“Spurred by a sudden and quixotic interest in what constitutes genre, I developed my own little highly-nonscientific experiment. I went to the local library and checked out three books in each of seven genres. I didn’t worry too much about the academics – if the library called a book sci-fi or fantasy, I took their word for it. I dragged the twenty-one books home and devoted an entire rainy weekend to going through them, looking for tropes or devices that separated one genre from another.”—
“If I am reading Said correctly, he is associating lateness with both authenticity and asceticism, as well as a cultivated melancholia and exile.”—Sonya Chung considers Edward Said and Julian Barnes in her discussion of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa for our Post-40 Bloomers series.
Thank you all so much for following along with our annual Year in Reading feature.
There’s nothing quite like a solid, personal recommendation, as Nick Moran writes in his wrap up:
We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves.
Click through to see which books appeared mot frequently across the 72 articles, the average author age of the 214 recommended books, and other noteworthy bits of data Nick has pseudo-scientifically collected from the series.
“The easy money for a critic is to rail on about the corporate pablum of the monoculture. But on some level people do want their Potter-inspired tears, it truly means something to them. Hollywood PR flackery is at best only a partial culprit. Most of the people who will arrive at the movie theatre in nervous anticipation this Friday night are not mere automatons of a capitalist machine. Listening to them on the news, in all the endless End Of An Era pieces, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the depth of the longing in their voices. It’s like the memory of something very good is just beyond their reach, and the movie promises, if vaguely, to remind them of it.”—
These days it’s hard to open a paper without some slightly whipped-up controversy about Morrissey being a racist, but back in the mid-1980s his lyrics and persona mapped out a structure of feeling that spoke to my own floundering selfhood. He sang about shame and unlovability: I had bloodied myself as a 12-year-old using a kitchen knife to scrape away what I saw as the tainting brownness of my skin – a browness that made me only half a person, half the Englishman I wanted to be. He sang about loneliness and isolation: I was rarely invited to the homes of schoolfriends, and certainly never invited them to my mine, for fear that they would snigger at the photographs of turbaned relatives that lined its walls. He sang about weakness: the mantra from my parents was that we were vulnerable because of our religion and had to act as meekly as possible so as not to become targets for thugs and bully boys.
Many of my cousins who lived in Southall and Coventry, places with larger Asian communities, sometimes felt the same emotions. Like me they weren’t into bhangra, so they turned instead to reggae or hip hop, barricade music they associated with street toughness and self-respecting masculinity. Perhaps because I was growing up in a whiter corner of England, or perhaps just for aesthetic reasons, I was drawn to music that was less about collective pride than about individual abjection, music that created theatrical extroversion out of bedroom-bound introversion. I instinctively preferred weakness to strength, treble to bass: “How Soon Is Now”, “Barbarism Begins at Home”, “Shakespeare’s Sister” – the wah-wah rockist parts of the Smiths’ discography were always my least favourite.
“The LA Times called her “The finest British writer alive.” Julian Barnes called her “the best English novelist of her time.” Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began publishing at the age of fifty-eight and produced nine novels, three biographies, and a book of short stories by the time she died at eighty-three. Her third novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize in 1979, while her final novel,The Blue Flower, was named Book of the Year by nineteen British newspapers in 1995 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997.”— Ellis Avery goes crazy for Penelope Fitzgerald in her Year In Reading article.
“I was given a copy of the British philosopher Gillian Rose’s memoir Love’s Work by a journalist who interviewed me when my novel came out this summer; he said that my book somehow reminded him of hers. This would be an incredibly vainglorious way for me to begin here, and I suppose it will remain so no matter what I say, but I promise you, that’s not what I meant.”— Belinda McKeon’sYear In Reading
“So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns). Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I’m betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: “When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay.” It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them (see Dave Zirin’s fond reminiscence of having Christopher spit at him) as if drink is what makes a great writer, and what makes a great writer a real man.”— Katha Pollitt on Christopher Hitchens’flaws and alleged sexism.
“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have job.”— Brooke Hauser’sYear In Reading
“Instead of A Year in Reading, can I call this my Year of Books Half-Read? Lately I seem to find it impossible to spend more than half an hour at a time reading anything, and as a result I realize that I’ve succumbed to what I call the slug syndrome, as defined by the Mexican essayist and poet Gabriel Zaid. He writes: “Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligible than reading it slowly enough? It’s like examining a mural from two centimeters away…like a shortsighted slug.” (from So Many Books, a quick and enlightening read, translated — full disclosure — by me).”— Natasha Wimmer’sYear In Reading
“NOX’s intelligence, sadness, and wry humor alone might be enough, but its form takes me even more. To read NOX is sensual. You handle the folds, opening one winged pair at a time or in quick, Slinky unfurlings. And this read is not linear, with pages dissolving behind you as you turn, but spatial, more like letting your eyes wander a room. With the whole book unfurled you see it entire and make links among images, like a staircase or an egg that reappear folds apart, and among words like ash, festive, blush. You prowl the book itself.”— Jane Alison’sYear in Reading.
Fun Fact: Jane, one of my creative writing teachers while at the University of Miami, was the one of the best overall teachers I’ve ever had in any discipline.
“Forgetting to bring a book with me constitutes an emergency. I’ve turned back on the street on harried mornings and walked back up four flights of stairs just to find something, anything to read. If I’m almost finished a book, I’ll take an extra just in case. All my memories of reading this year involve harsh overhead lighting, bright stations, glancing up in time to see that strange underground river that runs along the G line, and noise-blocking headphones. (There’s often nothing attached to these headphones. I just need a plausible reason to ignore anyone who bothers me while I’m trying to read.)”—Emily St. John Mandel.
Electric Lit interviews our founding editor C. Max Magee
Electric Lit:We’re currently in the season of year-end lists. What makes The Year in Reading different than other lists? And what do you hope it will accomplish?
Max:The year-end list has become a cliché and is very obviously now little more than a symptom of our cultural obsession with keeping score and ranking everything. It’s a fun pastime, one that we at The Millions are not above engaging in, but at year end, amid the onslaught, it becomes somewhat meaningless and feels transparently like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many best of the year lists that everything is the best (and the worst). So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort? To echo some comments I’ve made in past years when introducing the series, among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest. And rather than hearing from just one trusted fellow reader, we try to give you 70 or so each year. The cup overfloweth.
“Abbott Awaits isn’t a long novel, but it captures a larger slice of life than most novels that I’ve read — Abbott is, by turns, disappointed, miffed, surprised, and happier than he thought possible. At times, the narrative somehow conveys all of these emotions simultaneously.”—Christopher Boucheron Chris Bachelder’s novel Abbott Awaits.
“I figured I might write a play in a bar, as if it had never been done before, as if it were some sort of revolutionary act, so I listened to my countrymen and wrote notes. Theirs was a loneliness pasted upon loneliness. It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.”— From Colum McCann’sLet the Great World Spin, chosen by Alex Shakar for his Year In Reading