Welcome to the 19th installment of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series! YIR gathers together some of today's most exciting writers, thinkers, and tastemakers to share the books that shaped their year. What makes the series special is that it celebrates the subjectivity of reading: where yearend best-of lists pass off their value judgement as definitive, YIR essayists take a more phenomenological tact, focusing instead on capturing the experience of the books they read. (I'm not particularly interested in handing down a decision on "The 10 Best Books of 2023," and neither are this year's contributors.) This, of course, makes for great, probing essays—in writing about our reading lives, we inevitably write about our inner lives. YIR contributors were encouraged approach the assignment—to reflect on the books they read this year, an intentionally vague prompt—however they wanted, and many did so with dazzling creativity. One contributor, a former writer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged her essay like an art gallery, with each book she read assigned a museum wall label. Another, whose work revolves around revolutionary and utopian movements in history, organized her year by the long-defunct French Revolutionary calendar. Some opted to write personal narratives, while others embraced the listicle format. Some divided up their reading between work and pleasure; for others, the two blended together (as is often the case for those of us in the literary profession). The books that populate this year's essays also varied widely. Some contributors read with intention: one writer of nonfiction returned to reading fiction for the first time in 13 years; one poet decided to read only Black romance in the second half of 2023. For two new parents, their years in reading were defined by the many picture books that they read to their infants. There were, however, common threads. This year, contributors read one book more than any other: Catherine Lacey's novel Biography of X, which chronicles the life of a fictional artist against the backdrop of an alternate America. Also widely read and written about were Dan Sinykin's Big Fiction, an analysis of the conglomeration of the publishing industry, and the works of Annie Ernaux (a star of last year's YIR as well). I'm profoundly grateful for the generosity of this year's contributors, the names of whom will be revealed below as entries are published throughout the month, concluding on Thursday, December 21. Be sure to bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date. —Sophia Stewart, editor Emily Wilson, classicist and translator of The IliadVauhini Vara, author of This Is SalvagedJenn Shapland, author of Thin SkinDamion Searls, writer and translator from German, Norwegian, French, and DutchLaToya Watkins, author of Holler, ChildIsle McElroy, author of People Collide
The "staff picks" shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own "Staff Picks" in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn't need my staff pick (I'm sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she's a contender for this year's Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, "Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?" So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book's language put a charge through me - I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom's Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between "she," the unnamed adulteress, and "you," the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two's web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom's language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife's ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle's The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he's good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren't new to him - his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn't taken before - but it's a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn't wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem's crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt's unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long - somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a "crisp and perspicuous" account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: "The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit." And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt's book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy's mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI'm not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed "ahistorical fantasia" (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here's the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here's the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli's pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author's peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the "debonair" voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn't work, but it does: "And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow." Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn't that about sum it up?) I'm torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like "Barbados" and "The Bush Administration." Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?