Friday, January 4, 2013

A Year In and Out of Reading

I was not sorry to see 2012 go. The year certainly held its treasures—some nice publications, a return to a favorite summer job, a happy end to college—but it also felt indeterminate, wearying.

It's an indication of how I felt about last year that I don't much feel like interrogating that last statement. I'll instead appeal to a different measure in bidding farewell to 2012. In 2011, I read 23 books, a nice figure that I briefly (and stupidly) bemoaned as the year drew to a close. I was on pace to shatter that figure through August, at which point I'd finished sixteen books, but then my new job started and my reading slowed significantly. I ended the year having completed twenty books. That small figure makes me wonder if this will be the last year I keep a reading list, at least for a while: inexplicably, I don't keep track of articles and short stories and essays I read, which makes the list feel partial, and keeping a year's list of reading often turns my favorite pastime into a race against the clock, a task performed for the menial reward of another notch in my notebook. In any case, here's a look back at what I read in 2012:

I began the year with Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, a novel with a pleasant campus atmosphere and half-baked characters. I then moved on to a series of rereads, dipping into Dante's Inferno for the third time, his Purgatorio for the second time, and Bellow's Herzog for the second time. Dante remains a favorite, a well that can never be exhausted (alas, I aborted a reading of Paradiso shortly after beginning); I feel much the same about Bellow, whose Herzog truly deserves wider attention as an American Ulysses, a novel of ideas that is all about living.

I finally broke my Jane Austen fast and read Persuasion, a novel whose charms and sly political undertones made me sad that I'd waited so long to read Austen and glad to have finally been initiated into her happy readership. I tackled Paradise Lost for a class; compared to Dante, Milton's Christian epic is rigid and puritanical, and my experience of reading it was dutiful and detached.

In May, I read Jonathan Franzen's new essay collection Farther Away for a review. He's of course a favorite of mine, and I remain under his spell, no matter his critics' carping. I also read my first Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American, which kept me in good company in the empty days between the end of exams and graduation.

Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station received a lot of attention last year, and I'm already planning a reread in 2013; I found its examinations of the nature of contemporary life's relationship to art to be compelling and perhaps a bit too accurate, but I read it mostly in airports and airplanes and thus not as carefully as I'd like. Hemingway, usually not an ally, surprised me at the beginning of summer with the heartache of The Sun Also Rises, which I read at the prompting of Tom Bissell's lovely short essay on the book from a back issue of The Believer. Adrian Goldsworthy's biography of Julius Caesar was my history for the year, an informative if slightly dry recounting of the great man's life.

Melville's Billy Budd was as stirring and mysterious in its economy as Moby-Dick is in its bagginess. Sarah Bakewell's offbeat biography of Montaigne, How to Live, is not only a lively and amusing take on Montaigne's idosyncratic life and works; it's also an interesting reconsideration of what a biography can be. I can't recommend it enough.

Anna Karenina was the year's crowning achievement. I liked it less than War and Peace, but comparisons are relative at such heights. Tolstoy may profess in the famous first sentence to write about unhappy families, but I'm always impressed by his ability to depict happiness as an equally interesting part of the human experience.

From there I read two Michael Chabon novels back-to-back: The Yiddish Policeman's Union and the new Telegraph Avenue, which I reviewed here. Chabon is a stylistic and narrative wizard, and both experiences confirmed him in my mind as one of my favorite contemporary writers, a neon whiz kid who touches on themes of loss and nostalgia close to my heart.

Dave Eggers' A Hologram For The King was topically interesting and emotionally chilly. Turgenev's Fathers and Sons immediately entered the pantheon of my favorite books. John Updike's Rabbit Redux was waterlogged and moldy with Sixties motifs. His vision still strikes me as best contained in the botanical garden of the short story rather than the forest of the novel.

Finally, in the days before Christmas, I revisited Hamlet for the fourth or fifth time. It's always good to be back in Denmark, no matter how rotten the state.

A parting word about this blog: Traction did a bit of slipping this year. I posted less than ever, and my interest waned accordingly. I've considered converting this into a Tumblr for simply posting published pieces, but I'm not ready to give up on the project yet, which has now been with me through three calendar years, a companion that's always in the process of being created, just like someone I know.


Andrew Ivers said...

Jim, as someone who has become a compulsive tracker of his reading, I understand the distaste for treating a book regimen in a quantitative way. (And I would add that you’ve probably bested me many times over in your reading, an endeavor that was nothing more than an entertainment for me until I got out of grad school - a good year hence from where you are now.) But with that having been said, I would encourage you to embrace the reading checklist. We might differ on this, but treating reading as a job as well as a beloved pastime has kept me on a good track. I suspect, given your accomplishments in this work, you might not need this advice. The goal is to give serious study to these works, and what that means is best determined by the reader. But learning to whip through books to get the lay of the land - before returning again soon, of course - has worked for me. If I may exercise our brief age gap for a moment: I’ve come to learn that most endeavors worth doing should be treated with professionalism as well as passion. It took me a long time to learn this discipline - and I suspect you’re already more or less disciplined enough - but being scientific about reading, especially first readings, is, in my humble opinion, the best advice I can give to a (slightly) younger critic. I hope that isn’t terribly condescending advice.

Moving on, I encourage you to continue on with Austen. Her precise understanding of the psychology and politics of intimate social relationships (ie, friendships and love, as well as accompanying social relationships) is almost overlooked despite her present celebrity. I think it’s actually because of her understanding of the abiding need for justice in these relationships that she remains popular. There’s a deep human need for justice regained after some offense or imbalance. Like Shakespeare’s comedies (thought often far more believable) her novels capture the anxiety of injustice in social relationships perhaps better than any other works. This is usually, in our times, reduced to the cheap “happy ending,” yet there’s an essential truth even the Disney versions of this trope. I’m rather ignorant of other predecessors (and successors) on this particular theme (beyond general examples), but I consider “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” masterpieces if only for this reason.

Well, I’ve rambled enough. You’re kicking my ass from Tolstoy to Bellow, but perhaps by this time next year I’ll at least be able to weigh in on “Anna Karenina” and “The Inferno.”

Let’s keep this discussion going ...

P.S. Not sure if you've read it, but Eugenides’ first novel, though small in scope, is nearly flawless.

P.P.S. This form won’t let me sign in with my blog, so I selfishly reproduce the link here:

Andrew Ivers said...

P.S. I'd just like to add that I'm sorry if I sounded like a pompous asshole there ... I was a tad inebriated and probably trying to compensate by writing like Harold Bloom or some such literary pontificator.

Jim Santel said...

If you read the above comments and didn't want to visit Andrew Ivers' blog, then shame on you.

Andrew Ivers said...

Hahaha. You make me blush, Jim. I'm obliged. Good reading!

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