I’m in the middle of Wuthering Heights as I write this, anxiously anticipating the greatest scene in all of English literature. You know the one. As I pass through what might be my fourth or fifth visit at the Heights, I wonder if it’s Emily or Charlotte I admire most. But then they’re both so wonderful. I can’t decide. My apologies to Anne whom I’ve yet to read. Thank god for these sisters though and their world to which I can escape the pre-apocalyptic nightmare of 2019.
Never one to shy from the cheerful thought of possible extinction, this year I slowly meandered through The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, whom my best friend tells me writes great articles at The New Yorker, though I never read them because I find New Yorker articles far too long for my Twitter-addicted eyeballs, except for the one about sound being “permanently” recorded with sand. On every page of The Sixth Extinction is some criminally ignored fact—or warning—about the threat to humanity’s future on this planet. At the outset of the book, we’re introduced to a spore that is rapidly killing off the world’s frogs. Can you imagine a world without frogs? Or even less of them? What is the night without a symphony of croaks? I want to ask that to everyone. The threats to civilization pile high. The end is coming. I want to run down the street screaming this at people. A desire so fiery I couldn’t even keep a lid on it for this Year In Reading list. Dark days ahead my friends.
The salve for this existential worry is sometimes writing, poetry, big-time novels like Prey by Michael Crichton, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, all of which I giddily consumed in bed in the dark on my kindle—my third such device after the first was broken on a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Mexico and the second was left in the backseat pocket on a flight from London to San Francisco.
But if I’m being totally honest, and if the editors of The Millions allow me, the greatest salve is The Relentless Picnic podcast. Obviously, a podcast won’t count as reading per se, but let me defend this. The three Picnickers are voracious and erudite readers, often sustaining two hours of discussion with recitations from philosophical treatises, strips of poems, incantations etched into the underbelly of pine bark. You’re their greatest friend, but also a humble receiver of what I imagine is like a more immediate version of an audiobook. Finally, and maybe most importantly for this venue, the Picnickers have led me to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Mark Leidner’s Under the Sea, two collections that not only display the writers’ brilliance but point at the possibilities of a new literature.
Another trio of books that has alternately cooled my jets and had me dreaming of the guillotine is The Xenofeminist Manifesto from Laboria Cuboniks, Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino, and Pink Privacy by Jessica Yatrofsky. Facebook’s recent invitation to have its technology and platform seized by the federal government fortifies XF’s central point that it is in our future’s interest to repurpose and redirect technological advancement. Across the board, companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Uber have shown they are incapable of working toward the good of human civilization. Like the Old Guard of Capital who have sold off the Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta, poisoned Flint’s water, bleached out the Great Barrier Reef, and committed countless other equally catastrophic environmental and human offenses, the new disruptors of economic development have proven too irresponsible to entrust with the tools of human thriving.
If we are to take back control of the future, Trevino’s Cruel Fiction is a poetry collection I hope every person has memorized—its lines splashed in red over a confederate monument or on the lips of a youth throwing a brick through Bank of America’s window. A song we might sing over communal dinners. Much of what Trevino writes appears self-evident to me, but then from that I assume maybe she’s speaking directly to me or at least people like me. In this Fake News-Trumpist Idiocracy, there aren’t people to “win over” after all. The site of rational political discourse is the fiction. Trevino writes not to worry about those who work against you. In an echo of an earlier manifesto from France, Trevino emphatically tells us it is through the fires of mass struggle that we will “see each other.”
When I think of the joy I might feel on the eve of revolution, I think of Jessica Yatrofsky’s Pink Privacy. Though less overtly political than Cruel Fiction and The Xenofeminist Manifesto, Pink Privacy sustains a personal-political project Yatrofsky has forged across a wide range of media from film and photography to neon installations and music. Pink Privacy disarmed me with its humor, often sexual and brutal, while proclaiming clearly the independence and vulnerability of its author. Like the dizzying dance at the crescendo of Midsommar, Pink Privacy elucidates as much as of the world as it inducts you into the as-of-yet-unrevealed experience of women in the 21st century. Also, as in the feel-good-hit of the summer, you’ll rejoice in watching Yatrofsky burn everything down.
I reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I’m no Woolf scholar, but this is her greatest book, right? No? I wept at her writing, thinking, Oh my god, this is what a novel could do, this is the power of writing… Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I went to a cafe for a cappuccino and a vegan lemon cake. The barista saw my book and told me she had been studying Woolf in school. Not wanting to seem like a weirdo I didn’t tell her the book was making me cry and instead mumbled something about how beautiful the prose was. I returned to my table outside with my cake and drink and, forgetting the barista, read as long as I could, until my cup was emptied.
I also reread The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which, though I still found it affecting, did not have quite the same impact as when I first read it 16 years ago while on a solo trip through New England. Back then I was a young and broken-hearted college senior and found myself renting a room at a Franciscan monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young Werther was my only literary friend at the moment—well, him and Bartleby. Now, Werther just seemed sad to me and not in a good way. He is like a younger brother who has taken life way too seriously. A majority of my enjoyment rereading Werther was simply the nostalgia it created for the person I used to be, the gratitude that I had made it out of New England with only a bloody nose but dispossessed of the broken heart.
I read Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, In the Distance by Hernán Diaz, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. Chen’s novel about time-travel and protecting those you love resonated strongly for me, but nothing prepared me for how deeply I would be affected by its ending. I want to say something like Chen’s writing is deceptively good but I don’t want that to sound like a backhanded compliment. What I mean is his characters and their story work their magic beyond the text while you’re just flying through the pages. By the end of the book, I was so enthralled to the story I couldn’t help but ugly cry. Only Les Miserables has elicited a similar response, so bravo, Mike Chen. Similarly, In the Distance performed some emotional miracle, almost without my notice. Diaz’s writing confounded me at times in the best possible ways. His language is lush and rhapsodic but balanced against the austerity of the American west of 1850. I look forward to returning to Diaz’s novel when my own writing is missing something.
Kiesling’s The Golden State is a novel I’ve found impossible to escape. For me it was quite easy to slide into the familiarity of its Northern California setting. The ridiculousness of the State of Jefferson movement. The beauty of the wild and untouched vastness of California. There’s this joke about how tourists not from California think they can visit San Francisco and Los Angeles all in the same day. What? It’s only a drive down the coast right? No, it is not. (I also remember working at The Gap at Fisherman’s Wharf and selling sweaters and jeans to Swedish tourists clad in only t-shirts and shorts who believed the movies and thought California was always sunny and 75 degrees.) This state is HUGE and a lot exists here. Kiesling consolidates that vastness, the deserted menace of Northern-NorCal, into a lightning strike none-day road trip for Daphne and her small child, Honey. I think of all the books I’ve read this year, The Golden State has been the one I’ve recommended to friends the most. This is partially because over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Lydia and partially because I consider myself a “California Kid” and I love that there’s a contemporary novel out now I can point to and say Hey, look, yes, this is what it’s like here!
For the burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, it has long since become a commonplace notion that there isn’t really any such thing as “nature” or “wilderness”: both words used to connote real places—pristine and untouched places—but with the increasing knowledge that such a state of being likely never existed, the words come up empty. There are, however, new narratives: Through a case study of the global matsutake mushroom trade, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows compellingly in The Mushroom at the End of the World that the human-disrupted landscapes we find everywhere are worthy of study.
How far do we have to look to find that in the stories we tell today? Not far at all. Lauren Groff’s collection of stories, Florida, seems to see every landscape it describes as contaminated—the wreckage of things wrought by both humans and non-humans. In “Dogs Go Wolf”—a survivalist tale of two sisters stranded on an island, abandoned and threatened by adults—more than monkeys, more than dogs, it is a menacing man from whom the sisters hide. “He moved toward the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.”
