Kingdomland

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A Year in Reading: Max Porter

A combination of factors (leaving my editorial job, a new book out, traveling a lot, being sent a great many books, small children, existential crises, moral panics, a cold office, bad knees, a guilt complex) means the structure of my reading life has crumbled. I’m all over the place. Undisciplined. Books everywhere. Books about ecological disaster sitting next to old copies of Asterix. Mad panic that I might not have time to read Pantagruel again so I’m hiding in the toilet reading Pantagruel while I should be getting my kids ready for school. It feels strange to read books. But we are reliably informed that it always did.

Most of my reading these days is about animism, paganism, druidism, and trees. Treeism? Some of this is research, but mostly it’s philosophical escapism. I’m searching for something. My second novel got a review from a right wing paper that said ‘Porter goes full hippy” and I took it as permission to do just that. If not now, then when?

For a book I want to write, I’ve been researching medieval life, art, and medicine. Highlights include Towards a Global Middle Ages by Bryan C. Keene (especially Eyob Derillo’s amazing work on Ethiopian amulet scrolls), Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell, and the British Library catalogue Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

I would have been lost this year (as any other) without poetry to cling to and travel with. If I had to choose a single book of the year it would be Jay Bernard’s Surge. It is an extraordinary artistic and political achievement and one of the most important British books of the last decade.

Other highlights have been Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland, Rebecca Tamás’s Witch, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost, Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason, and Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities.

There is also a shockingly fresh, invigorating, boasty-bright new translation of the Welsh epic Taliesin, by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. It bubbles, swoons, and swaggers as if Alice Oswald wrote it yesterday. I’ve kept it by my bed in the hope I dream of “Nettle flowers from the ninth wave’s water…conjured by Math.”  

I have spent a lot of time rereading Julia Blackburn’s Time Song, Richard Holloway’s On Forgiveness, and Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye. These books have given me clarity and inspiration this year. I also reread Riddley Walker for discussion with the great Backlisted Podcast, and holy shit it’s still the absolute best.  

I read some classics including Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, which cut through everything else around it like a very sharp knife. What a powerful book. This was also the year I first read Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass, After London by Richard Jeffries, The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, and Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls.

The work in translation I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is the Tilted Axis series of pamphlets Translating Feminisms. Extraordinary Nepali, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tamil poetry, with introductory essays by the translators that make visible and examine the political machinations of translation. Radical, stylish, important, and invigorating publishing.

Three really, really good new American novels from my old pals at Granta Books knocked my socks off: Jenny Offill’s Weather, Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game, and Ben Lerner’s Topeka School. The disconnect between these visionary, elegant, sophisticated literary endeavors and the burger-vomit death-cabaret is…well I don’t know what it is. It’s simultaneously wildly bizarre and heartbreakingly mundane.

In British nonfiction I’m grateful to Nathan Filer’s This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health (formerly titled The Heartland), because it did. Johny Pitts’s Afropean and Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqua both do a lot to expand, revise, and interrogate the ideas we have of one another in the U.K., and counter some of the entrenched bigotry and pernicious ignorance that shapes so much of the discourse on our small racist island.

Samantha Harvey’s forthcoming book on insomnia is incredibly good. As is Mark O’Connell’s forthcoming book on the end of the world.

The graphic novel I am most excited about is Anders Nilsen’s visionary work-in-progress Tongues. I read the first three parts this year and I eagerly await the next. It’s just…staggering. Utterly fucking insane. So beautiful and so strange. He is a genius.

Lastly, John Burningham died this year. I grew up with his books. They’ve been a constant presence in my children’s lives. They’ve been in our dreams and in our language. His clouds, his animals, his strange domestic spaces, his weird anguished faces and bruised mottled landscapes. I love his books very, very much.

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