1980: The Clock, author unknown.
Books for very young children impart the comforting lesson that the world is full of friends, in particular inanimate friends. The clock thinks as you think, only more reliably; it will never miss an hour. It holds order, and therefore safety, pleasure, peace. Kant’s discussion of aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment is largely based on the observation that “the discovered unifiability of two or more empirically heterogeneous laws of nature under a principle that comprehends them both is a ground of very noticeable pleasure.” I like this because it lets you bridge science and art, and because it can account for why, when I was learning to read, my favorite book apparently consisted almost entirely of photographs of a clock face in different positions. The rage for order.
1981: Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss.
The rhymes were strange enough; but what was really mysterious was the ham itself. I don’t think I had ever seen a large hock of ham such as the drawing was supposed to represent, certainly not a green one, and the weird way that the plate of food remained constant, appearing on each page amid the successive scenes of chaos, seemed to point to something that I was too young to understand. The ostensible moral about not being a picky eater went right over my head. My insistence on finishing an umpteenth rereading delayed the trip to the hospital for my sister’s birth, with near-dire consequences.
1982: Comparisons, author unknown.
I have no clue how to search Amazon or Google for a title like this without getting several thousand results. In a lot of ways it was The Clock writ large: numerical measurements of various quantities in the natural world, with lots of helpful illustrations of scale. The size of a paramecium was compared to the size of a mite, a human, a blue whale, a dinosaur; the Fahrenheit scale was plotted against not only Celsius and Kelvin, but also the exotic Réaumur and Rankine, which didn’t seem to exist outside the pages of that book. It was always the tangential that was most fascinating. A table of metric system prefixes began with the mysterious peta- and ended in the enigmatic atto-; lists of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons trailed off into lumps of rock with only numbers for names. I would have lived on them if I could.
1983: The Book of Knowledge, Grolier
A ten-volume encyclopedia for children that, so the web tells me, has been around in one form or another for about ninety years. This particular version, scored by my father at a garage sale, I think dated from the fifties. It had a salutarily inclusive view about what counted as knowledge; it wasn’t alphabetized, and between the articles about dams and the population of Canada I first ran into Blake’s “The Tyger” and a long extract from “Alice in Wonderland,” including the immortal verse:
“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”
said cunning old Fury,
“I’ll try the whole cause,
And condemn you to death.”
There was also some nonsense about how to be a good citizen and have proper table manners, but I’m glad they didn’t shrink from the creepy stuff.
1984: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
My parents were of the generation that would spraypaint “Frodo Lives!” inside subway tunnels (not that my parents, personally, did this sort of thing), so it’s not too surprising they would pass on this one. The best parts were the ring, the giant spiders, the song about breaking Bilbo’s plates, and of course Gollum; the dragon wasn’t bad, but toward the end it became clear that Bilbo had to fade from the story so some boring muscular guy out of a Norse saga could do his monster-slaying, and I wasn’t on board for that. Around this time I wrote my first fiction, which was about dragons and dinosaurs; one group, I forget which, ate the other.
1985: The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, illustrated Edward Gorey
Tripods, the heat ray. Didn’t see the film; I think it would be disorienting to have it happen in Los Angeles after associating it with rural England for twenty years. “Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” was perhaps the first scrap of prose that lodged in my brain and never left. It should have been frightening, especially the blood-drinking bit, but something about the Gorey drawings made it seem wondrous; the human figures were so tiny and black, perhaps deliberately meant to appear antlike, as to “sublime” the whole thing, like when Kant heats up a chunk of dry ice.
1986: A Field Guide to Dinosaurs, David Lambert
No nonsense. Laid it all outhow big, which continents, which section of the Triassic or Jurassic or Cretaceous, all taxonomically arranged. There are two orders of dinosaurs, the Saurischia and the Ornithischia, distinguished by their hip structure: the Saurischia split up into the theropods (Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Compsognathus) and sauropods (Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus which dino geeks know is the correct name for Brontosaurus). Ornithischia are different sorts of plant-eating dinos (Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus), except for Troödon, which was thought to eat meat. Pterodactyls are technically not dinosaurs but related archosaurs (ruling reptiles!), plesiosaurs are even more distant. Better stop here.
