For better and worse, books are how I learn things. Kissing, for instance. Though I wouldn’t get the opportunity to implement this knowledge for another solid decade (or, uh, more) I referred, with hope, to the Junior Girl Scout handbook. Year after year, I read to understand, knowing that it’s a futile exercise—limitless in both the exhausting and reassuring ways. Exhaustingly, reassuringly, there is always more to know. 2018 was another Year in Reading to know more—embarrassingly literally at times. The books I read fell into a few main categories:
Literal self-help! In 2018 I did things I’d never done before and read books about them. In January I started a business; I read Starting a Business for Dummies. I read Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, about letting your employees go surfing (the self-help realm is all about the subtitles, and Chouinard’s is: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman). A book that legit changed my life was one I found on a shelf in an Airbnb: David Allen’s Getting Things Done, about Getting Things Done®! (Subtitle: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.) I thought I was sort of spending too much time on my phone so I read a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone and it more or less worked. In June we adopted a kitten from the SPCA. I read Total Cat Mojo (The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat) by Jackson Galaxy, in which he recommends blinking slowly at your cat to express love. I read a book called Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, about taking cats on hikes. Indeed, I remain as cool as I was at age 9.
In the category of fiction that is haunting/beautiful/devastating and wholly engrossing: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Tommy Orange’s perfectly calibrated There There. In a single sitting, I read The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon—an otherworldly, wonderful thing.
In the category of opening doors to other worlds, a la Exit West: I read memoirs that put me squarely in other people’s bodies: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—all memoirs from distinct, memorable, assured voices.
In the category of laughing/crying perfection and exactly my cup of tea: I teared up (for sad and happy reasons!) at Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. These were books that made me laugh and broke my heart—a combo I love wholeheartedly.
In the category of the female experience made scarily visceral: You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale, a book of too-real, resonant short stories. And The Power by Naomi Alderman and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood were books that articulated my questions exactly, in perfect timing.
Maybe I read also to get mad? In the category of books I read and got mad at: The Corrections and Freedom (I know, I know, but I enjoyed Purity, and honestly, truly was open to enjoying these too). There were a few books I should have put aside and read anyway, due to my I-always-have-to-finish-a-book-even-though-I-know-life-is-short rule. And I know it makes me a chicken to not name names, but listen, I just won’t. One was an acclaimed thing that made me actually throw it across the room because of its overly, well, florid descriptions of flora. The other was by an exceedingly acclaimed author that included incredibly racist descriptions of all its Asian characters (and when I googled the author’s name with “racist against Asians” the search yielded nothing, meaning that even though this was the year of Crazy Rich Asians, it remains a year in which casual racism against Asians is still okay).
Speaking of being tired, tired, tired of the way things are, I read texts like manuals. In the category of books I read to make things different, make things better: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown. bell hooks’s Feminism Is for Everybody. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These are books that both galvanized me and made me hopeful—that pointed me in the right direction.
Most recently, in the category of nonfiction that describes the invisible and real, I’ve read: Ai Jin Poo’s The Age of Dignity, about the ways in which we’re woefully underprepared to take care of our aging in America. And Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, about the invisible world of microbes. What I learn is this: Counter to everything we’ve been taught about evolution, change doesn’t necessarily happen glacially, especially when bacteria are involved. There’s fluidity to how bacteria and their hosts interact: exchanging information, changing constitutions, and swiftly adapting. A woodrat living in the desert can eat poisonous creosote plants because they have bacteria that live in their guts that can detoxify it. If you put the same bacteria into the guts of other animals, they can start eating poisonous creosote, too! And this change doesn’t take hundreds of years, it just happens! There is a metaphor somewhere in there about reading, maybe.
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Before I saw the cover of my second novel, I worried about it. My greatest fear was this: A woman, looking out to sea. Her back is to the reader. Her hair is thrown up in a vague style that if nothing else can be described as “timeless.” Her stance evokes a wistful, feminine longing—for a man, perhaps, or for a dinner she doesn’t have to cook.
You know this cover. Hundreds of versions exist. There are covers that display only a woman’s head—from behind—and countless others that show a woman’s body, without the head. Sometimes, a complete woman is shown. My first novel got this treatment. Originally, it got no woman at all, just a beautiful, font-only cover. Then a “step-back” was added, one of those glossy pages that sticks out from behind the actual cover to catch the reader’s eye. The step-back showed a woman—from behind—standing in a field in a lilac-colored dress while looking off into some middle distance, and was presumably meant to assure readers that however muted (i.e. perhaps literary) the cover, the story did indeed include a woman who might, if called upon for marketing purposes, stand out on the prairie, not holding anything, not doing anything, just looking wistfully away.
