We like to go on about why we read, the power of literature, etc. Literature can transform indifference into empathy, we insist, transubstantiate ink on bleached papyrus into flesh and blood. It’s all very “Kumbayah” and, coming from writers, a tad grandiose. A little defensive, even. “It may look like I’m diddling unwashed in my pajamas in a room by myself — but no! I’m weaving an immortal thread on the great tapestry of the human experience!”
Delusions of grandeur are comfy, but this year they’ve forsaken me. This year I’ve picked up lots of books and found not the transcendent but the smug, the affected, the dull. It started to feel like “the power of literature” was a product I’d been sold, which I was now employed in schilling. Teaching will do this.
But then came Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. What I found in Bynum’s second novel was not the Power of Literature™ but something less leaden, more meringue. As I read, an old feeling came to me from back before I treated Literature like medicine or a communion wafer. It was joy! And the best kind of sadness! Plus heaps and heaps of laughter! I read with the same studious fervor with which my sister and I once stayed up late listening to the radio, teaching ourselves the freaky subspecialties of punk and metal — a memory Bynum’s “Creep” excavated for me. Her chapters (stories? who cares!) kept doing this, dredging up parts of myself I’d completely forgotten. So I deem Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles the best book I read this year, for reminding me of my favorite reason to read: pure joy.
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Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet.
The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death…offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary.
I don’t know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let’s read one another nevertheless.
Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825)
Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator’s journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter
Potter’s tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn’t feel left out, of a frog who dines on “roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce.”
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
“I may say,” Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, “that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken”: Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, “a golden brown presence” in a “warm brown corduroy suit,” whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco.
Act One by Moss Hart (1959)
One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
“JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965)
The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968)
There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969)
A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious.
Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)
All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)
The central document in Malcolm’s ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald–long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt–“It’s a hell of a thing–spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey–not for long.”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
It’s not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal’s home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008)
Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012)
There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware’s big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building’s inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
Because I must read for my work, there are always two book lists winding their way through my life. There are the books that I must read for my job –not that I am complaining, for the most part I love these titles, and anyway, who wouldn’t want to be paid to read? – but then there are also the books that I read for myself.
Very often the books that I read for myself are last year’s books – or older – that I never got around to reading at the time of their release but now cannot bear to leave behind. So I sneak them in on weekends and evenings and during long subway rides.
Among 2010 titles, there were so many winners on my list that it’s hard to pick favorites. But on the nonfiction side perhaps The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, and The Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury did the best job of either surprising, teaching, and/or impressing me – all for completely different reasons.
Among fiction titles, I especially enjoyed the cleverness of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein, the enchantment of Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, and the lovely precision of Tinkers by Paul Harding.
The books that I read for myself this year were mostly fiction. My only real criterion for picking them was that I thought I would like them. For the most part I was right, but there was one particularly good streak when I read three books in a row that turned out to be three of my absolute favorites. These were In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, American Rust by Philipp Meyer, and The City and the City by China Mieville. Maybe someone will see a pattern here but I do not. It seems to me that each one appealed to a completely different side of my being for a reason uniquely its own.
Then there were two more titles that I must add. They were not part of that magic streak, but they belong on this list. One is the linked short story collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum which I think I will have to add my list of all-time favorites. Something about it – so simple yet so evocative – appealed to me enormously.
And then there was The Appointment by Herta Muller. I picked it up simply because she won the Nobel Prize and yet I knew so little about her. The edition that I found had her Nobel lecture appended to the end and I’m so glad that it did. I think that Muller’s description of the handkerchief drawer in her childhood home, with her father’s, her mother’s, and her tiny child’s handkerchiefs all lined up in separate compartments in the same drawer – the drawer from which her mother pulled a handkerchief to bring with her the day she was taken away and interrogated – will stay with me forever.
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