Early this year I followed Marie Kondo’s advice and put every book I owned on the floor to be judged.
I held every book and decided whether it brought me joy–if yes it stayed, if no it was discarded. Unfortunately, the joy a book brings can fluctuate based on all those words between the covers. Many of the books I read this year did not bring me joy, but I had to both hold the book and read it to find out.
1. White Rage, Carol Anderson (2016)
White Rage supplies a lot of pieces that are missing from the average American history curriculum. Anderson methodically lays out how white Americans used the law to prevent black Americans from attaining equal status with themselves, beginning with the abolition of slavery until the present day. Anderson examines the white-supremacist objectives of Presidents from Andrew Johnson to Ronald Reagan, the undermining of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, various detrimental Supreme Court decisions, the failure of the criminal justice system, and the gutting of any progress made by the Civil Rights Movement. Particularly striking to me is Anderson’s explanation of how questions of race and civil rights were completely redefined (by white people) in the 1960s and 1970s, when economic inequality was substituted for racial inequality and civil rights were “won” by the desegregation of water fountains and bus seats. There is so much more to learn and know, but White Rage is an excellent introduction to the institutionalized racism that simply succeeded our country’s institutionalized slavery.
2. The Thirteen Problems, Agatha Christie (1932)
The best phrase I can think of to describe The Thirteen Problems is a “murder-mystery Canterbury Tales.” Over the course of two dinner parties, each attendant lays out a mystery from their lives for the others to solve (answered one and all by Miss Marple, of course). These are fun and fast-paced mini mysteries.
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
The plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude is like the dial of a rotary phone: it begins in one place, is quickly rolled back in time, and slowly returns to the place of beginning, over and over again. The narrative seems like a progressive stream of people and events, but the individuals and their habits and their lives continuously circle and swell, building into something complex, beautiful, magnificent.
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude: Modes of Reading, Regina Jones, ed. (1991)
This collection of essays includes historical context, biographical notes on Garcia Marquez, publishing history, and critical essays. The more I learn about One Hundred Years of Solitude, the more incredible the novel is; that’s how you know it’s the Real Deal.
5. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978)
The Sea, The Sea combines light literary farce, dramatic introspective discovery, and ambiguous supernatural forces with flawless prose. I was on the main character’s side at the beginning; he seemed like a fun-loving, living-for-himself-but-harmless guy. It is difficult to maintain this affection as we see how the hero’s ego affects those around him in numerous and devastating ways.
6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
After Rowling’s Hogwarts, Orwell’s Airstrip One is the fictional world invoked most often in the current political climate. Instead of reading the actual news, I reread Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yes it is a great novel. Yes it is a terrifying novel. Yes fiction is a powerful tool to better understand reality. Yes I wish a lot of dummies read more novels. Yes I’ve stopped being courteous to dummies.
7. A Brief History of Ireland, Richard Killeen (2012)
Reading Killeen’s A Brief History of Ireland was such a pleasure it caused me grief—I can’t believe I forced myself to read The Making of Modern Ireland when this book was available. A Brief History of Ireland details the history of Ireland from its prehistoric past to its state in the 21st century. Killeen goes a step beyond breakdowns of historic events and biographies of essential figures. The really rewarding feature of Killeen’s writing is the way he explains the social and cultural context of various events. He describes the impact of, say, the Great Famine on the average citizen, or the reasoning that led to any one of the many popular revolts. Knowing that history does not occur in a vacuum, Killeen makes Irish history feel like a continuous narrative, rather than a disjointed succession of disgruntled secessionists.
8. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Admittedly, I remember very little about this book. I remember there were beautiful sentences and sorrowful characters. There are albums that suit people in a certain state of mind or phase of life; this may be a novel for another mood.
9. Wolfish Girl, Andy Mascola (2016)
Wolfish Girl, written by under-the-radar Twitter star @andymascola, is an entertaining horror-romance novella. The plot is unpredictable and difficult to put down. Wolfish Girl puts a really interesting twist on the monster story.
9.5 Superbosses, Sydney Finkselstein (2016)
Superbosses (of which I read about 65%, hence the partial numeration) looks at the phenomenon of business leaders whose proteges consistently succeed after striking out on their own. Nick Saban comes to mind, as a coach who has had many assistants go on to become successful college football head coaches (of course, Saban is a branch on the mega-coaching tree of Bill Parcells via Bill Belichick). The gist seems to be that many bosses are great at their jobs, have a vision for their future, and are nurturing to employees. What sets “superbosses” apart is that they are not threatened by possibly superior talent, intellect, or ability. Where a mediocre boss might not hire the brightest candidate, or might discourage or prevent the progress made by their subordinates, “superbosses” give their proteges the space to become the best version of themselves.