In the years between that first book and the second, these sorts of covers had begun to make my heart seize. Their ubiquity might almost be laughable, if it didn’t reflect and result in serious inequities. Walk into a bookstore and see which authors receive what Eugenia Williamson, in a wonderful essay on “the implied correlation between feminine imagery and literary inferiority,” aptly terms the “Sexy Back” or “Headless Woman.” I’ll save you the work: they’re rarely men. Even when male authors write novels that include women and sex—and let’s face it, how many novels don’t?—their covers are more likely to feature large font, maybe an abstract image, perhaps a landscape. In a survey of covers by South Asian writers, Mary Anne Mohanraj notes that the books by male authors displayed “ancient paintings, people in motion, buildings or cities, large landscape features, such as bridges or mountains, abstract images, the author’s name or title, and the color blue.” Mohanraj’s own collection of stories, Bodies in Motion, was first given a cover showing the open pages of a book, but this was nixed by her marketing teams and replaced by a woman—headless, of course—in a red sari. While her critique addresses the gendering of South Asian literature in particular, the trend is global. Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, went through a similar twist: an initial cover by acclaimed designer Chip Kidd that featured a semi-abstract, red-and-blue couple in embrace was rejected in favor of a girl’s head against an aqua backdrop, viewed—yep—from behind.
The messaging is clear. These covers are code for “women’s fiction”—i.e. breezy, easy, accessible. For many women authors who don’t happen to write breezy fiction, we feel caught in a double bind, with a cover that demeans the book in the eyes of the literary establishment while also promising readers a kind of book we didn’t necessarily write. When the book doesn’t sell in a huge way—and most don’t—we’re left feeling like we lost on both fronts.
The night I finally got an email with the subject line “Cover!” I was out for a drink with a friend. I glanced at the downloading image for only a second before passing my phone like a hot potato to my friend. I felt ready to fight this time, for my second novel—no woman on my cover! I winced, waiting, until my friend said, “Oh!” and showed me. I loved it right away: the bold colors, the big letters, the feeling I had looking at it that I was on the verge of something. And then I saw what I was looking at: a painting of a woman, standing on a rock by the sea. She was not facing away. She was not doing nothing. (She was reading a book.) She was neither headless nor bodiless. But she was a woman. And she was on my cover.
I was miffed, because it was what I’d known would happen, and because I loved it.
A couple days later, I was looking at the cover again when I noticed something strange on the rocks next to the woman. What were they? I nosed closer. A pair of boots. Someone was lying on the rock—another woman, judging by the boots. So there was not just one woman on the cover of my book but two! And yet, despite myself, I loved it even more, because the boots made the second woman a mystery. They opened up the cover for me. They seemed to be the feet of all the characters I had created, all of them at once, lying on a rock together, listening to this other woman reading their stories to them.
A while after that, my editor sent me another email: “Thought you’d like to see this.” She linked to the larger painting from which the cover had been drawn. The boots turned out to be attached to a woman in a black dress, who is looking out—though not at the viewer—with what I can only describe as a delightfully illegible expression. She might be half-asleep. She might be judging the woman reading to her. She might have to pee. She might—my favorite interpretation—be aware of the viewer and proudly ignoring us.
“Will it wrap around the book?” I asked. Because I wanted this woman, too.
Once I saw the whole painting, called “Summertime Cornwall”, I wanted to know about the painter. I looked her up and learned that Laura Knight, a British artist born in 1877, managed to be both wildly popular and a pioneer: in 1936, she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy; decades later, she was the first woman to whom the Academy gave a large retrospective. Most striking to me was the controversy Knight stirred in 1913 when she made a painting called “Self Portrait with Nude”. At the time, women artists were restricted to using casts of the human body, not live models. So when Knight’s painting was shown, depicting herself in her studio painting a sensually positioned model—her back to Knight (and us), her arms lifted to cradle her head, her hip tilted, the pale curve of one breast visible—the art world was shaken. The Royal Academy rejected the painting. The Daily Telegraph called it “vulgar.” Others embraced her challenge to the establishment. She became a sensation.
