Category Archives: books

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

I was struck by the fact that this book was getting a huge amount of press, and I was clearly supposed to have heard of the author, Sally Rooney, but I had not. And when I asked people about this, I was told it was generational. Rooney is “a millennial author” and I am not a millennial reader. I took this as a challenge! Can I read millennially?

Here are some thoughts which I suppose contain plot spoilers if you are the sort of reader who wants to avoid those before reading the books. (I am.)

What I really like about the book is its strange and affecting choice to use a narrative voice which can go anywhere and see anything but cannot enter any of the main characters’ minds. Everything is done through dialogue and description of bodily motion. The narrator never speaks in the first person but somehow has a personality, is a kind of lonely spirit, which sometimes wanders away from the narrative action entirely and goes out into the night, while the characters keep talking inside the cozy, lighted house, where the narrator can no longer hear. (The only other recent book I can think of that does something like this is is J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, but the purpose there is pretty different; that one is really going for, and achieving, outright spookiness.)

This choice is the central stylistic fact of the novel and every moment gets colored by it, as in a novel written in the second person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, for instance, and the fact that we are locked out of the human experience of it, just watching bodies roll over each other, makes it uncomfortable to read — frankly, kind of porny. By design, since the characters themselves are not really able to experience each other as people, even though at moments they think they’re so doing.

The story is broken up by emails from one character to another — in a normal novel these could be simply changes of register, a comfortable way to vary the style and bring in information about the characters without cramming it artificially into dialogue or reminiscence. But here, because we’ve been locked out of the characters’ minds, the artificiality of the form comes to the fore. We don’t experience the emails as direct contact with the character’s beliefs, but as performances, which is of course what letters actually are. And so the little philosophical essays that might otherwise be read as authorial thesis statements by proxy are, here, more like — what, affectations? Things the characters wear, like clothes, from which observers can tell what kind of people they are asserting themselves to be.

About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative breaks the rule and goes into Eileen’s mind for a reminiscence of her early romantic feeling for Simon, the man we’re watching her present-day romance with. (Simon is also Jesus, sort of.) I’m not sure why Rooney does this. In fact the book, which sets itself up very satisfyingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do once it has established its mood of eerie distance. The last part of the novel — back to the distant narrator, at this point — contains a lot of long monologues which feel purposeless and lack the snap of the very, very good renderings of speech earlier on. To be honest I had the feeling Rooney was tired of moving the characters around on the board and knows that in novels people traditionally settle down together in the end so that’s what happens. But this very assured and unconventional book doesn’t like having a conventional ending. On some level I think Rooney recognizes this, so puts the ending in a pair of letters rather than try to narrate it.

This sounds like I didn’t like it, but I did like it. Rooney set herself a difficult task and didn’t, it seems to me, bring it off; but most books don’t even try anything hard.

Some other people writing on this book:

Tony Tulathimutte in the Nation, who makes some correct criticisms of some of the sentences in the book;

Anne Enright in the Guardian, who is very good on the strange power of the novel’s style, and who is completely won over by the ending that left me so unsatisfied.

Update: There is another read here, which is that I’m overthinking it and this is meant to be the sort of novel in which you feel about the characters the way you might about people you know, and just straightforwardly hope for certain outcomes for them, the way one does (I mean, I do) in The Age of Innocence or Elena Ferrante novels (I mean, the ones I’ve read.) If that’s the work the book is doing, it didn’t work for me (but I think it worked for others, like Anne Enright.)

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GPT-3 me, by the book

Not gonna lie, it has always been a dream of mine, a marker of being a Real Writer, to do a New York Times Book Review “By the Book” interview, and this summer I did it. Really fun — I got to praise a lot of writers I truly admire (including Janet Malcolm, who I sort of hoped would read it, and who died the day before the interview came out.) and hopefully helped generate some publicity for Shape.

I also recently got beta access to Open AI’s “GPT-3” text-generation engine. So I thought it would be fun to give it part of my interview and see what happened if I asked it to continue.

Here are some results. What’s bold is text I supplied to GPT-3 (along with the whole text of the interview previous to that line.) This uses the davinci engine, with temperature set to 0.7.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read “The Little House on the Prairie” series as it came out, and I think I really liked them. I reread “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” many times. I loved “The Hobbit” so much I would reread the whole thing and just skip the long chapters. The first adult book I read was “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers, when I was 10 or 11, because I loved the title so much. It was a little hard to get into because it was so slow, but I was so happy to be reading a book that was all about people being sad, because I was so sad!

