As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:
I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.
I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.
Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.
Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.
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Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is the sort of book that you attempt to put down partway, only to wander around your apartment, disoriented, picking up random objects and placing them elsewhere for no reason, before finally relenting and returning to read. The premise, like the pace, is catchy, almost irresistible: Steinberg, former yeshiva student, Harvard graduate, freelance obituary writer, and (perhaps needless to add) self-proclaimed “loner and romantic,” takes a job running a Boston prison library and serving as the resident creative writing teacher.
There is a voyeuristic thrill to peering inside a prison, not merely at the incarcerated, an isolated community of sinister and curious social outcasts, but at the entire mini-civilization – the guards, staff, rules, rituals – which all seem so foreign and exotic compared to our own. Television shows like Oz and Prison Break in particular capitalized on the dark glamour that prison holds for the outside, and did their part in shrouding it with as much urban mystique as The Sopranos did for mob life. We want to look in; we just don’t want to go in.
But it’s through the eyes of a fellow outsider that we get to observe in Running the Books. With his orthodox Jewish upbringing and witty, literary reference-laden commentary, Steinberg, like many of his readers, clearly does not belong in a prison – on either side of the law – as much as he doubts this at times. Or as one inmate remarks, “You’re an undercover playa – I like that.” But this is exactly what renders the reading experience so much more honest: the book doesn’t force its readers to adopt a false attitude of worldliness and blasé to accommodate it; we’re afforded our natural reactions because they are more often than not Steinberg’s reactions. As a narrator, he is infinitely relatable. He likewise has naive and uselessly emotional responses to what amount to commonplace injustices. He is just as prone to passing superficial (though bitingly funny) judgments, as in the case of his first five creative writing students who remind him of the famous line from Leviathan, with which Thomas Hobbes envisions life without a central sovereign as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Writes Steinberg: “Here they were, reunited in one room, sitting in front of me: Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.”
Prison is not short for characters, and like Steinberg, you’ll find it impossible to remained detached. There is the female inmate who sees through the prison yard window that the son she abandoned as a child is incarcerated in the same walls; the convict who dreams of hosting his own hood cooking show “Thug Sizzle”; the gang of prison guard union buddies who call themselves the “Angry Seven”; the charismatic pimp whose memoirs Steinburg edits until learning the hideous truth about his past.
As the prison librarian, the “Bookie,” Steinberg’s memoir is as much about the inmates’ interactions with literature as with himself. He assembles a Sylvia Plath shelf in the library at the request of her ardent (and depressed) female fans, which causes him no small amount of concern: “Ariel would never arouse the suspicions of myopic prison censors, who reserved the right to remove books of incitement and violence. But just because Ariel was art didn’t make it less dangerous — in fact, it made it potentially far more so.” Shakespeare month for the prison film group begins badly (“I can’t say I wasn’t warned. There was plenty of Shakespearian foreshadowing,”) until Othello (the Laurence Fishburne version) and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are explosive hits. One inmate tells Steinberg he will refuse to speak to him until he reads The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois. When he argues that he’s already read it, the inmate scolds: “Read it again…Cause you missed the whole point.”
But literature is not merely interacted with in Running the Books; it is alive. In prison, as in literature, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated, often even grotesque. Violence is as inescapable and inherent a mechanism of justice as it is in Icelandic blood feud literature like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga. More than once Steinberg finds himself a victim of the Kafkaesque arbitrary and impenetrable bureaucracy that governs both inmates and staff alike. (Coincidentally, you might recall Steinburg’s name from Elif Batuman’s recent piece “Kafka’s Last Trial” for the New York Times Magazine, in which she and Steinberg visit the house of Eva Hoffe, longtime custodian of Kafka’s last manuscripts.)
Nonetheless, it’s the words of the inmates themselves – whether in “kites,” secret notes that prisoners hide for one another in library books, and through “skywriting,” words spelled out backwards by male prisoners in the yard toward female prisoners’ windows – that are most affecting. We know prison to be something of a “Civil Death,” that the political (and to a great extent legal) voices of inmates go unheard. But Steinberg, who retains a reverence for the written word from his years studying the Torah, is consumed by how often the words of prisoners go unread. Kites must be unearthed and confiscated: “Books are not mailboxes,” a sign fastened to the library walls grimly declares. Skywriting, where it’s never quite clear who is signaling to whom, let alone what words they are spelling, is as predestined for misinterpretation, confusion, and jealousy as the communications in a French farce. And words from the inside out are equally unfortunate: it is not easy to write letters home from prison (in fact, one inmate runs a successful freelance poetry business designed to ease this burden), and prisoners often end up shredding or abandoning letters to loved ones.