Groff rarely allows herself the common narrative—what is termed “declensionist” in academic works, i.e., the conventional narrative trope of “human beings cause progressive degradation,” a trope that is, depending on your point of view, incorrect, selective, colonialist, racist, and/or anthropocentric. In one instance, she allows it smack-dab in “Snake Stories,” a story, arguably, about ambivalence itself:
In February, one day, I found myself sad to the bone. A man had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach. I was thinking about the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won’t ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear.
But because this is an ambivalent story, this passage follows soon after the narrator asks her son, “Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes?” He answers, “Becus I lik them and thy lik me.”
Although I myself am uncertain about the extent to which we ourselves are aware of how literature is changing with regard to nature, when you begin to see the ugliness, the ambivalence—the “contamination”—of nature in one place, you begin to see it everywhere. Carmen Maria Machado’s justly lauded collection Her Body and Other Parties, for instance, seems to me just as much a realist rebuke of the triteness of “nature” as a work of science fiction or fantasy. The tentative resident at an artist’s colony, for instance, finds the horrors of nature everywhere: She tests the railings on the deck of a cabin “to see if anything was rotting or came off in my hand like a leprous limb”; looking up in the bathtub, she finds a showerhead “dark and ringed with calcified lime, like the parasitic mouth of a lamprey”; when the discovery of a rabbit she had previously run over turns up outside her studio door, she observes that “its visible organs glistened like caramels, and it smelled like copper.” Kneeling to the rabbit’s carcass, she apologizes. “You deserve better than that,” she says.
What does it deserve? Where did this vein of what I can best call un-nature writing begin? When did the environmental historians and anthropologists begin to convene with novelists and storytellers to arrange this complicated vocabulary? More precisely—when did we begin to recognize the banality of “nature writing,” a legacy largely assumed, correctly to some degree, as that of the Romantics?
The answer, in short, is: We didn’t. The legacy of long, meandering, anthropocentric meditations on nature—be they through Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration” by nature through springs, sycamores and sober pleasures in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” or Coleridge’s hymn to “green vales and icy cliffs” in “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni”—may actually be very much with us.
When we think of “nature writing,” a common Romantic phrase that comes to mind is “sublime.” Sublime, too, is an unstable word. But unlike “wilderness,” which has switched from negative to positive connotations, the sublime is more capacious. When Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, it was to refer to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” One assumes that could apply equally to the experience of death as it would be to experiencing vertigo while bungee jumping in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, California.
Paradoxically, it is both a banality and a point of actual contestation to confront Romantic literature as the era of simply “nature writing.” The literary scholar Alan Bewell, who focuses particularly on British Romanticism, admits that one of the biggest problems he faces “in writing about or teaching British Romantic poetry to a mainly urban audience is to explain why most of these poets … spent so much time talking about landscapes and rural scenery, describing the seasons and the weather, and meditating on birds, flowers, mountains, rocks, and trees.”
Bewell would do better to start off with why the works of Romantics are so heavily contested in literary studies. Bewell himself represents a school that calls itself various names—as, frustratingly, many academic schools do—but ecocriticism should suffice. Broadly, the ecocritics argue that what the Romantics’ preoccupation with nature represented was a response to modernity, one that foreshadowed the biological, materialist understanding of “nature” that formed the basis of modern environmentalism. The Romantics in other words, were “proto-ecologists.”
Collapsing a whole academic school of thought is an act of heresy, so allow me to pause and insist that the ecocritics are obviously not a monolith, nor do they agree entirely on particular works. Still, writ large, ecocritics argue for some degree of coherence in the Romantic tradition. This is, in and of itself, controversial. The British literary critic Marilyn Butler, for instance, who lived long enough to see the beginnings of these tensions in the meeting of environmental and literary studies, was scathing on the attempts to slot things in neatly. Butler argued that the contemporary intellectual tradition saw “aesthetic discussions often [resting] upon the belief, also ultimately historical, that there is a single coherent Romantic movement. This belief is reflected in, say, the unquestioned coupling in a book or article of Coleridge and Shelley, or in the widely found inference that a work with Romantic traits has found something it ought to have found, that it is profounder and better than work characteristic of an earlier date.”
