2017 in books

This year I read 80 books, which is up from 60 in 2016, and down from 92 the year before that.  I recall 2015 as a year when I had a lot of time on my hands.

Of these, 13 were rereads.  Twenty-two of the 80 were nonfiction — essays or history.  Twenty-seven were audiobooks.

I’m having a hell of a time writing this post.  I’ve produced a number of turgid, rather pompous paragraphs, as if I for an annual report, but I guess I’ll spare you those — you, my random reader, if you exist.

This was the year my parents lost their ability to live independently, and my father died in the fall.  For months before that, I spent a good deal of my time and most of my emotional energy on difficult tasks in their service.  I wasn’t working a good deal of the time — it a slow year for freelancing — and reading, as well as watching TV and listening to too many political podcasts — was chief escape, distraction, occupation, excuse for not doing something else.  Creative writing, always a struggle and source of constant conflict, just went completely by the bye.

The list of books I devoured is here presented in 3 screenshots.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.01 PM.pngIt conceals the stretches over the summer when I couldn’t settle down to any particular book, and sometimes felt like I’d never read again.  I ambled dutifully through the magazines that come in — The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, New York.  I also subscribed to Granta and, just now, Brick, as well as, just because I’ve always wanted to even though it costs a fortune, The Times Literary Supplement.  I suppose if I’m not constantly surrounded by clamoring unread publications, life just isn’t life.

Some of the reading choices this year were for a class at The Center For Fiction with Anne Fernald, a terrific teacher, on the novels of the Harlem Renaissance — Plum Bun by Jessie Fausset, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, the novels of Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Loved reading them, though felt always a little weird discussing them with a group composed only of other bespectacled white constant reader types.

A bunch of other titles were suggested by the podcasted Backlisted, where witty London book people talk about books from years gone by — this led me to some novels of Anita Brookner, a couple of existential WWII-era thrillers, a re-awareness of Jane Gardam, and also notably the charming bookish memoir of one of the podcast’s hosts, Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How 50 Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved my Life.  But maybe the greatest find Backlisted pointed me to is All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook, a sui-generis memoir-essay collection, centering on the seaside towns in the English country of Kent and the very weird and disquieting if not actually occult things that have happened there in the 19th and 20th century — violent things, queer things, political things, literary things.  Reading it was like — in the best possible way — listening obsessively to The Smiths, very English, wry, dark, hilarious in a morbid way, and full of details about people and places that I’d never have known I’d be interested in without having come across the book.Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.23 PM.png

This was also the year that, after various dud tries in decades past, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which came along just when I needed most to be utterly taken up, and swept me duly away.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.41 PM.png

Besides Seabrook and Durrell, the other highlights were The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which led to some absorbing discussion with a bookish friend and even the purchase of a biography of Percy, which of course I got distracted from 20 pages in, and books touching on Russia, one of my on-and-off fascinations which is currently ON.  Those are #31, 73, and 80, along with revisitings of Dostoyevsky, the audiobooks of whom I’ve been using as going-to-sleep companions throughout the year.  #80 in particular, a long intense, as it says on the tin saga, centered on the Bolsheviks who lived in a specially-constructed apartment building in Moscow called The House of Government, was perfectly embodied as an audiobook that kept me riveted for the last couple of weeks, and which, having finished, I went back to listening to again from the beginning.  Among much other information, this book has cleared up for me a long-held question I had about why the Soviets didn’t ban Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which to my mind, has always seemed perverse.  Turns out, according to Slezkine’s thesis, it was perverse of the Bolsheviks to encourage their children to read those and other “treasures of world literature” and helps explain, in a small part, anyway, why Bolshevism didn’t survive into a 2nd generation.

Projections for what I want to read this year: there will probably be more Joseph Conrad this winter.  I also want to stick to my idea of rediscovering my own shelves by choosing unread books, 2 a month (roughly), in alphabetical order.  I began in December with Pitch Dark by Renata Adler and now am reading Cassandra At the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.  On my new(ish) acquisition pile I see titles by Brigid Brophy, Daphne Du Maurier, Patrick Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean other titles won’t oversweep them and come in first.

Finally, though I’d sort of promised myself a year ago that I wasn’t going to bother anymore with current books — that there were no current books that would give me more pleasure than old ones — I did turn out to read quite a few books.  Some, like the latest Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan, I’d have read anyway.  The Francis Spufford was by way of Backlisted, and Brit Bennett’s Mothers just seemed to be in the air somehow.   (I liked these while I was reading them, but they were ephemeral.) In general though, my willingness to take a flyer on unknown new novel(ist)s is at a lifetime low.