10. The Book of Kells, Edward Sullivan (1920)
Joseph Campbell recommends reading this book of examples of and commentary on The Book of Kells as a key to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The glossy prints of Kells pages are colorful and intricate, and Sullivan’s text provides insight into the creation and meaning of many of the illuminations. There are probably plenty of Kells images online, but looking at a copy in your hand, in natural light, is a rewarding activity.
11. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)
After intense research, I have uncovered two types of Wolf Hall readers:
- Those who completed it and adore every line.
- Those who could not complete it because they despise every line.
I am proud to conquer virgin territory: I completed it despite despising every line. Read my reasoning here.
12. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, Thomas R. Flagel (2010)
A history book organized by Top Ten lists: of course such a project cannot encompass the vastness of the Civil War in all its horror and meaning. Nevertheless, Flagel conveys a great deal of information without coming across as flippant. Perhaps being limited by brevity forced the writer to condense the events and facts to their essential, undiluted heinousness.
13. Germania, Simon Winder (2011)
German history is European history—ancient, consequential, continuously relevant. Yet it seems difficult to find much historical literature that doesn’t focus on 20th century Germany (admittedly a significant period). The Third Reich managed to occupy three generations of academic German historians and three generations of interested Germophiles. Germania is written not by a historian, but by an enthusiast who doesn’t even speak German. Winder does not discount or disrespect 20th century German history, but revives the wonder and beauty and terrors that preceded the World Wars. It is all I could do, midway through reading, to not jump on a plane to Germany(/Czechia/Poland/Austria/etc.) to explore the castles and restaurants and other living artifacts of Germany’s bygone past.
14. Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson (2007)
Instead of hypothesizing, guessing, or projecting possibilities about Shakespeare’s life, this biography delivers exactly what you want to know about Shakespeare: What do we actually know about him? Where did this information come from? Where do those images of Shakespeare come from? Why do people think Shakespeare did not write the works under his name? Why are those people most likely wrong? Bill Bryson is at his best when he is writing about literature and language (and generally things other than himself), and this little biography is a joy.
15. The Waste Land (Norton Critical Edition), Michael North, ed. (2000)
This edition of The Waste Land (like the critical edition of Solitude, above) contains historical context, literary sources, and critical essays from the time of its release to more recent scholarship. I had not read the poem before, and I assumed it was universally revered; many of these essays undercut that notion. I personally found the essay by Cleanth Brooks, Jr., most truthful, and F.R. Leavis’s essay offered helpful insight into Eliot’s world.
16. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
Bloomsday simply felt incomplete without reading from Ulysses, so I started the whole thing over again. Every reading is so rewarding; I look forward to returning to Dublin again soon.
B1. Deuteronomy, KJV
This is as far as my Biblical readings took me this year. Deuteronomy seems to be a summary of all the important stuff from the preceding books. Like Moses is doing an exam review before the Israelites are tested in the Promised Land.
17. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
Early in my journey into the Congo, I knew The Poisonwood Bible was a treasure. I listened to the audiobook, which is a format particularly suited to this novel. Kingsolver relates most of the novel through characters who have an incomplete view of the situation; the audiobook narrator worked wonders with the five voices and personalities. It feels like it could have ended about 75% of the way through, but I still enjoyed the remainder of the book.
18. The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)
This narrative presentation of two concurrent American sagas was easy to immerse myself in. I wrote about The Devil in the White City here .
Tl; dr: It stands on its own, but also could serve as a useful introduction to reading The Fountainhead.
19. Loon Lake, E.L. Doctorow (1980)
I finished this book out of spite. Spite against what or whom? I don’t know. But I really did not enjoy any of it.
20. Dubliners, James Joyce (1914)
Rereading Dubliners was long overdue. The first time I read it I could tell there were depths I was not plumbing; this second time around I did not fare much better.
20.a Dubliners (Norton Critical Edition), Margaret Norris, ed. (2005)
This, my third critical edition of the year, provides tremendous insight into Joyce’s short stories. Each essay illuminates some connection between stories, some implication within an interaction, some gem of hidden meaning ready to gleam in the light of recognition.