The more I look at Self Portrait with Nude, the less I focus on the model. I notice Knight herself. She is dressed in plain work clothes, another affront to custom, for women painters typically painted themselves as conventional subjects, dressed in finery. I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson talking about how she likes to write on her couch in clothes that “disappear,” how her body drops away and leaves her mind freer. Looking in this light at Knight, in her frumpy jacket and loose skirt, I see that she is asserting her right—at least for a period of time, in her own studio—to not be looked at, but to look.
My publisher kept the cover for the paperback version. Laura Knight’s two women are still there, one reading her book, the other looking out with her unknowable gaze. I still love them, though I can’t explain exactly why. And I keep seeing other wonderful book covers with women on them. On the cover of Claire Dederer’s new memoir, Love and Trouble, a young Dederer stares out at us as if to say, What are you staring at? A similarly assertive woman, holding a baby, faces us on Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong. There is even a woman—albeit a very tiny, blurry one, largely overwhelmed by large blue font—on Jonathan Franzen’s last novel, Purity.
Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers.
What if we were to reclaim them, as Important Subjects? We know that they are. And we know that they are tied up inextricably in the subjects deemed important by the patriarchy: war and death and politics and business. We have written all this into our books, in fact, though perhaps with different emphasis, or in different form. My novel, for one, concerns itself with World War One, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Prohibition…and men! Straight men, gay men, men being dicks, men getting their hearts broken. Still, it’s fair to say that the most central characters are women. Why should I be ashamed of that? I’m a woman, too. If a man doesn’t want to read my book because there’s a woman on it—and my publisher hasn’t given it what Williamson calls the “man trap” treatment (really, you should read her essay)—so be it.
The painter Laura Knight was engaged in a project that sounds, like so many difficult projects do, very simple: asserting that women and our lives are of equal value to men and their lives. It sounds so simple that it’s easy for me to forget sometimes that the very fact of my working is an assertion. Last week I met a woman who had written a book arguing that women should make their children their top priority until the age of three, and blaming a plethora of childhood disorders on less-than-present mothers.
Hearing this was enough to drive me home to my kitchen table, where I sit now, writing, and where I’ll stay, writing, until I have to make dinner for my kids. Or, maybe, I’ll stay at this table until the instant I have to pick them up, and not cook at all. Mac and cheese has yet to kill anyone. But work—good work—has the power to keep us fully alive. That’s why I’m wearing worn out clothes, like Laura Knight in her self-portrait. There is always time to be seen. For now, I sit, in my version of a studio. This is what I see.
To the right of the entrance to my house stands a distinctly ragged old tree. The tree hangs limply for two thirds of the year until it starts to stir around February. A brilliant golden bulb starts to peek out from under its previously harsh exterior and by the beginning of March, the tree is flecked with gold. It starts to shed this gold almost immediately, leaving the effect of a just missed confetti shower around my driveway.
In November 2015, I attended a reading from Jonathan Franzen in Dublin. Franzen was on something of a mammoth promotional tour for Purity — his fifth and possibly most polarizing novel. After the reading and a standard interview, the floor was opened up for questions. One attendee asked him to relay a story about him once pointing out a beautiful bird to the late David Foster Wallace. He was visibly irritated by the question and batted it away.
The snippet of a story about the bird comes from Franzen’s 2011 New Yorker essay “Farther Away,” in which he explores the impact Wallace’s death had on him while bird watching on a remote island off the coast of Chile. He sums up the difference between his own “manageable discontents” and Wallace’s “unimaginable misery:”
Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. “Yeah,” he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, “it’s pretty.”
The objects and passions which sustain us are not the immediate subject of Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking. It begins with an explanation of how narrator Frankie’s grandmother died. A passing in the night, notable for the storm that uprooted a nearby tree. Frankie takes a branch of this tree and says she loves it for marking her grandmother’s death.
She goes to live in her grandmother’s house and begins a project of photographing dead animals. She establishes some rules for this project: she must not be involved in their death in any way and she cannot photograph any creature that is merely wounded. The novel is marked by her photos of these creatures — a badger, a rabbit, a rat, a robin — and they become her documentation of a world that is dying around her.