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s so perfect.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Note that GPT-3 has enough text to recognize this as a “By The Book” interview, because the two questions it generates are indeed on the standard list of questions that the NYTBR asks authors. “Temperature” is a measure of how constrained GPT-3 feels to pick the word it seems most likely at each stage. One cool thing about the interface is it gives you the probability distribution it drew from for each word. THe word “Heart” above, for instance, is one of the lowest-probability words in the above response; GPT-3 rated it the 11th most likely next word, with a probability of 0.8%. Top three were “Cat” (4.0%), “Aut” (1.7%), and “Fountain” (1.7%). Wait, “Aut”? Yeah — GPT-3 uses “tokens,” not words, and sometimes these are parts of words, or even just initial letters. I imagine “Aut” could have been the beginning of “Autobiography” or “Author.” Presumably running the algorithm at a lower temperature would have made it much more likely I’d have read something starting with “The Cat.” Having settled on “Heart,” the following word “is” came in with an 87% probability, far above the next most likely candidate, “of.”

In fact, it’s kind of cool how the OpenAI interface displays these probabilities, so I’m gonna screenshot and include:

Red means unlikely, green means likely — so you can see very clearly the red “Heart” and the green “Is.” Note that the standard questions from “By the Book” are almost all green once you get past the first word; you’re on a track the algorithm’s very confident about. “The Go-Between,” by L.P. Hartley is a real book, by the way, though not one I’d ever heard of, and not one I think my earlier responses could fairly be said to make you think I’d like. The answer itself, though, while it’s not my style, is very much “By the Book” style.

Here’s what you get at temperature 0:

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a voracious reader, but I don’t remember any particular books. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room and a bird in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in

This is pretty typical. If you pick the most likely “next word” every time, you get stuck repeating yourself, getting more and more certain that staying in the loop is the right thing to do because after all it’s what you’ve been doing! The only even moderately low-probability words here occur when a new animal is introduced to the room.

What about temperature 1, giving GPT-3 maximal license to draw less-likely next tokens? (Maybe temp 1 means literally draw from the imputed distribution? I’m not sure.)

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Neil Postman recommended “Wind in the Willows,” which my mother read to me and I read at my mother’s knee, many many times, more times than I can count. I come back to it every year or so, and it’s still a great book. I also was nuts about “Blondie”; the single joke in the joke book never loses its appeal for me. I loved “Black Beauty” and several other Victorian kids’ classics with similar emotional power; I haven’t read them again yet because I never have any time. I can’t forget how much I loved it the first time I read it.

Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?

“Lovecraft Country,” without a doubt. Also my essay in the Yale series, “Mao II and Then Some.” I also think my Song of Ice and Fire “house style” recaps (here, here, here and piecemeal here); they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve written. Even my husband likes them, and he doesn’t care about the show or the books. And the recent article on swaddling.

Edited to make explicit that in-kind donations by the author also serve as p.r. I should have included them, which I wish I had done.

Well, this is the most fun at any rate. I love the idea that Neil Postman was recommending books to childhood me, and to my mom, I guess. This one actually feels to me the most like my own prose style, even as the things it says don’t quite make sense? Maybe there’s a tradeoff between style and sense. At any rate, there is no actual essay called “Mao II and Then Some,” but that’s 100% a title I would use, and DeLillo really is a writer I admire and didn’t mention in the piece. “Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?” is not one of NYTBR’s standard questions for this feature, but doesn’t it sound like one? Oh, here’s the color chart so you can see how much redder and more daring this output is.

Impressive work — and let me emphasize that I just did those three runs and that’s what I showed you, no cherry-picking of the best output. Not something that makes me feel easily impersonable, of course. But I didn’t give it that much of my writing….!

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Shape playlist

I made a playlist for Shape, which is coming out in just five days!

All these songs have something to do with geometry or with the book. A few notes:

