At some point in the middle of this year, I began worrying that my education was wearing off. Not that I was getting stupider, exactly, but that in the years-long absence of coursework, my reading was becoming less rigorous and my choices more predictable, too much in thrall to whatever was on the literary radar.
At the same time, I began experiencing serious anxiety for the first time in my life. I know what you might be thinking: These things are probably not unrelated. Indeed, I generally began to visualize lots of worst-case scenarios, hoping, I guess, that I’d be allowed to prepare for them if I was smart enough to imagine them.
One preparation (this, for death; no big deal) has been to download an app called WeCroak, which periodically sends me a push alert that says “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” and then encourages me to click into the app to get a melancholy quote. The quotes can be wishy-washy, but they’re often quite good; the best one so far was from a Muriel Spark novel called Memento Mori—which I also happened to read this year—in which a mysterious stranger keeps calling up London’s elderly and telling them, “Remember, you must die.”
The app’s full quote speaks to my desire to anticipate problems early and often: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.”
This would be grim, except that it’s true. Remembering the inevitability of death a little bit every day instead of all at once, at the end, seems to take the pressure off. And similarly, reading with greater variety all through the year helps me feel less dumb at Christmas.
In pursuit of this, I’ve been reaching for writers like Spark, like Iris Murdoch, like Joy Williams and Karen Tei Yamashita, who invite the bizarre and the morbid into their work with a welcoming hand. While traveling in France, I read two Murdoch novels: A Severed Head and The Bell, both of which made me laugh out loud on the train, while simultaneously giving me an existential stomach ache. They are the ordinary world, stitched through with dark thread; reality, slapped on the stinging ass. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to tilt the other way, depicting a world boiling over with pestilence, through which a joyful note nonetheless continues to sound.
As for Joy Williams, I read The Quick and the Dead in a series of bubble baths in the month when I was recovering from surgery, and I wouldn’t mind doing so every year, even if it meant an annual slice of the knife. (I’m almost being sincere about this. Joy Williams is a flavor that pairs well with trauma.)
I had a book come out this year, too—which might account for the anxiety—and as a result I couldn’t help also reading a bunch of new work; not only because the writers belonged to my publishing cohort (if you will) (will you?), but also because they were exciting and excellent. Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy, Danielle Lazarin’s collection Back Talk, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Rebecca Kauffman’s The Gunners, Alice Hatcher’s The Wonder That Was Ours (which uses collective consciousness in a way I’ve never seen before), Laura van den Berg’s outstanding, protracted fever dream The Third Hotel. Back-to-back, I read Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and the fact that I have not yet reconciled my own conflicting desires in the arena of procreation can, at least, not be blamed on them.
Speaking of nonfiction, Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else is a collection of essays that engages so openly—lovingly, pugnaciously—with its own ideas that it filled me with professional envy. You can be metatextual with an essay in a way that’s not so easy in fiction, taking a concept and interrogating the fact that it occurred to you, without sounding obnoxious or twee. A fictional narrator can theoretically do the same, but because that narrator is invented, there’s always an added layer of ironic remove between them and the reader. Shelley Jackson’s novel Riddance perhaps comes close to bridging the gap, forcing its ideas about ghosts, mortality, and the nature of inquiry through the sieve of the body and all of its orifices. It perseveres, framing and re-framing its question through the mouth, through the voice, through the ear, through the land of the dead and the concept of child endangerment. It’s pretty wild.
Moving on: Books I’ve loved this year that actually come out next year include Erika Swyler’s Light from Other Stars, which gave me the same feeling I had at 11 or 12, watching Contact for the first time: an un-cynical joy and wonder; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was rightly pitched as Veronica Mars at a school for magicians (!); Kat Howard’s collection Cathedral of Myth and Bone, which guided me through stressful periods in the fall with the nudging reminder that the fantastic is in our DNA, in stories if not in actual fact; and Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which is searing, cunning, redemptive, perfect.
I’m a bit stunned that, given our current cultural penchant for autofiction (see: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which I read and adored) more Americans didn’t read the 2017 translation of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, which is spooky and intimate, not to mention clever as hell. French Exit by Patrick deWitt is like contemporary P.G. Wodehouse except sadder and with better swears (the fucked witch!). The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman is a book of ideas (what does it mean to shape the narrative of your ambition? What do you owe to your sources of inspiration? Was Nabokov a dick?) and a thrilling true crime story. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson is about murder, and it made me feel dark and content at a time when I was previously just feeling dark. Daphne du Maurier will never bore me.
Finally, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was the first book I read this year, sitting on my couch with a yard of gauze in my ear, unable to turn my head. It tells the story of a curse that runs through generations of men and women, manifesting both subtly—bad choices, bad luck—and vibrantly—full-body possession!—as people just try to live their fucking lives. Many, many worst case scenarios, and yet it filled me up with hope.
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Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.