Ecocriticism developed as a counterpoint to “new historicism,” the literary theory that emerged in the mid-20th century and argued for examination of the cultural contexts of literature as a way to chart intellectual history. New historicism ascended along with postmodernism; the two are historically connected. The ecocritics are a response to these new historicists, academics for whom the ecocritics charge “nature” was merely a smokescreen behind which ideology, history and politics hid. According to Bewell’s characterization, the new historicists saw “nature” “as an obstacle to both the history that human beings make and the histories that they write, and since it places limits on human freedom, the task of most historicist criticism of Romantic literature has been to penetrate or dissolve nature so that the human agency that stands behind it can be recognized.”
It boggles the mind a bit that these two forms of literary theory do not find a common middle, but most often they haven’t. More than once, a new historicist has argued that there is no such thing as nature; in turn, ecocritics have objected strongly that that is a rebuke to materiality itself. But contemporary literature has certainly found a middle. In an essay entitled ”Not Your Grandfather’s Nature Writing” in the Fiction Writers Review, Andrea Nolan points to a spate of literary journals like Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, which focus on the environment and distance themselves from “nature writing.” Indeed, she quotes the mission of Ecotone as being distinguished from “the hushed tones and clichés of much of so-called nature writing.” As far as I can discern, however, the most radical change in register for un-nature writing lies in complicated human/nonhuman juxtapositions. In Lauren Groff’s most recent story for The New Yorker, “Under the Wave,” an arresting little passage appears mid-story in what reads as a wild nightmare with a fluid sense of time:
Images accumulated. A woman in filthy panties limping down a road with a bone knuckling out of her arm. A mass of faceless people huddled around a fire. The gray vinyl of a bus seat, scored like aged skin, and the strange flat brown landscape passing dreamily by the window.
Filthy panties. Bone. People. Fire. Gray vinyl. Aged Skin. Flat brown landscape. These juxtapositions of the excruciatingly human with classically-descriptive words for nature that seem so new are made possible in a literary landscape that is realizing how incontestable it is that nature is inseparable from the human and the cultural. Thus far, literary theory has found this difficult to attain, especially for the work of the original “nature writers.” As postmodernists tend to dismiss materiality entirely, the ecocritics bristle from dismissing it even the slightest: Ceding any ground at all would be to dismiss the aesthetic and, crucially, ecological worth of the Romantics’ work.
Take, for instance, Coleridge in “France: An Ode”:
O ye loud Waves! And o ye Forests high!
And O ye clouds that far above me soared!
Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
The ecocritic Karl Kroeber notes that “Coleridge can imagine the sky as joyous because he feels that freedom of individual being is to participate fulfilling in a dynamic unity of forces greater than himself but to which he can satisfyingly belong.” Granted, Coleridge’s invocation of forms of unity emphasize an interconnectedness with nature that can be termed “proto-ecological” because they emphasize both the aesthetic power and beauty of nature as well as the practical and social duties of man to the natural world. Further, it would be hard to argue that this view of nature does not represent some actual thing—the sky is, basically, blue; the forests, often, very high.
But simultaneously, the ecocritics decry the commercialization of ”nature” based on the idea that human beings only leave alone those natures that they do not value. Could it not be, then, that the Romantics’ views led us here directly by romanticizing the pastoral and pristine and wild—by representing the nature that deserved to be valued? After all, for every complex representation of the environment through writers like Groff, Machado, and those who grace the pages of Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, there are non-literary works that play right into the hands of problematic assumptions of nature. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of science journalism The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, for instance, has been heralded as a major work charting the loss of species. At the same time, however, it has been criticized by environmental scholars for its focus on some species and not others, for its unquestioning assumption of “species” as the unit of analysis, and for assuming that some Platonic form of “nature” existed before industrial humans began destroying it.