  • “Shape,” BaLonely — a great band from Spokane, a guy who plays guitar and sings and his mom who plays bass.
  • “Pythagorean Theorem,” The Invisible Cities. A terrific kinda-dormant-now band from San Francisco. The bass player dated somebody I knew a long time ago and one time I ran into the band at the Ferry Terminal Market and they invited me to a party at their apartment where there was a giant whole roasted pig on the table that everybody ate out of with a fork, and I talked to the bass player about how much we both admired the bassline on “Radio Free Europe.”
  • “The True Wheel,” Brian Eno. Sometimes I feel this to be the greatest rock song ever made. The lyric “looking for a certain ratio” appears in Shape as a section title and Eno shows up a few other times too. “Let’s get it understood” might be a kind of motto for math itself. The topologist Benson Farb introduced me to this song.
  • “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” Sylvester. Because James Joseph Sylvester appears several times in the book. Also this song can be read as a commentary on the Platonist view of geometric entities. (Is it for or against?)
  • “Feed The Tree,” Belly. There’s a whole chapter about trees, and a tree on the cover. “I know all this and more.”
  • “The Distance,” Cake. I don’t even like Cake that much but their ridiculous shtick worked perfectly this one time. The idea that you have to pay attention to what you mean by “distance” is central to Shape.
  • “Circles,” Post Malone. Once you know what distance is you know what a circle is.
  • “The Globe,” Big Audio Dynamite II. And you also know what a sphere is, and what a ball is. (“gonna have a ball tonight / down at the Globe.” “Axis spins so round and round we go” might have something to do with the quaternions.
  • “Headache,” Frank Black. A lot of this song is somehow about the book. Starts out “This wrinkle in time, I can’t give it no credit / I thought about my space and it really got me down,” goes on to “I was counting the trees” as if he’s about to invoke Kirchhoff’s theorem.
  • “Spiraling Shape,” They Might Be Giants. Unsurprisingly a band that has a lot of geometry songs (like the one about Triangle Man) but this is the one that’s specifically about a shape.
  • “Diagonals,” Stereolab. From an album called Dots and Loops.
  • “Circle,” Miles Davis. Starting a run of shapes in the plane.
  • “Triangles & Rhombuses,” Boards of Canada. More shapes in the plane.
  • “Meet Me In St. Louis,” Judy Garland. Written for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, where a lot of action in the book takes place, and where Ronald Ross, Ludwig Boltzmann, and Henri Poincare all speak (but don’t all meet.)
  • “Perfect Circle,” R.E.M. More shapes in the plane. “A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” seems to refer to the social networks I talk about in chapter 13.
  • “Shape of Somethings,” Moving Targets. A little punk rock right before the end of a playlist cleanses the palate.
  • “Once In a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. Co-written by Eno. Quoted in the book as a depiction of gradient descent. I listened to Stop Making Sense pretty much non-stop during the training program for Math Olympiad in 1987 and it still feels joyously like math to me. Maybe only me.

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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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Pandemic blog 32: writing

Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”

which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.

(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?

you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)

Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.

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Edith Wharton shipped Esther/Haman

That theory, now, that Odysseus never really forgot Circe; and that Esther was in love with Haman, and decoyed him to the banquet with Ahasuerus just for the sake of once having him near her and hearing him speak; and that Dante, perhaps, if he could have been brought to book, would have had to confess to caring a good deal more for the pietosa donna of the window than for a long-dead Beatrice — well, you know, it tallies wonderfully with the inconsequences and surprises that one is always discovering under the superficial fitnesses of life.

(Edith Wharton, “That Good May Come,” 1894.)

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In which I almost waste four dollars at Amazon

Instructive anecdote. I needed a somewhat expensive book and the UW library didn’t have it. So I decided to buy it. Had the Amazon order queued up and ready to go, $45 with free shipping, then had a pang of guilt about the destruction of the publishing industry and decided it was worth paying a little extra to order it directly from the publisher (Routledge.)

From the publisher it was $41, with free shipping.

I think it really did used to be true that the Amazon price was basically certain to be the best price. Not anymore. Shop around!

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2018: The year of reading books that are older than me

I’ve started a program of picking a constraint every year and striving to make half the books I read satisfy that constraint.  This year it was to read books that came out before my own copyright date, 1971.  Here’s the 2018 reading list, with links on books I blogged about:

  • 20 Dec 2018: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
  • 3 Dec 2018:  Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays, trans.) (161-180)
  • 24 Nov 2018:  The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 15 Nov 2018:  The Fiancée, and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (Ronald Wilks, trans.) (1904)
  • 19 Oct 2018:  Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
  • 7 Oct 2018:  Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-53)
  • 6 Oct 2018:  Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier.
  • 15 Sep 2018:  Mind and Matter, by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas.
  • 6 Sep 2018:  A Spy In Time, by Imraan Coovadia.
  • 1 Sep 2018:  Cat Country (貓城記), by Lao She (William Lyell, trans.) (1932)
  • 10 Aug 2018:  Maigret and the Headless Corpse, by Georges Simenon (Howard Curtis, trans.) (1955)
  • 31 Jul 2018:  Before The Golden Age:  A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (Isaac Asimov, ed.)
  • 26 Jun 2018:  Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.
  • 20 May 2018: “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,” by Wang Ming (1956)
  • 10 May 2018:  The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (1958)
  • 1 Apr 2018:  Indoctrinaire, by Christopher Priest (1970)
  • 28 Mar 2018:  Riots (Problems of American Society series), Anita Monte and Gerald Leinwand, eds. (1970)
  • 14 Mar 2018:  The Surprising Place, by Malinda McCollum.
  • 9 Mar 2018:  99 Variations on a Proof, by Philip Ording.
  • 18 Feb 2018:  How To Leave, by Erin Clune.
  • 10 Feb 2018:  The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.
  • 27 Jan 2018:  Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)
  • 20 Jan 2018:  The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard (1962)
  • 19 Jan 2018: Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 (Peter Maresca, ed.)
  • 10 Jan 2018:  The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  • 4 Jan 2018:  Why Men Fail, Morris Fishbein and William White, eds. (1928) (second post)

