Our Year in Reading 2016
In this annual feature, our book-loving team looks back on some of the highlights of their year in reading.
Greg Waldmann, Editor in Chief
It’s not the best book I’ve read this year (that might be my long-neglected copy of Dubliners), but Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish’s Trump Revealed looms larger than any other right now. To tell the truth, it’s not an especially good book. Fisher and Kranish are reporters, and reporters, with few exceptions, are shallow analysts who don’t write very well. The authors are above average on both counts, nothing special. Another mark against the book is that it’s already dated: since its publication in late August, Donald Trump has added dozens of new entries to his ledger of horrors.
But it’s worth reading because it’s the fullest account yet of this singularly bizarre and horrible person, who has surprised everyone by running a successful presidential campaign on hate, lies, instinct, and little else. As Fisher and Kranish write:
[Trump] had reached the pinnacle of American politics virtually without allies, rising in opposition to the party structure. More than any other major figure in modern presidential politics, he seemed allergic to ideology. He had won the nomination with an impossibly tiny campaign staff, a core of half a dozen loyalists, most of them newcomers to presidential politics. His most valued consultants were his children and their spouses.
Trump is a simple and transparent person, but his rise is much more complicated. A lot of books have been touted as skeleton keys to the Trump phenomenon, none more than J.D. Vance’s massively overrated Hillbilly Elegy, a book whose empathy toward its impoverished white subjects masks a great callousness toward the poor. (If you tease out the logic of Vance’s cultural critique of Appalachia, the implications of his worldview for America’s other impoverished people are very ugly indeed.) In any case, the idea of the One Essential Book is a media confection. Trump’s victory was fueled not just by the white economic insecurity, but by white cultural insecurity and white racism, too—also, voter suppression, the decline of unionized labor, a feckless and detached opposition party, and more besides.
Still, a good place to start might be George Packer’s The Unwinding, which appeared in 2013 and attempts to cast a wider net. It mixes recurring vignettes of struggling Americans (a country-born, green energy entrepreneur, a political hack-turned-lobbyist, a black union worker from Youngstown, Ohio) with portraits of the rich and powerful (Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Breitbart, Sam Walton), sketches of cities and states in boom and bust (Silicon Valley, suburban Florida), and collages of newspaper clippings. It owes an obvious debt to John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy and its effect is similar: a snapshot (albeit, one that is very incomplete) of a nation in time.
The Unwinding shows that America’s cult of wealth, and its unwillingness to confront the inequality generated by its social and economic institutions, are both alive and well. Too many of its people are dispirited or angry, while its political institutions are sclerotic and corrupt, and its media shallow, cliquish, and greedy.
Ronale Hartzell, an interviewee who worked at Wal-Mart for $8.50 an hour, is less hopeful every day:
Ronale wanted to shake the hand of Warren Buffett, and also Oprah, and Michelle Obama because of how sincere she was, jumping rope with kids and getting them to eat healthy. Ronale liked watching Secret Millionaire because every week a rich person had to live just like poor people, and at the end of the show he had a change of heart and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to a charity. But she also had a disturbing vision of the greed that lay behind everything else: “In the background there is this horrible nightmare that stands behind the good, getting bigger and bigger, and it’s like a black cloud and it’s consuming everything and actually taking life away from people.”
In a broken country like this, a president like Donald Trump is less confounding. If you’re looking for a book to help you understand how and why America is changing, The Great Unwinding is a fine place to begin. When you’re done, find a dozen more and read them, too.
Sam Sacks, Founding Editor
Because I spent a lot of the year trying to soothe or entertain a baby, and because there are only so many times a person can get through Goodnight Moon each day, I read more poetry in 2016 than I have at any time since college. You would think that would give me an impressive list of titles to champion here at year’s end. The truth, though, has been humbling: I’m not in my element with poetry. Often what I read eluded me, but even more unsettling was when it didn’t. The view of the world a good poem delivers is vertiginous and unstable, as though you’re suddenly balancing on the slender, topmost branches of a tree. It’s exhilarating, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
No, it’s with prose that I feel at home, and no prose writing is more earthbound than book criticism, which dwells in literature’s roots and soil. It’s there, with my fellow mole-people, that I had some of my most enjoyable reading.
One such book was also instructional. M.A. Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a distillation of Orthofer’s prodigious website, provides précis introductions to an astounding range of foreign and translated literature, from the French nouveaux romanciers to the profusion of Iraqi fiction that took on the Hussein dictatorship and the American-led invasion (recommended authors include Fuad al-Takarli and Sinan Antoon) to this commentary on the French-writing Djibouti novelist Abdourahman A. Waberi, whose
most appealing novel to date, In the United States of Africa (2006, English 2009), imagines an inverted world order and history from which Africa has emerged as wealthy and stable, and Europe and the United States are backward and underdeveloped. Waberi’s Africa is not superior to the actual developed world; instead, he ridicules familiar prejudices and preconceptions by relocating them in his alternative world. The story itself, about a European girl who has been adopted by an African but goes in search of her birth mother, is merely a framing device allowing Waberi to describe this different universe, but this short novel has enough thought-provoking material to make it well worthwhile.
As a reference to writers rarely discussed in the United States, Orthofer’s guide is invaluable, and just as importantly, it capably defends the “genre” of world literature, which has been subject to easy disparagement from people who know too little of it.
