If the New Year is to mean anything more than the difference between Wednesday and Thursday, it should contain a bit of reflection on the past, a glance over the shoulder to see where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Since this is a blog about books, reading, and libraries, I thought an examination of my personal reading list during this past year might be interesting. I’m always intrigued by the lists of others--even if, as with the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2008, I’ve only read one of the selections. My average with other people’s favorite movie lists is usually even lower.
Since the number of real bookstores in New York has dwindled to a paltry few, one of the few places left to exercise the fine art of book-browsing is the Mid-Manhattan Library. In fact, most of the books I’ve read this year have been courtesy of my library card. I don’t generally gravitate to the new books section, with their glossy covers, pristine pages, and spines that crack a bit when you open them. I often prefer the excitement of unearthing a hidden gem, a book nobody’s ever heard of or long since forgotten, even if it’s been sitting idly on the shelf for a generation so.
That’s how I discovered Something in Disguise, a 1969 novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and The Dressmaker, from 1973, by Beryl Bainbridge. Both are dark tales of British social mores, the first about a widow with grown children who marries a pompous bore who just might have a shady side to his nature, the second about a repressed young woman living with her aunts in wartime England. Of course, I could probably have found used paperback copies of both these books on the Internet, if I’d been aware of their existence. But since there is no such thing as browsing books on the Internet, where would I have looked? [Since I read Something in Disguise earlier this year, it seems to have been withdrawn from the Mid-Manhattan library but is still available in the General Research Division's collection.]
For me, a single thread is usually woven through the tapestry of each year’s reading. This year it was the English modernist, Henry Green, and I again thank the Mid-Manhattan library for leading me to him. I had been aware of the existence of this author since the 1990s, when his novels were being reissued in sets of three as plump Penguin editions (Loving, Living, Party Going; Nothing, Doting, Blindness) with an inviting introduction by John Updike. At the time, they struck me as daunting, without particularly compelling storylines, and full of stylistic quirks. During this past year, however, I happened to pick Caught from the shelves of Mid-Manhattan and was immediately captivated by this story of the civilian Auxiliary Fire Brigade during the London Blitz; the prose glowed and crackled with life and intensity, as well as a deep strain of humor. I then read all Green’s work in fairly quick succession and followed it up with a biography, Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, by Jeremy Treglown, former fellow of the library’s Scholars and Writers Center. I’d be hard pressed to recommend one of Green’s novels over another; each in its own unique way is complex, deeply human, and profoundly touching.
I haven’t read much that was actually published in 2008. Still, I think my single book from the New York Times list, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, certainly qualifies as one of the year’s best. These tales of expatriate Bengali parents and their America-raised children have the depth and complexity of small novels, but with the compact emotional intensity of the best short stories. Philip Roth always weaves a hypnotic narrative spell. About a quarter of the way through his latest short novel, Indignation, a plot gimmick is introduced which initially made me groan, as it seemed so hoary and Twilight Zone-ish, yet by the conclusion it proved devastating and I haven’t shaken its effect yet. Lush Life, by Richard Price, uses the story of an apparently motiveless shooting on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to stitch together a picture of contemporary existence whose dialogue and ambiance struck me as pitch perfect. This is the rough texture of life I rub against whenever I step out of my front door.
Without a set prescription for what to read next—such as a class curriculum or the recommendations of an over-zealous friend—I’m free to travel along any path I chose, even if it is a twisty, roundabout one or leads to a dead end. During 2008 I managed to cover a lot of styles, periods, and places. I discovered William Styron’s controversial, 1963 Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, went on to a collection of Noel Coward plays, forged my way through the massive Dombey and Son, and even went back to 1731 to read the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut.
I never read much non-fiction, and this year was no exception, but I did manage to prolong my euphoria over the recent presidential election with Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama’s memoir. A president who is able to use language so movingly, compellingly, and intelligently is a president worth having, I say, and when the time comes for him to write about his years in office—that will be a book worth reading.
Why, after a day spent working in the library, do I go home and do all this reading, as if in a race against time? I think it’s summed up in the dust jacket I chose to illustrate this piece: For the Love of Books.
They say a man is only as good as his last post, and since I’ll be on vacation till January this will be my last of the year. To all who’ve stuck with me since my first piece back in May (and even those who haven’t), I wish the happiest, healthiest, and brightest of New Years.