A stewardess told us to extinguish all smoking materials
And did not detail, cigarette, cigar, or pipe.
I answered her in my heart: You have beautiful love material,
And I did not detail either.
And she told me to buckle up, bind myself
To the chair, and I answered:
I want all the buckles in my life to have the shape of your mouth.
And she said: You want coffee now or later,
Or never. And she passed by me
Tall to the sky.
The small scar at the top of her arm
Testified that she will never be touched by smallpox
And her eyes testified that she’ll never fall in love again:
She belongs to the conservative party
Of lovers of one great love in their life.
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.
Flowers in a Room
Flowers in a room are prettier than the weed’s lust outside.
And though they are cut off from the earth
And without hope,
Their self-deluding desire adorns the room
So you, sitting in my room, are beautiful
with love for someone else.
How can I help you.
The happy wear a thin necklace with black hair
And on their forehead the sign of joy.
And a Greek man looks with blue eyes
Into the dark thicket and is dreamed
By a distant woman, unknowingly.
I cannot help you
As I cannot help myself.
I too make square pictures
Out of round love
That knew no boundaries.
Memory of Love – Image
I cannot imagine
How we shall live without each other,
so we said.
And since then we live inside that image,
Day after day, far from each other,
Far from the house
where we said those words.
Every time a door closes, a window opens,
As under anesthesia, no pain.
Pains come later.