The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

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Mirror, Mirror: On the Nature of Literature

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror     —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms.     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you 
what you’re looking for.       —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
1.
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.

Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:

They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)


 In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
2.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?

In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.

I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”


3.
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.     

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says: 

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.

I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth.  To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.

A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

My 2018 experience, perhaps like everyone else, is much swamped with all sorts of political news that keeps me in dread and panic. As a result, my reading life is divided into three categories: (1.) I consult history-related books to try to understand our current age; (2.) I read fiction works that match my ambition to live a big life and write a big book; (3.) I translate essay collections from English to Chinese for work. The following three books are the most impressive one in each category:

1. The World of Yesterday
It feels very strange and even terrifying to find every line in this masterly memoir of the 20th century resonating. Stefan Zweig described his childhood as the age of scientific accomplishments—the invention of electric light, telephone, and train—and recalled a unanimous belief that men would eventually vanquish “the last vestige of evil and violence.” From his portrait I felt as if I’d seen my childhood in the Age of Information again—the arrival of personal computers and Internet made us believe that all borders could be trespassed and that the spirit of democracy would soon triumph. But now, seeing the growing dark side of social media and Internet in general, I realize that I too was being naïve.

Zweig quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in his last chapter: “The sun of Rome is set. Our/ day is gone. / Clouds, dews, and dangers come;/ our deeds are done.” I read it with great sadness, but I try to remind myself that even at the night of humanism, we still have our own inner light to illuminate at least the path ahead of us.

2. The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer, has received much critical acclaim, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Reading such a profound and beautiful book, everyone can have very different takeaways. As a fiction writer, I am amazed by how Nguyen can make so many contrasts and contradictions all fit extraordinarily well together in this spy novel: the protagonist’s confession is grandiloquent and yet genuine, the narrative voice has a character but not a name, the conventional idea of fraternity and kinship is challenged and yet confirmed. Any summary or depiction would only narrow the scope of this great work. It is the book about the size of our large, chaotic contemporary world.

3. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
I have spent my first post-workshop year translating Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners into Chinese for Shanghai Translation Publishing House. This towering canonical American author has refreshed my thoughts on the nature and aim of fiction. Fiction, as she put it in a Catholic way, is about mystery incarnated in specific and concrete characters. O’Connor, in her time, needed to confront the general readers’ demand that novels should demonstrate a “positive image” of a social group, i.e. the South, the Catholics. As a writer in a second language, I am facing the same demand that my China stories should only show the bright side of my country. O’Connor’s response is not only refreshing but also encouraging to me: fiction writers need to show what it is rather than what it should be; the latter means that we have closed our own eyes on the real world.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Nine Modern Literary Letter Collections for the Curious Reader

The emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer will soon be forgotten, while other correspondence is here to stay. Let’s go back to the days where writing letters was more about cultivating confidants and friendships, and less obviously a media stunt. Reading someone’s letters give us a glimpse into their private life — that’s why we love them. If you ever wondered what some of your favorite modern writers were composing when they weren’t polishing drafts of books that would go on to change the world, check out this list.

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
Truman Capote was notoriously meticulous in his professional work, but his letters were quite the opposite. Sometimes scribbled in a mad five minutes, or written without a second thought to the whiplash of emotion within their lines, Capote wrote as though he were always leaning to whisper in your ear. His correspondence could rarely be classified as “cold,” even when making a professional request, such as writing to Elizabeth Ames — then in charge at Yaddo — on behalf of a young writer named Patricia Highsmith, whose work Capote thought held real talent (Highsmith was later accepted to Yaddo, where she wrote part of her first novel, Strangers on a Train).

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, invites British author and OBE recipient Patrick Leigh Fermor to her royal home, a visit that sparks a half-century of friendship and scintillating correspondence. When they began to write each other in the early 1950s, Fermor had secured his reputation as a respected author, but Mitford admittedly could never bring herself to read his books, claiming to not be much of a reader. But Mitford undersells herself: their exchange is sophisticated, witty, and often full of energy and a lyrical beauty while indirectly documenting cultural and societal milestones. This collection features an impressive list of cameo “appearances,” including Evelyn Waugh, Fred Astaire, and John F. Kennedy.

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
Zora Neale Hurston became a prominent literary figure after the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Hurston wrote much more than she published during her lifetime, and at her passing, her estate contained numerous story manuscripts, essays, plays, and more. This collection of approximately 600 letters, written to various individuals including fellow writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, is a beautiful reflection upon Hurston’s life, the challenges she faced, and the doors she opened for others.

Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
For anyone who is even a minor fan of Flannery O’Connor, this collection is a great glimpse into the author’s very human side. Humorous, angry, arrogant, curious: the many different facets of Flannery O’Connor are revealed here. What readers may find most intriguing are some of the (300) letters exchanged between “Betty” Hester and O’Connor, whose intellectual exchanges provided the foundations of a powerful epistolary friendship for the recluse Hester, and whose letters were sealed for 20 years before they could be released in part here.

