When I was young, I had two types of reading: public reading and private reading. Public reading was reading I accomplished mostly to have something to talk about with other kids at school, while private reading was only for myself. These two lives of mine sat in tension. Why was I reading one thing to talk about, to be part of society, and another thing to experience privately? Unknown. But as Maud Casey writes in The Art of Mystery, â€śThe privacy of the singular mind, the privacy of consciousness, is one of fictionâ€™s exceptional gifts to us,â€ť and it was always the private reading, the deep one-to-one communion with another mind, that I valued more. This year I read certain books to stay tethered to the worldâ€”Shoshana Zuboffâ€™s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Ibram X. Kendiâ€™s How to Be an Antiracist and Ian Haney Lopezâ€™s Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving Americaâ€”but I also devoted myself with greater intensity to books I read only for the sustenance of my inner life.
Back in March, a friend gave me a copy of her fatherâ€™s favorite book, John Williamsâ€™s The Man Who Cried I Am, as part of a book exchange, and it was one of the best discoveries of the whole year. The Man Who Cried I Am is a provocative, civil rights era novel, a bestseller in 1967. It recounts the story of a Black American journalist Max Reddick and his fraught marriage to a Dutch woman, as well the King Alfred Plan, which is a CIA plot to intern and eliminate Americaâ€™s Black population. Thereâ€™s a brutal pain and anguish and thematic complexity and edge to this novel thatâ€™s so completely honest, never made easily digestible, never seeking to placate the reader, and I loved it.
After Toni Morrison passed away over the summer, I visited and revisited a few of her novels. I was astonished to find that in my 40s Jazz read as a much more powerful novel than it did when I was a college student. I didnâ€™t grasp in my early 20s the depth of Joeâ€™s betrayal of his wife for a younger woman, or the ways that the younger womanâ€™s people respond to the circumstances, and I struggled with its experimental qualities. This time around, I appreciated the genius of Morrisonâ€™s orchestration of so many characters, the boldness of a vision that knows it is worthy of being followed without any hand-holding, the way it reveals to us the ways imperfect characters miss understanding each other, just as we often miss each other in real life.
Iâ€™ve been a fan of the novelist Yoko Ogawa for years. I donâ€™t know if she can write a book I wouldnâ€™t be interested in. I was excited to read her masterful fable The Memory Police, which is set on a totalitarian island where everything is disappearing and memory police ensure whatâ€™s disappeared remains forgotten. The book lived up to my anticipation. Its resonance arises not from its relevance in a time of creeping fascism, but from the timelessness of its consideration of memory and how much a self is made up of the memory of things, and its question of what is left in us if we lose all those things.
Another writer I returned to this year as a fan was the brilliant Percival Everett. There was Erasure, a bleak, subversive, experimental novel reacting to the pigeonholing of Black writers and the commodification of â€śurbanâ€ť experiences. In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, a man visits his aging father in a nursing home and they tell each other stories, with father and son blending into the other. Everettâ€™s So Much Blue was my favorite of these three: a beautiful novel made of three interwoven threads of time. As with Everettâ€™s other novels, the narratorâ€™s observations in So Much Blue are astute, often so sharp you feel youâ€™ve been sliced open.Â
I delighted in the ambiguity and skepticism of Zadie Smithâ€™s short story collection Grand Union. Every writer could learn from her almost compulsive willingness to consider sheâ€™s wrong about what sheâ€™s imagined, about everything she thinks she knowsâ€”her talent for questioningâ€”and that tension of not-knowing drives the collection.
I loved The Atlas of Reds and Blues, a powerful debut novel by Devi Laskar, whose poetry Iâ€™d read before through the Tupelo 30/30 Project. In its fragments and linguistic intensity, it reads like the best poetâ€™s novels doâ€”with equal attention to language and story. Itâ€™s extremely rare to see the effects of years of racism and xenophobia against South Asian Americans laid out in such forceful and lyrical terms. Atlas insistsâ€”rightlyâ€”on its status as an American novel, blowing open the door for other acutely honest novels about the realities of South Asian American lives.
I also loved Mathangi Subramanianâ€™s heartfelt, compassionate novel A Peopleâ€™s History of Heaven. It is the story of a band of girls in a slum in Bangalore in India, and their bonds to each other and resistance to their grim reality. Thereâ€™s so much truth resonating through this novel: â€śď»żIt is one thing to write stories to save others. It is another to write a story to save yourself.
I also discovered for the first time several wonderful authors whose fiction had been on my radar for some time. Among these was Carolina de Robertisâ€™s Cantoras, a beautiful novel about five queer women who take a bold trip to the beach together while living under the Uruguayan dictatorship. The tender, moving intimacies between these different women, the fierce resolve within their private lives, provide the novelâ€™s powerful enchantments.
I reviewed a number of the most inventive, original books I read this year, but I felt lucky at the sheer number of memorable debuts that drifted onto my radar. In the stark novel The Unpassing, Chia Chia Lin writes about a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska that is struggling to survive the loss of a daughter. The novel expresses a certain kind of dilemma so gorgeously, I physically ached in the recognition of reading it: â€śHe had brought us to a place we didnâ€™t belong, and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.â€ť
In Kali Fajardo Anstineâ€™s tender, and fearless short story collection Sabrina and Corina working-class Latina women survive poverty and loss. There are descriptions of living in here that are so true they hurt: â€śThatâ€™s when I knew she was forever caught in her own undercurrent, bouncing from one deep swell to the next. She would never lift me out of that sea.â€ť I canâ€™t wait to read what she writes next.
In Mimi Lokâ€™s elegant short story collection Last of Her Name, characters try to connect with each other in strange ways across a range of settings. In Lokâ€™s story “The Wrong Dave,” an architect who is getting married receives an email, and strikes up a correspondence in which heâ€™s unsure whether she knows with whom sheâ€™s emailing. The collection closes on a canâ€™t-miss, suspenseful novella “The Woman in the Closet” about a homeless woman.
A galley of Lydia Davisâ€™s Essays One was one of the books I most needed to read this fall. Its focus on precise observation from different angles served as a balm against the sloppy, blunt, ideologically rigid thinking found in so many places. Thereâ€™s an essay about what to read, and Iâ€™ve been thinking about its advice for purposes of my reading next year: â€śRead the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion â€”you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.â€ť
I anticipate my private reading life for 2020 to heed this advice, in spite of the dozen half-read books and galleys on my nightstand left unfinished for no apparent reason. The news is so essential to the development of a public self, a citizen, yet books are, for me, an urgently necessary bulwark, fortification for the deeper private self.