Our Year in Reading
A look back at some of the reading we did at Open Letters in 2011
John Cotter, Executive Editor
Adam Golaski pulled the Penguin edition of Gulliver’s Travels out of the trunk of his car, along with a bottle of very good olive oil and a dusting of snow. It was just after Christmas and the book and the oil were gifts; the snow was garnish. He knew I’d barely skimmed the Travels. “You don’t have to read the whole book right now,” he said, “but read Book IV, the Houyhnhnms. I think his sense of cynicism is a lot like yours.” Eight months later, I’d just sat down a surprisingly unfunny George Saunders story in the New Yorker, and decided I felt like laughing. I cracked Gulliver’s Travels to Book IV and, after a page or two of getting myself acquainted, I felt a thrill. How is it possible this was so funny, so pointed and bitter and blasting? How had I gone so long without knowing?
We all have blind spots but I was ashamed of this one, although my heart set it right. I’m there all the time now with Gulliver, before the perfect equine race of reason, explaining our world and all its brainless bloodshed:
He asked me what were the usual Causes or Motives that made one Country go to War with another. I answered they were innumerable, but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the Ambition of Princes, who never think they have Land or People enough to govern: Sometimes the Corruption of Ministers, who engage their Master in a War in order to stifle or divert the Clamour of the Subjects against their Evil Administration. Difference in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives: For instance, whether Flesh be Bread, or Bread be Flesh; whether the Juice of a certain Berry be Blood or Wine; whether Whistling be a Vice or a Virtue; whether it be better to kiss a Post or throw it into the Fire; what is the best Color for a Coat, whether Black, White, or Red or Grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean, with many more. Neither are any Wars so furious and bloody, or of so long Continuance, as those occasioned by Difference in Opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
Of course, it’s Swift’s description of the way his own tribe of Yahoos treat the noble Houyhnhnms in their care that occasions his coerced departure. The horses of instruction will sterilize their own beasts of toil and Gulliver must either stay for the snip or sally forth. Home, broken, Gulliver consoles himself with his own unbroken horses, spending long hours in the stable in conversation. Only there is he less than alone.
From John Berger’s About Looking:
With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.
So writes the critic in another of the reading revelations I found this year, “Why Look at Animals” from his collection of late-70s pieces, About Looking. Warm and wise, heart pinned to the flesh beneath his sleeve, Berger writes alarmingly well about art but also about business suits (which ridicule the strong physique of the working man as they flatter the soft flesh of the capitalist), the reverse-mirror works and equal worth of Walt Disney and painter Francis Bacon, and the meaning of photography. I started reading “Uses of Photography” standing up in Boston’s Raven Books just a block from the international school where I taught last spring, and by the time my break was over I’d bought On Looking and run off twenty photocopies of “Why look at Animals?” for my class.
Photographs, for Berger, are just another implement by which the ruling class turns everything into spectacle, although that’s not the whole of it. There’s an eschatology to photos too:
Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned.
This is exactly the struggle that faces another exemplary critic, Daniel Mendelsohn, in his 2006 bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million.
I’d been consulting on a Holocaust memoir this spring and felt underqualified, as I’d never read one before. Outdoors at the legendary Brattle dollar tables, Rohan Maitzen suggested The Lost, calling it the best book she’d read the year before.
I’ll say something about it for those of you who haven’t read it, but who should. Now middle-aged, Daniel Mendelsohn grew up surrounded by threads of a story he couldn’t re-weave. All of us do, of course, but this story was unusually dark: his uncle, aunt, and cousins disappeared in the early days of the Holocaust, but he didn’t know when or how (or even what all of their names were, or their ages when they died). He heard fragments of stories, but he had no way of knowing if they were true.
And so he travels to the now-Ukrainian town of Bolechow and to Copenhagen, Sydney, Tel Aviv. He sets forth and regroups, travels far and broods. In the course of his four-year search and the composition of his book, he consciously manages to recreate what he loves about old Jewish storytelling – the doubling back, matryoshka digressions, multistories. We learn about far more than six people – we learn about a lost world.
