Most of my 2019 has been spent in a blur of hating words—my own. Editing a 140,000-word transcript that would eventually become a book forced me to confront daily misspellings, grammatical blunders, fact-checks, writing tics. It was enough to make me hate the act of writing more than I usually do.
The book hit shelves in September, so most of 2019 was spent getting it ready for publishing. It was a work of nonfiction in line with my day job at The New York Times; an insider story about a tech company’s culture gone awry at Uber. But since I spent most of my waking hours this year focusing on a story rooted in the real world, I prefer using my downtime getting as far away from it as possible. Reading for pleasure instead of work almost always consisted of fiction.
I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at the beginning of the year, in part because, honestly, I liked the cover design. But I also find reading short stories manageable, especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. To approach the end of a stressful day and be able to finish a 30-page story in one sitting feels damn good, like something akin to meeting the end of a section in a 500-plus page novel, but tidier. Normally I worry about missing the aesthetics of a native language in a translated work, but Jay Rubin’s translation abated that fear. I’m a sucker for magical realism; Murakami’s introduction set the tone.
My crippling reliance on Amazon for the most innocuous items led me down a comment-reading hole in February. As it turns out, people have very strong views on toilet plungers and sugar-free gummi bears.
I finally picked up Friday Black—another short story collection—after seeing Tommy Orange’s rave review of it. Orange was right. The book whet my appetite for looking at the worst possible versions of the future that aren’t as far-fetched as one would think. (I’m a huge fan of George Saunders, so Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work was right up my alley.)
I stopped at Powell’s in Portland while touring for my book and saw a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad on sale, a book I meant to read years ago but never got around to. I devoured it in two or three plane rides, an excellent cast of characters blended with rock music, angst, and the existentialism that comes with getting older. I’m mad at myself I hadn’t read it sooner.
I have this latent guilt when I read contemporary releases, which I will fully admit makes little sense. There’s a never-ending flood of books being released by talented people, but something inside my brain feels like I can’t allow myself to read new books when there are so many “classics” I’ve yet to read. How can I pick up something from 2019 when I haven’t read the best of 1819? It’s like a permanent backlog of shitty self-nagging; I don’t recommend it.
To deal with that, I try to throw at least one classic in the mix every month. I try to read Melville once a year, because I am the type of person who likes Melville. (I remember someone once saying “Never date guys who love Moby Dick,” a tidbit of self-consciousness I’ve never forgotten.) I picked up Pnin earlier this year; Nabokov is nothing if not controversial, but his mastery of voice and style keeps me coming back to him. I have a Willa Cather on my nightstand (My Antonia), and reread Wharton’s wintry Ethan Frome over the summer.
Some people read one book at a time before moving on to the next, but I’ve found reading a mix of books, genres, and mediums simultaneously is strangely soothing. Short stories, novels, a bit of poetry—it keeps the mind fresh, and I don’t feel stalled when I’m moving through something that is longer than 250 pages.
So after something like Atwood’s new book, I’ll go back and read All You Need Is Kill, an old manga that was the basis for the (underrated!) film Edge of Tomorrow. I’ve got a pile of Venom and Spider-Man anthologies I’m picking through—Maximum Carnage is one of them, focused on a fun psychopathic character. I’m also picking through the old Preacher comics; years ago, I bought the entire bound series of nine or so books off of some guy on Craigslist for a song. Totally worth it.
There’s this piece of advice I once received that I’ve never forgotten: “Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying.” Internalizing that felt liberating, and helped me put a few books down this year. (The first time I stopped reading a book in the middle of it was when I realized I didn’t like Jack Kerouac, and sold my copy of On the Road after about 100 pages.) I love Kazuo Ishiguro and read Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, and Never Let Me Go (again) this year, but decided about 150 pages in that The Unconsoled was just a little too out there for my taste.
I dutifully read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and enjoyed it, then moved to One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get into it, stopping halfway through. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was predictably great.
Of course, I still read nonfiction. It helps me make my own work feel and sound better, even if it doesn’t always give me that serotonin hit that fiction affords. I read business classics while writing my own book: The Soul of a New Machine, Barbarians at the Gate, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Den of Thieves. They reminded me how beautiful, elegant writing can be just as present in nonfiction as it is in other mediums.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see friends and mentors write wonderful books that have come out to much acclaim. Namwali Serpell, whom I was a research assistant for during my undergrad years as an English major, wrote the great Zambian novel with The Old Drift. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was, of course, as lovely as everyone knew it would be. I’m in the middle of Anna Wiener’s galley of Uncanny Valley, a memoir of her time spent in Silicon Valley.
