2012 in Books

Book count for 2012: 64. See below for list.

Yes, 64 is quite a fall from last year’s count of 100+, but page for page, I read a lot more this year than I have in years past. Books like Infinite Jest, 2666, Freedom, The Instructions, and the various presidential biographies – these took major cuts out of my otherwise above-average BPW (books per week) counts. But 2012 was something of the year of curiosity for me, wherein I opted to read books that had either A) gone long unread or B) interested me on a whim. So there’s a smattering here: intensely cerebral fiction (Infinite Jest, 2666, Freedom, The Instructions, etc.), intensely dry and dated non-fiction (James Madison, The History of Freemasonry, Writing about Architecture, etc.), and all of the other stuff that’s neither here nor there.

All told, I did manage to knock out 1.23 books per week. And I think it was a good year for reading; there were more winners than losers. In the past, I’ve suffered from a type of bibliophilic guilt, that once I started a book, I needed to finish it, no matter how painful. But, post-modernist as I am, I’ve long stopped doing things on principal. I have nothing to prove – especially to myself – so why suffer through some 25-year-old MFA student’s solipsistic dickrub if I don’t need to? (Especially because my caricature of an MFA would have said writer soften the term dickrub down to genitalrub; in that PC world of self-congratulations, no autoeroticists need be phallogocentrically excluded.)

Dickrub is probably a compound word I’ve taken license to use since completing Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, a book full of this kind of wordage. And the book calls for mention here because it seemed a book somehow relevant to where I am in life right now. I’ve read a number of McCarthy’s books in the past (The Road, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses), and Suttree only solidified McCarthy’s place in my mind as one of America’s greatest writers. He’s not only an excellent prose artist, but he writes things that speak. There’s something about the drifter-as-hero that’s profoundly relevant. Same goes for Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (one of the last few Saul Bellow books I had to complete, and did), which is kind of like the Yankee version of Suttree. Kind of.

You’ll note the various presidential biographies that started my year. I originally set a goal to read a biography of each president and wanted to read through all the presidents in 2012, but when it was March and I was only on Andrew Jackson, I gave up on the quest – mostly because there was so much else I wanted to read. (Always the problem, and one of the many frequent moments where I real like the Henry Bemis character in the ‘Time Enough at Last’ Twilight Zone episode. If only I could be locked in a bank vault when the bombs drop.) But I did learn that even if a person has a good biographer, the book can really only be as interesting as the subject. Most presidents are bureaucrats, cursed with banality. Getting through books on dudes like John Q. Adams and James Madison is like watching a clock at city hall. But I do plan on continuing the biographical trek. The presidents who have also been rustlas and murderers (Andrew Jackson, for example)—those are the fun ones.

This was also the year where I finally got David Foster Wallace. There’s not much you can say about him that hasn’t already been said, or that he hasn’t already said himself, but he is the novelist of my generation, and now that I get what he’s doing, it’s a title I believe he deserves. His writing is exhausting and exhilarating in the same way a 100k bike ride is. I don’t often feel like I’ve accomplished much when finishing a book, but with Infinite Jest, I felt that I had reached a new kind of height. It’s fiction, sure, but there’s more about the world in that book than anything Kant or Hegel ever wrote, thank God.

Aside from the presidential bios, I look a wider venture into non-fiction this year, discovering some good writers along the way. Pulphead is an excellent collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and the book opens with him visiting a Christian music festival. It’s a lot like David Foster Wallace writing about the Illinois State Fair in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. HHhH does a good job treading that line between fiction and non-, and books like Elain Pagels’ Revelations or The Gnostic Gospels; Robert Sullivan’s Rats; Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to be; and Mike Royko’s Boss are all well-written and interesting. That’s all I need for non-fiction, really. When you only have one of those ingredients, it’s harder to sustain. Kind of like Kenneth Donaldson’s book Insanity Inside Out, about being wrongfully diagnosed with mental illness and imprisoned for over a quarter of his life. It’s a sad book, and interesting more as a documentary than anything else.

Books I hated but nonetheless read were Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Cure All by Kim Parko, and Weather Stations by Ryan Call. (See above for my comments about 20something-year-old writers and their worship of self-worship.) These books were instructional mostly; guides for what not to do. (Though, apparently, doing these things gets you published, so what the fuck, man?)

I also read two books this year that changed the way I view the world. And, not that I’m a wizened old man or anything, but the older I get, the harder it is for an idea to blow my mind. But Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco—and specifically, the first chapter/essay of the book—did just that. Before nuclear weapons, there was no way for us to truly conceive of global self-destruction, and at the dawn of the nuclear age, this awareness manifested as fear and paranoia. However, we’re now two or three generations past that, and this fear/paranoia, for lack of a better term, has been psychologically subsumed. It’s now a latent part of our consciousness and how we relate to the world.

And the other book that changed the way I view the world is Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas. I got a new job this year, writing about architecture and design, and that’s how I came to pick up this book. It’s kind of a manifesto, kind of a history, and kind of a philosophy. Yes, it’s about New York, but it’s also about the delirium of modernity. Koolhaas says, “Manhattan is an accumulation of possible dangers that never happen.” Elevators could plummet, buildings collapse, streets could flood, and usually, they don’t. But when these dangers do happen, there’s a moment of dissonance; the chaos of danger is how the world should be, and the city attempts to keep this at bay. We call this ‘keeping at bay’ natural, though we understand on a primordial level that the chaos of danger is as things truly are. If you’re dropped naked into the middle of a rainforest, see how long it takes you to stop begging.

The books I’ve enjoyed most I’ve reviewed here on Anobium, but for the sake of condensation, here are the top five books I read this year:

1. 2666 (Roberto Bolano) [2009] No, it didn’t come out this year, but it has been on my list of longreads, and I finally did it, finishing it in about two weeks. Thematically, it’s a terrifying book, worthy to be matched with something sung by Michael Gira.

2. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) Following up on that list of longreads, I finally tackled this behemoth as well.

3. HHhH (Laurent Binet) Probably the most entertaining history book I’ve read, because it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously. A rare trait for an entry in the WW2/Nazi lore.

4. Revelations (Elaine Pagels) In theological circles, Pagels might have a reputation for being kind of a pop-historian, but there’s some solid mythbusting happening here, shedding light on both historical and contemporary Christianity. A good read for everyone, and also for Christians.

5. Believing is Seeing (Errol Morris) It’s good to know that Morris is just as good with a typewriter as he is with a camera.

And my goal for 2013? Keep fucking reading. You’d do well to do the same.

The Nuclear Borderlands; Joseph Masco, 2006, Princeton University Press.
John Adams; David McCullough, 2001, Simon & Schuster.
Break Up My Water; Francis Poole & Blaster Al Ackerman, 2011, Poporo Press.
Confronting Technology: Selected Readings & Essays; Ed. David Skrbina, 2009, Creative Fire Press.
Thomas Jefferson; R.B. Bernstein, 2003, Oxford University Press.
Believing is Seeing; Errol Morris, 2011, Penguin Press.
Freedom; Jonathan Frazen, 2010, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
James Madison; Richard Brookhiser, 2011, Basic Books.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe; Harlow Giles Unger, 2009, Da Capo Press.
The Instructions; Adam Levin, 2011, McSweeney’s.
Scorch Atlas; Blake Butler, 2009, Featherproof.
Emma Kunz; Heini Widmer, Harald Szeeman, Thomas Ring, 1976, Art Selections International.
Tokyo Vice; Jake Adelstein, 2010, Vintage.
John Quincy Adams; Paul Nagel, 1997, Knopf.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House; Jon Meacham, 2008, Random House.
‘Pataphysical Essays; Rene Daumal, 2012, Wakefield Press
Cure All; Kim Park, 2009, Caketrain.
Weather Stations; Ryan Call, 2011, Caketrain.
The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy; Charles Fourier, 2011, Wakefiled Press.
Hot Pink; Adam Levin, 2012, McSweeney’s.
Three Men and a Maid; P.G. Wodehouse, 1921.
The Adventures of Augie March; Saul Bellow, 1949, Viking.
My Friend Dahmer; Derf Backderf, 2012, Abrams Books.
The Secret of Evil; Roberto Bolano, 2012, New Directions.
The Intrusion of Jimmy; P.G. Wodehouse, 19XX
City of Bohane; Kevin Barry, 2011, Graywolf.
Pulphead; John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2011, FSG Originals.
Office Girl; Joe Meno, 2012, Akashic.
2666; Roberto Bolano, 2004, Picador.
Boss; Mike Royko, 1976, Plume.
Jerusalem; Guy Delisle, 2012, Drawn & Quarterly.
The Sugar-Frosted Nut Sack; Mark Leyner, 2012, Little Brown & Company.
Symbolic Essence; William Jordy, 2005, Yale University Press.
Insanity Inside Out; Kenneth Donaldson, 1976, Crown Publishers.
The Diesel; Thani Al-Suwaidi, 2012, ANTIBOOKCLUB.
Material Strategies; Baline Brownell, 2012, Princeton Architectural Press.
Love and Fatigue in America; Roger King, 2012, University of Wisconsin Press.
Reverse Effect; Jeanne Gang, 2011, Studio Gang.
Rats; Robert Sullivan, 2004, Bloomsbury.
Voluntary Madness; Norah Vincent, 2008, Viking.
HHhH; Laurent Binet, 2012, FSG Originals.
The History of Freemasonry; Albert Mackey, 1996, Random House.
Suddenly, A Knock On The Door; Etgar Keret, 2012, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
A Russian Doll and Other Stories; Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1992, New Directions.
Lightning Rods; Helen DeWitt, 2011, New Directions.
Both Flesh and Not; David Foster Wallace, 2012, Little Brown & Company.
Irene’s Cunt; Louis Aragon, 1928/1996, Creation Books.
Zion City, Illinois; Philip L. Cook, 1996, Syracuse University Press.
The Gnostic Gospels; Elaine Pagels, 1979/1989, Vintage.
Delirious New York; Rem Koolhaas, 1994, Monacelli Press.
Writing About Architecture; Alexandra Lange, 2012, Princeton Architectural Press.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; David Foster Wallace, 1998, Back Bay Books.
Welcome to the Monkey House; Kurt Vonnegut, 1970, Dell Publishing.
The Hive; Charles Burns, 2012, Pantheon.
X’ed Out; Charles Burns, 2010, Pantheon.
Black Hole; Charles Burns, 2005, Pantheon.
Infinite Jest; David Foster Wallace, 1996, Back Bay Books.
The Killer Inside Me; Jim Thompson, 1952, Vintage Crime.
Hallucinations; Oliver Sacks, 2012, Knopf.
The Fun Parts; Sam Lipsyte, 2013, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Mother Night; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1966, Delta.
Detroit City is the Place to Be; Mark Binelli, 2012, Metropolitan Books.
Revelations; Elaine Pagels, 2012, Viking Adult.
Suttree; Cormac McCarthy, 1979, Vintage International.

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