Where the Stress Falls: Essays

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A Year in Reading: Patrick Nathan


On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.

Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.

In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”

Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.

If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.

And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.

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A Year in Reading (And Not): Mark O’Connell

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For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I’m always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads.

There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain — like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form — taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it.

I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading — as opposed to merely purchasing — Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics — love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis — that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance:
Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted.
I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls — and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time).

The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later.

As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels — Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine — straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece.

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