There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in the United States every year – probably a little over 300,000 in 2013, for instance, although exact figures are impossible to determine – and that places a great immovable weight on the head of any serious reader. That weight is always there, pressing down, and readers cope with it through various well-concealed surrenders. Some proudly say they only read nonfiction; others proprietorially claim all genre fiction is worthless; some stay so resolutely plugged into ‘the scene’ that they’ll only skim the latest novellas by authors under 30 living and smoking in Williamsburg. All of these dodges no doubt genuinely reflect personal likes and dislikes – but they’re also meant as built-in surrenders in the face of that 300,000-title onslaught.
I make similar dodges. For instance, I rule out whole categories of books as incapable of serious content: all health and exercise books, all cooking books, all craft manuals, all business books, all “self help” books, nine-tenths of the pabulum published by religious houses, all computer books, etc. And there are plenty of categories I mostly rule out as well: most sports books, most mysteries or thrillers, most children’s or teen books, most political books, and so on.
I’m no happier about these exclusions than I should be, especially since virtually every year at least a few books emanating from those categories prove to be, in fact, worth serious attention (there was a cookbook on one of my lists last year, for example, and there’s a sports book on one of my most important lists this year). Like any conscientious reader, I’m continually haunted by the thought of all the good stuff I’m missing, and this feeling actually increased in 2013 as my reading in the unbounded Wild West of self-publishing astronomically increased. It all boils down to a simple and mortifyingly humiliating fact: the more you know is out there, the more you know you won’t ever read it all.
I came closer to that unattainable goal in 2013 than I’ve done in any other year of my life. Pitifully, infinitesimally closer, but closer just the same. I read more newly-published books this year than I’ve read in any other year; I beat my tally in 2012 by a margin so significant I’m actually still inwardly reeling at the thought of it. In reaching that tally, I had all of my old advantages (I read very fast, I have well-taught powers of concentration, I require very little sleep) and one new one (I all but stopped working and devoted almost all of that freed-up time to reading), and as amazing as the final number is, it could have been more amazing still except for one reading habit of mine that I can’t shake and wouldn’t if I could: I love re-reading. I love revisiting books I read last year, or ten years ago, or half a century ago, and I love it so much that it represents a significant chunk of my annual reading (during the years in which I was mostly traveling, it tended to represent all of my annual reading, and wonderfully too).
And even when it comes to re-reading, the 2013 book-industry was happy to enable me! It was another banner year for literary reprints – so strong a year, in fact, that a list like this one is possible without a single recourse to the ever- expanding library of The New York Review of Books Classics line so slavishly followed, bought, chattered about, and even sometimes read by the rank and file of book-snobs throughout the English-speaking world. The NYRB line had some true gems in 2013 (I’m thinking particularly of Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook and The Hall of Uselessness, the collected essays of Simon Leys), and despite persistent design flaws (the covers, for instance, printed on the cheap, curl up like sardine-can lids after about six minutes, and the pages tend to leave a slight gluey residue), it very much deserves the Golden Calf status it’s been accorded by the literati. But even in this ocean allegedly being line-trawled by the Internet, there are still plenty of other reprint-fish in the sea! Here are the ten best from 2013:
10. Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington (Penguin Classics) – If one of the side-effects of the impending centenary of the First World War is the flushing-out of great fiction associated with that war, we’ll all be the beneficiaries, and this novel by Aldington – who fought in the war and as wounded on the Western Front – is one of the best, a hugely sad work that’s also shot through the with the sheer rage against cant that would later animate the author’s hilariously incendiary biography of Lawrence of Arabia. Penguin Classics, as always, is to be congratulated on a fine choice.
9. Her Privates We by Frederic Manning (Serpent’s Tail) – Lawrence of Arabia himself would have given the prize for WWI fiction not to Aldington but to Frederic Manning, who in 1929 printed privately his equally-scathing fictional treatment of the war under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune, Her Privates We. The good folks at Text Classics (a superb series reprinting Australian classics) issued Mannigs’ book in 2013 under the title The Middle Parts of Fortune; the choice at Serpent’s Tail was riskier, since Her Privates We was the title under which a chopped and bowdlerized version of the book was first published and by which that inferior version was known for years. This is the real text, however, and it’s as harrowing an account of the very personal stupidity of war as has been written.
8. Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green (University of California Press) – War forms the necessary backdrop for this great reprint too, Green’s superbly written and masterfully detailed study of the life and times of the great Macedonian world-conqueror. You can read my full review here
7. The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster) – Carping critics, of whom there were slightly more half a century ago than today, might well have said that ‘world conquest’ was also on the minds of the six men – Charles Bohlen, John McCloy, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and Averell Harriman – who form the subject of this 1986 classic, although the exact opposite was really the case. Both the book’s authors have gone on to write many more best-selling and well-regarded books, but bless the crew at Simon & Schuster for keeping this essential work of 20th Century nonfiction alive and in bookstores.
6. West with the Night by Beryl Markham (North Point Press) – And speaking of essential works of 20th Century nonfiction! Markham’s beautifully-written memoir (the second book on our list so far to be praised by Ernest Hemingway) belongs on any shortlist of such works, and it’s presented here in an attractive new paperback. You can read my full review here.
5. The Windward Road by Archie Carr (University of Florida Press) – While I was praising Carr’s wonderful natural history of sea turtles I made a quick side-note for all of you to read also The Windward Road, Carr’s utterly winning, unsentimental memoir of a lifetime spent on behalf of those great and fascinating creatures of the sea, and I second that urging now! We owe so much of our knowledge of – and sympathy for – sea turtles to Carr, and it’s very good of the University of Florida Press to remember his achievements with this handy reprint.
4. The Gil Kane Superman from DC Comics – And talk about handy reprints! Before this excellent hardcover volume of the Superman work of the great comic book artist Gil Kane, I had to make do with my moldering old individual stapled issues, some of which have grape jelly stains, many of which are filled with beagle-hairs, and all of which are showing distinct signs of age. In this one sturdy volume I can enjoy and re-read all of Kane’s surreal work in complete peace of mind. You can read my full review here.
3. Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation by Aldo Leopold (Library of America) – In 2013 the Library of America made some outstanding choices, and this volume, collecting not only Leopold’s hugely famous and successful Sand County Almanac but also a great heap of letters and speeches the ordinary reader would have had trouble finding conveniently anywhere else, was the best of them. You can read my full review here
2. Napoleon by Frank McLynn (Arcade Publishing) – Also far more conveniently found now, thanks to this lovely reprint from Arcade Publishing, is this 1997 biography of Napoleon by the mighty Frank McLynn (who published nothing new in 2013, the slug-abed). Even in just the last six years, there’ve been some heft new works published about Napoleon, but this volume, full of all McLynn’s signature scholarship and wit, stands right alongside them all. You can read my full review here
1. The Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope (Oxford University Press) – But as worthy as all these other entrants are (and half a dozen more I could list, including the spate of JFK-related re-issues that sprang to life to cash in on – er, excuse me, to solemnly observe the 50th anniversary of that day in Dallas, foremost and best of which was Back Bay Books’ new edition of William Manchester’s The Death of a President), one stands above the others as the best reprint of 2013: this splendid set of Anthony Trollope’s hugely enjoyable “Palliser” series of novels, which wasn’t intended by its indefatigable author as a series (at least at first) and which has far more accurately been called the “Parliamentary” series, since the dangerous siren-call of election to that great body can be heard in the background of all these novels, calling some men on to their ruin and others to the highest of prizes. Among the former group would be one of Trollope’s most despicable villains, George Vavasor of Can You Forgive Her? … and one of his most intriguing villains, Ferdinand Lopes from The Prime Minister, and towering among the latter group is Plantagenet Palliser, the immensely wealthy and titled closest equivalent the series has to a main character (and standing even above him is his strong-willed and vivacious wife Glencora, the true star of these books and the most immediately lovable character in English literature since Elizabeth Bennet)(Indeed, so gravitational is she that the complications of an entire novel – The Duke’s Children, the final one in this set, happen only because she isn’t any longer around to sort them out with one flippant command). Trollope likely had no over-arching message for these books, and although there’s some merit in seeing them as an unconscious record if the slow, agonizing birth of 20th century England, the main reason to read them is the same as it’s always been: they’re thumping great reads – and they’ve never looked better, thanks to Oxford University Press.
