Pandemic blog 45: reading

Here’s the list of books I read in 2020:

  • 26 Dec 2020: Surrender on Demand, by Varian Fry.
  • 15 Dec 2020: He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope.
  • 20 Nov 2020: The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Nov 2020: The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie.
  • 2 Nov 2020:  And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Oct 2020:  The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax, by Nosson Slifkin.
  • 10 Oct 2020:  selections from Portrait of Delmore (journals of Delmore Schwartz, 1939-1959)
  • 1 Oct 2020:  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.
  • 25 Sep 2020:  The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre.
  • 17 Sep 2020:  4:50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie.
  • 10 Sep 2020:  The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman.
  • 8 Sep 2020:  The Lying Lives of Adults, by Elena Ferrante.
  • 2 Sep 2020:  I Left My Homework in the Hamptons, by Blythe Grossberg.
  • 25 Aug 2020: The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 17 Aug 2020:  Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.
  • 16 Jul 2020:  A Working Girl Can’t Win, by Deborah Garrison.
  • 4 Jul 2020: Bullies, by George W.S. Trow.
  • 30 Jun 2020:  Diary of a Flying Man, by Randy Cohen.
  • 20 Jun 2020: The Game-Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick.
  • 11 May 2020: Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.
  • 25 Apr 2020:  The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, by Stanley Keisel.
  • 15 Apr 2020:  Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee.
  • 10 Apr 2020:  old 1980s issues of Elementals and Squadron Supreme
  • 3 Apr 2020: Weather, by Jenny Offill.
  • 20 Mar 2020: Powers of X / House of X #1-6, Jonathan Hickman.
  • 10 Feb 2020: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (Roxana Robinson, ed.)
  • 8 Feb 2020: Jews and Judaism in New York, Moses Weinberger (Jonathan Sarna, trans.)
  • 4 Jan 2020: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

27 books. I think I thought I’d read a lot, being home all the time, but in fact I think I get a lot of my reading done on planes. At home there’s really not a time I shouldn’t be dadding or working. And also, I was writing a book, and I find it hard to write and read at the same time. (And books I read for writing research I don’t put on the list; I don’t usually read all of them, for one thing, and it doesn’t feel like the same activity as reading reading, if you know what I mean.

Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton bio was the first book I bought in 2020; I went to the Joint Math Meetings in Denver and went to the Tattered Cover, probably the last really famous American megabookstore I’ve never been to. It was a used paperback and it seemed to me the odds I’d actually read it were low. I bought it aspirationally. But then I read those New York stories (bought at a really appealing new bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. in Philadelphia, and now that I think of it that was definitely over winter break so that might have been the first book I bought in 2020, unless it was the last one I bought in 2019.) Anyway: reader, I read it. When was I going to read 800 pages of Edith Wharton’s life except now? And I liked it; I liked it a lot. I liked the way it just dove into every detail with a fearless exhaustiveness; you’re here, I’m here, in an 800 page biography, who’s gonna set down in print everything it’s possible to know about Wharton’s pre-fame ideas about garden architecture if not me, here and now? I think it actually got into my fingers as I wrote Shape, sending me down some historical research byways that didn’t actually make it into the book. But that’s good! Because there’s some weird historical stuff that maybe didn’t have to be in Shape but which is great and I credit Hermione Lee.

I also credit her with sending me to Journal of a Disappointed Man, which Wharton read and liked later in her life. A strange, bitter, very well-rendered diary chronicling a short life in science in the beginning of the 20th century in England. It’s surprising how few journals I read considering how much I like them. (From a Darkened Room was the first book like this I ever read and it shook me so much I never opened it again.) It’s out of copyright and freely available at Internet Archive, which is how I read it.

One thing I used my home time to do was unpack and shelve some boxes of books that had been sealed up since I moved to Wisconsin in 2005. I suppose I am supposed to say “I realized I could have discarded this stuff long ago and lived lighter,” but no, it was a pleasure to be reunited with these old friends. Bullies and Diary of a Flying Man are both specimens of a very specific genre of fiction which maybe doesn’t have a name; it has to do with the 1970s and the idea of producing things that could be read as light comic stories or avant-garde provocations. It has something to do with Donald Barthelme I guess. It definitely is a strain that helped form me as a writer. There’s a very specific nostalgia that comes from reading what you used to want to imitate. (It was similar to what I felt watching After Hours earlier this month; I never wanted to make movies but I wanted to write stories that felt like that movie, that’s for sure.)

Two childhood favorites, Interstellar Pig and Stanley Keisel’s unjustifiably forgotten The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, were also in the boxes and were as good as I remembered. The Keisel is so strange, so angry about the way school works, so casual about plot in its struggle to find feeling. People would like it now, I think. It is surely a good time for a novel whose antagonist is named “Mr. Foreclosure” and who is actually an — well, just read it, if you can find it.

The Lying Lives of Adults was the best new novel I read, and maybe the year’s Ferrante book always will be. A funny thing about reading is that I still have Zadie Smith books and Peter Carey books in the house I haven’t read, and they are all surely better than the next book I’m going to read, whatever it is, and if I had extra Ferrante books around it would be the same. But I don’t read by greedy algorithm.

I read a lot of Agatha Christie as the election approached because I needed to be reading things where I knew the crooks would be exposed and marched off at the end. Reading four in a month was too much, you start to see how they work. But they were good. I was planning to get into Le Carre, too, but he was a little too man-cold for me. Then he died and I felt weird reading and only sort of liking Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I stopped.

Books I didn’t read. I thought this might be the year I read Maryland: A Middle Temperament, a very long history, but no. I didn’t actually read any history at all unless you count Varian Fry’s very good memoir about smuggling politically disfavored people out of the sort-of-occupied South of France in 1940 and 1941. I started a re-read of The House of Mirth but I’d had enough Wharton at that point. I didn’t read Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks. I will! But her wonderful book party, in February, was the last party I went to, and every time I look at the book I think about wanting to go to a party again, and that gets me out of the mood. Next year.

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