During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.
Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.
1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.
There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)
2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.
Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)
I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.
3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.
P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.
Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.
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The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on Pandora.com, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.”
Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption — anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.
At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall.
When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests.
“There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour.
New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics — too distracting — but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.”
The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on Audible.com in September as an audio book — it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.”
What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel.
While Audible.com senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.”
By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says.
Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.”
But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners.
Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.”
Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey
This past weekend, Haruki Murakami appeared at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium for a reading of his short stories and a wide-ranging conversation about his work and life. Despite my disappointment with his recent work, Murakami ranks as one of my favorite writers, and it was a pleasure to finally see the notoriously shy writer in person.Zellerbach is a big venue, at least 800 seats, and in an age when lit pundits constantly bemoan the future of literature, I was surprised when I attempted to buy tickets several weeks ago only to find they were sold out. Thanks to the timely intervention of a friend, however, I managed to get a decent seat in the mezzanine, and spent two and a half enjoyable hours laughing along with the capacity crowd at Murakami’s understated humor.During the first part of the program, Murakami read “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” (from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) The story, written in the early stages of his career, is a parable about the Japanese literary world and its reception of his first novel. In classic Murakami style, the story follows a Japanese everyman whose seemingly normal life descends into the bizarre. In this case, after responding to a newspaper ad, he finds himself baking cakes for a competition that is judged by cannibalistic crows. The story, in turns hilarious and gruesome, received a warm reception from the audience, with several people, strangely, even laughing at the grim denouement.”Sharpie Cakes” was followed by a fascinating discussion on writing between Murakami and Roland Kelts, a writer and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, and questions from the audience. The conversation ranged from Murakami’s obsession with jogging to Carl Jung, hitting most of the stops in between, including hints about his newest novel. Some of the highlights (in no particular order and paraphrased in places):On Reader’s Questions: Apparently Murakami actually answers all of his fan mail personally. “I like stupid questions. A guy sent me an email about squid. He asked ‘are their tentacles hands or feet?’ I told him he should give a squid ten pairs of gloves and ten pairs of socks and see what happens.”On Inspiration: “I’m observing things, not making them up… I’m not nationalist, I don’t write for my country, but for my people… I don’t think with my brain. I like my keyboard. I think with my fingers. When I write, it’s just a simple joy… I can write about torture, about skinning someone alive. But it’s still heartwarming…”On his obsessions: “Elephants, sofas, refrigerators, wells, cats, ears. These things help me to write.”On video games: “Writing a story for me is just like playing a video game. I start with a word or idea, then I stick out my hand to catch what’s coming next. I’m a player, and at the same time, I’m a programmer. It’s kind of like playing chess by yourself. When you’re the white player, you don’t think about the black player. It’s possible, but it’s hard. It’s kind of schizophrenic.”On dreams: “I don’t dream. I use my dreams when I write. I dream when I’m awake. That’s the job of a novelist. You can dream a dream intentionally. When you’re sleeping and you have a nice dream, you’re eating or with a woman, you might wake up at the best part. I get to keep dreaming. It’s great.”On his next novel: He finished it last week. Apparently, it’s going to be a doorstop. “I hope you’re not a commuter… The new novel is in the third person, from beginning to end. I need that room, because the story is getting more complicated. I need many perspectives.”On translations of his own work: “I’m a translator myself. I believe in my translations. If the story is strong enough, it will be translated rightly. I’m a novelist, not a linguist. If the story’s good, it will move you. That’s the important thing. It’s embarrassing for me to read my own work in Japanese. I enjoy the translations of my novels in English, because it’s not what I wrote. I forget what I wrote, and I turn the pages, excited to find out what will happen next.”On Catcher in the Rye (which he translated several years ago): “It’s a dark story, very disturbing. I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed, when I was young. J.D. Salinger has a big obsession, three times bigger than mine. That’s why I’m here tonight, and he isn’t.”On Revision: “The first draft is most important. I have to go through and adjust small things, contradictions. When I stared writing The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I wrote for an hour, and immediately I felt something was wrong. There was too much going on, so I pulled out that part of the story and wrote another book, South of the Border, West of the Sun.”On his favorite music: “I listen to classical music in the morning, jazz in the evening. I listen to rock when I’m driving. I like Radiohead (big round of applause). I like REM, Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thome Yorke is a reader of mine. He’s in Tokyo now, and he wanted to meet me, but I had to be here. It’s a huge sacrifice for me… I sing “Yellow Submarine” while I swim. It’s sounds like bubbling. It’s great. I recommend you try it… I loved the Beach Boys when I was younger. I met Brian Wilson when he came to Tokyo. He’s strange.”On Berkeley: “Something’s wrong with this town.”Bonus Link: A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973
Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.