“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018
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An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
Jane Campion’s Bright Star was released in theaters today. Read the New York Times’ favorable review and watch a clip of Campion’s take on the romance between Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). According to papers on both coasts, it is Cornish who shines brightest: the NYT applauds her “mesmerizing vitality and heart-stopping grace.” You may recognize Whishaw as the demented/gifted perfumier Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s 2001 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murder.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Red Lights by Georges Simenon recommended by AndrewUntil recently, I had always associated Belgian author Georges Simenon with the Inspector Maigret mysteries. Then, on the front table of my local indie book shop, I began seeing a series of seductively glossy paperback novellas from NYRB Classics, each credited simply to Simenon, each with an introduction. Move over Maigret, this was something different.In the middle of last century, Simenon wrote a number of psychological novels, what he called his romans durs (literally “hard novels”). Red Lights is a novella set in the United States, as a white-collar couple from 1950s New York City drive to Maine on the Labor Day Weekend to fetch their children from camp. The novella tracks the ensuing 24 hours with chilling acuity. The narrator is psychologically ultra-aware, digging into the mind and mental state of the husband as his life is turned upside-down. His future with his wife, his life as he’s known it – everything he’s taken for granted – is suddenly in jeopardy due to the events unfolding on the journey to Maine. An altogether different kind of mystery from the man behind Maigret.The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson recommended by GarthWhile some of the “experimental fictions” of the 1960s have gone the way of the pet rock, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates deserves a place on that decade’s honor roll, alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Barth’s Funhouse. Johnson conceived of The Unfortunates as an Oulippan departure from narrative convention: a “book in a box,” whose 27 bound pamphlets may be read in any order. Together, they tell the semi-autobiographical story of an English sportswriter dispatched the the provinces to cover a soccer match. As he wanders the streets, before and after the game, the narrator finds his thoughts returning to the death of a friend who was a native of the town. The novel itself achieves a similarly bifurcated effect: while its Oulippan form is good sport, the gently melancholic stream-of-consciousness narration builds to something positively moving. Johnson himself died in 1973, at age 40. Whether due to the production expenses or to the perceived conservatism of U.S. readers, The Unfortunates wasn’t published stateside until just last year. Thanks to New Directions for this act of resurrection.Perfume by Patrick Suskind recommended by BenFrom its grotesque first pages to its orgiastic grand finale, Perfume’s narrative is bizarre, compelling and never dull. The tale of a grand guignol perfumer and his murderous quest for the ultimate fragrance, Suskind’s novel is equal parts historical novel, inquiry into the nature of evil, and meditation on smell. It may be that the written word is the only medium that can even begin to approximate our olfactory experience, and Suskind’s genius lies not so much in his brave narrative choices (multiple points of view, a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist), but in his ability to bring vivid life to the world of scent.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee recommended by MaxJohn McPhee’s incredible facility with words is evident in his ability to make seemingly any topic fascinating. McPhee has mesmerized readers with accounts of shad fishing and oranges, so it seems fitting that his the masterpiece of his prolific career takes on arguably his most boring topic of all: geology. And as if raising the stakes, he goes on at length: 660 pages. And yet Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee describes the geology of a cross-section of the U.S. and makes use of ample digression along the way, is engrossing as only McPhee’s books are. The book includes equal parts anecdote, history, and hard science, the latter delivered innocuously and effectively. Underpinning it all is McPhee’s clear joy for learning and sharing his new found knowledge.Annapurna by Maurice Herzog recommended by KevinBefore there was Into Thin Air there was Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 became the first person ever to scale a mountain higher than 8,000 meters. It was, as you’d expect, no easy feat and Annapurna is Herzog’s first person account of the expedition. How incredible was Herzog’s ascent? While today the Annapurna Circuit is the most popular Himalayan trek going, with direct flights from Kathmandu virtually to the trail head, Herzog and his team of French climbers, attended by legions of Nepali porters, had to walk for weeks to even get within range of the mountain, and once there, it took them weeks more to actually locate the peak. Herzog adopts a sly, matter-of-fact tone in the retelling, but make no mistake, he knows how to spin a good yarn and he doesn’t skimp on the final ascent, which includes all the frost bite and near death experiences we’ve come to expect from the genre. Annapurna was a sensation when it came out in 1952, eventually selling more than 11 million copies. It has fallen a little bit from view since then, but now is as good a time as any to bring it back.(See links to more Staff Picks in the sidebar.)
Hollywood has always poached stories from the republic of letters (not to mention Broadway and, increasingly, Nick at Nite), and some of the greatest movies of all time have started out as novels. Still, this year seems notable for the number of literary adaptations coming to the screen (see our earlier post). It strikes me that movies made from books can disappoint in two ways: first, by hewing too closely to the source material, and, second, by venturing too far afield from it. Either way, one’s reading of a book can be spoiled by seeing a movie first. Instead of E.L. Doctorow’s Dutch Schulz, one sees… Dustin Hoffmann. And then one has to live with an ugly paperback edition of Billy Bathgate, whose cover is basically a movie poster.The most successful adaptations, I think, take on a life of their own, using the source material as a springboard. And any time previews lead me to believe that one of these adaptations is in the offing, I try to read the book in a hurry, before heading to the theater.My strategy has been paying handsome dividends lately. First, I bumped Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the head of the reading queue, and discovered one of my favorite books of all time. So much of what makes this novel great – its voice – seems unlikely to translate to the screen, and so I’ve elected to skip the recent movie version, starring Sean (no relation) Penn. Even if the DVD is on your Netflix queue… read this book first!Less likely to stand the test of time, but still a wicked-fun read, was Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. This book, too, was voice-driven, introducing me to the nasty wit and sly machinations of schoolmarm Barbara Covett. The movie version, with Dame Judi Dench in the Covett role, wisely eschews some of the book’s narrative elements, finding cinematic equivalents instead. Through a masterful Dench performance and some judicious voice-over, the movie manages to convey much of the ironic tenor of Barbara’s internal monologue, while giving us more insight into Cate Blanchett’s character than Heller does in the book. Still, I’d recommend the novel Notes on a Scandal to anyone looking for a literary page-turner.This month’s Bookforum offers insight on yet another movie adaptation: that of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This bestselling German novel from the 80s features an antihero who relates to the world entirely through his olfactory glands, and would thus seem to be unfilmable. In their Bookforum interview, director Tom Tykwer and producer Bernd Eichinger discuss the difficulties of adaptation. “You cannot really put this novel into an existing structure for a film,” Eichinger says. “It’s not a genre movie, not a thriller, not a horror, not a love story. It’s truly bizarre and original.” Which is a fair description of Suskind’s novel, the story of an 18th-century murderer.