And yet authors keep churning out sex scenes.

20. I’ll be de’ed. In What the Deuce: The Curse Words of Charles Dickens, Brian Kozlowski instructs on how the giant of the Victorian era was able to channel his more impolitic urges with a clever — and uniquely Dickensian — array of invented epithets.

Next we’ll look at a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2016 but continued to find new readers.

1. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.

2. The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball: Lawrence Tabak’s lovely longform on the basketball variant that was once an Iowa obsession.

3. Readers of Laurent Binet’s HHhH have been turning up to read the story of the section he excised from the novel as well as the missing pages themselves, which we published exclusively.

4. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.

5. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett’s roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.

6. A Year in Reading 2015: 2015’s series stayed popular in 2016.

7. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It’s a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand in the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to “shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales” and other oddities.

8. How To Introduce an Author: We’ve all seen them — awkward, long-winded, irrelevant. Bad author introductions mar readings every day in this great country of ours. For four years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter’s guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts.

9. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.

10. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.

The Best of The Millions: 2014

The Millions is going to be very quiet this week, a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from the site during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2014:

1. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.

2. Oh, The Favorites You’ll Give: Literary Twitter’s Best Tweets: Many readers are well aware of the many charms that literary Twitter has to offer. We looked at the most “popular” tweets of some of the most well-known literary personalities on Twitter.

3. Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor: Our own Edan Lepucki’s made waves this year with her bestselling novel California, and as the book hit shelves, she took the opportunity to show us how the sausage is made. Among several behind-the-scenes interviews, Edan’s visit with her copyeditor proved to be the most fascinating for our readers.

4. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: 2014 was the year of clickbait, snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious… and terrifying.

5. 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To: Leery of proliferating lists exhorting us to read these 100 books (or those 100 completely different books) before we die, Janet Potter concocted her own reading list, one that feels more true to how we find the books that shape our lives. It begins: “You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”

6. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. Our 2015 book preview is coming soon.

7. Commercial Grammar: It’s easy to shrug off bad grammar in a logorrheic age, but Fiona Maazel outlined the danger of letting our language be manhandled by marketers.

8. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: “All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade.” Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English.

9. Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece: Calvino is beloved for his unique brand of literary fiction, but Ted Gioia argued persuasively that more attention should be paid to Calvino’s “science fiction masterpiece” Cosmicomics.

10. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.

11. Only at The Millions could a review — albeit an undeniably persuasive one — of a 1,200-page work of literary criticism be one of the most popular pieces of the year. Jonathan Russell Clark painted a compelling picture of Michael Schmidt’s mammoth The Novel: A Biography

12. The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students: The debate over Common Core standards raged across the U.S. in 2014. Alex Kalamaroff urged readers to reflect on what these standards might mean for the next generation of readers.

13. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: For the Latest in his series of roundtables, our own Kevin Hartnett asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.

14. There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…: Let’s be honest. Our own Matt Seidel is right. When you boil it down, there are really only two kinds of novelists…

15. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.

16. Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.: This unscientific look at book covers had readers taking sides in a trans-Atlantic design debate.

17: Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs: Pimp, brawler, Old Master. Stephen Akey introduced us to the epic life of Caravaggio.

18. Here Come the Americans: The 2014 Booker Prize Longlist: Readers love playing along during the annual literary prize season, but the addition of Americans to this year’s Booker Prize was cause for heightened curiosity (and consternation).

19: How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers: It’s tempting to think that by copying the habits of the greats, you can become one. Elizabeth Winkler looked at some books about how history’s greatest writers wrote and found habits as widely varied as the books they produced.

20: Cooking with Hemingway: Maybe it’s easier then to simply eat like the greats? Stephanie Bernhard tried cooking like Hemingway and came away sated, if sometimes perplexed.

There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2014 but continued to find new readers.

1. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.

2. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.

3. The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use: For the picky writers in your life, Hannah Gerson delivered an array of ideas that will keep the creative juices flowing.

4. The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett convened a panel of experts to offer their answers on a high-stakes literary question, What is the Great American Novel? The answers he received are thought-provoking, enlightening, and, of course, controversial.

5. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): Our late-2009 series invited a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers to nominate the best books of the decade. The ensuing list stoked controversy and interest that has lingered. The write-ups of the “winner” and runners-up have also remained popular. We also invited our readers to compile a “best of the decade” list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the readers’ list seemed to receive a warmer reception.

6. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.

7. A Year in Reading 2013: 2013’s series stayed popular in 2014.

8. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Seven years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite at The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there.

9. Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate: Writers pondering “To MFA or not to MFA” keep finding Edan Lepucki’s thoughtful advice from her popular Ask the Writing Teacher column.

10. How Many Novelists are at Work in America? At the end of 2013, Dominic Smith pondered a scary question. The answer? More than you think.

Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2014:

1. Flavorwire
2. Arts & Letters Daily
3. MetaFilter
4. The Paris Review
5. BookRiot
6. Longform.org
7. The Hairpin
8. The Rumpus
9. NPR
10. New York Times

“Dumbest Thing Ever”: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno

I am on record, both in this magazine and in my local newspaper, as an enthusiastic defacer of books. Recently I had a new kind of marginal experience that I would like to share: the pleasure of joint, or (as they say in grad seminars) “dialogic” marginalia.

The book was Dan Brown’s Inferno. Like most writerers [sic], I am crazy about Dan Brown. Why does he write the way he does? Is he a sneaky genius? How is it possible that he was once in a writing seminar with David Foster Wallace? (One of my dreams is to write a hit Broadway musical about that seminar, in which Dan Brown strides around the stage wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches singing bombastic anthems about the great masterpieces of Europe while DFW sings introverted atonal fugues with mumbling sotto voce footnotes.)

I purchased and read Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts.

It was fun to see someone else’s words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights.

WARNING: There are probably Dan Brown spoilers here, but come on, seriously.

Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. They make their first appearance on the dedication page.

After a while I started trying to circle all of them, which became a meditative exercise.

Sometimes I would miss one and David would catch it for me.

We spent most of our time in the margins making fun of Dan Brown.

We mocked his pacing,

his dialogue,

his dialect,

his artless exposition,

his anti-powers of description,

his careless repetitions,

his weak grasp of human behavior,

his lust for fame,

his characters’ gender stereotypes,

his implausible plot points,

and probably the worst “academic” lecture in the history of fiction.

Along the way, we managed to isolate the keywords of the Dan Brown lexicon.

Sometimes David added illustrations.

Usually, David and I agreed.

But sometimes we didn’t.

Recently I passed the book to another friend, who will add her marginal notes, and then I will pass it to someone else, and then someone else, and on and on until eventually we have written more words in Dan Brown’s book than Dan Brown himself. This seems like the only way to tame the monster at the heart of the Inferno.

Surprise Me!

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