Monday, January 3, 2011

My Year in Reading

It would probably be gratuitous to round-up the things I have written this year, or to remark further upon the reading I have already posted about (to your right is the archive, and posting has been relatively light this year, so it should be unfortunately quite easy to navigate), but I want to attempt to account for some of the general trends in my reading for 2010, and to point to a few books that I have not yet brought up here.

2010 fiction:
Probably the greatest casualty of grad school has been my ability to keep up with newly published fiction. For many readers and many critics, this is no tragedy: the common assumption of the critics rounded up by the NYTBR for a seminar on "Why You Should Continue to Read and Pay for the NYTBR Instead of Those Annoyingly Popular Blogs" "Why Criticism Matters" seems to be that criticism is beleaguered not just because the educated reader is a (hardy but) menaced species, but because contemporary fiction is impoverished, dull, and repetitive. I tend to believe that if I haven't read a good novel published recently, then it must be from my lack of trying and not the fault of the literary community, but I believe I am in a minuscule minority in that sentiment. I find complaints of this sort ('it was a bad year for fiction'; 'there are no great writers anymore') generally unpersuasive; how is it possible to characterize the entire literary output of an industry whose scope of production we often have difficulty quantifying, much less evaluating? It's like saying it was a bad year for jeans or something: the fact that you bought a few pairs that don't fit you well says very little about the quality of production industry-wide. (On the other hand, it might say something about the accuracy of your self-image.)

At any rate, what new books did I read? I read The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, about which I had high hopes after having read Home Land a few years ago. The Ask didn't disappoint; it's a great novel in all dimensions. I think, though, if you haven't read Lipsyte before but have been intrigued, I would read The Ask first; Home Land is so much more spontaneous but not quite as involving, and I think both books would look their best read in that order. But read both. I also read Alejandro Zambra's The Private Life of Trees which, on the other hand, should definitely be read after Zambra's previous effort, Bonsai, as Zambra plays a couple mini-meta- or intertextual games. I remember hearing that The Private Life of Trees is not quite as good as Bonsai, but I would say that it is worth reading regardless; after all, it is very short—if one finds it in a bookstore, one could read it without drawing attention for loitering.

Then there is Freedom, which I already wrote about here. I am of two very different minds about the novel's reception: it's not worth all the fuss, but it's also good enough to be worth fighting for against its most obnoxious bashers.

Comics/Graphic Novels:
I had a pretty enjoyable year, although in large part that's the product of knowing so little about the medium; nearly everything impresses me. But some of the titles I read—Asterios Polyp, Sandman, Ex Machina, James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, Joe Sacco's The Fixer—have impressed a lot of other people as well, to say the least. I tried Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and, well, I'm going just to assume I'm not a Grant Morrison person.

Major novels/classics:
I think I did an adequate job filling in some gaps this year; the big project was John Dos Passos's U.S.A., but I also really enjoyed reading Vanity FairCall It SleepTess of the D'UrbervillesThe AmbassadorsFathers and SonsThe Octopus, The Education of Henry Adams, The House of Mirth, Billy Budd, Sister Carrie, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Le Père Goriot, and, way back at the beginning of the year, Middlemarch. I should have had something to say about Vanity Fair, Call It Sleep and Tess; I think I have mentioned all the others on here in one way or another, but unfortunately the fall semester got away from me. Allow me to say now, though, that Call It Sleep is dull for about 100 pages, and then is among the best lyrical writing in American literary history for the next 250 pages or so, and the ending is among the finest in all of literature.

Short novels:
Some that I have not mentioned, but deserve to be highlighted: Miramar, by Naguib Mahfouz; Wittgenstein's Mistress, by David Markson; Old Masters, by Thomas Bernhard; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson; So Long a Letter, by Mariama Bâ; Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska.
Other odds and ends: Diary of a Nobody and Cranford are two books of rather similar temperament: they both seem like they could be filmed by Mike Leigh and would turn out very well.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, is as good as the film, which for a suspenser directed by Alfred Hitchcock is pretty large praise (can you say it about any others? maybe Strangers on a Train, although I haven't read it).
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, was an alright novel, although I feel rather indifferent about it which, given the subject matter, was not likely Eugenides's intention. It's entirely possible I did not give it sufficient attention, though; I read most of it on an airplane ride, an environment which I think is conducive to some wonderful reading experiences (I read the whole of Netherland on a cross-country flight and that was nearly perfect), while others I think require the different pressure of solitude and reflection; a metal tube crowded with people is probably not ideal.

I cannot recommend highly enough two very unusual histories of popular music, both of which focus on how sound is recorded and manipulated post-recording: Albin Zak's The Poetics of Rock and Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever. Both will in all likelihood vastly change how you think about not just the technological processes that shape what we hear, but also the social processes—the experiential recalibrations that are brought about by being enveloped by certain types of sounds—that shape how we hear, what we think music "sounds like," and what are good sounds.

Also recommended are some excellent histories of specific genres or artists: Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, by Thomas Brothers; Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, by Virginia Danielson; Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South, by Patrick Huber; and Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio, by Louise Meintjes.

Those books were assigned in a course I took this fall about the history of recorded vernacular musics; in another course, which covered the rise of the "new middle class" (and, to some extent, the supposed "decline" of the genteel society) from the Civil War through the Great Depression, I would like particularly to praise George Fredrickson's The Inner Civil War; Highbrow/Lowbrow (covered here); The New Radicalism (covered here and here); Making America Corporate, by Olivier Zunz; and Selling Culture, by Richard Ohmann, which I'm having some trouble getting around to posting about, but which I intend to, I promise! It really is an immensely useful and brilliant book; it's like reading about fifteen histories all at once of the rise of mass culture, advertising, and what Warren Susman calls the culture of abundance. Zunz's book is much shorter but is also really incredible at synthesizing a number of different ways of thinking about the cultural and economic transformations that were occurring across the continent at the turn of the century. Few straight-up social or economic histories that I have read use literature and culture so effectively and so imaginatively. And I really cannot say enough good things about Fredrickson's book.

Well, that's about all the books I care to talk about for now, and my apologies for the abbreviated and probably unhelpful nature of this hodge-podge omnibus. I hope I can do better this year at keeping pace on this blog with my reading. Happy new year!


Shelley said...

I'm adding Call It Sleep and Perfecting Sound Forever to my library list.

Alas. someone put a Molotov cocktail in the deposit box of my library, so it's closed for a few days. (Need I say that although I'm a Texas writer, I'm living in California?)

How about adding some Trollope for 2011? He's way underestimated.

Biblibio said...

I would say the main problem with 2010 fiction is that in general the books that get publicity are repetitive and dull. But that's a whole other issue...

I have to wonder how you define "short novel". Some of the books you mention are short, but I wouldn't really say they're short enough to be distinguished from the brunt of fiction...

Some interesting books here, Highbrow/Lowbrow in particular and a few others. Hope 2011 is a good reading year for you!

Andrew Seal said...

Fair point about the shortness of the novels I grouped together. Mentally, I was just cutting things off at 300 pages--which, as you say, in fact does not distinguish them from most other novels.

And thanks for the kind wishes--I hope your reading year is pleasant and productive as well!