Criticism about critics is so comfortably grounded that it almost constitutes a guilty pleasure. I was pleased to read or re-read the essays in Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb, a couple of which first appeared on this site. Green’s acutely contrarian considerations illustrate examples of critics he holds out as particular “failures” and “successes,” and in doing so they point toward his conception of the task of criticism, which is to describe the experience of reading based on close attention to the language of the text and the effects it produces—something that sounds simple but is often neglected in practice.
Then there was the joy of a newly published collection by Cynthia Ozick, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays. This book compiles some of Ozick’s excellent recent occasional writings, but its centerpiece is an essay cumbersomely titled “The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin.” The point here is to lament the decline of serious literary criticism in mainstream periodicals, a reflection of the decline of cultural literacy in general, and while I usually abominate this kind of curmudgeonly screed, Ozick’s is a rare exception. Her writing is simply too passionate—too ecstatic—to succumb to bitterness, and her lament is actually a rallying cry for more of the kind of writing that has so deeply enriched her reading life. Mole-people of the world unite!
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor
2016 may not have been a great year for America, but for me it did turn out to be the Year of Great American Novels: I rang in the New Year with The Portrait of a Lady, followed it up with The House of Mirth, and then spent many glorious summer hours with Moby-Dick. The first two I anticipated, rightly, would be complements to many books I already know well about aspiring young women enmeshed in unfavorable circumstances: in particular, Isabel Archer and Lily Bart are both close cousins of George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth, the thwarted heroine of Daniel Deronda. My close encounters with these variations on a familiar theme were both revelatory and challenging: Wharton, a novelist I otherwise know only glancingly, displayed a marvelous balance of Austen’s meticulous social analysis and Eliot’s more philosophical perspective, while James proved once again his limitless capacity to fascinate me even as he stretches my patience to the breaking point.
It was Melville, though, who surprised and thrilled me beyond my expectations, which I admit were low at the outset. I’m not sure why, really, except that Moby-Dick looms so over the American canon — and the novel tends to be represented in popular culture less as a splendid read than as a literary albatross, weighty and meaningful and mostly unwanted. Loving Moby-Dick (at least among my acquaintance) is a much more niche activity than loving Middlemarch.
Now that I’ve finally read it for myself, I can see why: it is certainly a much stranger book than Middlemarch, or, indeed, than most novels, Victorian or otherwise. Yet I was better prepared to read it than I knew, because like The Portrait of a Lady and The House of Mirth, Moby-Dick has a recognizable Victorian genealogy, only it harkens back not to fiction but to … well, to whatever label you want to give Thomas Carlyle’s genre-bending oddity Sartor Resartus. Almost immediately, I heard echoes of Carlyle’s prophetic ebullience in Melville’s narration:
Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! the great God absolute! The centre and circumstance of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!
Moby-Dick is not all like that, of course (to which some readers, myself included, will exclaim “thank heavens!”) — but then neither is Sartor Resartus, which also has moments of exquisite delicacy and tenderness and intense psychological drama.
One of the big differences, ultimately, is that while Sartor Resartus never quite grounds itself in the literal, Moby-Dick — to nobody’s surprise and not everyone’s delight — really is about whales. I had braced myself for boredom during the whaling parts, but while I did grimace occasionally at the overwhelming specificity of the sections on killing and dissecting and ‘cutting-in’ the hunters’ stupendous blubbery prey, I was thrilled by the sheer daring of it all. An entire chapter on the sperm whale’s head! Another on the head of the right whale! And another on the sperm whale’s tail! All that and lessons to live by, too:
Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
Everything I thought I knew about unity and structure in fiction turned out to be so much cant in the face of the wild ride that is Moby-Dick. What can I possibly read in 2017 that will live up to this experience? Perhaps (oh dear!) Ulysses?
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor
A year of strong nature-books ended for me with a great, recommendable trio of titles:
Owls: A Guide to Every Species in the World by Marianne Taylor (Harper Design) – This gorgeously-illustrated oversized book goes through the requisite duties of a nature guidebook, giving readers the range, habits, and conservation status of all the world’s different species of owls, plus providing a good clear look at them all, even the most elusive (this last will appeal to birders even though they can’t very well lug this thing into the field; only those who’ve tried it will know how thoroughly owls – ordinarily the most blasé of viewing subjects – can disappear when they want to). But the book does more than that as well: it lovingly creates the composite picture of a truly bizarre and marvelous life-form. No owl enthusiast can be without this beautiful book.
Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon by Michael Engelhard (University of Washington Press) – It’s a subject of baleful fascination to me whether or not there are such things as polar bear enthusiasts, but I suppose there must be, or a book like this one wouldn’t have much hope of finding an audience. Engelhard’s big, illustrated treatment studies the long lore of polar bears in their interactions with humans – hunting and being hunted, circus shows, zoo displays, and countless representations in artworks of all types. Engelhard is a first-rate guide and very capable writer (American Wild, his latest book of travel-writing, also appeared in 2016); Ice Bear makes fascinating reading – although grimly ironic, since the future of the polar bear in the wild has never looked bleaker.
The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs by Gregory S. Paul (Princeton University Press) – This greatly enhanced second edition has all the bells and whistles you could want in a “field guide” to the world’s most famous extinct animals: the dinosaurs are shown in blackened outline with bones in white, and these X-ray views are accompanied by sketches and full-color paintings. The guide presents the latest information about the biology and natural histories of dinosaurs, but as usual, this Princeton guide is much more than an information manual: it brims with long-vanished wonders.