Near Lenin’s birthday…
Harrowing Heaven, 1924
No, there is no spirit standing in the sun,
only a great light and heat, that instantly
surround us when we meet.
The cold of solitude was
an effigy in a trance —
it was not death! my eyes were watching! my blood
was waiting to be moved by your hand.
We must believe it, though beyond
all gratitude when it comes —
to melt the bonds!
Half unbelieving I rose with you,
half uncaring I closed you
in my arms and left the trance.
There are effigies throughout the world! that I would touch!
that I would warm to life
out of the hell of stone
where they lie waiting,
broken in fields, staring,
frozen by the lathe,
carved in brickdust, in smoke,
in chains of ordinances,
and also in chains.
There is a witness! There is no god on the altiplano
where they scratch the earth,
but there is a witness, and time keeps it
like the first men’s fire.
The ordnance crash, and burning villages
feed pain with men, juntas
lay the cold table again with steel.
You can’t speak for others, there are no others.
You can only say there is that witness
standing where they fall, as it waits
in language, the promise like a prominence
that trembles on the crown of the sun —
only a million miles of fire,
and a signal to the eyes that are watching.
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.
I keep thinking of you – which is ridiculous.
These years between us like a sea.
and dignity that came with growing older
would stop my pencil on the paper.
The player was open; you asked for the Stones;
got that, got steaming coffee, conversation.
The heavy curtains kept a wild night out.
I keep thinking of your eyes, your hands.
There is no reason for it, none at all.
You would say I can’t be what I’m not,
yet I can’t not be what I am.
Where does that leave us? What can we do?
The silence after Jagger was like a cloak
I’d have thrown over you – only the wind
was left, and the clock ticked as you sipped,
clutching the green mug in both hands.
Don’t look up suddenly like that!
How hard is not to watch you.
We had got to the stage of not talking
and not worrying, and that
was almost happy. Then, late,
When you lay on one elbow on the carpet
I could feel nothing but that hot knife
of pain telling me what it was
and I can’t tell you about it, not one word.