A Year in Reading: 2014

Taking a page from The Million’s Year in Reading, I compiled a list of the books that I read this year. It was the year that I set out to tackle a few of the weighty tomes that were taunting me from bookshelves, or tired of being made doorstops. I set out to see “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”[i]

Three of the ten writers I read are living: Olivia Laing, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Three of the ten writers took their own life. I don’t have a shelf strong enough to hold that particular fact. Without my progress on Bolaño included I read 4,834 pages. There were pages I devoured like starving wolves, others I trenched into for days. It was enough to make me quit reading and writing all together. But somehow through the tangible, corporeal mess of this year, reading was the drug; it was the force that measured me into manageable pieces, that divvied me like manna into sustenance; it was the voice that taught me to mourn, and the same voice that said: here is another day, do with it what you will.

I will not forget the year that I strolled the Dublin streets with Bloom on June 16th; the way the years passed—measured in seasons—with the Pargiters of London in no time at all; the trip to Echo Spring and the ghosts of my favorite writers covered in the sweat of their own sprits; the stories floating out of that enormous radio—a storytelling device as ageless as Cheever’s prose and Fitzgerald’s lovers; to hover benevolently above the Incandenzas and the Lamberts, and then—at last, reluctantly—to stow them all away.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Mostly, I read Joyce in college. I devoured Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. We tackled pages from Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses in Modernism, wearily recoiling from the book’s entirety. As a recovering English major I couldn’t let time pass—weakened by age and post-modern prose—without tackling the Everest of literature and the centerpiece of modernist writing. I actually started the book in 2011, got through about 80 pages and left it on my nightstand, forgotten like a Gideon bible in a lonesome hotel drawer. I picked it back up at the start of this year and started from the beginning.

It is everything that everyone says about it. It is difficult; it requires superb dedication, a lot of time, Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated, pitch-perfect knowledge of Homer and Shakespeare, familiarity with Irish literature and history and a sense of humor. It’s complex and beautiful, sad and irreverent, and contains some of the most arresting prose I’ve ever encountered—at some points I thought I would never pick up a pen again. It is not pompous and overwrought, but imaginative, experimental and littered with references that even the most trained scholar will miss. It is also ordinary, mundane and decidedly impudent. Joyce is genius in a way that makes you feel like a newborn; human in a way that makes you cry out in terror. Language is putty in his hands, and sings when he calls to the choir. I will read for the rest of my life and never read anything as good, as stupidly human, or as paralyzing as this.

“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”  - Joyce

The Years, Virginia Woolf

I read Woolf for her prose. God, it’s so good: I consume it, study and dissect it like science; turn it inside out and ultimately let it bathe me like a summer flood with perfectly placed semicolons as floatation devices. The Years was the last novel that Woolf published in her lifetime, so it felt apropos to save it for last. Having read all of her other novels much earlier, something about reading Joyce must have snapped the crazy in me and I was ready for more British Modernism. The novel follows the Pargiter family from 1880 to the present day of 1930. It spans years but is not large in scope; like Woolf’s other novels it focuses on the small, intimate details of each character’s life—measured by the transcendent weather occurrences outside their flat's window. As I read the final page, I was devastated to think that I would not again read a Woolf novel for the first time. There is no other writer that so deftly captures the ineffable and isolating nature of human consciousness.

“There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves.” - Woolf

The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing

Apparently the majority of my favorite writers were real boozers. How intoxicating. This book was recommended by my favorite clerk at Books Inc.—he appears like a wraith and provides thoughtful, unsolicited book reviews. He looks like your grandpa, reads more than my literature professors and sometimes I wonder if he’s even real[ii]. One afternoon he appeared and urged me to consider The Trip to Echo Spring. I was sold at the words Cheever, Williams, Berryman, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Carver. The book unfolds like a travel memoir as Laing draws portraits of each writer along her cross-country journey from New York to Port Angeles, Washington. To discuss writers and alcoholism is a difficult task; the relationship between artists and addiction has remained largely mysterious. It’s clear that it’s also a personal topic for Laing; she wrestles with demons along the way and treats each writer with a gloved empathy that makes it apparent that she admires them as much as I do. To write about some of the best American prose writers of the last century would keep me up at night, but Laing does this with tight research and beautiful language that though sentimental, serves them very well—and among these authors, that’s really saying something.

“At some point, you have to set down the past. At some point, you have to accept that everyone was doing their best. At some point, you have to gather yourself up, and go onward into your life.”  - Laing

The Stories of John Cheever, John Cheever

Led back to Cheever by Laing’s compelling reading of "The Swimmer", I picked up his stories again while reading Echo Spring. I wrote about Cheever earlier this year, so I will save some space and long-winded excitement about literature here and leave you with this: no one writes short stories quite like Cheever.

“Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” - Cheever

Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

I’m not sure how I made the jump from Neddy Merrill to the bumbling, giant Ignatius J. Reilly. This comic masterpiece set in New Orleans follows the misadventures of our flatulent, quixotic hero as he navigates employment at Levy Pants, spurs a workers’ revolt, manages (or rather eats through) a rolling hot dog stand and wanders Canal Street. Jonathan Swift gives the book its title and the narrative lives up to its witty namesake. It rambles along with delight like Cervantes’s great epic and often feels reminiscent of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. You will laugh out loud while reading this book and often think about cheese dip.

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” - Kennedy Toole

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Oh, Incandenza family. Oh, Hal. Oh, Orin. OH, MARIO. Oh, even Michael Pemulis (what is it about Pemulis?). Joelle and Don and my other Ennet House friends. Oh, everyone. I will reserve my formal literary analysis for another time: a time ripe with time itself, after another read and probably years of research. Here’s what I feel equipped to tell you about this book today:  

I loved the Incandenza family in ways that are probably inappropriate for fiction. I cursed out loud. I reread Hamlet. I sought annotations but never ventured onto any of those hundreds of creepy websites dedicated solely to this book. I cried out. Loud. In sobs. On more than one occasion. I’ve never met such flagrantly sad prose, so well wrought—so smart and relevant it hurts inside your bones and through your organs and into your marrow as if the heart weren’t even material anymore. I read passages that made me swear off writing (again). I picked up the pen and began again, newly infant. I swore off television. I laughed out loud—in bed, on the bus, in more uncomfortable places than darkness. People looked at me like I was wearing the veil of Joelle Van D. When I read the last page the only thing I could think to do was begin again. What will happen to these people—what future awaits them; what will happen to Hal? It’s a question that for as long as I live I’ll never forget. 

“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”  - Wallace

All the Sad Young Men, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have loved Fitzgerald unsparingly since reading the first pages of This Side of Paradise. I purchased this book in Paris at Shakespeare & Co—it only felt appropriate. It’s a quick read; the pages slip away quickly like sin on the tongue and I devoured these stories of the sad young men I’ve come to love so willingly. Some of his best short fiction is showcased in “The Rich Boy”, “Winter Dreams” and “Absolution”.

“Begin with an individual and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing.” - Fitzgerald

Point Omega, Don DeLillo

Admittedly, this is first DeLillo book I’ve read. Coaxed toward DeLillo and Pynchon by Wallace’s admiration, I chose Point Omega for it’s slim aesthetic and the promise of taut prose. Inspired by his visit to Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” exhibit, this becomes the focus of the beginning and end of the novel. There are only three characters—a novice filmmaker, his intended subject living alone in the desert following his involvement with the Iraq War and the subject’s somewhat slippery daughter. The character interaction is limited and dialogue is spare and lean. The setting, plot and events are reminiscent of the scarcity of Beckett. Bare as it was, it didn’t jab at my insides like the rawness of Beckett. It does however, speak about technology, time, art and personal vs. civil conflict in a way that resonates long after the omega point has past.

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” - DeLillo

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This novel came to me like a glass of alpine water in the middle of the desert—and thirstily, it was devoured. I took it on vacation, toted it onto the beach, read it late into the warm night and even standing up in the kitchen. It was the most effortless read of the year; but please don’t tell Franzen I said that[iii], because this doesn’t mean that it isn’t smart, intricate and littered with clever language and witty nods to his literary influences. This American epic begins with an anxious alarm bell ringing in the Lambert household, and as it follows the generations of the family, the vibrating bell does not let up. It’s interesting to note the name of the family that Franzen chose, a lambert: a former unit of luminance. And here we are following around this family—not apart from their suburban angst, alcoholism, sexual repression, depression and phobias—all centering around the Hallmark-movie-mundanity of one question: will mother Lambert ever get all the kiddies home for Christmas?

Franzen is alarmingly good at metaphor, but not overtly luminary with prose. In fact, as I paged back through the book, it was mostly felicitous wordplay that inspired underlining and notes in the margin. If metaphor is the language of the intellectual it’s clear he’s brilliant, but if prose is the measure of imagination his words do not dance like those of his fellow puppeteers. All of that (and the ending) aside, I hold this novel in very high esteem and would read it again tomorrow if I could feel the weight of this trembling family upon me again. It’s entertaining, sad and so very American.

“And meanwhile the sad truth was that not everyone could be extraordinary, not everyone could be extremely cool; because whom would this leave to be ordinary?” - Franzen

2666, Roberto Bolaño

This is the beast I’m currently spending wide-awake nights and long days with. I hoped I would finish it by the end of the year, but it sits next to me, bookmarked and dog-eared like a memory. I have a feeling I will be haunted by this one for some time to come. Stay tuned for a full review.

Footnotes:

[i] Roberto Bolaño, 2666

[ii] Is he the Tran to my Nick? (See popular television program: New Girl)

[iii] Should I ever have a talk show, own a billion dollar media empire and a start a book club it would be my hope that Franzen would only have nice, belly-warming things to say about me.