I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr