The year of not reading long books

  • 30 Dec 2021:  Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.
  • 5 Dec 2021: The Green Futures of Tycho, by William Sleator.
  • 30 Nov 2021:  The Cup of Fury, by Upton Sinclair.
  • 28 Nov 2021: Horse Walks Into A Bar, by David Grossman (Jessica Cohen, trans.)
  • 5 Nov 2021: All Of The Marvels, by Douglas Wolk.
  • 13 Oct 2021: Great Days, by Donald Barthelme.
  • 30 Sep 2021:  Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney.
  • 18 Sep 2021:  Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch.
  • 10 Sep 2021:  Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker.
  • 26 Aug 2021:  The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu.
  • 7 Aug 2021:  Max Beckmann at the St. Louis Art Museum:  The Paintings, by Lynette Roth.
  • 2 Aug 2021:  To Live, by Yu Hua. (Michael Berry, trans.)
  • 1 Aug 2021:  Blackman’s Burden, by Mack Reynolds.
  • 29 Jul 2021:  Highly Irregular, by Arika Okrent.
  • 21 Jul 2021: Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King.
  • 12 Jul 2021:  Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.
  • 7 Jul 2021:  Daisy Miller, by Henry James.
  • 29 Jun 2021:  Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.
  • 6 Jun 2021:  Walkman, by Michael Robbins.
  • 4 Jun 2021:  Darryl, by Jackie Ess.
  • 25 May 2021:  Likes, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
  • 18 May 2021:  Subdivision, by J. Robert Lennon.
  • 20 Apr 2021:  Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas (not finished yet, will I finish it?)
  • 15 Apr 2021:  No More Parades, by Ford Madox Ford (not finished yet, will I finish it? (Finished Sep 2021)
  • 26 Mar 2021:  Some Do Not…, by Ford Madox Ford.
  • 12 Jan 2021:  Metropolitan Life, by Fran Lebowitz.

My plan was that 2021 was going to be the year of reading long books. Why not? When the year started, there was no vaccine and I was teaching on the screen and so I was at home a lot of the time. Perfect time to really sink into a long book. I had gotten through and really valued some long ones in recent years — Bleak House, Vanity Fair, 1Q84, Hermione Lee’s Wharton biography — so why not Ford Madox Ford’s four-book Parade’s End, which I have wanted to read ever since I read and fell for The Good Soldier (aka the next book you have to read if you think Gatsby is the perfect novel and want “something else like that” but don’t think there could be something else like that — there is and this is it.)

But I didn’t read Parade’s End in 2021. I’ve read most of it! Two of the novels and half of the third. I will probably finish it. But — too high-modernist, too stream-of-consciousness, too hard under the circumstances. I have read a lot of it but I have never really been in it. It has made an impression but I could tell you only fragments about what happened in it. So my plan to read this, and The Man Without Qualities, and USA by Dos Passos, fell away. Sorry, early 20th century high modernism. And sorry too to Kevin Young’s Bunk and the 800-page history of Maryland and The Rest Is Noise and all the other I’ll-get-to-this bricks that didn’t even get taken off the shelf, as I’d imagined they might.

I read what I usually read. Stuff that caught my eye on the shelf. New books by people I know. Paperbacks small enough to fit in the pocket of my cargo shorts, for long walks — in 2021, we tried to spend a lot of time outside. (The small ones were: Blackman’s Burden and Great Days.)

I found I didn’t really read for pleasure this year. There were a lot of these books that I liked and admired; I don’t think there was one that gave me the sensation of “the thing I feel most like doing right now is reading this book.” But I’m not sure when a book (or a TV show, or movie) last made me feel that way, so it may be a mode of reading I’m done with! Anyway, books I liked: Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels — he read every Marvel comic ever written and wrote about what we found there. Nobody is better than Douglas at digging insight out of pieces of culture other people may see as low, or simple, or disposable. I’ve known that since I started listening to the mixtapes he was making in 1987. Of course one cannot help feeling that I enjoy reading Douglas reading those comics more than I would actually enjoy reading the comics. Darryl, by Jackie Ess, a perversely funny book about money that very cleverly disguises itself as a perversely funny book about sex.

Subdivision and Sleeping Beauties are an interesting matched set. Both involve dreamworlds. Lennon’s book is clearly marked as “literary fiction,” and rightly, but has the virtues of a great horror novel — authentic scariness, disorientation. Sleeping Beauties — well, you know I love Stephen King, and that I think he invented the virtues of a great modern horror novel, and I will keep reading these the same way I kept buying R.E.M. albums in the 21st century, but they are now kind of about themselves, gesturing at the virtues instead of really inhabiting them. The things people like to scold “literary fiction” for — shapeless plot & preoccupation with the married lives of middle-aged people — are here, and the presence of bizarrely-powered superbeings, gun battles, and rent flesh can’t change that.

