I had one goal for reading in 2018: enjoy it. I forced myself to read too many educational books in 2017 for no reason other than I should, and I did not want to wear myself down that way again.
I believe I succeeded. I still read a fair number of educational books, but they did not need forcing. There are a few books on this list that captured my mind and fired up my soul and filled me with the wonder that is literature’s unique drug.
1. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1931)
I listened to The Good Earth as an audiobook, something I recommend everyone do for books they should read but haven’t gotten around to reading. It’s a book full of shrewd women and weak men, the idle rich and the overworked poor, and the way needs and wants change when the poor gain wealth and the rich become poor. The simple prose and clear storytelling reflect the simplicity of the protagonist’s drive for survival and the lengths to which he goes to stay alive. I expected the novel to end with a revolution of the poor against the protagonist, but prefer the subtle return to a man attached to his land.
2. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
If Misery‘s Annie Wilkes and the title character from What About Bob? had a baby who became a literary critic, he might have written Pale Fire. It is frequently spoken of in hallowed terms, as a difficult novel, due to its central structural device: the novel takes the form of the annotation of a long poem. My mission in life is to spread the word: Do not fear! The poem is not difficult! The annotations are hilarious! Nabokov reveals the characters (the narrator, the poet, the poet’s wife, the narrator again) with such sly slight-of-hand, you don’t realize how insane the narrator is–even when you’re convinced the narrator is insane. I will reread Pale Fire for two reasons: 1) There are a hundred clues to a mystery you don’t realize you need to solve, and 2) it is a hilarious, beautiful joy to read.
3. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (2000)
The first time I remember registering David Sedaris in my mind, he was promoting this book on David Letterman. I was a little put off by the title, since it sounds like the words of a child or a cave man or someone of below average intelligence. I was delighted to learn (in reading) that “Me talk pretty one day” are in fact the words of an adult doing his best. Like so much of Sedaris’s writing, it has a sweetness you can forget lies beneath his outer curmudgeonly attitude.
Sedaris’s essays spin threads of his life, which when woven together result in a truly bizarre tapestry. Here is young/OCD/tic David; here is meth-head performance artist David; here is cat-owner David–they are all the same, multitude-containing David. If he tried to write them all at once, as a long-form autobiography, we probably wouldn’t believe him. His essay work, revealing himself in discrete layers, let us take in his many mannerisms and the lives he has led without ever doubting him.
None of the many Davids revealed unto us seem like the kind of guy who would listen to NPR. Young David always desires fame and adulation; I wonder what he’d think of older David’s devoted public radio fanbase.
4. Vacationland, John Hodgman (2017)
This is the polished version of sets I’d seen Hodgman perform in Birmingham and Atlanta, with new stories and fresh punchlines. Hodgman’s sense of humor directly aligns with mine in just about every way.
Hodgman has accepted the judgment of his style as “white privilege morality comedy.” He is acutely aware of the implications of white privilege, and makes a serious effort to communicate that he knows how his race, sex, and class have affected the life he’s living. I appreciated one detail in particular: when describing a white person in a story, he describes them as “white.” Writers frequently only mention an actor’s race if they are not white, implying whiteness by omission. Just as the “generic he” is on the way out, the “default white” should also be a thing of the past.
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962)
Who wouldn’t be enchanted by Maggie Smith?
Perhaps I expected something maudlin or idyllic, like Goodbye Mr. Chips or Mary Poppins, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie surprised me by being neither. Far from a stodgy prose narrative, Sparks flows between past and present as easily as Gabriel García Márquez. The title teacher tricks her pupils and the reader into initially believing that she is in Her Prime. Upon reflection, she is not as strong as she projects herself to be; she lives a life of nostalgia, paranoia, and insecurity. Yes, she is an independent woman in a world that somewhat rejects her; yes, the men in her life are fascinated by her; yes, her students remember her long after she is gone, but we never see her through any lens but teacher. We never know her inner life or how she is at home, alone.
6. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868-9)
My annual Dosty took me months to finish. I’d like to think I was recreating the original experience of reading it in monthly installments, but honestly it’s another book that takes quite a while to heat up. By Part IV, the narrative voice shifts to a more present, active personality. At the same time, a wave of premonitions, visions, and themes come to fruition in a variety of awful ways, bringing the novel to an exciting, terrible close.
