In June of 2016, I started a podcast with my friend Jesse called Fan’s Notes, about our two favorite topics of discussion: books and basketball. To date, we’ve recorded 58 episodes, a rate of about one book every two weeks. The project has been somewhat time-consuming, and extremely unlucrative, but it has been hugely rewarding in terms of reading. A quick scan through our list of published episodes in 2018 (the project comes in handy here as a kind of diary of my year’s reading) reminds me of many new favorites: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women among them.
As a fairly slow reader, the podcast has benefited—dictated, really—my reading list, I think to the benefit of my writing. Not just in terms of regularly discussing literature in a somewhat structured (if beer-accompanied) format, but also in terms of simply venturing a little beyond the confines of my usual taste. I would not otherwise, probably, have sat down and read straight through two collections of Borges, would have been content with my passing familiarity with the greatest hits: “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like most people, as much I intend to read new things, the attention-draining demands of life always make it easy to stick with what I’m confident will bring a good return on my reading time. That Patrick Melrose collection on the bookshelf, for example, is a constant familiar lure and pleasurable threat to experiencing novel novels.
Of all the excellent books the podcast introduced me to in 2018, none was more unexpected or exciting than Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I’d been vaguely aware of McCarthy as someone in the 20th-century literary landscape, had heard of The Group. But I’d never read her, and I’d never heard of this novel, her first, published in 1942. That this book was published 77 years ago, going on a century, is truly hard to believe—it is one of the most modern novels I’ve read in a long time, more modern than most modern novels.
The book’s political concerns are shockingly timely, somehow prefiguring #MeToo and DSA 80 years ahead of schedule. The Company She Keeps follows its protagonist, Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian Trotskyite, as she destroys her marriage, finds odd jobs to make ends meet, engages in a series of love affairs, and navigates the ’30s-era New York communist scene. Margaret’s sexual and political agency feel bracing, radical even by today’s standards. She is accorded the traditionally male prerogative to destroy and rebuild her life as she sees fit—to make, at times, foolish and selfish and self-destructive choices—without apology or justification.
The novel’s form, too, is unusual and daring. It comprises six long, sometimes novella-length chapters, stories all published independently in outlets like The Partisan Review. Despite being anchored by Margaret’s consciousness and concerns, the POV moves from third person to first to second. In one story, Margaret only appears halfway through and functions as the antagonist. McCarthy employs every possible vantage point to probe Margaret’s character—her principled bravery, her fears and anxieties, her generosity and snobbish prejudices—in a kind of dialectic analysis mirroring the Marxist and Freudian thought that dominated both the author and characters’ intellectual circles. As soon as Margaret believes a proposition about herself or the world to be true, something else proves it false, and the two truths must be synthesized in order to allow her to edge forward. Margaret’s mental landscape—and this is where the real action of the book takes place—is like an impossibly large mansion of locked rooms. Unlocking one door, she only finds herself trapped in another.
The book posits self-awareness as a kind of comic hell. In the memorable conclusion to “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the main character, Jim Barnett, a smug leftist (and avatar of white male privilege decades before that was a phrase in circulation) ruefully considers his extramarital fling with Margaret:
What did he regret, he asked himself. If he had to do it over again, he would make the same decision. What he yearned for, perhaps, was the possibility of a decision, the instant of a choice, when a man stands at a crossroads and knows he is free. Still, even that had been illusory. He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him. She had shown him the cage of his own his nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her, he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever, as Adam hates Eve.
Once the door to honest introspection is cracked, it cannot be closed again, can only be flung wider and wider as each confounding truth barges through. It turns out a little self-perception goes a long way, and a lot goes a little.
The comic, brutal irony of McCarthy’s narrative regard—toward Margaret and the motley cast of secondary characters—is what struck me initially as most bracingly modern about the novel. As I read on, however, I began to question this proposition. I’m not sure, in fact, how much patience modern readers would have for a narrative voice this unsparing, or a protagonist as flawed and vexing as Margaret Sargent. She is not, in the horrible modern formulation, relatable. She is not nice, and neither, to its credit, is The Company She Keeps. This is a book that pulls no punches—about art, politics, psychology, and human nature. This is a book that tells the truth because there’s something at stake, politically and personally, something that would be lost by any intellectual fudging or false comfort. In a period of such rank political and cultural dishonesty, we need books like this—now more than ever, I want to cornily say, though probably this has always been the case. There have probably never been enough books like this.