I’m trying to branch out a bit more into science fiction, something I’m seeing flourish right now by authors of all walks. I have Jeff VanderMeer and Octavia Butler in the queue, and keep meaning to get into Tana French. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is burning a hole in my bookshelf; that’ll be up soon.
Perhaps I’ll make a dent in all of those in 2020—and hopefully not feel too guilty that they weren’t written at least a hundred years ago.
In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.
When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.
At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.
Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.
At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.
Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.
I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”
The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”
Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.
Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did? Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.
Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.
They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”
Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
In person and on the page, the two men are as different as Laurel and Hardy: the one orotund, a gourmand, filling his mouth with the language of his forebears, digesting ideas with gustatory (sometimes dyspeptic) relish; the other lean, a scientific mind, cerebral, attenuated, his most pronounced feature a high forehead given to wrinkling in bemusement. I’ve been a student of both William H. Gass and E.L. Doctorow, and somehow have only now thought to compare them. But when I do, I see yin and yang, Epicurius and Zeno. (DeVito and Schwarzenegger?) Truly, the contrast here, in temperament and physiognomy, is like something out of a novel.Upon reflection, however, I’m discovering affinities. Gass and Doctorow are roughly coevals, celebrated novelists and essayists. Both attended Kenyon College as undergrads and finished in the Ivy League. More substantively, both go about their work – choleric or platonic – with a heroic seriousness that marks them as the product of the bygone moment of modernism. Both, that is, are unreconstructed believers in the religion of art. Notwithstanding reviewers’ declarations that they are in the “twilight” of their careers, each has continued to produce vital work in his seventies.This year, each offers us a nonfictional map of his personal (and idiosyncratic) canon. If Gass’ A Temple of Texts and Doctorow’s Creationists diverge in temperament and taste, together they comprise a rich walking tour of world literature – and more importantly, an object lesson in committed reading.A Temple of Texts is by far the chunkier of the two books. Over 418 pages of dense, erudite, poetic prose, Gass covers American classics (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, Gertrude Stein) and nominees for classic status (Stanley Elkin and Ernesto Sabato) and returns, again and again, to his beloved Europeans.The foundation of the book is the title essay, which accompanied an exhibition of Gass’ “Fifty Literary Pillars” at Washington University’s Olin Library. Here, we are treated to a highly personal take on the writer’s favorite books; the net result has the compulsive fascination of one of those “Best 37 Novels of the Last 37 Months” lists, but is deeper, more varied, and in weird way more democratic. Gass makes no claim that Collette or Cortazar should be among everybody’s literary pillars, but summarizes his relationship to their books with such gusto that we may be persuaded, at least, to add them to our reading lists, and to think about our own literary pillars. Along with “To A Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics” – Gass’ Solomonic solution to the academy’s “canon wars” – “A Temple of Texts” is the strongest thing here.The title essay also lends the book its canny structure: most of the other pieces here are pegged to a specific author. To sit and read the collection straight through is to subject oneself to a lot of Gass, which is to say a lot of philosophy, a lot of alliteration, a lot of wordplay. Characteristic Gass productions like the peevish “Influence” or “The Sentence Seeks Its Form” (the distillation of at least a dozen other essays from other books) may slow the reader down (as Gass no doubt means to do) or even trip her up (which can seem bellicose.) But those new to Gass can just as easily treat A Temple of Texts as a reference work, can dip into disquisitions on Rilke and Rabelais at will, and be rewarded. The accessibility of form, and the richness of thought, make A Temple of Texts a wonderful and unusually gentle introduction to Gass’ extraordinary mind and, as importantly, to the works that formed it.Comparatively, Creationists is slender – 176 pages for $25, or 14 cents per page – and makes few claims for itself. Doctorow intends, he tells us, to stay close to the works he’s writing about, rather than rising above them to make sweeping assertions. The word “modest” appears in the book’s first sentence. But in its keen, almost surgical intelligence, in the sly insights smuggled into its readings, Creationists is a fraternal twin to A Temple of Texts. Where Gass’ sensibility is European, Doctorow’s is distinctly American – he is most convincing when discussing Twain, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Arthur Miller. Especially in the Melville essay, we see the way a life of reading has informed Doctorow’s own fiction.”It is indisputable in my mind that excess in literature is its own justification,” Doctorow writes of Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is this dictum that leads him to the book’s many feats of restoration; Doctorow’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of Poe (a “genius hack”) and Stowe make Creationists more than a simple top-ten list. As do his literary analyses of Harpo Marx, Albert Einstein, and the Atomic Bomb. As does the peculiar tension between analytic coolness and immoderate passion; in this way, Creationists is of a piece with Doctorow’s best novels.In the past, both Gass and Doctorow have invoked Elkin, quoting someone else: there are two kinds of writers, putter-inners and taker-outers. If Gass is the former, Doctorow’s the latter, and many of his ideas – about the creative temperament, the value of writing, the fruitful democracy of contemporary culture – emerge only through implication. The subtlety and brevity of Creationists don’t make it any less valuable, though. It may be far from novel for novelists to reflect on the works that influenced them. But the complementary traits of these American masters – their uncommon intelligence and reverence for literature – make A Temple of Texts and Creationists gifts for the reading public.Sidebar: Books these books made me want to check out: Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katharine Anne Porter, On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato
Don writes in with this question:Philip K. Dick wrote seven mainstream novels. I think they are pretty terrific, but except for sci-fi fans, no one pays much attention to them. Can you or your readers explain why these novels have received so little recognition among readers of “literary fiction”?Long before Dick became a science fiction icon, before he began writing the sci-fi novels he’s most famous for, Dick aspired to write “serious,” mainstream fiction. He spent much of the early part of his career, in the 1950s, writing these novels and was devastated by the rejections he received. In his biography of Dick, Divine Invasions, Lawrence Sutin writes of Dick’s early career, “from 1951 through 1958, [he wrote] eighty-odd stories and thirteen novels-six SF, seven mainstream. The six SF novels were all promptly published, but the seven mainstream novels languished. It was an anguish to him. And out of that anguish, his best work would come.”From what I can tell, in total Dick actually wrote at least eight and as many as ten or more (though some people classify different books differently) mainstream novels, some of which are still unpublished or were destroyed by Dick. Here’s a list of the eight I found: Confessions Of A Crap Artist, Gather Yourselves Together, Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, In Milton Lumky Territory, Mary And The Giant, Puttering About In A Small Land, The Broken Bubble, and The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. Most of these were eventually published after his death, and many are out of print. Certainly, none of them even approach the popularity of most of his sci-fi novels.The obvious answer as to why Dick’s mainstream novels are underappreciated is that he was long ago pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer, and the blockbuster movies based on his books have only exacerbated this phenomenon. It’s not news to anyone who pays attention to books that “genre” fiction – be it sci-fi, mystery or romance – is “ghettoized” in bookstores and in book review sections and that crossover success is rare. But, at the same time, as any real book-lover knows – readers who ignore the best of what genre fiction has to offer are doing themselves a great disservice.With regards to Dick, specifically, though, I’d like to return to the quote above. Sutin writes that Dick’s failures pushed him to write his best work – his famous sci-fi novels. Now I’ve never read Dick’s mainstream fiction, but I’d wager that despite the quality of that work, Dick’s well-known, award-winning science fiction represents the pinnacle of his body of work. Many of history’s greatest writers have impressive bodies of work, but they become known for what is considered their best work and – often unfairly – the lesser work is underappreciated. Herman Melville wrote a lot of great stuff, but Moby Dick gets all the attention. This phenomenon is likely doubly true for Dick because his underappreciated work is in a different genre from his best and best-known work, so casual fans don’t even know that these mainstrem novels exist. I didn’t.Thanks for the question, Don! I’m no expert on sci fi, so, readers, please share your thoughts in the comments.
File under odd marketing ploy: Penguin UK is offering up 30 audio samples from their catalog of books for intrepid djs to incorporate into their mashups. (I think of got the lingo straight here, no?) Spoken word snippets are available from classic titles like The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, and Nick Hornby’s How to be Good. So, as all media continue to converge toward a single point do not be surprised to find some “Call me Ishmael” in your hip hop.