I go back and forth on lists. I understand how meaningless they usually are, and yet I keep a running mental “10 Desert Island Books” list. I usually don’t read the year end lists, and I try to ignore the awards programs and awards announcements, but this year I’ve found myself reading more “Best Books of the Year” lists– I suppose because my novel The Revelator was published this year.
I told myself not to read these lists because they are meaningless, but then I told myself to read these lists because 1) selling books is not meaningless and getting on a few lists could help and 2) my morbid curiosity got the better of me. And when The Revelator was not on any “Best Books” lists I found myself reading the “Best Indie Books” lists and when it was not on those lists I found myself reading the “Most Overlooked Books” lists. And then I found myself reading the lists people I’d never heard of posted on Facebook. And so on. In short, I’ve found the reading of lists experience rather, well, soul-crushing. I mean, I think my book is pretty good. I think it’s fucking fantastic. There’s little like the experience of watching the book you bled into being slowly slide into oblivion, list by list, along with the millions of other books nobody remembers. Yes, the list of those doomed to oblivion is the only list we cannot escape, but we write believing perhaps we have found a loophole–this thing will persist. It’s a delusion, of course. Even Homer will someday finally be reduced to ashes and less than ashes. Our mutual fate is dust, friends.
I do occasionally find myself jotting down a title or two. And then I scour the local shops and libraries for those titles. I’d never heard of John Keene before these lists, for instance, and now I’m obsessed with tracking his books down. Plus, there is something in our nature to list, to categorize, to rank and rate. Maybe it’s about power or ownership. Placing order in a meaningless and chaotic universe. I’m not sure. At any rate, in the spirit of the season, and in the spirit of not hurting anybody’s feelings, here are my 10 favorite books that I read for the first time this year, that were not published this year, in no particular order:
- Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath. What a fantastic collection. Other than Melville I cannot think of another writer, in all the history of writers, who stuns and amazes me once or twice on every page. Plath does so here.
- Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. This is a book beyond genre. It is so mind-bending and inspiring, so poetic and strange and beautiful. I first heard about Lispector about 6 years ago, but at the time finding her books seemed somehow impossible–I had a terrible time tracking anything down. Now that most everything is readily available (although I cannot find anything by her in my town), I’m sure to soon read everything she published.
- Miami by Joan Didion. I’ve only recently fallen in love with Didion’s work. For years I didn’t bother with essays and non-fiction. My peculiar mood. Anyway, this is a tremendous book. It shows so much of the heart of America and it feels somehow timeless, like all of her work.
- Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch. I read many excellent jazz biographies this year and Kansas City Lightning was my favorite. Crouch here describes and portrays the formation of genius better than any writer I can remember.
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Well, this is a stimulating and moving book and a very heartbreaking and timeless book. I’m not sure why I never read it before–in fact, I had not read any Baldwin at all since I read Go Tell It on the Mountain back in ’04 (I loved it–I was obsessed with it–I can’t believe I did not read all of his books right then). I’ll probably read this one again before the year is out.
- The Ice-Shirt by William T. Vollmann. For about five years various friends of mine told me to read Vollmann. “You’ll love him,” they say. “You were born to read him.” I just don’t do well with book suggestions, honestly. I suppose it’s a control issue. A matter of ownership. But finally, one afternoon, I slid this one off the shelf at the Harvard Coop and gasped at how beautiful the first page was. I’m now borderline obsessed with Vollmann.
- Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. So much of my thinking was first shaped by reading Sontag in graduate school. Reading this book it seemed like she had articulated ideas I’d been trying to develop myself for the last few years. I hope next year is the year I finally read everything Sontag published.
- Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers by Pierre Guyotat. This book moldered on my shelf for about three years before I finally picked it up. I’ll admit–the tiny print kept me from investigating earlier. Of course, now I regret all the time we could have shared together–Tomb is simply one of the most stunning novels I’ve ever read–a relentless and brutal fever dream. A book without any limits or borders. Something to aspire to!
- Orlando by Virgina Woolf. Another book I’d been meaning to read for years–probably 15 years, at least. Such a stunning book. As a work of historical fiction, it’s almost without equal. As a novel about writing it probably is without equal (although Melville’s Pierre is there too). For me, very often, my appreciation of a book depends on the beauty of the language and few ever lived who could write as beautifully as Woolf.
- In the Blind by Eugene Marten. It took me a couple years to finally acquire this book. Everything by Marten is stunning. He is one of the few living prose writers I actively admire. His books actually intimidate me.