“See here, I want you to come to Random House and lose some money for us with literary books,” the press’s president and publisher, Harold Evans, told Daniel Menaker, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, in 1995. “You have five years to fook oop.”
In his memoir, My Mistake, Menaker recounts this scene and his subsequent transition from magazine to book publishing. Blessed with this permissive mandate, Menaker naturally chose a book of short stories for his first buy. He ran the project, George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by his boss, Ann Godoff, who told him:
“Well, do a P-and-L for it and we’ll see.”
“What’s a P-and-L?”
“You don’t know how?”
The dialog continues for pages, Godoff guiding Menaker with Socratic patience through the advance, payment schedule, initial print, returns, trim sizes, PPB (plant, printing, and binding), and finally the pricing, before arriving at the beautiful and the good formula for putting out a debut collection. “That ought to do it. Isn’t this scientific?”
(Menaker can afford to lead with his book publishing greenness here, knowing full well that Saunders, whom he edited at The New Yorker, has since entered the American short story writer’s pantheon.)
Reading Menaker’s anecdote, I wondered about the first professional decisions of newly minted editors — be they powerful tastemakers blissfully ignorant of P-and-L statements or recently promoted assistants. What drew them to the first proposal they tried to acquire? Did they look upon the decision as a momentous one? Do they even remember it now?
I asked six editors to share a story about their first buy, encouraging them to reflect on the projects themselves and what they were thinking at the time: their vision of where their list should go and the risk, fear, excitement or challenges involved. Here are their stories.
Scott Moyers, Vice President and Publisher of The Penguin Press
I spoke by phone with Moyers, who recalls the sense of initiative behind his first acquisition: “I felt like I was reaching out into the world and creating something.” He had been an assistant at Doubleday for four years before making a “huge leap” to Associate Editor at Scribner. Going after projects was difficult because as a new editor, he “didn’t know many agents and didn’t expect to get a first crack at many projects.”
Sometime during this period, he read a “stunning piece of longform journalism” in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas E. Ricks about a Marine platoon’s boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Moyers jokingly described how he went on to pester Ricks and his agent for the book rights to a longer, “almost anthropological study” about Marine culture, its indoctrination methods, and the occasional tensions with the values society the soldiers were tasked to defend.
The pestering paid off, as he secured the floor in the auction, an anonymous baseline bid with the right to come back and beat any higher offers. There was another offer, which Moyers topped to secure Ricks’s Making the Corps, a success he says helped to “cement [his] status as an editor.” Moyers would go on to edit more books by Ricks, sell his books when he became a literary agent, and acquire his books yet again when he returned to editing.
Over the years since that first buy and the “almost existential fear” of being a young editor — one might compare it to a kind of tweedy boot camp — Moyers says he gradually learned what can and cannot be controlled in publishing. Reflecting back on the period when he was trying to make a career, he wryly notes that “nobody necessarily cares about your success except you and your parents,” and that Ricks’s decision to go with a young editor was an “act of generosity and faith” that he has not forgotten: “We grow more protective as we grow conscious of whom we owe.”
Kathy Pories, Senior Editor, Algonquin Books
Moving from the rigorous standards of nonfiction reporting to tales that couldn’t be any taller, Kathy Pories describes in an email how she reeled in quite the catch with her first acquisition:
The first book I acquired as an editor was a book by a local writer. His agent was in New York, and the book was out with other editors. It had an experimental feel to it, a structure unlike most books I’d read so far…fable-like. It felt like the kind of novel that people would either “get,” or they wouldn’t, so it felt a little risky for it to be the first book I bought. Still, my Editorial Director, Shannon Ravenel, was firmly in agreement — there was something so exciting and original and moving about this father-son story — and so she gave me the go-ahead to make an offer.