1987: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
I read almost all of the Durrell books the year my family lived in England, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but this was the first. A family friend recommended it because everyone knew I was into animals, but of course the animals were a gateway into the arch and dry British memoir, which was a sort of humor that I had not previously encountered and which I took to immediately. I tried to write about my own family in a similar style (every child takes as an article of faith that their family is crazy!), but I did not have Corfu at my disposal, nor water snakes, nor a literary older brother, so they never amounted to much.
1988: The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani), transliterated, translated, edited, and generally explained by the inestimable E.A. Wallis Budge
I had to turn to something after we all tired of the Catholic church. I remember my mother coming up to me one afternoon, as I was reading through this book for the fiftieth time, and hesitantly asking “You don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?” “No,” I cried instantly, which was mostly true, but I do remember pressing blades of grass from the backyard into small sheets of papyrus, which I then whitened with Liquid Paper and covered with short hieroglyphic spells. Whatever their goal, it was not achieved; but Egyptian religion seemed a jolly life-affirming affair on the whole, kept interesting by a heavy lacing of mystery and menace, and by the key benefit of a magical language. Budge’s edition had three parallel texts: the hieratic script rendered in a beautiful hieroglyphic font, then the transliteration with all of the missing vowels filled in per convention by the letter e, then the word-by-word translation whose syntax you had to rearrange yourself. I never quite expected to find myself before the scales of Anubis, should a heart attack take me in the night; but I did know the proper incantations to pass through, just in case, and given the alternative of fourth grade turning into fifth grade, it was starting to seem an unobjectionable fate.
(Subtract 1978 and a half for age.)
1989: Interstellar Pig, William Sleator. For a week after finishing it, I snuck out of bed every night and took pillow and blanket into my parents’ room, on account of fear of aliens. Later went back and reread it several times: no terror, all pleasure. “The lichen were confused.”
1990: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. From here forward, the influence of these books can be gauged by how much time was spent writing imitations of them.
1991: Foundation, Isaac Asimov. World-building. A thousand-year, Tolkien-sized history: but with fake science! Why was it less dopey than runes and elves? It has volumes of space opera, by me, to answer for.
1992: “The Call of Cthulhu”/“The Whisperer in Darkness” H.P. Lovecraft. New uses for non-Euclidean geometry, and Pluto.
1993: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein. The second half lost me; the first I reread many times. I loved how the Martians were described. Jubal Harshaw answered fantasies.
1994: Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky. I once read an interview where someone said that everybody comes young to Dostoevsky. True? This was my worst year, when I was closest to doing something violent. I wanted to understand the writer’s trick; how he knew to turn Raskolnikov’s head and set it at an angle to his world.
1995: The Trial, Franz Kafka.Someone had told me it was an allegory of Communism. No, no. It was about me.
1996: Ulysses, James Joyce. In the spring I read A Portrait, it blew off the top of my head for all the wrong reasons and caused me my ruinous choice of vocation. In the summer I read this. I had puritan ideas and insisted on approaching it with absolutely no background knowledge other than the earlier booklater I learned this was an, er, unique way of doing it. I didn’t know how it connected to Homer, nor how the eighteen chapters were organized, nor that it it was one day long, nor that it was about adultery; and by the end of the book, I still hadn’t figured any of it out. What came through: Bloom’s character; and that half the book was a hilarious parody of something or other; and the crushing, inexplicable sadness of Stephen refusing to stay the night and walking out the door.
1997: Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo/To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. Can’t adjudicate. Two doors opening.
1998: Molloy, Samuel Beckett. Much harder to swallow than the plays. I wanted to push it away, and claim that I didn’t recognize the picture it was painting. Instead I read the rest of the trilogy, and thought for years.
1999: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. The “Kenosha Kid,” pp. 60-61, was the first occurrence of a game I thought no one else had ever played.
2000: The Questionnaire, Jiri Grusa. It gave me a lot of bad ideas on novelistic license, because I wasn’t equipped to see the rules it was actually following.
2001: Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey. The Iowa years: I read so much contemporary Anglophone narrative. This was the best.
2002: The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. I wish he had finished the squire’s tale.
2003: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. A world with color and sound.
2004: Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Purity of motive.