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The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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Like more conventional forms of romance, the first great literary love of my life began with a look. Young readers of Playboy have similar experiences, I believe, with centerfolds: a precise moment – the turning of a page to reveal a face (more likely a body) that haunts the young man for the rest of his days. In bars too, at high school dances, in college dining halls, in lecture classes and seminars such infatuations begin: a single glimpse of an unknown stranger prompts the festerings of fascination and desire. My literary romance began in the pages of A Book of Days for the Literary Year, between June 22nd and June 23rd:This picture, which still hangs above my desk, is Mary McCarthy’s Vassar senior portrait and from the first moment I saw it, I was in love. She was all the things I wanted to be: a writer, beautiful and serious, but also – or so she seemed to me – bright, frank, fearless, alluring. And she was also what I was then: a bit childlike and clean-scrubbed and, perhaps, a bit mischievous (I sense that still in the shadowed corner of her mouth). I have since discovered that McCarthy’s looks were a bit sharper than this picture reveals, and became more so in her 20s and 30s. There are also some ghastly pictures of her in later life (one of her on a panel with W.H. Auden comes to mind – the two look like finalists in a World’s Least Well-Preserved Person contest, and I think I remember McCarthy to be missing a tooth in this one). But in the Vassar portrait she is stunning. I gather from the number of men who fell under her spell (Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenburg, and Philip Rahv among them) that the beauty that won me was real.Is this strange? Or inappropriate? This enthralling first look, this discovery of one of the great literary loves of my life through a visceral, physical attraction to her? My affair ended in an intellectual and aesthetic admiration of McCarthy’s bracing, clean, meticulously observed prose and her total, sometimes aggressive, frankness about sex and everything else in How I Grew, The Group, The Groves of Academe, Cast a Cold Eye, The Company She Keeps, and Intellectual Memoirs. Her bravery (or was it brazenness?) held me rapt and abject even after the original power of the Vassar picture had been diluted somewhat by other, less flattering visions of her. The most famous McCarthy line of all time is one she tossed out about Lillian Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979. McCarthy had described Hellman as a dishonest writer and Cavett pressed her, “What is dishonest about Lillian Hellman?” McCarthy responded: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Hellman responded with a $2.5 million libel suit.) Not until I found Lord Rochester, Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade some years later would someone seem so awe-inspiringly self-assured and terrifyingly bold in thought and word.But the question of beauty remains. Susan Sontag, whom one might have expected to rise above the average woman’s hyper-consciousness of beauty, was by her own account, one of us: “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.” In Paradise Lost, the newly-created, unfallen Eve is more taken with her own reflection in a lake than she is with Adam. He is, by her own account,”less fair,/ less winning… than that smooth wat’ry image” of herself. When I started reading McCarthy, I didn’t just want to be able to write like she did, I wanted to be her. I wanted to be what she had been: beautiful, dazzlingly bright and self-certain. Her books were sacred how-to guides that might transform me (however silly or sinister the ladies at jezebel.com may have found the idea of intellectual memoirs as how-to books in Anne’s post last week). But it is laughable: Jon Stewart had a joke about the increasing sexiness and femaleness of cable news anchors – a segment called “News I’d Like to F#@k” and this approach to news-watching was, regrettably, similar to the way (in my too earnest and hopeful teendom) I approached McCarthy – with a confusion of hungers – for beauty, for intellectual acuity. I cannot tell which is which sometimes. I cannot subtract the beauty of the person (beauty I admire; a beauty I covet) from the disembodied voices of the written world. The materiality of the person clings to the writing, gives the words a captivating timbre that the plodding and mousy can never achieve.I remember reading reviews of Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and none of the reviewers seemed capable of talking about the book itself (The Secret History, Redux? – I guess, I have not read it) without first invoking Pessl’s beauty, or other reviewers’ fascination with her beauty, which was the same thing. I do not think that I am alone in my weakness – “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant” I may be – dilettantish, even (as you already know) – but not alone. Perhaps there are earnest and just readers out there who are not drawn in and repulsed so erratically as I am: people who plod dutifully and methodically through expansive reading lists of canonized authors (perhaps they go further – and read chronologically and boy-girl-boy-girl as well!), immune to the charms of such as these. But to belittle the powers of beauty and charm – and the irrational more generally – is not to escape it, and I do not try.Patricia HighsmithAnna Akhmatova, 1924.Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, 1956, Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.Assia Wevill, poet and second wife of Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in 1969, as Plath had before her, but killed her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: New, Used, or Antequarian?Edan: My preference is for new books – to me, reading someone’s yellowed copy of Pride and Prejudice feels too much like wearing that same someone’s stinky sneakers. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can never drum up the same kind of lust for the used as I can for the new. This might have its origins in childhood trips to Children’s Book World in West L.A. where I went to attack L.M. Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, or to get the latest installment of the Babysitter’s Club series. My appreciation for the new became part of my job at Book Soup; there I spent a lot of time stacking smooth hardcovers and shiny paperbacks, and oohing and aahing over what the receiver unpacked next. Even now I can’t help but fix displays at my local bookstore – it’s just too pleasurable to handle all those new novels.For me, buying a new book is an event, and after a day or two of reading, I write my name, and the month and year, on the book’s inside cover. I rarely get rid of the new books I buy; the connection is too deep. I love starting with a stiff and shy paperback, and ending with something dog eared, scribbled on, and creased – in that process, the book becomes read, and becomes mine.Andrew: I know I’ve been in a good used-book shop if, upon leaving, I begin to muse what it would be like to quit my job, buy the shop in question, and become Andrew Saikali, bookseller, Esq. Then reality usually sets in, and I forget this fanciful notion.Second-hand book shops are like an extended version of my den – they are what it would resemble if I had the resources. So, for me, because of the experience of buying used, coupled with the cost-savings, second-hand books trump even the shiniest new books. That said, on occasion I’ll comb the city looking for a just-released title, price be damned. (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles was a case in point.)While I admire antiquarian books – taunting me as they do from their snobby little perch behind the glass, behind lock and key – I’ve always resisted the temptation to splurge. However, if anyone wishes to initiate me into the rarified world behind that glass, my birthday is in April. You’ve missed this year’s, but you can begin to think about next year’s. I also like imported wine and fine chocolate.Kevin: I don’t know if the problem is with me or with used book stores, but either way, the relationship always ends in disappointment. I want to like used book stores, to see them as little pockets of virtue in the miles and miles of new, shiny waste sold by other stores on the block. I want to admire the shy, balding hippy who runs the place, and his quiet young apprentice, who volunteers five hours a week for unlimited free trade-ins. In my first year in every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve made the rounds of the local used bookstores. Usually my initial trip is also my last. My latest such dalliance was with two places down in Old City Philadelphia. Not wanting to leaving empty handed, I walked out with a frayed history of colonialism in Latin America and a collection of Vonnegut short stories. Both are sitting just where I left them when I came home, in a stack at the foot of my bed. One problem with big chain bookstores, I suppose, is the way they press books upon you, with table displays and prominent shelf placements. It’s hard to discern value that way, too, as hard as it is to determine the same among the undifferentiated clutter of most used book stores. That’s why, all in all, I prefer hand-me-downs from friends, and the library.Emre: I find it hard not to get new, crisp books. There is a certain delight in slowly molding a novel’s spine until the covers bend for a comfortable one-hand-hold read. And, they smell good. That said, I prefer used books when reading not-so-recently published works. I appreciate three qualities in used books: artwork and fonts from a different era, notes by various previous owners (I enjoy the conversation regardless of whether we agree or not) and the randomness that often characterizes how I get them. So far they have – through friends, hole-in-the-wall bookstores or sidewalk vendors – introduced me to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. As for collecting and caring for vintage books, I got nothing. Some sort of book karma seems to be recycling everything that passes through my hands.Emily: Although I love a good rare books room (nothing like the feel of vellum and a little paleographic challenge), I don’t own anything much that’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I do own a first edition of Mary McCarthy’s first novel The Company She Keeps, but that wasn’t more than fifty dollars. No, the most expensive book in my collection, coming in at a whopping $92 plus shipping, is (try to contain your jealousy) the out-of-print Life, Letters, and Philosophical Regime of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand (1900). It’s a discharged copy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and falling apart in spite of the fact that quite a few of the pages were uncut when it arrived. This purchase was practical: The Stanford library didn’t have a copy and since I didn’t make it to see the manuscript version of Shaftesbury’s regimen at the National Archives in London, this was the most expedient solution. In general, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to books. My most recent acquisition, for example, was a copy of La Princesse de Cleve (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, considered by some literary historians to be the first European novel. And that was free! (The only treasure in box of books left outside a used bookstore after hours.) Probably my best “find” after a copy of Colley Cibber’s classic (and then, perhaps still, out of print) early eighteenth century play The Careless Husband that I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope.Max: All three types of books speak to me. I blossomed as a reader thanks to used bookstores in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, where the books were cheap and I could easily compile the oeuvre of whoever I was obsessed with at the moment, Vonnegut or John Irving or Hemingway. But I’ve soured a bit on used books because too often used bookstores are hobbies of hoarders and impossible to navigate, or they are too polished and expensive. I will always love, however, the pocket paperbacks of the 50s to the 70s. I love the cover designs across those eras and I love being able to have a book with me, quite literally in my pocket, without having to schlep it awkwardly under my arm.But new books are in most cases better. I find them incredibly tempting with their shiny covers and crisp pages, though, as noted, I do get a bit weary of lugging hardcovers. As for the antiquarian books, I sometimes fancy the idea that it might be fun to be a book collector, but I know I do not have the temperament for it. I cannot see books as objects in that way, and, with the few books of value I have accumulated over the years, I fret about what I am supposed to do with them… sell them? Lock them in a safe? They sit in a box so that they won’t get wrecked. And that’s no place for books to be.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: Used, new, or antiquarian?