What impressed me was how like our own were the days before hell. Mendelsohn’s cousins Lorka and Frydka went to movies, gossiped, worried, goofed around with boys, and, eventually, froze in terror. Again and again on his journeys, Mendelsohn is struck by how present the past is in the people he talks to (the girl’s old boyfriends, rivals, even their indirect executioners).
To tell a story, he concludes, you need to get very close to what happened, then get very far away in order to make sense of it. This coming near and pulling away lends a compelling rhythm to his storytelling and his travels in time.
Four hundred years in the past, Matsu Bashō felt the same charge of history intruding into the present during his journey along The Narrow Road to the Interior.
Bashō’s Narrow Road is exactly the kind of book that returns a reader’s effort. The read was its own journey, as all worthwhile reads are, and I know something now about Renga, Tokugawa Japan, and the geography of those islands. It’s a book to take in slowly and one that rewards what you bring into it. I picked it up because I’d promised to teach it, and this won’t be the last time.
Old Bashō, just home to his cottage by the banana tree after several arduous trips around Japan (on foot, pre-GPS) decides to undertake another journey, this time northward, into the back country. There he takes in what’s around him, sees and feels it, and uses his affinity for haiku and renga for a bewildering variety of purposes: thanking strangers, commemorating monuments, passing drunken evenings with friends, resolving his own restless thoughts, marking goodbyes.
At last he finds Oku-n-hosomichi, the narrow road, famous for a thousand reasons and hard to reach. Standing before an old stone signpost that’s nearly worn illegible and lost in moss, he voices a brilliant and heartbreaking knowledge of what time is:
Most places mentioned in old poetry can never be exactly located. Mountains crumble through time, landslides change the river’s course, floods wash out roads, hardly anything remains where it was for long. Thus faced with this monument of nearly a thousand years, I felt such a powerful link with the past, so connected at the heart with men of old, I forgot the aches and pains of the journey, and, in gratitude for such a traveler’s blessing, wept for joy.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and host of Stevereads
In 2011 as in all previous years stretching back to the days of Gutenberg, I was deluged in new books. By some estimates, 200,000 new titles were printed just in the United States in that one year alone, and there were weeks where it seemed like one representative copy of each of them was finding its way to my mailbox. A professional editor and reviewer can commence feeling overwhelmed, and even if that reaction can be forestalled (by reading all the time, everywhere, and never stopping, ever, even during meals and, um, other intimate activities), it casts a pall of guilt over the act of re-reading. How can such an indulgence possibly be countenanced, in the face of twenty or thirty new books arriving every week?
Fortunately, there’s a kind of solution: classics are being re-issued with encouraging frequency. They come out in all their brash inventiveness, sporting new cover designs, new introductions, new notes, new illustrations, new translations – and although the re-reader deep inside might be concentrating on the ‘classics’ part, the editor and reviewer can latch onto that ‘new’ part and indulge, indulge, indulge.
Four such indulgences stand out for me from my reading in 2011.
Persuasion: An Annotated Edition (Harvard University Press) – Like any civilized person, I re-read the novels of Jane Austen on a very nearly annual basis, and by sheer coincidence, 2011 was time for me to return to Kellynch Hall, the financially embarrassed Elliot family, and their shiningly wonderful daughter Anne, whose love for the dashing Captain Wentworth, long frustrated and seemingly now impossible, rekindles against all odds. And what better way to revisit the world of Jane Austen’s last completed novel (published posthumously in 1818) than through one of the magnificent annotated editions produced regularly by Harvard University Press? Well, perhaps there are better ways to enjoy the book than with some committee of docents droning over your shoulder, but even so – annotations can be fun, and these Harvard editions are setting the standard for a new century of carefully supporting intelligent readers.
A Dissertation Upon A Roast Pig (and other essays) (Penguin) – It’s a sentiment fewer and fewer readers today know enough to share, but still: any opportunity to rejoin the sublime, the imbecilic, the wonderful Charles Lamb in the stream-like outpouring of his opinions is an opportunity to be grasped with both hands. Lamb was once an arbiter of all conversation in literate adult society, and his pieces – on a variety of subjects only he would have found normal – are every bit as captivating as they were two centuries ago. Bless Penguin for continuing to produce volumes like this without any indication whatsoever that even one copy will be bought and read by the general public. This particular volume is a lovely production, just the thing to tell new readers – or remind old ones – that our discourse is always more lively and more sane when Lamb is involved.
