Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, “just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again,” I decided I didn’t want them to be right.
Ferrante? Not my style, I said.
Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong.
After recovering from my obsessive tear through Ferrante — and it did require an actual recovery process, it felt like weeks before the novels really left me — I took up The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Since this was also the year I went back to school for a master’s in journalism, Didion’s biography was both an interesting, inspiring read and a welcome relief from the AP Stylebook and The Elements of Journalism.
As far as literary biographies go, it’s difficult to imagine much better than The Last Love Song, a writer’s take on a writer’s writer. And, in an election year that seemed to make less sense with every passing day, Didion’s fascination with the flaws in the national narrative seemed somehow appropriate, disheartening, and bracing, all at once. Political Fictions, indeed.
But my most impactful and longest-lasting read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, The Givenness of Things. I thought it would be a light read, something I could pick up and set down again and again, the way I often read collections. An essay while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, while I take an evening bath, while I wait for dinner to finish, while I wait for a friend to call. Something to pass the time, to broaden the horizon but not too much.
I quickly realized my mistake; I should have known better. These are not essays to read when you have a spare minute, they’re essays to wrestle with. Robinson has never written anything “light,” really, but this collection is particularly heavy. The essays are almost meaty, thick with her usual intelligence and insight, quiet and calm on the surface but deep in both feeling and meaning. I couldn’t walk away from these and come back to find them unchanged.
This is the best kind of reading, and the slowest. I’ve been digesting Robinson’s collection on and off all year, coming back to think through each piece one more time, uncovering another bit of wisdom and then another.
I found Robinson’s essays most comforting and challenging this November, for reasons that are probably obvious. One piece in particular stuck with me, and I revisited it again and again. Simply titled “Fear,” it served as a much needed reminder that, though “contemporary America is full of fear,” “we owe it to [each other] to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.” That’s the thought that will carry me through 2016 and that has me ready for whatever 2017 brings.
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People are reading non-fiction, too. The big debut this week is Joan Didion’s new book Where I Was from. It’s part family history, part historical exploration of “where she was from,” the perplexing state of California, a fertile subject for analysis if ever there was one. People are already waving this book above their heads and extolling its virtues much in the same way as they did with her earlier book, Political Fictions. Another politically minded author garnering a wide readership is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose op-ed pieces from the last three years have been collected in a single volume entitled, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century. As the title indicates, his columns chronicle the collapse of the prosperity of the previous decade, and the former economist from Princeton feels that the current administration deserves much of the blame. If that’s too heavy, there are some less serious books that are or will soon be best sellers. Among them is a peculiar book that comes to us by way of England. Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott is an astoundingly clever and thorough little collection of trivia that manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and being fun. For example, go to the official miscellanies website and get the official scoop on how palmistry works, and then feel free to troll around for other odd info at your leisure. Meanwhile, the more musically minded may have caught Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary about the blues which is currently airing on PBS. Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick helped compile the companion volume to the documentary entitled, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, an attractive book that features new essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, and others. And finally, all this talk of books about music reminds me of Chuck Klosterman. I may have mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading Klosterman’s first book, Fargo Rock City, a terribly clever book that seeks to make a case for heavy metal in the annals of music history. The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip. Stayed tuned for the next installment… Paperbacks!