And so even as the postmodernists have lost ground, problems remain. While ecocritics take their cue from environmental scholars about the need to examine environmental and natural themes in their work, the idea that “nature” itself might be a construct—many, many different constructs, in fact—remains largely unquestioned. It’s a reactionary impulse. As literary critic Dana Phillips has argued, even as the ecocritics bring back the idea that there is something material, biological, and empirical about the world (i.e., “nature” is not entirely a cultural construct), what that “something” is remains to be settled—not in ecology or humanistic inquiry, and definitely not in Romantic literature. For compare Coleridge to the Percy Bysshe Shelley in the third stanza of “Mont Blanc” personifying the mountain itself: ugliness (“rude, bare, and high”) and bleak destruction (“Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven”):
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.
What Shelley did was strip away some of the sentimentality of nature writing. “Mont Blanc” is, after all, an expression of Shelley’s atheistic beliefs and his political reformist idea that without human imagination, all those silences would be vacuous (“Mont Blanc” is famously considered a rebuke to Wordsworth and Coleridge).
Whatever “Mont Blanc” is for the Romantics, it’s clearly not just a well-described mountain.
In the Romantic works I’ve encountered, none poses as direct a challenge to the generalizability of the Romantic view on nature than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The fable has been seen, variously, as anti-modern, a cautionary tale about science and technology that echoes contemporary fears, as a nightmare about “nature” gone wild, and a plea for stewardship: that humans must care about nature so it does not go awry.
To see how different Mary Shelley was from her contemporaries, consider Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” which begins with Wordsworth glorifying Nature and decrying the state of Man:
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Despite Wordsworth’s “faith that ever flower / Enjoys the air it breathes,” there is also doubt:
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The doubt, of course, is less of a service to the representation of nature (“If such be Nature’s holy plan”) than to Wordsworth’s lament of “What man has made of man.” Even as Wordsworth trucks in pleasure and invokes doubt and uncertainty, his representation of nature is relatively benign. Autonomy is granted to “nature,” but it is a gentle and soothing sort of autonomy. It stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s helplessness about the state of man.
Needless to say, this is fundamentally different to the autonomy of nature that is presented in Frankenstein. The famous passage where Victor beholds his making:
For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
This grants Victor a terrifying hyper-autonomy. Where Shelley’s Frankenstein departs from Wordsworth is in the hyper-autonomy both of man and of nature when man is hubristic enough to wish to dominate it, which is why Frankenstein is thought so often as the anxious industrial precursor to living in the age of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, more than one literary critic has seen the current geological epoch of the Anthropocene as the modern-day Monster from Frankenstein.
There are problems with reading even Frankenstein as the “proto-ecological consciousness” of a Romantic writer. The most major is that it collapses “nature,” “science,” and “technology” as if they were all part of the same whole. There is considerable ambivalence in Frankenstein about this. It is, after all, the Monster who regards “nature” in a similar fashion to many of the Romantics:
Autumn passed thus. I saw, with surprise and grief, the leaves decay and fall, and nature again assuming the barren and bleak appearance it had worn when I first beheld the woods and the lovely moon. Yet I did not heed the bleakness of the weather; I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat. But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer.
The obvious other problem with the “proto-ecological” Frankenstein is that it blurs too many lines. Not only does it transpose an eloquent man-beast who resents his birth, his maker, his countenance, and society—all qualities and emotions that many humans express and are known to have—onto the “nature” that faces us in the Anthropocene; it also casts Mary Shelley as the prescient seer of the Romantic movement, undercutting the prescience of other skeptics with less forceful work.