That book was Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. I remember that I was so green that Shannon kept passing me post-its with messages about what I should say to the agent (which in retrospect, I’m sure he could detect in my halting delivery as I engaged in my first negotiation. I wish I had a recording of that conversation now.) And we had no idea how big that book would become, or that within weeks, film rights would be optioned — or that it would actually become a movie. Anyway, it was an auspicious start. Seventeen years later, I still think you have to have that feeling that something is risky; those are the books that are the most exciting to publish. But I’m a little better on the phone these days.
Timothy Bent, Executive Editor (Trade), Oxford University Press
Timothy Bent remembers acquiring a vital, memorial work that has stayed with him over the course of a long career in commercial and academic trade publishing:
When I was at Arcade about twenty years ago I urged Dick Seaver, the publisher, to sign up a book whose manuscript he had given me, a newly hired assistant editor, to read. It was a essentially a “grief” book: a father’s biography of a daughter born with birth defects and who lived only a short time — barely over five months. It was a really painful story — operations, hope, more operations, loss. This was before I was a father myself and therefore before I could really understand all the dimensions of the grief, but the writing was so limpid, the thoughts and expression so unsentimental, the vision of this child so clear — what character and personality in a months-old child! — that I wanted badly to work on the book. I championed it, Dick acquired it for me, and I edited it.
The author is William Loizeaux, and the book is called Anna: A Daughter’s Life. It taught me to understand that every life, however foreshortened and unfulfilled, was worthy of a book, just as are those of Great Lives and Large Deeds; Anna inhabits one of those unvisited graves (as the narrator at the end of Middlemarch has it), whose lives we would never know or appreciate were it not for the written accounts by those who love and remember them. Her life counted. I gave myself to that book and became very close to the author and his family; when it was reviewed in the New York Times by Reeve Lindbergh, appreciatively, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment that has never been matched since, though I’ve now acquired and edited many hundreds of titles, many on those whose remains inhabit highly visited tombs. How does a biography of Anna Loizeaux stand up to one of Bismarck? In my mind, it just does: that’s what a writer can do.
Alex Star, Senior Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux
Alex Star’s first buy involved an essayist, Meghan Daum, who made her reputation partly on the strength of a comic, rueful, and rodent-populated essay about the perils of being an editorial assistant: “For the editorial assistant, every day is a new near-death experience. As if ‘going toward the light,’ we chase after what literature there is, trying, at least in the beginning, to discover the genius in the slush pile who’s going to elevate us from entry-level minion to up-and-comer with a brilliant eye.” Star writes:
The first book I acquired, in the spring of 2012, was a collection of essays by Meghan Daum. This was doubly gratifying, since her first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, was an important book for me back when I was trying earnestly to mis-spend my own youth, and because a new essay Daum had written, about a parent’s death, struck me as her best work yet. Daum’s new collection will appear this fall, and it covers mortality, children, animals, music, and growing older — an entire course on human nature, inside two covers.
Jenna Johnson, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jenna Johnson, who has been acquiring books for eleven years now, began with one about eight dramatic seconds. As she suspects is often the case with young editors, Johnson benefited from the “kindness of a senior colleague” for her first buy. During our phone call, she explained that inundated editors will sometimes encourage up-and-comers to pursue projects, which, however intriguing, they themselves might not have time to take on.
Thus was a book on rodeo culture passed along to Johnson by an editor for whom she had been reading manuscripts. Johnson’s history background and “demonstrated love for the American West” made her the perfect person to take the reins of W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo, which offered a lively account of the rodeo and its literature, a discussion of the West’s place in the American imagination, and a portrait of the author’s own “rodeo bum” father.
Johnson said that the first buy “signals a moment of traction,” a crucial step for a young editor “learning to negotiate the system and find a book that suits the house.” Though a project about rodeos was not an “obvious Harcourt book” at the time, the house had published works by Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, so there were some “points of contact” for a book about sports culture.
What came through most vividly in our conversation was the joy of working alongside the author to achieve “the right balance” of reportage, history, and memoir: the challenge in any piece of narrative nonfiction. From this first buy and from many subsequent acquisitions, Johnson has come to see that writers and editors often end up as each other’s “mentors” in steering a project home.