Moby-Dick in Pictures (Tin House) – Melville’s great fish story of 1851 has been reprinted innumerable times, in editions ranging from the simple to the grandiose, and this new version from Tin House immediately jumps to the front ranks of the most remarkable. Matt Kish gives us a Moby-Dick with one illustration for every page – over 550 in all, done in a bewildering array of styles and moods. The sheer visual profusion at first struck me as confused and contradictory even as I delighted in viewing them while I was merrily re-reading … until I was reminded by Melville that the book itself is confused and even contradictory – gloriously so. With its high-quality paper and unique oblong shape, this is a Moby-Dick suddenly capable of taking us to new soundings in even the most familiar hunting-grounds.
The Iliad of Homer (University of Chicago) – Both Oxford University Press and the Free Press published new translations of Homer’s towering epic in 2011, immediately creating new and perhaps controversial idioms – and leading every book reviewer in Christendom to pull down all their 20th century translations for the purpose of making invidious comparisons. And surely one of the gold standards of those translations was the one done by Richmond Lattimore in 1951, re-issued in a brightly-colored paperback in 2011 and introducing a whole new generation of readers to Lattimore’s liturgically precise line-renditions of Homer’s Greek. Re-reading the Lattimore so fresh from two new translations that speak to a new audience brought an entire generation of translational development into focus – for in breaking the ground for the modern era of ‘event’ translations, Lattimore gave the impetus to the more artistic renditions that followed.
There were many other such re-issued classics in 2011 – from the extremely innovative (a graphic novel of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer’s pilgrims ride mopeds) to the more mundane (the steady parade of Bantam and Signet classics produced principally for school children) – but these four stood out for me not only for their own literary worth but also because they helped a great deal with guilt-relief.
My top pick for 2011 functioned, oddly, as a kind of appendix to a much larger work. Just as I was getting to the end of James McPherson’s excellent single-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, I thought I’d take a look at what else Mr. McPherson had penned. Perusing the “M”s in the Civil War section of a local bookshop, I noticed McPherson ’s name prominently emblazoned on the cover of the New York Review of Books’ new reissue of Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865. His introduction to this 1942 Pulitzer-winning analysis of Washington, DC during the Civil War sold me on the book, and I hoped it would enrich the experience of living in my adoptive hometown.
It appears I may have been uniquely alone in not having heard of Reveille in Washington before, despite its being out of print until recently; it is widely regarded as a highly engaging and entertaining masterpiece. Like Battle Cry of Freedom, the book covers the entire Civil War, but it is wholly focused on the experience of the war from the vantage point of Washington itself. Prior to the war, Washington was derided as “a city of magnificent distances,” a foul-smelling bottomland pocketed with a few pretentious architectural aspirations of grandeur. Being the administrative seat of the Union war effort, and the jumping-off point for a significant portion of the army’s training and operations, was instrumental in transforming the sleepy backwater into a legitimate national capital. Leech’s Reveille in Washington covers that transformation in vibrant detail.
Leech sources much of her book from local newspapers, giving her both some authority about what information was available to the general public, as well as a wealth of anecdotes about children misplaced during parades, the heroic acts of firefighters, and who was wearing what at important balls and social events. Although Leech generally writes from the traditional perspective of an omniscient historian, she often assumes enough basic knowledge of the Civil War to put the reader in the position of the imperfectly informed City of Washington. Information trickling into Washington was rather sketchy; citizens were reliant on War Department reports, war correspondents’ telegrams, or the more immediately visceral evidence of thousands of Union wounded staggering back from Bull Run or being carried off Navy steamships. Leech similarly keeps the reader in the dark about what exactly was happening in the field:
When the news first came up from Virginia that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Rapidan, the country was in a torment of suspense. Its state of mind was like that of a man pacing the floor in a hospital where an emergency operation is being performed by a skillful surgeon. Blood and danger were implicit in the program indispensible to recovery. … It took without faltering the tidings of the grapple in the tangled Wilderness.