If cynicism was the underpinning animus of the Worst Fiction of 2010, it was the emblazoned fife and snare drum coronation anthem of the Worst Nonfiction. I’ve been reading books a long time now, and I can’t remember a lineup of nonfiction this bad since the 1970s. Not bad in terms of literary quality, although ye gods, would it have killed these people to run their flyblown manuscripts past a copy editor, or even a desperate English major who’d perform rudimentary sentence touch-ups for tobacco-money? But no, the rot runs deeper than shoddy execution; each of these books is not only shoddy in its conception but outright mendacious. And lest you reply that all texts ar to some extent fabrications, let’s be clear: I’m talking about a much worse kind of mendacity than just hope-nobody-catches-me lying. These books are brazenly lying, telling their blasphemies in bloomers, just openly daring the gullible reading public to point out the emperor’s new soiled shorts. And these, also, were eye-opening for me: until this year’s blasphemies, I wasn’t fully aware of how merciful I’d been to all the previous years’ blasphemies, how trusting I’d been in the face of what now, in retrospect, were obvious, bold-faced lies. Shamefully late in life, I’ve learned the truth of the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
10. The War Lovers by Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise by James Bradley – We’ll start with simple mendacity, then, and work our way down to the cold bit of truly unholy cynicism. 2010 saw two more-or-less coordinated attacks on the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, part of a cynical publishing strategy to always be saying something controversial about some pillar of American history, or to appear to be (see the last four books by Gary Wills, or P. J. O’Rourke on Adam Smith). The gist of these two crappy books is the same: that TR was a racist, a fraud, and a war-monger. The more serious offender of the two is Bradley’s execrable hatchet-job, which lays the blame for pretty much every subsequent 20th century ill at Roosevelt’s feet, mostly on the basis of poorly-read sources and flimsy conjecture. Thomas’ book is scarcely better; both ultimately find TR, at most, of being a man of his time. his reputation is too great to worry about such flea-bites, but they still irritate me.
9. Washington by Ron Chernow – This big block of hagiography is more mystifying than something like Evans or Bradley, where the writers intentionally obscure the facts that deny their theories; Chernow actually supplies those facts, over and over, all throughout the course of his book – and simply doesn’t seem to care that he’s drawing all the wrong conclusions. He goes into his mammoth task determined to like – to venerate – his subject, and that’s exactly what he does, right in time for the holiday book-buying season. It’s the black reverse of what historians are supposed to do, which makes its inevitable National Book Award all the more depressing.
8. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier – Referring to the brief rash of ‘manifesto’s that broke out in 2010, a wise critic commented that the manifesto itself is good, that it naturally propagates thought and response. This is certainly true, but it only applies if the manifesto-writer actually believes what he’s professing. If their manifestos are put-up jobs designed to sell books, then the only thing propagated is self-aggrandizing deceit. Hence, another vile phenomenon of 2010: the shamifesto. Prime case in point: Lanier, a computer pioneer and one of the architects of virtual reality, in 2010 produced a shamifesto about how the pre-packaged categories of the Internet are cramping the inner lives of the people who habitually use them. Lanier knows this is a silly straw man – the people who use heavily-packaged templates like Facebook or Twitter also laugh over those limitations – he’s just barking about it in his book to get attention. The essence of the shamifesto isn’t simply that the author doesn’t believe his own screed, however – it’s that he believes exactly the opposite; Lanier has fourteen working computers in his home, plus a footlocker full of gadgets. Physician, shut thyself up.