Jeremy M. Davies, Senior Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Finally, Jeremy M. Davies writes in about a thwarted first buy, which teaches him that a young editor must hone his taste as well as his strategic instincts to make his way in the publishing world. What follows is a two-part story of discovered manuscripts, intrigue, innocence lost, and a gleeful turn to (fictional) anarchy:
I had only been at Dalkey Archive for a couple of weeks. The first book I wanted to see signed on was an unsolicited submission by a translator of a deceased author who, at that point, had never, to my knowledge, been Englished. While I had minor reservations about the book — I wouldn’t say I’d put my head on the block for it, as I would have for Édouard Levé, or Lascano Tegui, or Gerald Murnane, to name three more recent Dalkey acquisitions behind which I’m proud to have been lurking — but I was certain it was right for Dalkey, and that the author was someone for whom Dalkey would be applauded for introducing to the Anglophone world.
Now, you have to understand that, then as now, it’s the Director who makes all final decisions about, well, everything. The process was semi-democratic, in that a book universally praised was far more likely to get the Director’s okay. Books to be rejected would either be dismissed out of hand or else assassinated by other, less obvious means.
I was nervous about making a strong positive recommendation so soon after arriving at the Press, but, to my surprise and relief, I received a fairly rapid and equally positive reply, and permission to contact the translator with the news that Dalkey did, indeed, want to publish his work.
At the next meeting, the book was axed on account of another staff member’s claiming that he didn’t, after all, “like the ending.” I suspected there was more to it than an aesthetic judgment, but what could I do? It was enough to kill the project, and I was instructed to reject the MS, even though it had already been accepted. The translator wasn’t too pleased with this apparent duplicity, and I wasn’t too thrilled to seem the culprit. But that’s showbiz, I guess: it was a good lesson.
Another “excellent” press would acquire the book and translate several more by the same author, whose identity Davies will not reveal: “Here’s a hint: it ain’t Bolaño.” In the story’s denouement, our hero, wiser and schooled in the Machiavellian dealings of non-profit publishing, triumphs:
The first actual acquisition I handled differently. This was an original English-language MS that (also) came in on the slush pile, a few months later. The submission held my attention as being written by someone in control of his material (not often the case with slush). I was struck by its tone, ambition, and eccentricity, and its very skillful juggling of slapstick silliness with desperate bleakness. It also didn’t hurt that it played to my pathological cinephilia. Cutting to the chase, this was Mark Binelli’s wonderful Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, which recasts the titular anarchists as vaudevillians who appear in such films as Ventriloquism and Its Discontents.
So, I saw that the book was “the real thing” (such clarity, in those days!), and I likewise saw that Mark was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. (And if you haven’t read his nonfiction, you should: his most recent book is Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, and he recently published a great profile of Pope Francis.) Evidence that I wasn’t a complete idiot: when I brought the book up, I started with the Rolling Stone connection and only then went on to quality. This put things in the proper context: Sacco and Vanzetti was a project that had a chance at some real publicity, and thus sales, so its high quality as fiction became added momentum in overcoming editorial inertia, rather than the initial meek shove. There were no sneak attacks this time, and the book was published in 2006 to great reviews all over the place.
But, you know, like the man said, “Show me a movie with a happy ending, and I’ll show you a movie that ended ten minutes too early.”
Over coffee in a cafe in Fort Greene, Rebecca Mead asks me what my favorite book is, and then she stops herself. “Having a favorite is a stupid thing,” she says. “It’s like asking a child his favorite color. Only children have favorites.” Of course this isn’t true. Committing to a favorite book is like committing to a relationship, which is to say that it carries no automatic promise of deepening your engagement with human life, and may impede it. (Very often, when someone tells you his favorite book, you think he should have read more books before settling down.) The danger of poorly chosen commitment is a major theme of Mead’s favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch — young, energetic Dorothea is stymied by her marriage to the permanently blocked scholar Casaubon; the ambitious doctor Lydgate is destroyed by his marriage to the materialistic Rosamond — but My Life In Middlemarch, Mead’s new book about her favorite book, makes it clear that she has chosen well. Mixing memoir, criticism, and literary history, with a sharp eye for all three, My Life in Middlemarch makes us feel what it’s like to live with a book throughout one’s life. A veteran New Yorker writer, Mead describes how her sympathies have shifted among characters from one reading to the next, and about how her life and reading have changed each other.
