This was a year of noticing but not tracking. I spent the last few years relentlessly tracking and pursuing and striving in my cultural life… and getting fewer and fewer returns.This year, 2014, I read a bit less, and more spontaneously – rather than following all of the books that we are “supposed” to like, I explored my own bookshelves.
The bookshelves are really the theme of this year. See, I moved to a new apartment in March, and during the move we spent several weeks living out of suitcases in a slightly unstable life, while the final remodelling was done to our apartment. We have beautiful bookshelves now, but the process of moving in was so traumatic that, for the first time in my life, I was unable to read a challenging book: Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai. I really wanted to read it, but something in my brain snapped.
Here is me on move-in day ….
… and here is the initial process of sorting out our books:
Specifically, that is the moment when we realised that all of the books on the floor in that photo would not fit on our shelves. We have done various things – my husband has made more shelves, and we have piles of books in various corners around the house. Now the room looks like this (these are fiction, poetry, philosophy, essays etc. – nonfiction is in the study now):
Anyway, I have shopped my bookshelves for much of my reading this year. I will start with the pile of books next to my bed, which at some point I have decided I would read (with varying degrees of success):
So here are some paragraphs about what I have read, not in any particular order – because my reading has been sampling and enjoying, more than accomplishing this year.
I have kept Joan Didion next to my bed for the year because I have a grand plan of writing an essay about her 1960s/70s essays and Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 42. I have not yet written this essay, but I love picking up Joan Didion when I am at a loss for other things to read.
As I said earlier, I have spent a lot of time shopping my bookshelves. This has brought some amazing discoveries, including Madame Bovary (I will come back to this), Martin Amis’s Money, and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Money and FLLV are of a certain time period and, in a way, a certain type of voice – this exuberant, drugged, somewhat entitled but still critical, male voice. I enjoyed reading both, as it is a genre and voice that I don’t often read.
I read Madame Bovary this year on a trip to Italy and then to a yoga weekend, and it was a great book for travel: you get smug-face reading it (it’s a “classic”) but you enjoy yourself as well. I have a bit less smug-face about the fact that I did actually read this book before, and I do not remember anything at all about it… except when Dr. Bovary cut the Achilles tendon of a patient. I was 13 when I read it last; apparently adultery didn’t leave much of an impression. I think I might have recently sprained my ankle at the time, and so empathised more with the patient.
I took a month off in June to go to my brother’s wedding(s) in Texas and Taiwan, and to go hiking/camping in Spain. The Goldfinch was a superb recommendation for the latter half of the trip. I don’t remember what I read the first half of the trip. At some point – maybe the first part of the trip – I attempted to read The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing), but I did not enjoy it, and I abandoned it. I am pretty sure as well that I took Buber’s Between Man and Man with me to several countries.
On the other hand, the book I had with me on the Texas/Taiwan part of the trip could have been Karl Ove Knausgaard’s third book in his My Struggle series, Boyhood Island. I do find the writing mesmerising, but nothing yet is as good in my opinion as the first one. But I will keep buying them, of course.
I was pretty disappointed in the latest Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It wasn’t bad. It just didn’t seem good. I miss the richness and depth of his earlier books.
I have just finished Decoded by Mai Jia, which is basically a novel about loneliness and cryptography. I read about it in the Economist, which described it in a both appealing and borderline racist manner:
FINALLY, a great Chinese novel. The past 35 years have seen an outpouring of fiction in China, only a small fragment of which has been read overseas.
(The review is more ecstatic after that, but it is a pretty narrow-minded starting point.)
I have delved further into Southern (US) literature, as well. I have picked up and fallen in love with Flannery O’Connor, both before and after I found out that she is not that popular because of her religion. Her stories are incredible, though, and I read half of the anthology in the photo above in about a week. I have also been reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! – although I’m not totally sure if I will be taking it on the Christmas trip. I’m gearing up for a US road trip in the Deep South early next year, and I cannot wait to delve into this more.
Finally, my friend M introduced me to the children’s books of Maira Kalman, who I love now, after reading one about Lincoln. Beautiful words and evocative images.
I read almost no nonfiction (besides dipping into Buber), but I loved Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. It opened my eyes to high-frequency trading, and I basically read it on one flight from Ukraine. (I went to Ukraine four times, so the flight length became a unit of time I got to know.)
For the Christmas/New Year period, I have got Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots (she seemed popular this year), Elena Ferrante’s second book in her Neapolitan novel trilogy, Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. One part of me thinks that I can’t take all of these books – plus Faulkner – on the trip. But the main part of me is undeterred.
In terms of long articles I really loved, I recommend so much anything by Rebecca Solnit, and particularly this article “The Art of Arrival”. I also loved Zadie Smiths’ “Man vs. Corpse”. I also really loved New York Magazine’s article about laundry apps and the tech revolution, with this stinging passage:
Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial.
I will post more if I can remember them, but those are the top three, since they’re what I often talk about and what springs to mind here. I have not been reading the New Yorker as much, but more of New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement, with occasional London Review of Books mixed in. (LRB is what my husband intercepts, while I get NYRB and TLS.) The number of random facts I have picked up from these book reviews is too much to count.
I think that’s probably it. I am not counting, as I said, so I don’t know how that compares to the many, many books I read last year – I know it is fewer – but I feel that this year off from all of the noise of literary circles has been good, and I am looking forward to what I will explore next year.
Would love to hear what you’ve all been reading!