21. The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie (1942)
This mystery novel is set in the same universe as The Thirteen Problems, above, and has about as many mini mysteries packed into a single narrative. Apparently it also takes place in our reality, because Agatha Christie mentions her own name among a list of autographs by famous mystery authors.
22. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
I expected Cloud Atlas to be confusing and complicated in the tradition of Infinite Jest—needlessly, a vanity project. Instead, it is somehow straightforward while being complex in a lovely, entertaining, and fascinating manner. Though it gets a little self-aware toward the end, I really enjoyed this novel and could see myself (or perhaps a reincarnated version of myself) returning to it in the future.
23. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
David Sedaris is like a childhood friend that I don’t see very often, but whenever we get together, we laugh like idiots. Of course, it’s a pretty one-way street between me and David; he does most of the heavy lifting and I do most of the laughing. I was surprised to learn that not everybody knows Sedaris is greatest living essayist, so I’ve started recommending his books to my friends. Woe unto him who heeds not my counsel!
24. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1967)
Upon publication this novel met two diverging, powerful responses: negative backlash from the black community, and critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize (from the white community). I decided to read the novel before investigating the substance of either response; I wanted to experience it without outside influences, and then read the criticism. I admit, as a white person who is not well-schooled in identifying the racism that pervades the world I grew up in and who knows nothing of the historical Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner was a literary pleasure. While reading, I felt Styron artfully lampooned the hypocrisy of the courts passing sentence against the rebels who were themselves trying to escape the life of imprisonment, torture, and death imposed on them by their “victims.” Styron’s “good” slaveowners are portrayed as guilty of perpetuating the institution of slavery, even as they lament its evils. I did not pick up on the many problems contained in the novel for much the same reason Styron did not feel troubled to write them; we have had the luxury of ignorance. Regardless, I had the following book of criticism on the shelf before I began the novel, and I was open to what the writers had to say.
25. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, John Henrik Clarke, ed. (1968)
Published the year after Styron’s novel, this collection of essays is alive
with the energy of an ongoing conflict. I originally felt some empathy for Styron—a creative mind with an interest in history made a misguided attempt at fictionalizing a fascinating figure of American history. After reading these responses, I doubt not only his methods but also his motives. These writers make it clear that Styron had all the information and resources he needed to write about Nat Turner accurately, but he willfully ignored history and created a fictional Nat Turner who embodies all the degrading, harmful stereotypes historically imposed on black people and their enslaved ancestors. Styron concocted his own facts, which not only diverged from the historical record but were patently racist. When the facts are wrong, the truths arising therefrom are flawed. Through the corruption of facts, Styron’s novel churns out flawed conclusions—Turner is emasculated, rebellions are futile, rebels are criminals, and slaveowners are generally good people. Styron ignored the history and ideas of black people and wrote a novel beyond redemption; the progressive white public ignored the voices of these black writers and others and awarded Nat Turner a Pulitzer Prize.
26. Holidays On Ice, David Sedaris (1997)
On my third try, I finally finished this essay collection. I also realized the reason Holidays on Ice never grabbed me like Sedaris’s other books: This one has a higher concentration of fictional stories. The succession of fabricated Christmas curmudgeons don’t do it for me like his usual genuine misanthropes.
27. High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Robertson Davies (1982)
Robertson Davies was the Master of Massey College of the University of Toronto from 1963 until 1981. Davies told a ghost story each year at the school’s Christmas party, and those are collected in this book. What a treasure and a blessing it must have been to be present when this master storyteller related a charming tale, written and delivered for your ears only.
28. Poem A Day, Vol.1, Karen McCosker and Nichols Albery, eds. (1994)
I began reading a poem as soon as I woke up about two years ago; this book took the guesswork out of selecting which poem that should be. Running from January 1 to December 31, poems in Poem A Day are intended to be memorized; I gave up on that project some time around January 5. Selections cover all periods of time and style (though not place), and most poems include a brief biographical note on the author, usually with some indication regarding why a poem was chosen for a particular date. Thanks to Volumes 2 and 3, I hope to benefit from the simplicity of this series until 2020.
I didn’t achieve any of my reading goals this year. Most of my selections were for the purpose of self-education (history, criticism, literacy) rather than pleasure. Reading in 2017 was hard because I made it hard; I often read out of an obligation imposed on myself by myself. In 2018 I want to bring reading back to a place of ease and delight. I want to read more fiction, and I want to allow myself to stop reading a book if it does not bring me joy.