Mead points out that Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about Middlemarch — that it is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” — is not quite the unambiguous compliment it is often taken to be, since “grown-up” is “what children call adults.” But since we never stop being children and never stop having favorites, Mead makes a persuasive case that our favorite novel should be this one, which, like the best romantic partner, never stops comforting and never stops chastening us.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
The Millions: Is Brooklyn more or less provincial than the town of Middlemarch?
Rebecca Mead: (Laughs) New York is provincial, and Brooklyn is its own peculiar, absurd province within that. When I moved here from England in 1988, New York felt like it was where everybody wanted to go, the center of everything, very, very exciting. Now it feels like this isn’t the place where people are coming to. If you’re young, you can’t afford to move here. London is so international. People are coming there from Europe; it feels much more connected to the rest of the world. Maybe it’s age, and being less excited. But yes, New York does feel provincial.
TM: Where’s the line between self-help and literature? George Eliot, maybe more than most novelists, rather explicitly wanted to make her readers better. I admire how your book is not “How George Eliot Can Change Your Life In Seventeen Steps.” Where do you think that line is?
RM: I began with a piece in The New Yorker that was about the origin of this quotation — “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” — and I wanted to disprove that Eliot had said it. I didn’t disprove it, though I still don’t believe that she said it. When I started thinking about writing this book, I thought maybe I could do chapters based on twelve or thirteen things she did say. But I realized that this didn’t work at all, because that’s not how she works. When you separate what look like nuggets of wisdom from the text, they can make nice refrigerator magnets, but they’re just phrases. I think you have to read the whole book in order for it to make any real difference in your life. Because while you’re reading Middlemarch, you have the experience of empathy. You’re not simply told to be empathetic. You have your empathy shift from one character to another. And you have it change as you go back to the book over time, as most serious readers do. Middlemarch doesn’t tell you how to live, but reading Middlemarch, knowing Middlemarch, thinking about Middlemarch, helps you think about how to live for yourself. It’s a more demanding process than simply being told how to live.
Eliot wasn’t afraid of explicit moral direction or suggestion — she didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing it, as lots of later people have. That’s one thing I like about her; that’s one thing I liked about her as a young reader. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with telling you what she thought about things, rather than forcing you to think about whether you’ve got it right or wrong.
They keep coming up with these scientific studies measuring the effect on people’s empathy if they read literature, and on the one hand, you think: “Oh, good, that that will encourage people to read literature.” On the other hand, you think: “Do we have to measure it this way?” Isn’t that what literature is for, to make you see the world beyond yourself, and feel the experience?
I’ve read Middlemarch lots of times, but it never told me what to do, and it certainly didn’t tell me what not to do. And if it did tell me not to do something, I didn’t not do it. We make our own mistakes, and learn from our own experience. But reading is part of your experience. If you love literature, literature is part of your life. It’s not an external thing.
TM: “Books are stuff and life is stupid” doesn’t seem to help Lydgate.
RM: No. Poor Lydgate. But he dies young. He might have figured it out if he lived a little longer. But he made his own mistakes, as we all do. If he had read more literature and less science, he might have a wider view of women than he did. He had his own erroneous expectations, as we know from his relationship with the actress. He has an idealized notion of a woman on a pedestal.
TM: Lydgate’s relationship with the actress is an interesting burst of melodrama very early on. Which leads me to all the plot-heavy stuff with Raffles, which you mention is the least memorable part of Middlemarch.
RM: I’m not sure I could tell you now exactly how it works. I assume she had fun writing it. It’s fun to read it, and it’s fun to forget it. Then you come back and it’s like a whole new book.
