in the hundreds

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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
Fiction

*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
More teeth!

*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

2018…

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.

to sing and to die

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Ballade
Branko Miljković
Wisdom, innocently the sun rises.
I no longer have the right for simple words!
My heart grows dim, my eyes burn.
Sing wonderful old men while over our heads
The stars burst like metaphors.
What is lofty, vanishes; what is low, rots.
Bird, I’ll make you speak but give back
The flame you borrowed. Don’t blaspheme the ashes.
In a stranger’s heart we heard our heart beat.
To sing and to die is the same thing.

Sun is a word unable to throw light.
Conscience doesn’t know how to sing for it dreads
Its own raw emptiness. Thieves of visions,
Eagles, peck at me from within. I stand
Nailed to a rock that does not exist.
We’ve signed in lieu of stars the night’s
Deceit, so much darker. Remember
That fall into life was a proof of your embers.
When ink ripens into blood everyone will know,
To sing and to die is the same thing.

Wisdom, the stronger one will be the first to yield.
Only rogues know what poetry is.
Thieves of fire, not one of you in the least lovable,
Tied to the mast of a ship followed
Under water by a song more dangerous than reality,
The blackened-out sun in the ripe orchard will know
How to take the place of a kiss that soothes the ashes.
But, no one after us will have the strength
To endear himself to a nightingale
When to sing and to die is the same thing.

Life is deadly but it has a way of surmounting death.
A fatal illness will be named after me.
We’ve suffered so much. Now the domesticated hell
Sings. Let the heart not hesitate,
To sing and to die is the same thing.

Original

БАЛАДА
-Бранко Миљковић
Мудрости, неискусно свићу зоре,
На обичне речи више немам право!
Моје се срце гаси, очи горе.
Певајте, дивни старци, док над главом
Распрскавају се звезде као метафоре!
Што је високо ишчезне, што је ниско иструли.
Птицо, довешћу те до речи. Ал врати
Позајмљени пламен. Пепео не хули.
У туђем смо срцу своје срце чули.
Исто је певати и умирати.

Сунце је реч која не уме да сија.
Савест не уме да пева, јер се боји
Осетљиве празнине. Крадљивци визија,
Орлови, изнутра кљују ме. Ја стојим
Прикован за стену која не постоји.
Звездама смо потписали превару
Невидљиве ноћи, тим црње. Упамти
Тај пад у живот ко доказ твом жару.
Кад мастило сазре у крв, сви ће знати
Да исто је певати и умирати.

Мудрости, јачи ће први посустати!
Само ниткови знају шта је поезија,
Крадљивци ватре, нимало умиљати,
Везани за јарбол лађе коју прати
Подводна песма јавом опаснија.
Онесвешћено сунце у зрелом воћу ће знати
Да замени пољубац што пепео одмара.
Ал нико после нас неће имати
Снагу која се славујима удвара
Кад исто је певати и умирати.

Смртоносан је живот, ал смрти одолева.
Једна страшна болест по мени ће се звати.
Много смо патили. И, ево, сад пева
Припитомљени пакао. Нек срце не оклева.
Исто је певати и умирати.

Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

dismal months

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Fire-Jottings
Tomas Tranströmer
Throughout the dismal months my life sparkled alive only when I made
love with you.
As the firefly ignites and fades out, ignites and fades out — in glimpses we
can trace its flight
in the dark among the olive trees.

Throughout the dismal months the soul lay shrunken, lifeless,
but the body went straight to you.
The night sky bellowed.
Stealthily we milked the cosmos and survived.

Original

Eldklotter
Under de dystra månaderna gnistrade mitt liv till
bara när jag älskade med dig.
Som eldsflugan tänds och slocknar, tänds och slocknar
– glimtvis kan man följa dess väg
i nattmörkret mellan olivträden.

Under de dystra månaderna satt själen hopsjunken
och livlös
men kroppen gick raka vägen till dig.
Natthimlen råmade.
Vi tjuvmjölkade kosmos och överlevde.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

“nothing for show”

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A snow show from a Czech soul.

Snow
Vladimir Holub
It began to snow at midnight. And certainly
the kitchen is the best place to sit,
even the kitchen of the sleepless.
It’s warm there, you cook yourself something, drink wine
and look out of the window at your friend eternity.
Why care whether birth and death are merely points
when life is not a straight line.
Why torment yourself eyeing the calendar
and wondering what is at stake.
Why confess you don’t have the money
to buy Saskia shoes?
And why brag
that you suffer more than others.
If there were no silence here
the snow would have dreamed it up.
You are alone.
Spare the gestures. Nothing for show.

distractions

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Very much like the current political environment. Plans, reports, chaos, non-presidential circus all distractions to keep us from seeing what really happens (until it’s too late).

Plans, Reports
Adam Zagajewski

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 11.47.59.png

Obituary

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Obituary
Artur Międzyrzecki
He knew how to barter
But he could not sell himself

He knew how to have his say
But he listened with just one ear

He could go to great lengths
But he couldn’t get back

His love was larger than life
But his life was very small.