If Mary Shelley is the Romantic double of Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado, it goes without saying that William Wordsworth has his, too. In an essay in n+1, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” environmental historian Jedediah Purdy skewers the anthropocentric conceits of contemporary works of nature-writing, works that bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Mont Blanc”:
For writers, this strange world — tamed to death, feral as a wild hog — has inspired a fascination with nonhuman action, agency, and consciousness. This is true in high academic culture, where literary scholars wax lyrical on the agency of storms and trees, political economists propose that capitalism be seen as both an ecological and a social form, and social theorists outline ethnographies and alliances across species. But as usual the academic trends are just the owl pellets of Minerva. Stronger evidence of a mood is the ambitious, often excellent, sometimes ridiculous writing, from essays and memoirs to popular science, that asks obsessively: What is looking back at us through other species’ eyes? Could we ever escape our own heads and know the viewpoint of a hawk? Is there such a thing as thinking like a mountain?
Like me, Purdy also finds ridiculous that this is all still called “nature writing” in an age where no one knows what “nature” is. But his broader point is key: Whatever this genre, it has made a comeback, just as more complicated works of un-nature sit beside them on shelves.
Tsing’s work has its doubles, and so does the ecocritic’s. It’s like the ecocritic sitting next to the new historicist: The battle lines are real but also bewildering. They probably tell us more about ourselves than about “nature,” but they may also be very captivating. Or if you prefer: distracting.
After all, as Purdy points out, it remains both “baffling and beautiful” that Thoreau once asked of his pond: “Walden, is it you?”
For its November issue, Wired asks guest editor President Obama for a list of his 10 essential books. The magazine estimates that reading all of them, including James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, will take only eighty-nine hours.
The Guardian has begun rolling out their series of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. The first? Elizabeth Kolbert’s horrifying, no-holds-barred ecological treatise The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Our friends over at the Football Book Club took a look at The Sixth Extinction earlier this year, as well.
They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss.
It went like this.
I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.” It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat.
Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start.
On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal — the frail, the tender, the humane — to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging.
I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works.
I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism. When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at.
I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel.
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Thinking back on this year, I’m surprised to find that the books that meant the most to me were nonfiction. I read a lot fiction this year, and much of it was excellent and memorable, but when friends asked for recommendations, I found myself championing The Sixth Extinction and Sapiens, two books of natural history that describe, with precise calm, the dramatic effect our species has had on every other species on the planet. I stand by those recommendations, but I’d like to use this space to single out three memoirs that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and which I know I will return to again. I will list them in the order that I read them.
The Odd Woman and the City, by Vivian Gornick
I read a galley of this book in February. When I first started reading it, I thought: This is the book I’ve been waiting for. And then I thought: I should review it. And then: No, I love it too much.
I didn’t want to review this book because it felt like a friend — or maybe it’s better to say that it felt like a conversation with a friend. This memoir is actually about friendship and conversation; about the ways that a long-term friendship is a conversation that doesn’t really end, it just has long pauses. As Gornick writes of her decades-long friendship with Leonard, the gay man who is her counterpart: “What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.”
Gornick’s book is also about what it’s like to be an unmarried woman, to live outside the borders of family life. It’s about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve “come into your own.” Finally, it’s about living in New York City. You would think that’s a topic that’s been done to death, but I’ve read dozens of NYC memoirs and novels and I’ve never read one that captures what it actually feels like to live in this city for a long period of time, to get older in it, to watch it change and to change along with it.
I don’t know how Gornick pulled this book off, because as I describe it, it feels as formless as conversation itself, the way, with a good friend, you can start in one place and end in another, having no idea how you got there.
Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks
Last year I wrote about discovering Tim Parks’s criticism, specifically his monthly(ish) blog posts for The New York Review of Books. This year, I decided to read one of his books, and chose his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still, mainly because it was about meditation, something everyone was telling me to do, but which I was reluctant to try. I thought, if anyone can convince me to give meditation a chance, it’s Tim Parks. Still, I was skeptical. But the charm of this book is that Parks is also skeptical of meditation. He tries it out of desperation. He doesn’t want to change his life, but he has to. Teach Us to Sit Still describes how and why he makes that change.