TM: There’s also a lot with wills and so forth. Eliot is more dependent than I remembered on creaky plot devices. Why do you think that is?
RM: Why does she use Victorian plot devices? They were there, and they were what people used. Her audience would not have thought that that’s a creaky old device, they would have thought that that’s the shape a novel takes. What she was doing that was transformative was the interiority — D.H. Lawrence said that she took the action inside. That was the innovation, done within a framework that was in many ways still very traditional. And there were the demands of the serial format. She wasn’t quite like Dickens, but she had to hook people for the next episode. So she’s not Virginia Woolf, but you have to have Eliot first. I don’t think we can take her to task for not inventing every revolution in the novel, given that she invented one so brilliantly. At least one.
TM: Zadie Smith, in a very admiring essay on Middlemarch, complains that nineteenth-century English novels are still being written with “troubling frequency.” Do you think that literature’s gotten more conservative since Woolf? Do we need to move beyond Middlemarch?
RM: Right now, I’m reading Sheila Heti’s book, which is fantastic. It’s experimental but still has the satisfactions of a traditional novel. Kate Atkinson’s most recent book has an experimental form. Zadie Smith’s own work. People are doing things with novels that haven’t been done or haven’t been done for a while. Elizabeth Gilbert writes a novel with the idiom and ambitious scope of a 19th-Century novel, and I loved that, too. I found it completely winning. There are plenty of boring books, but there are plenty of exciting books as well.
TM: Do you think that writing this book has changed your approach to journalism? Your recent piece on yogurt opens up into a panoramic look at the family of the man who founded Chobani, and the town where the factory is.
RM: “The Middlemarch of yogurt?” I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly, though, the process that led me to want to write this book has to do with empathy. A lot of young writers don’t have a lot of empathy, and I don’t think I did. My first book [One Perfect Day] was about the wedding industry, a world about which I was curious about but not attracted to or invested in or fond of. I spent a lot of time with people who were doing things I didn’t like or approve of, and that was my aim, to do a comic muckraking sort of thing. That has a lot less interest for me now. I’m interested in writing more about people I like or admire or want to understand, rather than wanting to write about people that I could expose in what I saw as their comic foolishness. But that’s just part of growing up. If you still have the knives out when you’re my age, it’s time to put them away.
TM: Is there value in having the knives out when you’re young? Should we put them away when we’re twenty?
RM: No, I’m not saying that there should be no journalism that’s spiky or skeptical. I’ve still got the knives; I might get them out when there’s something that really needs cutting. I’m speaking about what I’m interested in doing. And of course there’s important value in exposing corruption and malfeasance, but that’s not the kind of thing that I ever did.
There’s a debate — isn’t there always — about whether criticism should always be kind, about whether you should write a bad review or take somebody down. It’s hard being on the receiving end of those reviews, but we all put ourselves out there, don’t we?
TM: You talk about how Middlemarch was too earnest for Virginia Woolf’s generation. Do you think that we’re too earnest? Too ironic?
RM: “Too ironic. Insufficiently earnest.” (Laughs) Your generation will acquire earnestness. I’m not going to be anti-irony. But earnestness has its own rewards.
TM: On a sentence-by-sentence level, there’s no writer more ironic than George Eliot.
RM: Yes, that’s a very important point. The post-Victorian generation put George Eliot into the box of earnestness and worthiness and dullness, so she’s forbidding. And people look at Middlemarch and think: “Oh my God, it’s so dense, I’ll never get through it.” But if you try hard enough to get into it, it’s spectacularly hilarious and ironic and cutting.
As I write in the book, when she was in her early thirties, she wrote absolutely scathing pieces about people. Forget about my knives, her knives were really, really sharp. Reading those essays, there was something absolutely thrilling about realizing that she too had been thirty years old and willing to take somebody down. But those things don’t live, and we would not read them now if she hadn’t written these great works of empathy, which are filled with irony and humor and the rest of it, but endure because of the empathy and the earnestness that underlies them.
