Had a fun year this past year. No real reason for it. Ever have one of those? Just a good time. Each morning waking up, feeling swell. Glad to be awake. Each day not only a joy but memorable, you know? The kind you’re proud to tell your kid about. Days where you hate to shut your eyes, put an end to them. Nights swaddled in a rich thick sleep. Brain full of health and juices, taut, toothsome, like a lychee. Just a good year. How are things, people ask. Great, you say. Things are great.
The thing with having a swell year is that you spend a lot of your time kind of trying to get yourself as close to a state of big blank noise as you can. Like, degrade your waveform down into the background hiss, you know? Get the pitch of the nothing in your head closer to the pitch of the bigger nothing. On account of how good you feel. One way to do that is to stare at your phone, mouth open as if you’re gagging. Maybe make an animal whine. Importantly, reading a book is not a good means to that end. Chalk it up in the How Books Are Bad column, I guess: They shore you up as a reading subject instead of letting you blur out. What a misdeed. Probably we should stop making them. Or, me specifically, I should. Again, due to feeling good.
I read a few books in spite of that. Enjoyed some of those. Cried at most, probably. A real softy. That’s the hell of it, right? To still be there enough that the weather can blow you around a bit. If I’m gonna live with a crow in my mouth let it have the decency to stay there. It’s the coming and going, when you sort of realize how to move your mouth again, wiggle that jaw, close that throat, but you know the damned thing’ll come back to roost, that’s what’ll get you.
One note: I work for Catapult / Counterpoint / Soft Skull. I talk about their books online. Part of that job means being fair in the mention I give to our authors. Because of that, I won’t be mentioning any of our own books here, though they make up the bulk of my reading life. There isn’t space to talk about them all, so I won’t pick and choose.
I read A Maggot by John Fowles. Had this one on my shelf for a while. Only the second of his I’ve read, after that little book about trees and fathers. This one was a real delight, an epistolary murder mystery set in eighteenth century Britain—Exmoor among other places—involving puritans, Stonehenge, sex, satanic panic, jurisprudence and a hard pivot into the fantastic. I love thinking about the mood of this alongside some of the recent work of M. John Harrison.
Reminded me, too, of parts of The Return of the Native, some of which I reread this year, as I’ve done every year lately. When he hides under the turf. The cart tucked away in a firelit cleft. The well. The mummers, outside in the cold waiting to enter. People mention Hardy’s cruelty to his characters but his greater cruelty is in reminding us again and again of the grave we miss but to which we can’t find the way back.
Another book I reread every year is After Ikkyu by Jim Harrison. These are poems, most of them toying with zen practice. They’re extremely Harrison—that is to say, they revel in a kind of needy gruffness, a deflation of romance, gentle horniness, some mourning, some birds and rocks thrown in for the hell of it. His dog sleeps on his zabuton. My admiration for Harrison is my northern Michigan birthright and I don’t expect I’ll shake it any time soon.
I read three chapbooks from speCT! Books in Oakland: Wildfires by my old colleague Will Vincent, Delphiniums by Amanda Nadelberg and selected emails by Jan-Henry Gray and enjoyed them all. The last is, ostensibly, a transcription of email from author to publisher leading up to the creation of itself, the chapbook, as an object. It engages directly with anxieties of creation, of deadlines, and—something poetry sidesteps as a rule—issues of veracity. If you work in publishing it will make you pale with inbox panic.
I read Wayward Heroes by Halldor Laxness, translated by Philip Roughton. Brilliant brilliant book. A novel that situates the heroics that inform the Poetic Edda in a more materialist context. The result is that the heroes look and speak like absolute psychopaths, go around slaughtering and robbing strangers with impunity, and act very much with an eye to fame and posterity. I’ve compared it—online—to a sort of pre-modern Icelandic Man Bites Dog.
Read Underland by Robert Macfarlane soon after. Another book dealing in graves, more explicitly so. Grave planet.
I read We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma. Bought it at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, along with a book—I Thought I Saw an Elephant!—where you poke your finger in a hole and shift an elephant cutout around the page. Lou Sullivan was a gay transgender man and an early activist working to shape a space for men like himself, and the book pulls from his diaries, beginning as a ten year old in Wisconsin, up to his AIDS related death in ‘91. The writing is great, and, joyfully, aware of it’s own skill. The entries collected deal with obsession, politics, bodies (the sex scenes are great), medicine, longing. Easily one of the best things I read this year. My colleague Cal wrote about it here and you should read that.
I read some Stephen Dixon—not strictly because he died, though he did die. Mourned him a bit with his real fans. Me, I’m an interloper. Never knew him. Haven’t read his most famous work. I read a lot of 30: Pieces of a Novel, which is Dixon in a more, I dunno, Frederick Barthelme mode? Maybe that’s a shitty comparison. Reread some of What Is All This? Uncollected Stories, which is sometimes in a more gonzo mood. That book is an amazing object, kudos to Fantagraphics.
Read my first Mark Fisher this year, too—his Capitalist Realism. I’ll work my way through more. No rush, he also died and his work won’t get any less relevant, even after we seize the means to forge a continued path for human survival on this planet.
When you’re having a very good year, books are also a kind of nesting doll signifier for all the things you know yourself to enjoy, or have built an identity performing enjoyment of—online. “Am I capable of liking things” is a fun question you end up asking yourself with every page of every book you read, during a good year. I mean to say that when I tell you I liked a book, let’s understand that to mean I recognized it as good, decouple it from affect, yes?
I read Camera by Marcelline Delbecq, translated by Emmelene Landon, very Kluge. Got that one as part of a gift from my wife, a subscription to Ugly Duckling Presse’s books in translation. One of the best gifts I’ve gotten in recent memory. Another highlight from what they sent: The Winter Garden Photograph by Cuban poet Reina Maria Rodriguez, translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. I’m flipping through that again right now and god these poems are so deeply satisfying, so controlled but a control that hints at the surreality at the core of all image. Like a dancer, taut, still form screaming abandon. Ha wait am I stumbling ass backward into THE DIALECTIC.
I finally read Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale. If I’d been paying attention enough to learn that it engages with the work of Edouard Glissant I’d have grabbed it sooner. I loved this book. I loved the generosity of the translation, the end notes, the structure, all of it. There is a page about midway through where the narration, switches from close third to first; I had to cover my face at the recognition of what Chamoiseau was doing there, the force of it. It’s a novel, too, in explicit conversation with Walcott.
I read Mark Haber’s wonderful and fun Reinhardt’s Garden, which is a bit Fitzcarraldo by way of Thomas Bernhard and Robert Burton. The Bernhard comparison, and what we mean when we toss that name around, is explicitly addressed in this conversation he had with Martin Riker.
I read Joao Gilberto Noll’s Lord, another fugue state narration that kind of bridges a gap—stylistically—between the Haber and the Chamoiseau. All the Noll I’ve read thus far thrums with dread, alienation, misunderstanding between character and world and reader and character, and this is no different. I’m such a fan.
Read a couple of books by other contributors to the year in reading this year. What’s the etiquette on commenting on those? Happily enough I enjoyed them both—Females by Andrea Long Chu and The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories by Ayşe Papatya Bucak. Females is that rare joy, a book that starts with a premise and works through consequences. And, too, I knew so little about Valerie Solanas going into it. What did I do in college? The Trojan War Museum I haven’t been able to get out of my head—tender and haunting.
I read The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner and quickly found myself a very loud evangelist for it. This is a brilliant materialist novel that begins with a kind of “Matty Groves” scene—adultery, naked swordplay—but then immediately sends you into a convent where you follow nuns trying to find ways to pay for bridge upkeep over something like 400 pages and 300 years. This is what I want in a novel. Tell me who’s bringing the firewood and why. Who milks the cows when the black death rolls through and what happens the season after? It’s great for fans of Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.
I read The Incompletes by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary. Chejfec has been the author of some of the most lasting scenes in my reading life—fleeting things: fences, muddy pathways, a bird, a stretch of track. The Incompletes revels in clue-ness, significance, but with no puzzle or expectation of an answer. Chejfec is one of the great writers of our age and this is no exception.
I read Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne. It was grim and somehow—a neat trick—silent, if you know what I mean. I don’t know what I mean. Another of the best books I read this year, and a kind of answer to Zola. Ah, I see now Grove even cites Zola in their damned copy for the book. Well, it’s apt. Hi Grove. Animalia opens with a family of French peasant farmers and gets meatier and more foul over the course of decades as industrialized capitalism and mechanized death progress. It was an interesting pairing with the only Counterpoint book I’ll cite, Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring. He’s dead, it’s fine, it’s fine to talk about this one. That novel, too, opens with a peasant farmer on a hardscrabble farm in France. In Giono’s case, though, it’s a book about rediscovering communal joy and wonder, a beautiful novel, written in ‘36 when Giono was a vocal pacifist. It’s almost a direct inverse of Del Amo’s book in every way and I far preferred Animalia. I’d be curious to hear if he’s read it and his thoughts on it.
When I read, in the span of this, the good year, I read alongside a better me, one having less of a swell time, a self who is not having and has never had a very fun year. And for every moment in which I fuzzed out or slept or hid my face beneath the cool darkness of a book just to hide, he kept reading and he felt the words. He felt them, not just the echo of when another reader might be expected to feel them. He felt them and he felt happy to feel them. What a clown.
If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
In 1996, on my second day in Ukraine, a respected, local priest—Otets (Father) Ivan—invited me to his flat for lunch. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I went. I’d barely hung up my jacket when he thumbed open a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne with one hand and poured while snapping a chocolate bar into sections with the other. I was bewitched. He then dropped a chunk *bloop* into our shimmering flutes, handed me a glass and offered up this sotto voce nugget with a wink: “our girls love it this way.” Thus had begun my master-class in the finer points of Ukrainian corruption.
Which you may have heard of. The news reports don’t do it justice, of course. For Ukrainians rich or poor, it is as pervasive as it is maddening. Every sociocultural touchpoint bears its trace, from the obstetrics that open your eyes to the palliatives that close them corruption complicates the process. Register your kid in a school. Get a driver’s license. A dog license. A dentist’s license. Open a business. Close a business. Make a sale. Build a home. Pay your taxes. Finagle a liquified natural gas distribution contract or secure a plum date with the local priest for your wedding and it’s blat (pull), otkat (kickback), and khabarya (bribery) all the way down. It’s quid pro quo, who-ya-know, and pay-to-play.
But over these past five years Ukrainian corruption, both macro- and micro-, has met with some significant resistance. The unwashed are naming names. We have become a nation of whistleblowers. There are, finally, arrests.
Had we been listening, Big History would have long ago consoled us: Unless forestalled by terminal cultural collapse, the grubby venality, relentless emotional grind, fragile loyalties and ugly contempt for individual dignity that connote a pervasive culture of immiseration will not hold. Corruption—personal or systemic—is unsustainable indefinitely. Finding corruption, wherever it occurs, has never been the problem. In Ukraine, it took the blood of the young mixed with the memory of the old to confront it and to put a beginning to the end of the days of bullying dilettantism and petty, quotidian tyrannies. Lev, Igor, and Rudy simply showed up too late.
For my part, I was afforded a nice,
soft landing in the bog of Ukrainian corruption. I had tutelage from that jazz
impresario of scam—the abundant, amiable Otets Ivan. The embodiment of
the Russian proverb: if you’re going to steal, steal a million. If you’re
going to fuck, fuck the Tsaritsa.
A week before the end of my parish
service in Ukraine, Ivan called me up, excited; he wanted to show me the
galleys for a book he’d written. “Take a look”, he says. I turn a page,
another, begin to read. Slowly the fog lifts. I was reading my own sermon. Turn
a page. My essay. Turn a page. My lecture. Seven years of my work in print with
only one alteration: Ivan had listed himself as the author. He hadn’t even
bothered to change the anecdotes from my-cum-his youth growing up in the
1960s on the Pacific coast of Washington State. I hope it sold well; I was on
fire in my pastoral writing. Two things I know about Otets Ivan: He possessed
a genius-level capacity for corruption, and he was my first local friend. The
latter is relevant to my reading because I lack Ivan’s gift for acquisitiveness,
but I am not less corrupt. To address it I read.
That’s the long way around to saying
that I’ve come to a point in my life, in my reading, where I seek out books
that engage my need for redemption. In practical terms, a book—no matter how
relentlessly hyped—that betrays a lack of breadth, experience, or feel for
honest human encounter doesn’t interest me. I won’t be scammed. Fiction or
non-fiction, if I get a whiff of manifesto, a hint of ideology, performative
prose, cheap signaling, aversion to complexity or any of the other stultifying categories
of sociological pablum that make for viral tweets, then you’ve lost me as a
reader. I don’t need to be made any dumber than I am naturally. And I, like you,
definitely don’t need to be made more susceptible to the predations of the truly
sinister agents of corruption that are at work all around us.
In the end, I’m looking for love in the stories I read because I believe the Old Book is trustworthy in this: love shall cover a multitude of sins. Edify me, lift me up, restore me, help me atone, even provoke me, but talk to me as if I were the only person in the room. It’s what they called storgē in ancient Athens—longsuffering, dedicate, parental love. It’s uncommon among storytellers, a rare gift, and the surest antidote to corruption I know of. You’ll find it in each of the books below.
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
I am a tree-climber. I became enamored of Macfarlane a dozen years back when he opened The Wild Places with a description of his need to climb “a tall grey-barked beech” in a wood outside London. In Underland, he descends to locales that my claustrophobia prevents me from following him except on paper. He takes us below the surface of the planet to the concealed geographies, sacred and ancient, that undergird our existence and link us to the depths of time. My book of the year, perhaps of next year, too.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson
The great appeal of the best Russian writers is their sneaky way of slipping hard-won philosophy into the story and doing it without being preachy. Perhaps that’s because it’s marked by an acceptance for our mutual predicament (essential to storgē), suffused with irony but bereft of contempt. Osipov’s short stories are brimming with it. Here’s a snippet: “He knew that all the cars passing by contained people who valued their lives no less than he valued his—their lives and the safety of their vehicles; and so they tended to be cautious, give warning, and not to despise themselves for their willingness to yield.” Think about that.
The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers
As preposterously original as her fiction is, this is Petrushevskaya at her spare, brutal best. This refreshingly brief memoir adds, at the very least, sobering perspective to current debates about “Cancel Culture”. At its most exhilarating it provides some toothy, deeply grounded counterpoint to the claim that there are no more heroes.
What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson
I swear, Marilynne Robinson steals all my ideas and then writes the hell out of them with intellectual rigor that’s as rare as it is outmoded in an increasingly vitiated culture. She is the anti-Tweet, the anti-meme, the anti-eyeroll GIF. Lectures, essays and, yep, sermons. Read her, get smarter, and feel your heart swell.
Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams
An articulate, compassionate, and necessarily particular argument/memoir on the “fluidity of racial borders” and the idea that it is not the perception of race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to concepts of race. Williams delves into the abyss of corrupted human nature and emerges hopeful writing, for example: “…the situation is not zero-sum: We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on. In fact, we have to.” Smart x3.
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Proviso: You will need to read the first three books in Krasznahorkai’s tetralogy—Satantango, Melancholy of Resistance, War & War—if you want to get this. What am I talking about? There’s nothing to get. Unless, that is, you’re interested in grasping the uncommon appeal of fake news, collective crisis of conscience, and cultural entropy. And all wrapped in Krasznahorkai’s prose both staggering and nonpareil, and dipped in wincingly dark humor sauce. Very funny. Very true. Very us.
At the end of 2019, I am reading with very different eyes from a year ago. My wife and I learned that she was pregnant on the last day of 2018, and our son, James, was born just before Labor Day. Two weeks after we learned of the pregnancy, we moved from North Carolina, where between us we had spent half our lives, to New York City, where we both began new jobs. New arrival sharpens vision: I paid closer attention to the details of changing seasons in Manhattan’s sui generis climate than I had in familiar places. I watched the first snowdrops bloom on the east-facing northwest shoulder of Central Park (late January), the first daffodils appear on the lower slopes of the Morningside escarpment (the end of February), and the redbud explode to announce the real beginning of an Eastern spring.
Books often bring the new for me, but this year they were more of a trace backward, stitching new experience into what underlay it. Looking at children’s books seriously for the first time in decades, I discovered images indelible in my mind but lost to conscious memory. When I opened Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), with its sharp-edged collage—a red snowsuit sharply outlined against white drifts and a brown-and-yellow cityscape—I realized I had been carrying it around all my life. It might have been my first way, as a rural child who loved snowstorms, of picturing life in cities, and imagining common experiences across racial lines. I had a purple snowsuit at about the time I first encountered Snowy Day, and this year I tracked down a false memory: I had thought of the fictional snowsuit as purple, putting myself in the story and bringing it into my own mornings when hours of play turned crisp chill into soggy cold.
I also learned that, in a place as iconic as New York City, something that catches your eye may already have a literary memorial. On one of the last weekends before James’s birth, I bicycled up Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge, where a snug red lighthouse nestles under the immense gray span. In replies to my predictable Instagram post, I learned that The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942) is a local touchstone on the attractive theme that everyone’s work is necessary—the lighthouse thinks the bridge will make it obsolete, but is reassured that its little light still matters. Now James has that book, a gift from a friend, and I wonder whether he will notice that the tugboats and barges that occasionally ply the river still look much the same as they did 80 years ago.
I spent a part of the summer reading the Library of America’s new two-volume edition of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction. This was another backward reach: I met Berry before I could read, at a draft horse auction in Ohio, and I’ve read his agrarian essays and communitarian, anti-capitalist criticism since I could read as an adult. His ideal of an economy of caregiving, not extractive but renewing, not acquisitive but joyous and generous, has been a point of my compass. So has his version of patriotism: a burdensome, trying, mandatory struggle with your legacies of harm, as well as a special interest in your country’s chance at being “a thing decent in possibility.” But I’ve struggled with his faith in the local and his mistrust of politics on any ambitious scale. I can’t imagine a transformation as deep as the one he wants that isn’t sharply political and doesn’t expand our sense of responsibility internationally, even if it also deepens that sense locally. Rereading him didn’t resolve any of these questions, but it took me back to finding, in him, a writer who had made a voice from materials I knew well: brushy, eroded hillsides; the bare gray trees of Appalachian winter; the way cool air comes down on a hayfield after sunset and soothes scratched arms that have been wrestling bales in the heat.
Another book helped me to reckon with my own past as a child of the late Cold War—middle-school age when the Berlin Wall fell. I had an abstract bent, and when I arrived at college, the political philosopher John Rawls was teaching what I think was the last lecture course of his long career, on the themes of his Theory of Justice, probably the most influential work in the field in the second half of the 20th century. In my earnest undergraduate way, I revered Rawls’s ambition to define a philosophical formula that could justify a social order on truly equal terms, but I also resisted a certain abstraction that made the theory hard to connect with the on-the-ground environmental justice work I had been involved with at home in West Virginia before leaving for school. Katrina Forrester’s new study of Rawls and post-World War II liberalism, In the Shadow of Justice, brilliantly maps the terrain where I was wandering, showing how Rawls’s monumental work, which defined what political philosophy was for generations, was itself a product of a very specific American moment: a time of elite consensus, economic optimism, and an ascendant philosophical method that put great stock in implicit agreement rather than pervasive conflict. That world has passed, but the thought it produced remains, and the awkward way that the one has perched on the other accounts for some of my bewilderment decades ago.
One of my favorite books of the year was another new one, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. It is a study of the landscapes of deep time, the ways that descending into caves and catacombs, underground rivers and ancient glaciers, can train us to see how very old and strange the world is beneath its surface. It is the most fully achieved work in Macfarlane’s project of finding paths to re-enchantment—new sources of wonder in a damaged world, motivations to defend it that have joy as well as fear in them.
Time is also the theme of Martin Hagglund’s This Life, which had lodged this thought in my mind: a great part of the point of progressive politics is the struggle for time—for control of it, for the freedom to face an honest reckoning with what is worth doing with our fleeting lives. Imagine Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” which famously asks, “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” and extend it to hundreds of pages of dense and passionate arguments with St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, Knausgaard, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and you have a sense of Hagglund’s project.
When James was born, sleepless but lifted by the energy of falling in love with this new person, I read him Milton’s Paradise Lost. I had never been through it. It is amazing—so much richer and more vital than I had allowed myself to expect. Reading it aloud—as my wife and I did with Emily Wilson’s Odyssey when it came out—was the way to meet it. Small freaks stayed with me: Milton has the rebel angels “canceled” by God from heaven’s memory, upon landing in hell Satan sends Mammon to found a mining operation (the devil a mine boss! It would have made sense to James’s coal-miner great-grandfather), and when the angel Raphael visits Eden, Adam and Eve make him a fruit salad. But the real wonder of the work is the reminder that language really is the first special effect: The scale of the story is literally cosmic, with angels and devils tumbling across galaxies and planes of creation, and the account of the Earth’s coming into being stirred a mental montage of every episode of Nova that I watched as a child and of Planet Earth as an adult: a world swirled into being from the materials of chaos, shaped by the planetary floods of its “God moved on the waters” phase, eventually birthing herds of beasts from its soil.
Milton’s account of creation famously gave Philip Pullman the phrase, “his dark materials,” the rubric for his wildly popular YA trilogy. As early-parenthood exultation receded before exhaustion, I started looking for simpler fantasy than Milton for long nights. Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust, was almost unreadably flat and derivative. I remember weeping while staying up all night reading the original series, so the disappointment felt close to betrayal when the only storyline that held my interest was the protagonists’ recurring difficulty finding diapers for the important baby (Lyra, later the heroine of the series) in their care. I did, however, thrill to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), feeling the same wonder I always do in reading Woolf that a writer can be so incisive at every level: the cut of the observation, the perfect unsentimental sympathy of the feeling, the fine balance of the sentence. Orlando suited the moment because it is a romp, a pastiche of literature and of literary culture (any one of its set-pieces on the vanity of writers would set the standard for a decade of The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs”) that is also a brilliant, prescient treatment of gender’s fluidity and strangeness. Woolf spotted that late-Medieval romance, with its phantasmagoric scene-changing and wild unreality, was the perfect template to let a character switch from “man” to “woman” and explore the boundaries between those while imposing no obligation on the author to explain the shifts except as occasion for remarking on the strangeness of both categories.
Maybe the greatest intellectual pleasure of this year was making the belated acquaintance of Stuart Hall, the very great cultural theorist and trenchant critic of Thatcher’s neoliberalism who died in 2014. I began reading Hall’s essays in Selected Political Writings (2017), and soon found that there was no one else with whom I wanted to think about our own moment of political sadism and confusion. Hall put together “discourse,” feeling, and political economy in a single mode of seeing a social world. Of course that is what we need to do; it’s just that it is so hard to do. The best way I have found to attempt it is begin by reading your way into a transient harmony with someone who does it well. So I have read Hall for instruction, and also for the pleasure of thinking on the page.
How should we think about this terrible and confusing time? I learned a lot about how to think about American nationalism from historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, a study of the continuities between the bloody frontier that was central to the first hundred years of American history and the southern border that has become central today. The country’s edges have always been rallying-points for chauvinism and racism, Grandin shows, and he argues that these nationalist themes have served as distractions from inequality, class conflict, and flawed democracy at home. The border becomes a mirror through which the country sees itself darkly.
Political theorist Corey Robin also gave me a new set of lenses, in this case for the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is often dismissed—in ways Robin notes are pretty racially loaded—as a lightweight right-wing hack. Robin argues that Thomas actually has a deep and tragic view of American history and the law’s place in it, which centers around the political pessimism of conservative black nationalism. Thomas doesn’t become any less disturbing in Robin’s forceful interpretation, but he becomes far more interesting and emblematic. His politics is fundamentally despairing, and much harm flows from that in his bleak view of law. But, Robin argues, this racial pessimism ironically links Thomas with much of the liberal left, which has learned to deplore the country terrible history and indefensible present injustices without developing a new politics radical enough to overcome them, so that despair feeds on itself.
This was the year that I gave belated readings to two great studies in the political economy of the present: Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007), on mass incarceration in California, and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (2018), on the ideology and institution-building of neoliberals after World War II. Rather in Hall’s spirit, they make good work of the impossible premise that to understand anything, you must understand everything. To see mass incarceration whole is to understand “the new Jim Crow,” of course, but it is also to understand the regulatory environment of municipal bonds, the condition of unused semi-rural land in post-industrial California, and the development strategies of local officials in the declining hinterlands. To understand the rise of global trade as the vanguard of a world in which “the market” is everywhere and irresistible, you have to understand the theories of politics, law, and government that its architects advanced, and the ways that “market fundamentalism” is not a flight from politics but a tactic for turning political energies to the politics-handcuffing goal of encasing markets from popular resistance, reform, or revolt.
A very different political economy, a weirdly enchanting one, is Bathsheba Demuth’s new Floating Coast, a history of life on the Bering Strait, a harsh place rich in energy—whale blubber, walrus oil, petroleum—and victim of the changing and clashing visions of modernization that the American and Russian empires have visited on it decade after decade. I don’t know a work that better combines love for the strangeness and specificity of a region—like Barry Lopez’s great Arctic Dreams in that sense—with a rigorous account of how world markets and programs of development have torn at and transformed it.
I had a strange year in fiction. Ordinarily I read a clutch of novels—Ferrante was my beloved for a season of eager discovery, and just before this year I binge-read Rachel Cusk—but this time I was immersed in Anthony Powell’s four-volume aircraft carrier of a series, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). Sometimes called “the English Proust,” Powell actually did something very different in his semi-autobiographical portrait of upper-crust English life from the Edwardian era to the 1970s. One gets little sense of the narrator’s interiority—pace Proust!—except as it is refracted through thousands of pages of close social observation, worked through willfully crooked sentences and jokes that sometimes take a page to work themselves free of the drawing rooms, bars, and hotels where they are taking form. Sometimes a couple of hundred pages would be nearly unreadable, and I’d stall out for a month. Yet it portrays how age and experience change us in the most fundamental ways, by changing who we believe the people around us to be, what we love and admire, and what bores or disgusts us, even what kinds of people we suppose that there are in the world. In these ways, a schoolchild lives in a very different world from an old person, and it changes all along the way, as if the stage on which we act is set by the implicit world-making of our own minds, which we cannot really escape except by living through it. Powell never says this, but he tracks it painstakingly, so that even the limits of the work—dullness here or there, snobbishness everywhere—are folded into its achievement: a portrait of life as the slow planing of soft boards, a self-wasting absurdity that is also our only topic.
It was in that headspace that I found myself reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—looking for a sort of light Powell when I couldn’t take the denser stuff, like turning to Pullman from Milton. I didn’t know Waugh when we came across his first novel, Decline and Fall, in a tiny cache of English-language books in Greece last year, and his spare-nobody satire and perfect sentences made ideal beach reading. Brideshead is a strange book, like a religious interlude in the midst of one of Powell’s lives, as coruscating and deft as any of the satires, but walking a drunken path to some kind of mystical Catholicism. Whatever Waugh thought of this book, to me it read like the work of someone perfectly in command of his tools but overwhelmed by his themes, like a master costume-jewel whose workshop has been lifted by a tsunami.
I usually read more poetry than I did this year, but one collection got to me: Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings, which describes growing up in West Virginia, around mines and chemical plants, surrounded by people you love who are dying. There is claustrophobia here, in hollows, big families, and very small towns, but also helpless attachment, which combine in the feeling that you have to get out of the only place you will ever belong. I lent it to my father-in-law, who grew up in the “chemical valley” of the Kanawha River, son of a coal miner. He handed it back not much later. It was too much, he said, to absorb such a fine rendering of such implacable pain.