From one angle, Teach Us to Sit Still is a disease story. There are symptoms, which lead to a diagnosis, which lead to a treatment plan. But from another angle, it’s a memoir about the writing process. Writers don’t often talk about the ways that their health affects their work, but Parks gets into the logistics of his day, explaining how he fit meditation into his daily routine — as well as the reviewing work he reluctantly gave up, so that he could fit it into this routine. He writes about trips to the doctor and the masseuse, about anxious late-night online searches, and about the quality of his sleep and his dreams. When he starts attending meditation retreats, he describes them with remarkable detail, especially when you realize that he wasn’t allowed to bring pen and paper (or laptop) with him. Most importantly, he writes about how his identity and work as a writer is challenged and changed by new engagement with his health. At one point, he toys with the idea of giving up writing entirely. Thankfully, he didn’t, and wrote this book instead.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I’m aware that you don’t need me to recommend this book, or even describe it, since it has been extensively praised, lauded, awarded, and reviewed all over the place, but to give an honest accounting of my year in reading, I have to mention it. Coates’s memoir was easily one of the best I’ve read in the past decade, one of those rare books into which the author has poured his entire life experience. It’s a stunning distillation of thought and study, one that traces Coates’s intellectual growth over three decades as he digs deeper and deeper into American history, uncovering the ways our ruthlessly violent past is woven into the present day, causing the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black men.
At the center of the book is Coates’s rage over the death of his friend, Prince Jones, a star student and all-around exemplary young man who was killed by a police officer in 2000. There is a special vulnerability to Coates’s anger because the circumstances of Jones’s death are such that Coates feels he might have found himself in the same situation and been killed as needlessly. Coates calls Jones’s death “the superlative of all my fears” — for himself and for his 15-year-old son, to whom Between the World and Me is addressed. I love the moments in this book when Coates speaks directly to his son: “I am not a cynic. I love you and I love the world and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”
There is an emotional directness to this line that characterizes so much of Coates’s writing and this memoir in particular. It is truly a beautiful book, and the exciting thing is that it feels like just one of many beautiful books Coates will write over the next few decades.
Writing about these three memoirs, I realized that what unites them is the way the authors mix very cerebral narratives with straightforward accounts of what it’s like to live in their bodies at their particular moment in history. They don’t divide the mind from the body mainly because they don’t have the luxury to do so — Coates because he’s a black man in America, Parks because he has chronic pain, and Gornick because she’s a woman living on her own. The result is books that gave me a profound sense of what it might be like to live through — as Gornick put it so beautifully — “the country of their lives.”
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
It’s a brand new week and Football Book Club is reading Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan. For those of you scoring at home, that’s an exorcism novel written by a former executive editor of Playboy. Plus posts about Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction and Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk and Filth.
This week the Band of Merry Men/Women that is of Football Book Club is reading Carmen Giménez Smith’s poetry collection Milk and Filth — and posting about Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Also: Check in later this week for possible guest posts by Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Also: There will be no guest posts by Ben Carson and Donald Trump.
Football Book Club is back from its relaxing bye week — and in preparation of the impending Environmental End Times, these truly decent, patriotic human beings are reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. So pick up your copy today, read along, and learn how we’re fucking up the planet in ways you never even imagined possible. Also: if this week’s book is making you feel slightly depressed and/or down in the dumps and/or bummed, check back with FBC all week for essays on Speak by Louisa Hall.
Last year, as I wrapped up writing my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a writer who battled gender discrimination in her own day and has been unjustly forgotten in ours, I grew increasingly aware of how women continue to be sidelined in the literary world, thanks to the work of VIDA. Then the National Book Award’s nonfiction longlist came out, and I was astonished to see that only one book, out of 10, was by a female author. Reading the Mayborn study, which revealed that only 20 percent of prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years have gone to female authors convinced me that the NBA’s gender imbalance was not an anomaly.
