The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)

But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)

Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.

I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.

Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.

I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.

The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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A Year in Reading: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

This year was unlike any other year in my life, to put it mildly. I was lucky enough that people wanted me to travel to their cities and talk about my book (and, I’m sorry to say, myself) for the better part of this year. Friends, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more soul-deadening than talking about yourself for weeks and months on end — or talking about a book that lives in amber, while your brain (ideally) does not. Grateful as I was for every last opportunity, the lack of a normal routine or schedule was upending in every way. For much of the year, I worried I’d lost the power (or will) to do any of the things that I knew would make me feel more like pre-publication me: read for pleasure; cook a proper meal; sleep peacefully; put in an honest day writing; exercise; pretend to meditate. All of my non-work reading this year was an effort to remind myself of my stay-at-home, solitary self. Although I have an e-reader for travel, I found I wanted physical books more than ever. I needed ballast but couldn’t afford too much extra weight. I needed slender volumes I could tuck into a purse or a coat pocket and take out during a flight delay, a train ride, or while having many a solo drink in many a hotel bar. Some on this list are old favorites I grabbed on impulse as I was leaving the house; some I acquired along the way. All have one thing in common — they are light in weight, but not in substance. So, in no particular order, here are some of the books I carried in 2016.

John Berger’s About Looking and Susan Sontag’s On Photography I reread for a project that might not live but who cares when the reading is that great. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety also belongs on that pile. I don’t think I’ve had a nonfiction book recommended to me more by so many fiction writers than Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I loved as much as the rest of the non-physicist world. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City was an excellent reminder to turn off HGTV (Dear Ladies of Say Yes to the Dress, if an item of clothing moves you to tears you need to get out in the greater world a little more) and leave my hotel room and walk, walk, walk no matter where I was. One of my favorite literary magazines is One Story, perfectly pocket-sized, and I always had a few with me, old and new. Somewhere (Seattle? Portland?) I picked up Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection The Unspeakable. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen went into the bag after Wimbledon, specifically so I could reread the Serena Williams parts, but of course I reread all of it. Missing Elena Ferrante, I packed what might be my favorite, if forced to commit at gunpoint, The Days of Abandonment. How have I never read The Lover by Marguerite Duras? An embarrassing confession, but I was so happy to have it with me as I waited out weather in some airport somewhere only to be told later that flights were grounded because Air Force One was landing; my irritation at that political inconvenience feels laughably (tragically?) quaint now. At the Mississippi Book Festival, I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time (after the powerful panel of the same name) and devoured both. My well-thumbed copy of Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing lived in my carry-on for a few months because I never get tired of dipping in. On a train ride from Paris to Frankfurt, I read the beautiful and devastating The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. An advance copy of the always great Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams and Other Stories fit my page requirement. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different did not, but I packed it anyway because I didn’t want to wait. On a muggy, rainy afternoon in Cincinnati, I popped into a bookstore and am so grateful I bought Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I woke up in Germany on November 9th to discover the unthinkable had actually happened and was too busy — and too rattled — for most of that trip to read anything but election news when I could get the Internet to cooperate. But the following week in Barcelona, I pulled from my suitcase Eric Puchner’s new story collection Last Day on Earth. The book is out in February and it’s marvelous. What a relief to be reminded of the vital importance of books when it feels like the world around is crumbling. Worth remembering as we stumble together into 2017.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

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

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