TM: In that Zadie Smith essay I mentioned, she argues that the ambitionless Fred Vincy is the moral center of Middlemarch, because he’s not bounded by ideology. What do you think about that?
RM: It’s a great take on him. He’s a character whom I was uninterested in when I was seventeen. At the time, I couldn’t see the point of people like Fred Vincy. I realized in my late thirties or early forties that Fred and Mary are my mum and dad. Coming late to marriage myself, and having had many years of romantic adventures that I probably wouldn’t trade, the idea of that commitment from childhood is incredibly romantic. Awesome, to use that word properly. It’s really awesome. I have a lot more time for Fred than I used to. That line at the end of the book when he goes hunting but won’t jump over the high gate because he sees Mary and his children: that makes me cry. I literally sobbed the most recent time I read the book when I got to that scene. When a book can speak to you in these different ways over the decades, that shows that she did a good job.
TM: Are there any interpretations of the book that you strongly disagree with?
RM: There are some that aren’t mine, but I’m interested in reading other people’s. There is a wonderful essay by Nina Auerbach called “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” in a book called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. She wrote about how annoyed she is by Dorothea, because Dorothea could learn all kinds of things if she wanted to. She has a library, she has the resources to educate herself, and yet she never does. Auerbach goes through the book and finds all these places where Dorothea has got books but she’s not looking at them and is looking out the window or something else instead. She finds all these places where Dorothea is not reading. She makes the case that, while we see Rosamond as the silly woman to be despised, in fact Dorothea is just as trivial as Rosamond. Dorothea’s ideas about spirituality are absurd; she has no rigor; she has no intellect. It’s so interesting to read; it’s not how I read the book, and I don’t agree with it in the sense that I have a different Dorothea, but it’s equally plausible. The more interpretations, the better. Even wrong ones.
TM: I think Rosamond is stronger than she gets credit for. She refuses to play the role that Lydgate tries to assign her, and I think there’s something admirable about that.
RM: So she could be reclaimed as a feminist heroine? There’s an interesting argument there. She’d be a feminist in the mode of: “Sure, I wear revealing clothes, but I do it because I want to. I spend an hour every day on my makeup for me.” But I’m not sure that I buy that sort of feminism, so I’m not sure I would buy Rosamond as a proto-post-post-however-many-posts-we’re-at feminist. She’s certainly not weak; she gets what she wants. She decides she wants to get married, and Lydgate has virtually no say in the matter. Once they are married, she gets everything she wants up to and including the death of her husband. She’s resilient like a rock is resilient. But the point of marriage is not one submitting to the other; it’s each submitting part of the way and not submitting part of the way. She resists him, but she doesn’t resist him in any productive way.
TM: Do you think Lydgate would really be able to submit usefully over the long term? You talk about what would happen if he married Dorothea; I don’t think that that would be a happy marriage.
RM: It might not be. There’s a part of me that always hopes he might marry her. A lot of readers say he could have been redeemed that way. But maybe you’re right; maybe it wouldn’t have been happy. Whatever Lydgate did, he should have waited a little longer before getting married, done a little bit more, made some scientific discoveries, met some more people.
There’s that line where Ladislaw asks Dorothea not to forget him, and she says that she’s met so few people that she’s never forgotten anyone she’s met. The condition of someone like Dorothea is that she really wouldn’t have met many people. It’s hard to think yourself back into what that world would be like. That’s one way in which Brooklyn is not provincial in the way that Middlemarch is. There is always somebody else to meet.
TM: That makes me think of Adelle Waldman’s novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., which is explicitly influenced by Middlemarch.
RM: What’s interesting about the conclusion of that book is that Nathaniel is essentially a Lydgate who doesn’t care. He’s a Lydgate who marries Rosamond and is happy. We don’t know where he’ll end up — from the outside, it doesn’t look good for him. But from the inside, he seems to be doing great. There’s something very dark in her willingness to leave it there and not stage a comeuppance. It was scary. In a naïve-reader sort of way, it made me very glad I’m not thirty and living in Brooklyn.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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