Why do people write, knowing they might ultimately be writing to no one? And what is the worth of all of these words that are doomed to go unread?
For days I kept imaging the fate of the world’s misplaced letters. I started noticing them everywhere. All the right letters sitting on desks and dressers, slipped into purses, abandoned in email Draft folders, forever sealed and unsent…And the wrong letters, placed in someone’s hands – which, once delivered, may never be taken back. Emailed and immediately regretted. When I looked around the world, I couldn’t see these letters. But I became aware of their indirect presence. They contained life’s great subtexts… bound to a person by an almost invisible string. Even the unsent ones are very much present. Especially the unsent ones.
On one level, Running the Books is effortlessly readable. The stories weave in and out of each other, and through this the narrative turns compulsive: you need only become invested in one power struggle, one absurd operation, one hopeless endeavor to become invested altogether. But there is a profound weight to the memoir, too. Steinberg is not merely relatable as a narrator; he relates – his frustration, his ego, his susceptibility – and as my endless stretches of page-turning inevitably gave way to wandering about my apartment, I realized it was Steinburg’s own disorientation that I was feeling.
In the moral ambiguities of prison, the comforting ideals of “good” and “right” are luxuries that have no place. They provide useless road maps. And yet, Steinberg must still aim for something. He must still retain some grace. Even then, his efforts often amount to nothing, or worse. You might not agree with all of his decisions, but you spare him censure because he is a far harsher critic of himself. And you cannot deny that he is trying really, desperately hard.
For all of its vivid characters, Running the Books is thus ultimately a book about character, a virtue most notable for the constant (and often wasted) effort it requires to be maintained. In literature, as in prison, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated. But, however muted, the flaws here are the same. Life on the outside is just as rife with vulnerability, doomed optimism, moral ambiguity, and unsatisfactory compromise. And with this insight, when you re-enter society from the haze of a book, you orient yourself once more.
Family lore has it that many years ago my grandfather, upon seeing his dirty, half-naked two-year-old first-born toddle grumpily into his study, proclaimed this variation of Thomas Hobbes’ famous line: “Man in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.”
I like to think that Maurice Sendak might smile wryly at my grandfather’s detached observation and the rather unsentimental view of his own child and children in general that the remark revealed. Anyone who has read Sendak’s books—Where The Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, In The Night Kitchen—knows that his illustrated stories for children and the vision of childhood these stories contain more than a tincture of darkness: a trio of demented Oliver Hardy-esque bakers with Hitler mustaches try to bake a little boy into a cake, goblins steal a baby and replace it with a baby carved of ice, a boisterous little boy chases his dog with a fork, threatens to eat his mother, and subdues a race of savage imaginary creatures many times larger than himself. And when Sendak is not illustrating his own dark tales, he often illustrates those of old masters of the uncanny, grotesque, and fantastic: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, E.T.A. Hoffman, Henry James (The Turn of the Screw—these unpublished illustrations are in the archives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia), Mozart (opera sets for The Magic Flute).
As Patricia Cohen reflected in the New York Times last year, Sendak “is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpa.” Cohen’s conclusion reflects Sendak’s preoccupation with the Holocaust in his work for children—suggested in details like the baker’s mustaches and their desire to bake Mickey alive in Night Kitchen; engaged explicitly in his illustrations for Hans Kràsa’s 1938 work Brundibar, a political allegory of the Nazis treatment of European Jews qua children’s opera, first performed clandestinely by Jewish orphans in Nazi-occupied Prague, and again in his illustrations for Zlateh the Goat, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of children’s tales, to whose characters Sendak gave the faces of his own relatives lost in the Holocaust. But Cohen’s assessment also reflects Sendak’s confession of extensive and passionate hatreds: a cruel uncle from his childhood, God and religion, Salman Rushdie, sugary animation. Sendak’s hates culminated in the revelation: “I hate people”—though he had high praise the company of dogs, like his German shepherd, Herman (as in Melville).
This Gulliver-ian preference for animals over people is perhaps fitting for the man who gave us Max, the wolf suit-clad hero of Where The Wild Things Are, a boy who has more to do with beasts and the beastly than he does with the human and the civilized. Max seems an archetypal example of my grandfather’s intuition that human infants offer us intimations of the infancy of human civilization, at least as Hobbes described it. This is also perhaps a central theme of Where The Wild Things Are. One of the most wonderful and arresting things about children is their tinge of the feral, the uncivilized, the wild: They pick their noses in public, they stare unrepentantly at strangers and ask scandalously blunt questions, they are not ashamed to be naked, they snatch things they covet, they scream and kick and sob when they are thwarted in their desires.