7. Reality Hunger by David Shields – This book is yet another shamifesto, every bit as fraudulent as Lanier’s but far more craven. Shields’ book is a plagiarist’s commonplace arguing that the traditional structures of fiction – plot, dialogue, Aristotle’s unities, etc. – ar all utterly, pathetically useless and false, and like Lanier, he himself doesn’t believe a word of what he’s writing. But his motivation isn’t only to sell books – it’s also to justify his own abject laziness. The traditional novel is no more useless and false than the sonnet or the groined vault or the no-hitter – it just takes discipline, work, and talent to do it it well, and who wants to bother with that when moronic mud-slinging is so much easier?
6. George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox – With friends like these, feminism sure as hell doesn’t need enemies. Maddox takes readers on a shallow, Cliffs-notes tour of George Eliot’s life and works (the latter tour being particularly listless – I actually expected her to mention “man’s inhumanity to man”) and works in sixty different insinuating laments that her subject wasn’t prettier. Instead of completely ignoring the question of physical appearance like she should have done (and would have done, if her subject had been, say, Tolstoy), Maddox returns to it repeatedly, turning the life of the 19th century’s greatest novelist into a reality TV show in which the plain girl ends up being kinda interesting. Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.
5. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens/Life by Keith Richards – The dogmatic egotism with which Hitchens narrates this airbrushed version of his own life – a string of money-fishing deadlines and crapulous mornings-after paraded like the Labors of Hercules – is exceeded by the arrogance of Richards – the drug-addict #2 man of a rock band, for Pete’s sake – since at least Hitchens wrote his own book – and remembers his own life. Not so Richards, who’s surely put his name to the longest amnesiac’s reconstruction ever written. In both cases, smoking, drinking, and whoring is elevated to a life’s vocation and then larded with intimations of depth, and in both cases, the authors come off looking more than a little ridiculous. It was an exceptionally poor year for autobiographies, but these two would have stood out in any year for the stinkers they are.
4. Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy by Jane Leavy/“Henry” Aaron: The Last Hero by Howard Bryant – This gambit has by now become familiar as baby-boomers approach retirement, reflect on how embarrassing they were in the 1970s, how evil they were in the 1980s, and how into “Friends” they were in the 1990s. They crave legacies, even ones not their own, because they secretly suspect themselves of being a failed generation of whining underachievers. It’s this fauxstalgia that animates virtually all current histories or biographies that have the word ‘last’ in their title, and these two books are especially bad cases-in-point. Bryant’s phony elevation of his subject is obvious even in his sanctimonious book’s title, which solemnly rejects a nickname that’s known from here to the Carpathians – readers would be within their rights to ask ‘who the hell is Henry Aaron? Is he related to Hank Aaron, the baseball player?’ And the embarrassingly starstruck Leavy’s book is even worse, cranking the fauxstalgia engine to such a pitch that readers are encouraged to overlook how unpleasant Mantle could be and often was, especially after he stopped being a ‘boy.’ As with Thomas, Bradely, Chernow, and Maddox, so too here: this is not what historians are supposed to do. Those who forget the past are doomed to sugar-coat it in time for Father’s Day.
