Riddley Walker, Expanded Edition

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A Year in Reading: Max Porter

A combination of factors (leaving my editorial job, a new book out, traveling a lot, being sent a great many books, small children, existential crises, moral panics, a cold office, bad knees, a guilt complex) means the structure of my reading life has crumbled. I’m all over the place. Undisciplined. Books everywhere. Books about ecological disaster sitting next to old copies of Asterix. Mad panic that I might not have time to read Pantagruel again so I’m hiding in the toilet reading Pantagruel while I should be getting my kids ready for school. It feels strange to read books. But we are reliably informed that it always did.

Most of my reading these days is about animism, paganism, druidism, and trees. Treeism? Some of this is research, but mostly it’s philosophical escapism. I’m searching for something. My second novel got a review from a right wing paper that said ‘Porter goes full hippy” and I took it as permission to do just that. If not now, then when?

For a book I want to write, I’ve been researching medieval life, art, and medicine. Highlights include Towards a Global Middle Ages by Bryan C. Keene (especially Eyob Derillo’s amazing work on Ethiopian amulet scrolls), Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell, and the British Library catalogue Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

I would have been lost this year (as any other) without poetry to cling to and travel with. If I had to choose a single book of the year it would be Jay Bernard’s Surge. It is an extraordinary artistic and political achievement and one of the most important British books of the last decade.

Other highlights have been Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland, Rebecca Tamás’s Witch, Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost, Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason, and Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities.

There is also a shockingly fresh, invigorating, boasty-bright new translation of the Welsh epic Taliesin, by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. It bubbles, swoons, and swaggers as if Alice Oswald wrote it yesterday. I’ve kept it by my bed in the hope I dream of “Nettle flowers from the ninth wave’s water…conjured by Math.”  

I have spent a lot of time rereading Julia Blackburn’s Time Song, Richard Holloway’s On Forgiveness, and Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye. These books have given me clarity and inspiration this year. I also reread Riddley Walker for discussion with the great Backlisted Podcast, and holy shit it’s still the absolute best.  

I read some classics including Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, which cut through everything else around it like a very sharp knife. What a powerful book. This was also the year I first read Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass, After London by Richard Jeffries, The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, and Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls.

The work in translation I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is the Tilted Axis series of pamphlets Translating Feminisms. Extraordinary Nepali, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tamil poetry, with introductory essays by the translators that make visible and examine the political machinations of translation. Radical, stylish, important, and invigorating publishing.

Three really, really good new American novels from my old pals at Granta Books knocked my socks off: Jenny Offill’s Weather, Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game, and Ben Lerner’s Topeka School. The disconnect between these visionary, elegant, sophisticated literary endeavors and the burger-vomit death-cabaret is…well I don’t know what it is. It’s simultaneously wildly bizarre and heartbreakingly mundane.

In British nonfiction I’m grateful to Nathan Filer’s This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health (formerly titled The Heartland), because it did. Johny Pitts’s Afropean and Mariam Khan’s It’s Not About the Burqua both do a lot to expand, revise, and interrogate the ideas we have of one another in the U.K., and counter some of the entrenched bigotry and pernicious ignorance that shapes so much of the discourse on our small racist island.

Samantha Harvey’s forthcoming book on insomnia is incredibly good. As is Mark O’Connell’s forthcoming book on the end of the world.

The graphic novel I am most excited about is Anders Nilsen’s visionary work-in-progress Tongues. I read the first three parts this year and I eagerly await the next. It’s just…staggering. Utterly fucking insane. So beautiful and so strange. He is a genius.

Lastly, John Burningham died this year. I grew up with his books. They’ve been a constant presence in my children’s lives. They’ve been in our dreams and in our language. His clouds, his animals, his strange domestic spaces, his weird anguished faces and bruised mottled landscapes. I love his books very, very much.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Curiosities: Raw Power

RSVP: We’ve already had several RSVPs for our NYC indie bookstore walking tour. Get all the details via our announcement post.People are still adding to our collaborative literary Atlas. Recent additions include several non-bookstore literary spots in the Midwest, including the Kate Chopin House and the final resting place of William S. Burroughs. The Atlas itself has been viewed over 100,000 times.Panelists at the SXSW “New Think for Old Media” panel face death by a thousand Tweets.Also via Freebird: Iggy Pop explores Michel Houellebecq’s raw power.Mark Grief and Year in Reading contributor Wells Tower give far-ranging interviews in a new online journal, Wag’s ReviewHanif Kureishi discusses life after the Rushdie fatwa.A bibliography of coffee.The editor of John Updike’s book reviews remembers the writer: “he was attentive to everything.”Cathleen Schine admires Zoe Heller’s The Believers.The Village Voice praises Mary Gaitskill’s “ludicrous mastery.”In two long posts, Blographia Literaria offers a thoughtful alternative to our take on The Kindly OnesBen Okri pioneers the Twitter poem.Two books named Brooklyn enter, one book named Brooklyn leaves. (via)Tucker Carlson sounds a dissenting note on Jon Stewart in the wake of the Jim Cramer takedown.Levi Asher and Scott Esposito discuss litblog economics.At The Second Pass, Jon Fasman calls readers’ attention to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, echoing John Wray’s Year in Reading contention that “Sometimes, though, a work of originality and genius slips inexplicably through the cracks.”Wray’s Lowboy, meanwhile, got the James Wood treatment at the New Yorker this week.

A Year in Reading: John Wray

John Wray is the author of the novels The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Whiting Award in fiction, he was recently named one of Granta magazine’s twenty best American novelists under thirty-five. His new novel, Lowboy, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this coming March.Most of the time, when a novel is forgotten, literary justice has been served: it’s atrociously written, or its attitudes have aged badly, or it’s simply a lesser imitation of a book that made the cut. Sometimes, though, a work of originality and genius slips inexplicably through the cracks, and it’s in search of these lost treasures – ‘black pearls’, as my friend Bill, an antiquarian book dealer, calls them – that poor sods like me spend their days in second-hand bookshops, blowing dust off of sun-bleached spines and flipping doggedly through voided library paperbacks we’ve never even heard of. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is a black pearl if there ever was one. Set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed, and written in a kind of radioactive pidgin that heightens both the absurdity and horror of the world it describes, the novel tells the story of the uneasy friendship between two adolescent boys – one a normal teenager, one a clairvoyant mutant – who happen, more or less by accident, on the secret of the atomic bomb. I won’t say more than that, but trust me, it’s a humdinger. In the words of Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange is one of the only novels Riddley Walker owes a debt to: “This is what literature was meant to be – exploration without fear.”More from A Year in Reading 2008

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