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Reading 101 Books in 2011: A Year in Review
This year, I have read 101 books. That comes out to almost two books a week. My daily commute (80 minutes, aggregate), though not specifically designed for such first-world leisure as scholarship, is perfectly suited to my inner-Anobium.
There was no rhyme or reason to my book selections for this year. I read what interested me, and sometimes, I read what didn’t interest me. A few of the titles on this list were books I read simply because I was tired of seeing them or hearing about them. I think, once I read that, I don’t have to see it anymore. And it’s true.
Some people say that it’s depressing that one person cannot read everything. I find the thought reassuring. There’s a lot of shit out there, and even out of 101 hand-selected books, there were a few that would be best suited for a grocery store garbage compactor, puppy chew-toy, or both.
For example, I started off the year in the thick of it. I’d never read Herbert’s Duneand thought it high time I give it a go. As I suspected going in, Herbert suffers the genre-writer’s curse: he spends most of his time building worlds, forgoing other story-telling standards like pacing, description, and character building. Yet somehow, he succeeds. I wonder if the Herbert cult is really paying much attention?
The other ‘genre’ writer I read was The Scarby China Meiville. I heard from a now-braindead source that Meiville shares common elements with Haruki Murakami. This is an insult to Murakami, and I’ll leave it at that.
Those were the only two low points (though, for some reason, I read Pet Semetary). The rest was cake. I discovered P.G. Wodehouse this year. As they say, he’s much too bright to be analyzed. Reading him is like drinking a glass of champagne. It’s bubbly and light and easy to drink too much.
I also went on a big Sam Lipsyte kick, reading Venus Drive, Home Land, and The Subject Steve. What his stories lack in plot, they more than make up for in prose. He’s a dangerous, misanthropic, and hilarious writer. I wish people talked like his characters in real life, or that people could at least get away with talking like that. The same goes for Saul Bellow. I read Humboldt’s Gift, Herzog, and Him With His Foot in His Mouth. They’re all essentially the same story, and they’re all essentially the same book. But still, I love his self-hatred. Writers like Lipsyte and Bellow make me proud to be an American (Jew).
Speaking of, when I was reading Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz (which is supposedly the Polish answer to mid-century existentialist literature), I happened to be riding the train with the then mayor-to-be, Rahm Emanuel. He asked me what I was reading, and then told me he never heard of it. Then, we took a picture together. I’m taller than him, and I’m not even that tall.
Rahm Emanuel has never heard of Ferdydurke.
Possibly one of my favorite books from this year was Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews with Werner Herzog, the best director in the history of the universe. I read the entire book in his voice, which made his talk about the evilness of chickens especially compelling. The book is full of great conversations about filmmaking, art, and the absurdities of the modern world.
I dabbled more with different types of non-fiction this year. Books like Gary Rivlin’s Broke, USA, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl, and Studs Terkel’s Working were enlightening and informative in their own ways. I benefitted more from the exchange of ideas I found in John Dewey’s Art as Experience or The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. I especially found a lot in common with James, and plan to return to his other work in the future.
Fiction took up the bulk of my reading time. Most of what I read was tolerable to moderately enjoyable, though it seems that the more I read, the more difficult it is to find the real gems. I finally overcame my loathing of David Foster Wallace this year, and was able to enjoy mostly everything I read by him. Maybe next year I’ll give Infinite Jest another college try. I really enjoyed Antwerp by Roberto Bolano, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey andThe Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (which is also soon being turned into an HBO miniseries). None of these books have anything in common. Also, Murakami’s 1Q84 was worth the wait. I finished it in less than a week.
Books I found tedious were Swann’s Way by Proust, which is much too flowery. It needs some explosions.A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was also borderline intolerable. It’s an SNL sketch someone thought would be funny enough to turn into a full-length movie. Screened Out by Jean Baudrillard also reeked of theoretic pretensions. Dude needs to watch some Van Damme flicks.
For 2012, I’ve resolved to read a biography of each of America’s presidents. Even the weird ones like Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield. That’s going to take up a lot of my time. I hope to finish all of these before the world ends in December. Fortunately, there have not been more than 101 presidents.
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Dune; Frank Herbert, 1965/1984, Berkley Books.
Franny and Zooey; J.D. Salinger, 1961/1985, Bantam Books.
The Maltese Falcon; Dashiell Hammett, 1929/1972, Vintage.