The next day, Sunday, brought further word of terrific fighting. The story was inconclusive. There was as yet no official report. But it was known that the quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac had telegraphed for forage; and a city, grown wise in the ways of war, realized that this imported an advance.
Five days later, the city receives its first taste of resolve in a Union general when Grant telegrams that, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” prompting President Lincoln to read the telegram to “deliriously joyful” crowds gathered outside the White House. Leech leaves off all discussion of what exactly was happening in the Wilderness, with one exception: “Only one thing was misunderstood by the people. Lee was fighting prudently, protecting his army behind breastworks. Grant was throwing his troops against them with great slaughter.”
Unlike the brilliantly completist Battle Cry of Freedom, which marries political context with battle maps and detailed accounts of minor commanders’ movements, Leech’s Washington-centric account of the Civil War is brilliant because of its limited perspective. But I would recommend having some grounding in what happened during the Civil War outside of the Federal City before reading this masterly appendix.
A few years ago, I read Never Let Me Go, my first Kazuo Ishiguro, and it blew me away. It had been years since I tore through a novel because I just had to know what happened. He struck me as the rare novelist who can build a plot-driven book out of beautiful sentences. I was eager to read more, but the next one I tackled, When We Were Orphans, was much slower and languished, bookmark a third of the way in, on the coffee table for months. I was reluctant to try his most well-known book, The Remains of the Day, since I had already seen the movie.
Earlier this year, I finally noticed a slim, black paperback copy of A Pale View of Hills on our bookshelf – it must have been either hiding in the shadows or misalphabetized when I first fell for the author – and started reading. I quickly found it as enveloping as Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is a master of pacing and the unreliable narrator, and his first novel, though not flawless, is a beautiful example of his abilities, set in post-war Japan and told in his trademark exacting, spare prose. The story – an aging Japanese woman, now living in England and mourning her eldest daughter’s suicide, remembers an odd friendship she formed during her first pregnancy – is ominous, then frightening, and finally shocking. It’s also maddeningly ambiguous. In contrast to the big reveal endings of the movies (The Usual Suspects, Fight Club), A Pale View of Hills will leave you wondering for months what “really” happened, which is of course unresolvable.
Ishiguro’s goal was to tell a story through memory, and memory is fallible, manipulable. I defy you not to finish this book in less than three days. (I cannot say the same for The Unconsoled, a maddening but nonetheless fascinating book that feels like a long bad dream.)
Like A Pale View of Hills, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (which came to me via the recommendation of Steve the Reader himself) is a book that maintains a teetering ambiguity to the end. Are there born killers? Are bad children the product of bad parenting, or are some children inherently difficult, even evil? When the book begins, we already know that Eva’s son has been convicted for murdering multiple classmates in a Columbine-style massacre. The story unfolds through letters to her estranged ex-husband, slowly reconstructing their story, from their decision to have a child – a decision they both questioned, and Eva later regretted – to that fateful Thursday that destroyed many lives. This structure shouldn’t work, but it does – with every chapter, the tension builds and there are new surprises. Some readers will find it impossible to sympathize with Eva – or Kevin, for that matter – but only, I think, if they abandon the book before the stunning and tragic conclusion.
I guess you could call this my page-turner year, because along with the two above, I read a few other books that had me racing to the last page – among them True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies, which I read cover to cover on a three-hour flight. The narrator of this novel is a classic “unlikeable character”—passive, bitchy, self-involved, and self-destructive. In the first chapter, she meets an attractive stranger on the job and proceeds to screw him in a parking garage. The rest of the book is the story of her downfall – she loses her job, savings, health, and everyone decent in her life in pursuit of this abusive asshole, as powerless to stop it as you, the reader. As torturous as it is, True Things About Me is also crisply observant and frequently hilarious, and will ring true with anyone who’s ever wondered, “Why am I doing this?”