3. Between Two Worlds by Roxanna Saberi/Portrait of a Young Man as a Drug Addict by Bill Clegg – Here’s where that ‘too good to be true’ adage comes in, but I’ll make up for lost time by all the more adamantly adhering to the literary equivalent: from now on, if somebody’s memoir has all the drama, suspense, dialogue, and pat happy endings of fiction, that’s because it is fiction. In fact, the whole sub-genre deserves its own mocking distinction: the memnoir. And the guilty phenomenon that spawned it comes from outside the book-world entirely: ten years’ of ‘reality’ TV have created in countless thousands of people a ravenous hunger for quick-bought fame and fortune that renders them nothing less than functionally insane (before he wrote his own memnoir, publishing’s Saint Dave Eggers wrote an incredibly long and passionate plea to be a participant on “The Real World”). The problem is that James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle proved the dangers inherent in simply fabricating your own memnoir, but this hardly impeded the insane for a moment: if fabricating wild, exotic, dangerous acts was troublesome, these writers wouldn’t fabricate anything – they’d just do those wild, exotic, dangerous things. But since all these fame-whores are also cowards, they made certain their acts were ultimately either livable or entirely revocable. Even while they were writing about hitting ‘rock bottom,’ somewhere in their back-pack or sock-drawer was a phone number, a lifeline to a lawyer, a parent, a UN delegate. In every case, that back-door was triple-checked before the guilty parties took off, ready to risk their bodies and their time in order to emerge with a book deal, a string of speaking engagements, and a James Franco movie. And since those things – and the material comfort they provide – were always the point, the experiences themselves are rendered the most insulting dumb-show imaginable. Saberi got herself arrested and imprisoned in Iran (“I knew it was illegal to write a book about life under the dictatorship,” wide-eyed blink, wide-eyed blink, “but I never dreamed it was illegal to research such a book. In public. With a tape recorder.”), spent a couple of months in confinement while the US government, the UN, and the United Federation of Planets worked around the clock to free her, and then had the shameless gall to write a self-serving book about her ‘ordeal’ while all her fellow-prisoners continue to serve their life-sentences without benefit of Connecticut legal services. She provoked her own arrest – she went to Iran specifically, insanely, to roll the dice and hope they came up ‘book deal,’ and, noxiously, it worked. Same thing with Clegg, who ‘descended’ into crack addiction before opening that sock drawer and making his do-over phone call, and who did it all so he could have a book deal and watch Emil Hirsch play him in the movie. The memnoir’s chief sin is its degradation of the very concept of truth, its validation of insane self-centeredness, and these were by far the worst offenders in 2010. Both these attractive young authors deserve the same thing: for the ‘ordeals’ they so blithely wrote about to actually happen to them, without the magic back-door escape.
2. Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove/Crisis and Command by John Yoo – It’s almost the very depth of cynicism, you’re almost there, to parade your own evil under the banner of doing what you thought was right – to know you were doing evil and gamble that ‘I was doing what I thought was right’ will fool most of the people most of the time. It wouldn’t be cynicism if you really believed it, but neither Rove nor Yoo has had a real belief unconnected with personal avarice in many decades. Only a step less loathsome than tyranny are those careful intellectual men who seek to justify tyranny, to itself and the world, as these two filthy books so brashly attempt. Rove is the architect of all that is rotten in 21st century American politics – the proud re-creator of a type of Tammany political viciousness that annihilates all nuance and debate and wants to. And Yoo is the Grima Wormtongue who squirts delusions of godhood into authority’s ear merely so that he himself gets to be authority’s footstool. These books share the same black heartbeat: that doing anything at all to your enemies – even the things that made them your enemies, especially those things – is somehow now the cost of doing business, that lies are honorable and might makes right and that all of this is a sign of real-world adulthood, of seeing things like they are. The fact that both Rove and Yoo are writing these books as free men only shows that they are the beneficiaries of far more legal lenience than they ever recommended for others. Both books are nonetheless criminal testimonies.
1. Decision Points by George W. Bush – This is it, then, the cold bottom of cynicism, a presidential memnoir. This is a petty, stupid man who never wanted the presidency for anything more than bragging rights spinning the most cruel work of fauxstalgia imaginable. The alternate reality is a great American story: an ordinary man, a screw-up in life, hits rock bottom, turns his life around through the love of a good woman and the light of a renewed spiritual faith, and arrives at his Presidential destiny just at the dark moment when his country needs him most. There isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t wish they’d lived in that alternate reality for eight years, who doesn’t dream of how different the world would be if that alternate reality had somehow happened. And the thing that makes this book not only the worst work of nonfiction in 2010 but also hands-down the worst book of any kind so far written in the 21st century is heartbreakingly simple: it’s spoken in the voice of that alternate history and wants us to believe it really happened. This is a final insult of such an exquisite devastation that only an imbecile could wreak it.