The holidays are here, and so we can bring to a close another entertaining Year in Reading. We at The Millions would like to thank all of those who participated in the series for their generosity in sharing their private acts of reading with a reading public thirsty to hear about them.
We hope this series captures, here in this sometimes impersonal medium, a glimpse into the personal reading lives of some writers and thinkers we all admire. Based on the generous feedback we receive (thank you; it means a lot), it seems clear that you find value in these glimpses. We have also experienced a very sincere form of flattery as we’ve noted that in the seven years since we first began our series, the likes of The New Yorker Book Bench, The Guardian, and now Bookforum and The Atlantic have embarked on series similar to our own.
Before we wrap this thing up for good, a few highlights: We loved Sam Anderson’s ingenious Year in Marginalia, Ed Champion’s championing of no fewer than 13 underappreciated books, and we also enjoyed the opportunity to take a peek into the reading lives of some of our literary heroes, including John Banville, Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, and Sam Lipsyte.
Other favorite moments included everyone still loving Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Hamilton Leithauser extending The Millions’ obsession with Stoner for another year, Rosecrans Baldwin on a short, upsetting, foxy novel called Why Did I Ever, Laura van den Berg on “two deliciously strange novels,” and Stephen Elliott wishing his 2010 had been like his 2009, or 2008, or 2007, and so on…
If you enjoyed reading our series as much as we enjoyed putting it together (and indeed if you’ve enjoyed The Millions all year), we ask that you please consider supporting this project of ours (there are five cheap (even free!) and easy ways to do so on our Support page) and help us prove that smart cultural coverage is viable online!
And so, as we enjoy the last few days of 2010, we invite all of you to take part — if you haven’t already in the comments of the series intro or on Twitter, or even if you have — in A Year in Reading by finishing this sentence in the comments or on your own blog: “The best book I read all year was…”
Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was my book of 2010. It was an exhilarating discovery: a short, upsetting, foxy novel published way back in 2001. A writer friend mentioned it in a passionate way one evening in the spring, and I bought it the next morning. By the time I’d finished, my head had rotated backward.
Other candidates were Down By the River by Charles Bowden, The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins, Zulu by Caryl Ferey, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol. All of them I sat or stood or walked around reading in enchantment. But only Robison’s novel was so stirring and mind-pickling, after I finished it, I sat down at my computer and looked up her email address.
Robison is stuck with the minimalist badge. Why Did I Ever should not be. The novel possesses abundant character—not style, not whimsy, not the popular flatulence, but a substantial idea of itself. The plot is about a screenwriter and her work, her boyfriends and her family, and a horrible event in her son’s life. It’s written in short, diary-like entries, some titled, some numbered—some hard-hearted, some tender. But the thing hums while it files its clips. Best, it makes the reader fill in gaps, but doesn’t leave him hanging. And it’s so, so funny, smart, and fun. It’s a book that brightens darkness. Robison’s narration and dialogue open wormholes to revelation. It’s a book that creates in itself an incredible amount of space and time.
After I finished it, I thought of two stipulations. One: the world must, but cannot, be taken seriously. Two: books should be, but are not, taken seriously. Between these two, Why Did I Ever made me a bargain. It takes so little seriously—and so much—it made me care deeply for its world and then, again, my own.
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