In 2010, my hands-down favorite reads were Howards End by E.M Forster and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This year, I only managed to cross one classic off my list: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I started this book about a month before moving 2,000 miles across the country, and what with the packing and unpacking and everything in between, I might not have finished it, were it not for Mick, surely one of the best young female characters in all of American literature. This novel starts off feeling like linked stories, until you realize the chapters are cycling through a handful of major characters, all misfits in a small Southern town. Each has an interesting story, but I fell completely for Mick, a fierce, protective tomboy with a secret passion for music. Struggling against hate and poverty, she eventually succumbs, unwillingly and almost unknowingly, to the banal horror of an ordinary life. The fifth chapter in Part 2, in which Mick’s little brother runs away, is twenty pages of utter perfection, a self-contained wonder I’ll keep coming back to.
“He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation” is Gilgamesh. The Deep is his ultimate wisdom but also the future people he needed to remember him; for us, the Deep is the past from which The Epic of Gilgamesh comes. Andrew George’s verse translation is from the Akkadian and Sumerian tablets (as opposed to a rendering from an English decipherment of the tablets) and is the finest Gilgamesh I’ve read. So much here is odd, lost in the translation from ancient to now, but in that loss lies beauty and often, a description that may at first read oddly turns out to be only so perfectly apt it’s striking. The following begins Gilgamesh’s long and funny reply to the horny goddess Ishtar’s marriage proposal:
[Who is there] would take you in marriage?
[You a frost that congeals no] ice,
a louvre-door [that] stays [not] breeze nor draught,
a palace that massacres… warriors…
The Penguin Classics paperback edition is a useful pleasure, with renderings and photos of the cuneiform tablets, line drawings of gods, monsters, and men from tablets, cylinder seals, and bronze work, maps, appendices, and a fine introduction.
Here are the last lines that tell of Prium’s death in The Aeneid, as translated by Robert Fitzgerald:
That was the end
Of Prium’s age, the doom that took him off,
With Troy in flames before his eyes, his towers
Headlong fallen—he that in other days
Had ruled in pride so many lands and people’s,
The power of Asia.
On the distant shore
The vast trunk headless lies without a name.
Fitzgerald had Shelley in mind when he rendered the Latin so, anyway it puts me in mind of Shelley, and this year the line sent me to Guy Devenport’s short essay “Ozymandias” (included in The Geography of the Imagination—thanks, Mr. Cotter). It’s a scene that illustrates two kinds of poets, one who labors with merely fine results, and the other (Shelley) whose genius allows for the quick synthesis of idea and then effortless, inspired verse. God, how we wish to be the latter but are most likely the former.
Again to The Aeneid with Patric Dickinson’s essay “Vergil and The Aeneid”—an introduction to his translation (for the Mentor Classics paperback, 1961)—is a model for academics. His Roman history is tied naturally to Shakespeare, as Virgil is, and with similar grace he ties Virgil’s poetry to Milton, to Hardy, to Tennyson, to Wordsworth, to Eliot, and back to Shakespeare, generating, as he leads his thread, excitement for the works discussed. Dickinson knows literature, sure, but what is important is that he loves literature.
How could I read James Joyce’s Ulysses and not brag? It’s work to read it and I did the work. Of course, if that’s all it was, it would be a book only for masochists, and it is not. Joyce, by alternating between conventional and unconventional narrative, left me with a sense of the mind of Leopold Bloom—more so than just the plot of his day. That is realism. An attempt to describe all of a life, rather than merely show us what of the iceberg is visible above the water. Anyone who has gone for am omelet at a greasy spoon after an exhausting night of party going knows, for instance, how realistic is the phantasmagorical and gender-bending play set in a brothel followed by Deadalus and Bloom at the all-night cabman’s café.
The Making of Star Wars, by J.W. Rinzler, is a film’s history. That the film is Star Wars is not alone what makes this book of interest. A fan of the fantasy—of the world and characters introduced to us by Star Wars—may even find The Making of boring, because it isn’t only about the creative history of the film (the art, the story, the FX, and the acting); it’s also very detailed in regard to the film’s practical history.
Since reading it, I’ve wondered about its instructional value. Though a document of the making of an independent film, its production methods and materials are of its time. The Making of, perhaps inadvertently, is excellent at conveying the emotional history of Star Wars’ production—the strain of the determination to see an idea through.