2005: Waiting for the Barbarians/In the Heart of the Country, J.M. Coetzee. Drawing circles in the sand while Syracuse burns: is that complicity also?
2006: Middlemarch, George Eliot. Failure is yours. Inhabit it decently.
2007: Lenz/Woyzeck, Georg Büchner. Suppose a canvas built up with thirty layers of transparent lacquer.
2008: Villette, Charlotte Brontë / Quanta, Quanta Guerra, Mercè Rodoreda. It’s all in who you pick to tell it.
2009: Prinz Friedrich von Homburg/Die Marquise von O./Michael Kohlhass, Heinrich von Kleist. Angel’s feathers in our homely workaday wind.
Autobibliography Approaches Middle Life
The best book I read in 2010 was Mandarins, a collection of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa stories translated by Charles De Wolf and put out by the culture stewards at Archipelago. My rudiment of Japanese gives me insight into no translations but the awful ones, but I think De Wolf has brought over something like the ultraviolet glow that shines through Maupassant (Akutagawa’s guiding light) or Babel (a fellow apostle). A brilliant comparative study of those three is waiting to be written, under some imaginary regime that encourages brilliant comparative studies.
The usual two stories that Kurosawa mashed into Rashōmon are passed over. What we get instead is a sampling to make one weep for the lack of an English complete works. They begin as careful miniatures, gain depth of field as they project back into history, and make a queasy last turn in the year of the author’s breakdown and suicide. The last piece, “Cogwheels,” has the same generic uncertainty as the Kafka papersit is either fiction under unusual constraints, or the best-crafted diary entry in historyand stands as one of the century’s unmatched terror texts.
The best book I read in 2011, not my best year for reading, was László Krasznahorkai’s latest, now accessible in German as Seiobo auf Erden and forthcoming someday from New Directions as Seiobo Down Below. I love what’s been translated of his work from the eighties and nineties, but as a partisan I feel obliged to insist that it’s not all apocalypse... there is also the recent Krasznahorkai who has turned to writing about mathematics and Japanese gardens. These are stories, but the numbering is canny: they follow the Fibonacci sequence and are meant to be cumulative. The major players are Nō drama, Japanese shrines (Buddhist and Shinto both), and early Renaissance painting; also Baroque music, the Venus de Milo, Rublev icons, the Alhambra and Acropolis: that is, an attempt to cull a representative sample of anything that might count as an art object. (Also, there can be no complete account of the human relation to art objects without acknowledging the small agonies of scholarship and curation, and the great annoyances of tourism.) Pessimism and fatalism are still the governing humors, often appearing in the convulsive last turn of a twenty-page sentence; it’s obviously the work of the man who gave this interview. It conjoins art and madness again and again, not because madness is interesting in itself, but because it can’t imagine the mind for which art is not maddening.
Autobibliography: the New Baktun
As far as I can see through the fog, the Books of the Year in English were two translations: the delightful Leskov collection from Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Ottilie Mulzet’s chaperoning the safe arrival of Seiobo Down Below. Cheers for both! But we’re still untimely out here, so the best books I read in 2013 (apart from the Leskov) were Bandarshah by Tayeb Salih and Evelina by Fanny Burney.
Bandarshah is a little like Pedro Páramo in that it’s not like anything. A short, inconclusive book (it includes two of a projected five parts), it barely has time to jump between decades in sketching three generations who sometimes inhabit history and sometimes parables or dreams. The village and a few of the characters are shared with Season of Migration to the North, but without the sharp lens of that book’s anger, things tend to fall out of focus. The effect is mesmerizing.
Evelina is a master’s study of being trapped in a room full of other people and their unwanted attentions. If you’ve been in that room you know. The subtitle announces a young lady’s entrance into the world, but something must be wrong with the geometry because each step forward gives her less freedom to move. Anything other than the standard comic ending would have been unbearable; what a relief is genre. And how fresh she makes her stock characters. Some behave correctly and some less correctly, and some really, oh dear, quite uncorrectly; these last are her specialty, and it’s as funny as Sturges.
I never noted anything for 2012, a black pool of a year. What did I read? I fell into Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. There was a lot of good Iberia: Rodoreda (notably A Broken Mirror), and Queirós, The Maias.