The Green Futures of Tycho was as disturbing as I remembered. I loved it as a kid, but do I want my kids to read it? I think so? I wonder if there is fiction marketed as YA now which presents such a bleak picture of human nature. My sense is they make this stuff sunnier now. Here’s the first line of Sleator’s memoir, Oddballs:

When my sister Vicky and I were teenagers we talked a lot about hating
people. Hating came easily to us. We would be walking down the street,
notice a perfect stranger, and be suddenly struck by how much we hated
that person. And at the dinner table we would go on and on about all
the popular kids we hated at high school. Our father, who has a very logical
mind, sometimes cautioned us about this. “Don’t waste your hate,” he would
say. “Save it up for important things, like your family, or the President.”
We responded by quoting the famous line from Medea: “Loathing is endless.
Hate is a bottomless cup; I pour and pour.”

Yu Hua’s To Live was simple and incredibly moving. The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair’s gossipy memoir about how all the writers he knew, himself excepted, drank too much, was strangely entertaining. I think I liked Daisy Miller but I can’t remember a thing about it now. Horse Walks Into a Bar was annoying, built on a single conceit (entire novel as stand-up routine) that got old after, well, less than an entire novel. Beautiful World, Where Are You I already blogged about.

What should I read next year?

Update: Wait, I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi this year! I somehow didn’t put it on the list. It actually might have been the book that came closest to pleasure reading for me. Strangely, it was shortlisted for a Hugo this year; I say strangely because it doesn’t read at all to me like SF or fantasy, but rather as fiction that has taken some of the good things from SF without at all feeling like a creature of that genre. Maybe anything with fantastic elements is Hugo-nominable, but in practice, I’ll bet most people don’t see it that way. (Then again: The Good Place won a Hugo!)

3 thoughts on “The year of not reading long books

  1. Piranesi is our only overlap – a wonderful, short novel.

  2. Paul Dietz says:

    William Sleator (who died in 2011) was the brother of computer scientist Daniel Sleator. You might like this paper Danny did with Tarjan and Thurston:

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221591323_Rotation_Distance_Triangulations_and_Hyperbolic_Geometry

    Click to access Sleator-Tarjan.pdf

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    “I have read a lot of it but I have never really been in it.”

    A lot of my reading time this year has been consumed by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (the most recent translation, published by Penguin Classics). I’m almost done with volume 5 (The Prisoner), with only The Fugitive and Time Regained (or Time Found Again) remaining. I initially watched the movie Time Regained with Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart and John Malkovich and was intrigued though I didn’t understand much of it without having read the original novel, hence the reading began. The novel has few chapters, paragraphs as long as 12 pages, sentences as long as a page, much digression and diversion within single long sentences, and dinner parties that take place over 100 pages that sometimes read in a kind of stream of consciousness style. I had difficulty with the rhythm, but soon discovered that reading it aloud slowed the reading down to a conversational rate that made everything much easier to absorb, though slower going, and I can’t read aloud for more than an hour without going hoarse; I’ve been with this for a long time now. Even with that, my eyes still sometimes glaze over and I have to reread a sentence or paragraph, like this very confused text I read last night that bizarrely combines logarithm tables and some kind of vague geometry with the narrator’s typical tortured misogyny:

    “She [Albertine] had fallen asleep with her head thrown back, her hair disheveled. And seeing that meaningless body lying there, I wondered what kind of logarithmic table it must constitute for it to be possible that every action in which it had been involved, from a nudge to the brushing of a dress, could, when projected to infinity from all the points it had occupied in space and time or sometimes brought back to life again in my memory, cause me such terrible stabs of pain, which, however, I knew to be triggered by movements, desires of hers which in another woman, or in herself five years sooner or five years later, would have left me completely indifferent. It was a lie, but I dared not look for any solutions to it other than my own death.”

    Wow. Speculations on what this really means? Note that before personal computers and electronic calculators, printed logarithm tables or slide rules were very useful.

    So, I’ve also found myself feeling that I’m not really in a story. However, within The Prisoner, Proust has been delving much deeper into the narrators jealousies and underneath the thin polite veneer of the aristocrats to find the back stabbing and rot within, and I’m having much more fun with this. I suspect that by the end I’ll be glad that I have read it.

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