Society is Nix and Before the Golden Age are slight cheats: both books came out after 1971, but they anthologize material written well before, so I decided they counted.

One of my goals in doing these theme years is the idea that a whole year spent in a part of the bibliosphere I mostly skip will broaden my reading habits permanently.  Maybe?  I feel like this list has more translated works than I used to typically read in a year, and maybe I can credit the 2016 theme.  But only 5 of these 25 books are by women, so my 2015 theme is maybe not doing its work.

Other notes:

Best of the year:  A lot of the theme books were good, but this year, for the first time, none of the theme books really excited me enough to enter my idiocanon.  I should have reread some Edith Wharton or something.

What I learned from the project:  Based on two examples, 19th century novels in English care a lot about the difference between how men should be and how women should be (I think contemporary English-language novels are still like this) and the plot is often driven by sums of money and questions about how they will be distributed (I feel like contemporary English-language novels are seldom like this and I wonder why not?)

Based on Wieland I think the prose style of 18th century English is just inevitably always going to be swampy going for me and I probably won’t push myself harder to read more.   It was pretty metal, though.  Wieland and Bleak House have spontaneous combustion in common, something you also don’t see much of in contemporary English-language novels.

The Dud Avocado was truly funny and reminded me that people actually wrote and published books in the 1950s that were quite sexually frank.  I thank whatever librarian at Sequoyah knew the book and put it out on the front table so browsers like me would see it.

Biggest disappointment:  The Drowned World is a super-famous and canonical SF novel and I just thought it was bad.  A few well-done set pieces but doesn’t really function as a novel or as science fiction.  If you were going to read Dangerous Visions-era SF with a similar title I would recommend Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World instead; he maintains the level of high mind-changing weirdness that Ballard only occasionally touches.

Outside the theme:  Four contemporary books I loved.  Malinda McCollum’s The Surprising Place is an anthology I’ve been awaiting for years.  The old stories are as great as I remembered.  The new stories even greater.  Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity is a concept novel (interlocking narratives ranging from the 16th century to the 25th) which shouldn’t work at all but kind of mostly does.  Many beautiful lines.  Sort of Cloud Atlas meets (T. Coraghessan Boyle’s) World’s End if anybody but me cares about those two books.  Erin Clune’s How To Leave is a very very funny take on living in Wisconsin and only gradually coming to grasp that you don’t live in New York.  Reader, I blurbed it!  I first met Elisa Gabbert as a commenter on this blog.  She  is great on Twitter.  So it’s not surprising she is great at pocket essays.  But it is surprising, happily surprising, that her small-press book The Word Pretty got noticed and raved about by the New York Times.  Sometimes the system works!

Old stuff I meant to read and didn’t get to:  Rereading The House of Mirth.  Reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End which I have often started but never finished.  Ditto The Man Without Qualities.  I was going to read more classical stuff but never even got to the point of figuring out what to plan to read and not get to.  Just in general I think I spent too much time in the kiddie pool of the pre-1971 20th century, a period I’ve already spent a lot of time reading.  After all, when I was a kid, there wasn’t much else.

The great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world

He firmly believed that everything he did was right, that he ought on all occasions to have his own way — and like the sting of a wasp or serpent his hatred rushed out armed and poisonous against anything like opposition. He was proud of his hatred as of everything else. Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes lead in the world?

(William Makepeace Thackeray, from Vanity Fair)

 

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Did I like Bleak House?

It’s like asking if I like New York.  It’s big!  A lot of different things are in it.  Some things are monumental and wonderful, some things have an offhand arresting beauty, some things smell bad.

Minor thoughts after break — this book just came out 165 years ago and I want to spare you spoilers.

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