I wondered in a piece here at The Millions whether fewer women wrote nonfiction, which some have called a guy’s club. However, I came to the conclusion that there were plenty of important nonfiction books being written by women that deserved to be considered for the prize. In fact, some of the books I highlighted did go on to win other prestigious prizes: Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age won the PEN Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Diane Allen won the Francis Parkman Prize for Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
This year’s judges of the National Book Award seem to agree that women’s nonfiction writing is abundant and prize-worthy. The 2015 nonfiction longlist includes seven female-authored books, out of 10, the largest percentage of female nominees in the prize’s history. The longlist also contains two books by people of color, compared to last year’s one. What is even more interesting than the numbers, however, is the types of books on the list.
This year’s longlist could not be more different than last year’s in ways that go beyond gender and race but also suggest why this year’s list of authors is more diverse. Last year’s list, as well as those of the past few years, were heavy in genres and topics typically dominated by (white) men: national and military history; biographies of men, especially presidents; and economic or war reportage. This year there are no biographies at all on the list, and only two histories, although both take unconventional approaches to their subjects:
Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln explores the private responses to Lincoln’s death, rather than its public meaning.
Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i focuses on the indigenous politics and culture of Hawaii.
Last year, only one memoir, a genre in which women writers have been rather prolific, made the longlist (and of the past 50 nonfiction books nominated, only 4 had been memoirs). This year, fully half of the nominated books can be loosely classified as memoirs, according to The New Yorker, three of them by women. (All are described below.) A related genre, the essay, is represented by one book on this year’s list:
Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying.
Last year I particularly noted the disappointing lack of books that blurred genres or categories. I speculated that women may be more likely to write about history, science, or culture from a more personal perspective, injecting memoir into the usual nonfiction fare. This year’s list contains three such works, two by women, one by a man of color, and all of which suggest the power of writing about larger issues through a personal lens:
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, and ostensibly America, attempting to explain America’s perilous neuroses about race through memoir, reportage, and history.
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is unconventional science reportage that recounts the author’s friendship with an octopus and documents the emotional lives of the species as well.
Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran combines memoir and conversations that take the reader into the history and theology of the Quran.
Two other works on the list that defy easy categorization and offer innovative approaches to the genre are:
Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is classified by its publisher as a science book but is subtitled A Natural and Cultural History, suggesting the ways it also crosses genre boundaries.
Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs could be described as a kind of collage of text, photographs, letters, diaries, and reproductions of saved items, such as the notes she wrote on a negative’s envelope.
Another indication that this year’s nominees are untraditional is that four of the authors are better known for their work in other genres or art forms: Sally Mann is a photographer; Susanna Moore is a novelist; and two are poets:
Overall, it’s fair to say that this year’s list more accurately reflects the diversity of nonfiction as a genre and points toward innovations that promise to invigorate it. It is tempting to believe that the National Book Awards took the many criticisms of last year’s list into account. One sign of their effort to do things differently this year may be the fact that three of the five judges are women (last year there were two), one of whom is African-American (the same as last year). Even more telling, however, is the fact that the chair of this year’s panel is one of the authors conspicuously absent from last year’s list: Diane Ackerman.
I concluded my essay last year with the hope that “the subtle biases that govern our understanding of literary value” will seem to us one day a quaint reminder of an earlier era. I had no idea my hope would be so quickly realized, at least for this one award for this one year. Such biases are still the norm, however. A recent study of the major fiction awards over the past 15 years determined that novels by and about men dominated, while those focusing on a female protagonist won zero Pulitzer Prizes, only two Man Booker Prizes, two National Book Awards, and one NBCC Award. There is still much to be done to ensure that awards in all genres are not gender biased and that judges can recognize merit outside the usual boundaries of the white male perspective. My hats off to the judges of this year’s NBA nonfiction award for accomplishing that goal.
Following last year’s win for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer jury named Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See this year’s winner in the fiction category, a second year in a row that the year’s break-out literary bestseller took home the prize.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs, Doerr’s Year in Reading 2010 and 2014)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Winner: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre)
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
Winner: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker
Winner: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers
Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin
Compass Rose by Arthur Sze
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction?
Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.)
Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list:
Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War
Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list):
There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include:
Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir
Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works:
Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch
Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.