When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).
I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.
I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:
*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal
*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.
*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.
*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.
*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative
*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved
*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli
*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli
*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified
*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity
*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing
*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year
*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book
*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)
*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.
*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich
*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true
*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important
*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola
*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo
*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year
*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail
*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it
*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo
*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating
*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work
*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year
*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer
*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly
*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…
*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year
My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.
Envy of Other People’s Poems
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear — plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds —
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
The Problem of Describing Color
If I said – remembering in summer,
The cardinal’s sudden smudge of red
In the bare gray winter woods –
If I said, red ribbon on the cocked straw hat
Of the girl with pooched-out lips
Dangling a wiry lapdog
In the painting by Renoir –
If I said fire, if I said blood welling from a cut –
Or flecks of poppy in the tar-grass scented summer air
On a wind-struck hillside outside Fano –
If I said, her one red earring tugging at her silky lobe,
If she tells fortunes with a deck of fallen leaves
Until it comes out right –
Rouged nipple, mouth –
(How could you not love a woman
Who cheats at the Tarot?)
Red, I said. Sudden, red.
“If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.”
Winged and Acid Dark
A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.
The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.
Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.
When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.
Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine.
Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.
Poem with a Cucumber in It
Sometimes from this hillside just after sunset
The rim of the sky takes on a tinge
Of the palest green, like the flesh of a cucumber
When you peel it carefully.
In Crete once, in the summer,
When it was still hot at midnight,
We sat in a taverna by the water
Watching the squid boats rocking in the moonlight,
Drinking retsina and eating salads
Of cool, chopped cucumber and yogurt and a little dill.
A hint of salt, something like starch, something
Like an attar of grasses or green leaves
On the tongue is the tongue
And the cucumber
Evolving toward each other.
Since cucumber is a word,
Cumber must have been a word,
Lost to us now, and even then,
For a person feeling encumbered,
It must have felt orderly and right-minded
To stand at a sink and slice a cucumber.
If you think I am going to make
A sexual joke in this poem, you are mistaken.
In the old torment of the earth
When the fires were cooling and disposing themselves
Into granite and limestone and serpentine and shale,
It is possible to imagine that, under yellowish chemical clouds,
The molten froth, having burned long enough,
Was already dreaming of release,
And that the dream, dimly
But with increasing distinctness, took the form
Of water, and that it was then, still more dimly, that it imagined
The dark green skin and opal green flesh of cucumbers.
Drift and Vapor (Surf Faintly)
How much damage do you think we do,
making love this way when we can hardly stand
each other?–I can stand you. You’re the rare person
I can always stand.–Well, yes, but you know what I mean.
–I’m not sure I do. I think I’m more light-hearted
about sex than you are. I think it’s a little tiresome
to treat it like a fucking sacrament.
–Not much of a pun. –Not much. (She licks tiny wavelets of
from the soft flesh of his inner arm. He reaches up
to whisk sand from her breast.)–And I do like you. Mostly.
I don’t think you can expect anyone’s imagination
to light up over the same person all the time. (Sand,
peppery flecks of it, cling to the rosy, puckered skin
of her aureola in the cooling air. He studies it,
squinting, then sucks her nipple lightly.)–Umnh.
–I’m angry. You’re not really here. We come
as if we were opening a wound.–Speak for yourself.
(A young woman, wearing the ochre apron of the hotel staff,
emerges from dune grass in the distance. She carries
snow-white towels they watch her stack on a table
under an umbrella made of palm fronds.)–Look,
I know you’re hurt. I think you want me
to feel guilty and I don’t.–I don’t want you
to feel guilty.–What do you want then?
–I don’t know. Dinner. (The woman is humming something
they hear snatches of, rising and fading on the breeze.)
–That’s the girl who lost her child last winter.
–How do you know these things? (She slips
Into her suit-top.)–I talk to people. I talked
To the girl who cleans our room. (He squints
Down the beach again, shakes his head.)
–Poor kid. (She kisses his cheekbone.
He squirms into his trunks.)
With love for J
Distribution of Happiness
Bedcovers thrown back,
Lustrous in moonlight.
Image of delight,
Depending on who’s
Doing the imagining.
(I know: you are the one
Pierced through, I’m the one
Bent low beside you, trying
To peer into your eyes.)
In winter, in a small room, a man and a woman
Have been making love for hours. Exhausted,
Very busy wringing out each other’s bodies,
They look at one another suddenly and laugh.
“What is this?” he says. “I can’t get enough of you,”
She says, a woman who thinks of herself as not given
To cliché. She runs her fingers across his chest,
Tentative touches, as if she were testing her wonder.
He says, “Me too.” And she, beginning to be herself
Again, “You mean you can’t get enough of you either?”
“I mean,” he takes her arms in his hands and shakes them,
“Where does this come from?” She cocks her head
And looks into his face. “Do you really want to know?”
“Yes,” he says. “Self-hatred,” she says. “Longing for God.”
Kisses him again. “It’s not what it is,” a wry shrug,
“It’s where it comes from.” Kisses his bruised mouth
A second time, a third. Years later, in another city,
They’re having dinner in a quiet restaurant near a park.
Fall. Earlier that day, hard rain: leaves, brass-colored
And smoky-crimson, flying everywhere. Twenty years older,
She is very beautiful. An astringent person. She’d become,
She said, an obsessive gardener, her daughters grown.
He’s trying not to be overwhelmed by love or pity
Because he sees she has no hands. He thinks
She must have given them away. He imagines,
Very clearly, how she wakes some mornings,
(He has a vivid memory of her younger self, stirred
From sleep, flushed, just opening her eyes)
To momentary horror because she can’t remember
What she did with them, why they were gone,
And then remembers, calms herself, so that the day
Takes on its customary sequence again.
She asks him if he thinks about her. “Occasionally,”
He says, smiling. “And you?” “Not much,” she says,
“I think it’s because we never existed inside time.”
He studies her long fingers, a pianist’s hands,
Or a gardener’s, strong, much-used, as she fiddles
With her wineglass and he understands, vaguely,
That it must be his hands that are gone. Then
He’s describing a meeting that he’d sat in all day,
Chaired by someone they’d felt, many years before,
Mutually superior to. “You know the expression
‘A perfect fool,'” she’d said, and he has liked her tone
of voice so much. She begins a story of the company
In Maine she orders bulbs from, begun by a Polish refugee
Married to a French-Canadian separatist from Quebec.
It’s a story with many surprising turns and a rare
Chocolate-black lily at the end. He’s listening,
Studying her face, still turning over her remark.
He decides that she thinks more symbolically
Than he does and that it seemed to have saved her,
For all her fatalism, from certain kinds of pain.
She finds herself thinking what a literal man he is,
Notices, as if she were recalling it, his pleasure
In the menu, and the cooking, and the architecture of the room.
It moves her – in the way that earnest limitation
Can be moving, and she is moved by her attraction to him.
Also by what he was to her. She sees her own avidity
To live then, or not to not have lived might be more accurate,
From a distance, the way a driver might see from the road
A startled deer running across an open field in the rain.
Wild thing. Here and gone. Death made it poignant, or,
If not death exactly, which she’d come to think of
As creatures seething in a compost heap, then time.