7. The Everything Learning German Book (2d), Edward Swick (2009)
Man cannot live on Duolingo alone. This book was my first German instructor, and reading it straight through gave me an overview of the rules of basic grammar, syntax, vocabulary, conjugations, etc. I will return to this book as needed in the future as I continue learning the language. I didn’t become fluent from reading it, but the explanations and examples were klar as Tag.
8. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)
Irving describes his own flowing style in the voice of his narrator.
A few major plot points in Owen Meany are cribbed from my favorite novel Fifth Business; I was inordinately proud of myself for picking up on them and relieved to read that Irving acknowledges the influence. Though I think there are a few too many similarities between the two novels, the relief let me enjoy falling back into Irving’s writing. The way he triangulates seamlessly from topic to topic reminds me of the ease with which Woolf moves among consciousnesses in Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a wonder to behold.
Even so, by drawing so explicitly from Fifth Business, Irving invites comparison. John does not grow and change like Dunstan Ramsay; other characters change too much to be believable. What’s worse, the entire plot wraps up too tightly; perfect puzzles are more appropriate for Agatha Christie mysteries than ambitious literary novels. An opening epigraphs states, “…I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be…how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” Irving goes on to create such an experience, which leaves no room for doubt. Unfortunately, the reason the author of that quote could not imagine such an experience is because cut-and-dry miracles are the stuff of legend. When Irving veers into that territory, the novel lost me.
9. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Kind (and Keep) Love, Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller (2010)
The title is heavy-handed, but the content rings true. Of course there is more to learn and this book won’t solve the world’s problems, but it taught me a tremendous amount about myself and those I am close to. I appreciate this new way of understanding my own (and others’) behavior. Additionally, this book is well-written; it doesn’t fall into that pop-psychology ditch of being overly repetitive or feeling like a sales pitch.
10. The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger, Leonard Scheff & Susan Edmiston (2010)
Scheff learned Zen Buddhism from many teachers and created a workshop to share what he learned with others; this is more or less the written version of that workshop. It is little more than a compilation of others’ words, with little insight. It probably works better as a workshop.
11. The Seventh of Joyce, Bernard Benstock, ed. (1982)
This conference monograph was often too dense for me to understand, particularly the bits explicitly about hard science or Finnegans Wake. Nevertheless, there were always little tidbits to pick up and carry along on my next trip to Dublin.
12. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark, Michelle McNamara (2018)
I read this book shortly after the Golden State Killer was arrested, so that I would be understand all the news, rumors, and juicy details in context. Published posthumously, you can tell that certain sections are unfinished or cobbled together from the author’s notes. In addition to being a well-written, fascinating, terrifying book, it carries complex baggage for the modern reader: one is satisfied that the crimes have been solved, but one is woeful that the author–who dedicated so much of her life to unmasking the GSK–did not live to learn his name.
13. The Girls, Emma Cline (2016)
A cautionary tale: the story of how an awkward girlhood, a bad homelife, and an unexpected relationship could lead to joining the Manson Family.
14. Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Eileen is my new favorite obsession; it is the rare book I could not believe existed as I was reading it. Strangely, it is very similar to The Girls; though I didn’t intentionally read them in succession, Eileen is the book I had hoped The Girls would be.
The novel is an incredible portrayal of the isolated inner life of an unhappy, intelligent young woman and the light that begins to shine when she meets someone who breaks her icy shell. Moshfegh’s narrator Eileen looks back on a pivotal moment in her life while moving fluidly into reminiscences, explanations, and reflections. She never goes too far off-track, and the reader never forgets where she is. Masterfully written, remarkably dark, hilarious, and thrilling.
15. Dubliners, James Joyce (1912)
Reading Dubliners with a solid foundation of Ulysses allowed me to realize just how intertwined the stories are with the lives of Stephen and Bloom in the Ulyssniverse1. And after years of reading and study, I can finally start to see how they are not just a collection of short stories; the simplicity of Dubliners belies a beauty and complexity on par with any other Joyce work.
16. Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, Margot Norris (2003)
After I read Dubliners the first time, I knew I missed a world of depth. This book revealed that world to me. With an essay corresponding to each short story, Suspicious Readings is a perfect companion piece to the original. I alternated reading a story with its critical essay, and my world expanded with each new perspective and revelation. Written with the benefit of nearly a century of Joyce scholarship and a woman’s perspective, Norris questions the motives and decisions of each story’s narrator. She dives into how the style, voice, and other details work to manipulate the reader, and a bit into how individual stories contribute to the whole.
17. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (1916)
I was alarmed and confused to realize that I had not read Portrait since 2015, before I ever read Ulysses. I am hungry to dive into the criticism on Portrait–there is so much to learn! The sermon on Hell doesn’t scare me as much as it did before; now I just have The Good Place to keep the fear of eternal damnation alive in my soul.
18. The Story of Art (16th) E.H. Gombrich (1995)
Rather than a textbook history of art, with names and dates never veering from fact, this is a story of art, with an engaging narrative style that pretty cleanly connects people and movements to one another. It is exciting to read, and every concept is illustrated with large, colorful images.
The Story of Art retains many of the problematic elements typical of a work originally published in 1950. The author is fairly patronizing toward primitive peoples and their art, and he completely dismisses the role of Middle Eastern culture in preserving science and techniques that allowed the Renaissance to even occur. An honest title would identify this as the story of Western art. Nevertheless it is a well-told and beautiful story.
19. Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh (2017)
Riding the high from Eileen, I was initially concerned by the cynicism of this collection of short stories by the same author. I felt drained and overwhelmed at first, but the energy builds and builds with each story. Moshfegh can make my jaw drop.
20. How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse, Thomas Foster (2018)
This slim volume starts with many of the basics I’ve learned and forgotten about poetry–trochees and dactyls, sonnets and villanelles. This book was truly valuable because of three points Foster makes about literally reading poetry. Two points resolved uncertainties I’d been wrestling with, and the third enhances the experience still more.
- Ignore line breaks, and read according to the punctuation.
- Ignore the lilt of the meter, and read like a normal human.
- Read poems out loud, not silently in your head.
My daily morning poem is all the more enjoyable thanks to these tips.
21. How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, Will Hines (2016)
In 2018 I accidentally got into improv comedy. This is the first book on improv I read to supplement my classes and other practices. Hines expounds on improv maxims (e.g., yes-and) and adds and emphasizes as his experience moves him (e.g., know care say). Among the very useful mini lessons is one big lesson: Each mantra may only be helpful to an individual for a short while. That means I can use a line as guidance for now, and be OK if I need something different later. I wrote out a list of such lines from this book for future (and current) reference.
Another plus of Hines’ book is it is laugh-out-loud funny–as in, I laughed out loud while trying to read quietly at work.
22. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
This was the third June in a row that I thought, “I should be reading Ulysses right now.” I had not read the Ullyssniverse trilogy in order since the first time I read them in 2015-2016. I was able to remember the backstories of many of the folks who appear in Dubliners, enriching my and Bloom’s experience. I would like to dig into the criticism on the episodes Nausicaa and Oxen of the Sun.
23. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
I’d read it long ago, but after countless hours listening to My Favorite Murder and consuming similar shows, Lolita strikes me as a fictional true crime novel. As a people, we are more comfortable reading about murderers than child molesters, and Nabokov is better with the English language than pretty much anyone, so typically Lolita is not grouped with the rest of the genre.
Though our narrator Humbert thinks it is romantic, Lolita does not romanticize his relationship with Lolita.The ugliness and violence are out in the open. The child’s voice is almost unspoken, but her misery is clear. The entire novel is the raving of a maniac.
24. All the Light You Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)
I have a laundry list of problems with this book, but I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps I just wish it met its full potential.
25. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1922)
To the Lighthouse is a wonderful depiction of the oceans of feeling, emotion, thought, memory, etc., that roll beneath each person’s external presence, actions, and words. I knew nothing of this novel, and was surprised and intrigued by the structure of two single days, separated by ten years.
26. Poem a Day, Vol. 2, Laurie Sheck ed. (2003)
I was disappointed in Volume 2 of this series. The author of Volume 1 took great care in linking the day of the year to a day in the poet’s life. Volume 2 doesn’t even list the poets’ dates of birth and death. Instead, each poem is accompanied by a long and uninteresting biography of the poet. This collection also includes a fair number of translations and recently published poems, which tend to be less desirable to me.
I look forward to Volume 3 each day of 2019.
My numbers went down a bit in 2018, but the quality went up. The books I got the most out of or will certainly return to are as follows:
- Pale Fire
- The Story of Art
- Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners
In 2019 I hope to continue seeking out novels that put a fire in my belly, and disregard books that feel like a chore.
1. Trademark 2019 Kate E. Britt↩