Thinking of Home: William Faulkner’s Letters to his Mother and Father
William Faulkner’s infamous complexity shifts to a softer side in his correspondence with his parents. These letters show a different personality that only a few people rarely observed. In the letters compiled during the short window of 1918 to 1925, we are given a glimpse of Faulkner’s life until he returned home to study at the University of Mississippi, including details from his travels to New Haven, New York, Paris, and New Orleans. During his stint with the Canadian flyers of the Royal Air Force, Faulkner mused about his training and war itself. His sense of longing for his home and family in Oxford, Miss., gives us the biggest glimpses into the heart of who Faulkner was as a young man forming the writer he would become.

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
For lovers of music and literature, this collection belongs on the shelf. When American literary and jazz critic Albert Murray and author Ralph Ellison began their correspondence in 1950, Ellis was in New York City and Murray was in Alabama. Their letters are surprisingly funny, full of anecdotes and opinions on pretty much everything: from their families to contemporary writers to musical greats to the advancements of African Americans over the decades. Their admiration for each other is made clear, as Ellison writes: “You’re the only one I really write to and, other than a wild, Russian chick of a girl whose now in the states and who wouldn’t write home for eating change, my only friend.” The writers’ friendship lasted until Ellison’s death in 1994, but this curated set of letters are pulled from 1950 to 60.

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975
In this collection, we climb into two of the 20th century’s greatest minds — minds that were in proximity to some of the most important people and events of the times. Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher and political scientist shared an enviable friendship that spanned continents with Mary McCarthy, an American novelist and literary critic. Both women were members of the Partisan Review and spent much time discussing Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. The collection is notably unbalanced, with twice as many letters written by Arendt. Their letters contained not only gossip and relationship details (many concerning McCarthy’s four marriages) but also lively discussions of literature, the reach of fascism, and individual morality and common sense. Their friendship wasn’t without its snags, such as when McCarthy admitted her sympathy for Adolf Hitler — he seemed, she argued, to want the people of occupied France to like him –which offended Arendt, a German-born Jew, who had barely escaped Nazi clutches.

Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963
One of the most notable names in all of literature not only for her work but her death, these letters give a glimpse into a troubled, brilliant mind. What is striking about this collection is that the letters span 13 years of correspondence between Sylvia Plath and her mother. In these pages, readers will learn more about Plath’s college years; her relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the waxing and waning of her marriage to a man she considered her male counterpart; and the births of her children. There is an element of falsehood to the letters, a front Plath put forth to shield her mother from the depth of her personal struggles. The letters, released by her mother, could be seen as an attempt to rewrite the framework of Plath’s life as her mother would have us see it.

Letters From Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond
I recommend reading The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, but for those who want to dig deeper and immerse themselves in the mid-century Black radical experience, this collection is a gem. Hughes, a talented poet and one of the most important modern contributors to American literature, rose through his writing to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection spans 35 years, ending just before Hughes’s death in 1967, and weighs in at a whopping 440 pages. The correspondence between Hughes and his four best friends — Matt and Evelyn Crawford, and William and Louise Patterson — encapsulates what it’s like to grow up Black, leftist, resilient, and focused. It’s a blend of politics and art which may inspire others in our current political climate.

A Year in Reading: Margaret Eby

At the end of last year, my brain had been steeping in mid-century Southern literature as research for South Toward Home for so long that I resolved in 2015 to read mostly books that had come out in the past five years. That mostly worked out: this year had some real dazzlers in the bunch, the kind of books that I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was like that, as was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I read greedily one summer afternoon before immediately launching into her equally excellent Bluets. In mid-summer I was derailed from my resolution by the juicy, dreamy Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald, which sent me back into Flannery O’Connor’s sharp, insightful correspondence collection The Habit of Being, the kind of book that I’m always tempted to buy extra copies of so that I can pass them out to friends. This year I first read Percival Everett, thanks to his new collection, Half an Inch of Water, and went on a collect-them-all mission until I had a good five of his books teetering on my nightstand.

But one of the books that’s most stuck in my brain this year is Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins’s stunner of a debut novel. I read it in the unseasonal heat of early September, when her vision of a parched, overheated, waterless country seemed particularly close at hand, but I’ve found myself reaching for it in the cooler months too, to reread passages of Watkins’s semi-apocalyptic psycho-geography of the West. It’s a fascinating piece of work, bleak and weird and unafraid to question the assumptions of American mythology, and even be a little bored by the idea of a dystopian future. Plus, there’s a huge ever-moving sand dune. It’s pretty great.

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A Year in Reading: Vinson T. Cunningham

1.
I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.

We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.

During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.

I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.

Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.

I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.

I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.

Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)

And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.

(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)

At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.

As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.

2.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.

With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.

Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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