To be a child is to lack the inhibiting self-consciousness of adulthood, the stifling ever-present awareness of other people, their needs, the dangers of their disapproval. Children are still not fully aware of the things we must do (bathe, dress, wait our turn) and must not do (steal, bite our enemies, wail when we don’t get our way) so that we can bear and trust each other enough to exchange goods and ideas, so that we do not live in abject horror of our fellow creatures, so that civilization and the arts and sciences can advance. My grandfather’s artful misquotation of Hobbes finds its source in this passage from Leviathan that describes the state of perpetual war (the “Warre…of every man, against every man”) in which Hobbes believed that humanity lived while in “the state of nature” (a mythical time in human history before the institution of laws and governments, often invoked by early modern political theorists):
In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
This is a world ruled by violence, mischief, and selfishness rather than law; Each man is free to do whatever he likes because there is no ruler and no law to impose a sense of mutual obligation and respect among people. Every man is a law unto himself, interested only in the fulfillment of his own desires, whatever the cost to others. This is also the world in which Max lives in Where The Wild Things Are. When we meet Max in the first small frame of Sendak’s book, his expression is angry and determined. He’s wearing the wolf suit that makes him look only half human (“brutish”), and he’s in the midst of building himself a tent or fort of some kind with a hammer, nails, and sheets. He’s using books—those symbols of civilized culture, learning, and wisdom—as a stepping-stool (“short”) to construct his ragged dwelling, and his stuffed bear hangs by its arm or neck from a string at the edge of the frame (“nasty”). Max is alone except for his hanged teddy (“solitary”).
And so we have in Wild Things Hobbes for children and a Hobbesian child hero (“no Arts; no Letters; no Society…the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”) Max seems constrained by the civilized domestic world in which we find him in the first frame. Sendak reveals Max’s confinement by making his first illustration only four inches by five and a half, with three-inch, white margins; the story’s illustrations grow progressively larger as Max’s wildness escalates and he is finally sent to his room. Only when the imaginary forest realm of the wild things has totally overgrown his room do the illustrations take up the whole of each page—as if to say that only when Max enters his imaginary world of unadulterated wildness and savagery do we see him fully. His appetite for savagery is hampered in his mother’s tidy, monochromatic home; he is a rebel whose taste for violence and mischief makes him eternally at odds with the civilized, rule-bound world of his mother’s house.
For his wildness, Max is sent to bed without dinner. At first he is angry at this confinement, but as his room transforms into a forest, Max’s expressions grow increasingly pleased. When he sails off in his private boat on the great ocean of the imagination, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are,” we see him smile for the first time. Amongst the wild things, Max’s wild willfulness is not punished, but celebrated: For his fierceness and the force of his will he is made king of this race of yellow-eyed grotesques. They obey and take pleasure in his wild ways—the rumpus-making that had gotten him into so much trouble with his mother, is here a delightful, unproblematic pastime.
But there is something missing in Max’s private world, for all of the power and freedom it gives him. When he calls an end to the wild rumpus and imperiously orders the other wild things off to bed without supper, they sleep contentedly beneath the trees, while Max, alone in his royal tent, remains awake, pensive. As king of the wild things he has his way amongst them absolutely; he can do whatever he wants—and yet he feels a sense of loss and loneliness. It may be, as Nicolo Machiavelli insisted, “much safer to be feared than loved,” but that does not make the loveless life pleasant. Max craves love—”to be where someone loved him best of all,” and he realizes, in his kingly solitude, that the price of absolute wildness, violence, and willfulness is that love.
And so he returns back over the ocean in his private boat and arrives in his room to find a hot supper waiting for him. In Sendak’s final illustration, Max smiles at this discovery and pushes off the hood of his wolf suit. The gesture suggests that he relinquishes something of his savageness in exchange for his mother’s forgiveness, her kindness, her care. Max has discovered that selfishness and lawlessness come at a very high price indeed.
This is what we all learn, if we grow up. Adults (more or less) follow “the way of the world” (as Hegel called it): the rules, written and unwritten, that keep us from punishment and disapproval, that make us (we hope) loveable—and, more practically, keep us employed, fed, out of jail. Children obey the law of heart (Hegel, again); they know only what they want and pursue that relentlessly, whatever the cost to others (if you have seen a child throw a tantrum, you know what Hegel meant).
We are all born wild things, we are all born “nasty, brutish, and short”—when and whether we take the wolf suit off is the question.