At the beginning of the lockdown, I—in a fever dream of hubris, pretentiousness, and self-delusion—decided that this would be the perfect time to finish Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I’d read the first two volumes years ago and loved them whole-heartedly, but abandoned volume three, The Guermantes Way, because the focus shifted to French aristocratic life instead of extremely relatable adolescent angsting. I did pick up Guermantes Way again and I did finally finish, but I could not force myself to read the next book past chapter two. Then, when a friend who completed all seven volumes told me that the French aristocratic focus never goes away, I decided that my journey was over and I would likely never read the rest of the series.
I say this partly to make fun of myself and partly because the lockdown has made me reevaluate my attitude toward reading, particularly my completionist drive and constant need to read more. I have read more this year than any other, but that doesn’t feel like a triumph. It felt compulsive and escapist in a bad way, regardless of whether the books were good. I don’t tend to romanticize reading, but even to me this felt disrespectful, like I was mindlessly consuming instead of giving the books the attention that most deserved and, more importantly, the attention that I wanted to give. I track obsessively, so I know I’ve read 79 books since January 1, but for at least a quarter of them (including The Guermantes Way) I can only remember the barest details.
That said, here are the ones that have stayed with me and that made me slow down during a year in which I was generally more interested in “having read” than actually reading.
First, I went from being a Magda Szabó fan to a devoted follower. Abigail, Katalin Street, and Iza’s Ballad are very different books, but they are all so wonderfully constructed, with such a sense of tension and emotional insight. Journey by Moonlight, by fellow Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, shares these qualities and also has extra drama and surreal elements and suicide pacts and religious converts and fortune tellers.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi both blew me away. Dangarembga’s book begins with “I was not sorry when my brother died,” so I feel no need to hype it further, and I enjoyed Djavadi’s blend of journalism-style history and fiction.
I studied Russian literature in college and found myself returning to the classics for the first time since. Overall, I liked Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, though my patience started to wear thin during an early scene where Zhivago writes to his wife about running into a nurse and his wife immediately writes back that he should just go be with her because it’s fate. Simply doesn’t seem realistic. But I truly adored Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. I picked it up because I was feeling lazy and wanted to be comforted by reading about someone even more lazy, but it turned out to be a beautiful and sad meditation on work and nostalgia and family and love.
For folks who like horror and suspense, I would like to mention Kanae Minato, whose Penance and Confessions are gruesome and literary. Speaking of suspense, one party scene in Nella Larsen’s Passing, which is not a horror novel at all, had the most emotional force of almost anything I read this year.
Finally, I just finished Euphoria by Lily King. King is so adept at capturing the thrill and possibility of intellectualism and new ideas: “Looking at our faces you might have said we were all feverish and half mad, and perhaps you would have been right, but Helen’s book made us feel we could rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew. For the first time I saw how I might write a book about the Kiona. I even made a small outline of how it might be shaped. And just these few words in my notebook made many things feel possible.”
I keep returning to this passage, as a hope for what next year might feel like.
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