Early during her stay, Frankie comes across a number of “weird” trinkets that her mother has deemed to be sufficiently important to save from a clear out. She wonders what it is about these nondescript items that moved her mother to make such a decision. Why a small Eiffel Tower or a “wobble legged beetle in a nutshell” was worthy of keeping. Were they infused with her grandmothers gaze she asks? Was it because they kept her company during her final weeks? That they may have some sentimental value — some cliched idea of worth because of circumstance — never occurs to her.
Aside from her photographs of dead animals, the novel is punctuated by the narrator testing herself on all manner of art projects. “Works about running, I test myself;” “Works about bed, I test myself;” “Works about flowers, I test myself;” — in every instance Frankie displays almost total recall of the detail behind a particular art project and her interpretation of it. We are left with the impression of someone who believes they have failed at art and needs to test themselves in order to keep some idea of a passion alive. There is a regret about art here — that it could not sustain her. It could not facilitate her manageable discontents.
The fingerprints and shadow of Frankie’s grandmother stalk the house, from the smell of her now dead dog to the creaks and murmurs of a house in disrepair, its loyalties still lie with its old occupant and Frankie is drawn to this. She is drawn to living in someone else’s world, of sustaining someone else’s life.
Throughout the novel, Frankie remembers various episodes from her childhood. One such episode details a wheelchair bound friend in school who suffers a fall. She wails and screams and continues even when she has been picked up. Frankie equates this screaming with the girl’s realization of all of the “cumulative indignity of every compromised school day gone by and yet to come, by the weeks after weeks after weeks of unspeakable unfairness which would not stop, not ever.” The girl’s façade of strength evaporates and we are led into her horror — for Frankie, the scream is never about one incident, it’s about all of the incidents to come. All of the dead things that will lie around her.
A Line Made by Walking has the unusual quality of documenting Frankie’s descent into depression and yet celebrating aspects of life taken for granted. By its end, Frankie is continuing her journey and cannot offer us any real kind of resolution, she is just going to keep moving. She is going to keep testing herself and hope things will get better.
Frankie’s tale reminds us that that gold confetti falls everywhere, we just need to see it and not merely look at it. But the book’s great power is helping us to better understand those who can only look. It helps us understand the difference between managed discontents and unimaginable misery.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer. About half a decade later — a year ago now — I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours — i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake — and a GPS watch to track it all. And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing.
I was training to run my first marathon — 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race. Knock on wood. Trust your training. Never trust a fart. Etc. I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left. After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done. I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings.
Forget the aches and the pains and the miles. The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours.
A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading. Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms — too often the slightest bit off — make feet fall wrong. So: audiobooks. That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years. As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author. Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year.
I’ll spare you and myself the excuses — this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s. But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15…that’s real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life. And God bless it. Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.
So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning. I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training. One more long run and I‘d be done. All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon. But things had gone too well, and I wanted more. The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon. The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what. For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, just do that once. Save that unique joy for race day.
Like I said, I felt things had gone too well. So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them. What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake? If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right? Maybe easier.
It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet. Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin. And, frankly, good running weather too. Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat.
I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water. My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her. I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play.
The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles. The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years. As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely. Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I’m not quite sure why it mattered. For example:
“This is the flag of the Prooshi- 11
ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of 12
the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang 13
the flag of the Prooshious.?”
This is Derek’s sullen resignation.
But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and…
Not as bad as I thought. Somehow, easier? Easier even than a narrative book? I’ll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip. Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it. Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background. But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better. And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle.
Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music. Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth. I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man. But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping. Run on.
In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all. Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings. Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics. Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book. Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers. On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation. I could not be expected to figure it out. And to be clear, I didn’t. No place for concordance here. No strings or scaffolding.
Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin. People had a lot of sex. People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk. At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors. I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages. Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not. I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes. Not even a judging glance.
And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary. First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake. And did I hear Dedalus? Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar. But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race. Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful. And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign. Hard not to flash on that.
Exactly halfway through, a pub. “Stop,” the sirens wail.
Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that. I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995. So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer. The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both — just align my reactions with yours, and read on). All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil. So deep in, but almost home. Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words.
And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started. With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away? But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real. So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and
done. and stop this Irish mumbling, phone. I want my brain back. Just a block or two to the door. My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon. And there was leftover pizza as well. And there, my door, my house. Home.
I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad. My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And that was last year. I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast. My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through. They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year. As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend. I ran the first with a friend. I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake. My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years. And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off.
Image Credit: Flickr/daniMU.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia