Small talk follows predictable patterns and rarely veers off of script, and so people often ask me in casual conversation about my hobbies. These same people are generally either perplexed or disappointed when I tell them that a shortage of free time in general precludes the possibility of practicing a wide array of hobbies in earnest, but that I typically spend most of my spare time reading. Indeed, if I could find myself gainfully employed simply reading, analyzing, synthesizing, and commenting, I would achieve a pinnacle of happiness otherwise reserved only for the rich.
Perhaps I cannot account for what I accomplished in 2019 because all of it consisted simply of the perusal of books. And while it strikes me that this may appear insufferably vain as I type this, I have noticed that people tend to develop lists of their top recommendations for the year only at the end of the year (perhaps following the general thread of Solonian advice about not evaluating someone’s fortune in life until they are dead), and I have decided to follow suit by posting a set of recommendations from my bookshelf this year.
Released in 2019:
Anthony Grafton – Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship
Technically, this is a re-release, but the updated foreword and afterword constitute 2019 material. I would read anything by Anthony Grafton (and I’m dying to read his new book Inky Fingers in 2020), and anyone who is familiar with his work will know that he treats masses of erudition with a light and inviting style. Sure, it’s a serious and learned book, but it also lends itself to armchair reading with a coffee in hand. Perhaps the best insight to be gleaned from the book is the association between critical scholars and forgers – the tools necessary for each occupation being essentially the same.
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror:
Ever since I read her article, The Repressive, Authoritarian Soul of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, Jia Tolentino has been the only regular contributor to The New Yorker whose work I both look forward to and read through without fail. I recall reading somewhere that Zadie Smith thought that she was the perfect Millennial writer (or something to that effect), in that she managed to have a firm foothold in and understanding of the culture of my generation without it having ruined her. The essays which bookend the collection The I in Internet (about the elision of self and the commodification of identity in digital culture) and I Thee Dread (cynically romantic or romantically cynical reflections on marriage) were alone worth the price of the book.
Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones
This was fortunately mercifully short on Game of Thrones material, because I find myself unable to come to terms with my former avid fondness for that show after its full-on commitment to wrapping up at the expense of making sense. Yet it was also less strictly Classical than I had anticipated, too. The book is a collection of Mendelsohn’s essays and criticism, and its range is wide and expansive. I took a particularly sick satisfaction in Mendelsohn’s brutal review of Stephen G. Kellman’s Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, for no other reason than the fact that Kellman once shot me a surly glare when I was an undergraduate and opened a door for him and his wife, poet and professor Wendy Barker.
Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago:
I tried to pick this up at the bookstore several times without any success because it had never occurred to me to look in the sci-fi/fantasy section. If either of those genres sounds unappealing to you, don’t worry: it is not really either of them. Kay’s work occupies a distinct space adjacent to historical fiction, or what I once heard him describe as a quarter-turn toward fantasy. All of the characters and settings are entirely fictional, yet it is set in what is clearly a fictionalized Renaissance Italy. Much of the narrative follows the central character Gudanio Cerra as he tries to keep himself alive amidst an ongoing conflict between two powerful condottieri, Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio. In addition to the wonderfully sad lyrical asides, the plot is constantly engaging throughout, and I was so involved that I read the book in a marathon session one Saturday.
Zadie Smith, Feel Free:
This was released in 2018, and so qualifies as an “older book,” but I cannot recommend it enough. Feel Free is another one of those books which I ploughed through in a marathon session because it was so engaging. I had not read Zadie Smith before this collection, but I was so impressed that I went on a binge and read all of her novels afterward.
Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Don’t @ me on this one. Despite all of Gibbon’s flaws and shortcomings, I feel the need every few years to read through the Decline and Fall in its entirety, and I’m afraid that it might be my desert island book. The edition by J.B. Bury lets you feel the satisfaction of seeing Gibbon’s factual errors as you read. Some of the later volumes are more of a slog than the first few, but I will still probably read straight through this again in a year or two.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick:
A lovely trip to Nantucket’s whaling museum with Joel and his family this summer kindled the urge to read this bad boy for a third time, which did indeed prove to be the charm. Although I had read it twice before, I found this run through it to be the most engaging, and no book in my library is so thoroughly dog-eared throughout. A work of unparalleled genius, and definitely the most quotable book I’ve ever read.
How did I read all of the complaints about the gossipy and tawdry nature of this book for so many years without dipping into it? It may not be the most reliable history, or even a forgery, but it’s one of the most engaging Latin prose works we have outside of the Satyricon.
Kristine Haugen, Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment
I wrote up a full review of this book here.
The Book I Wanted to Hate But Couldn’t:
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
Ezra Pound may have been a villain, and even in the narrow field of criticism he often goes off the rails pretty hard, but I blasted through this in one sitting because it was so utterly engaging throughout. Pound’s reflections on reading, and especially his thoughts on ancient poetry, are not bad. But his unwavering insistence on Chaucer and Provençal poets reminded me of the anecdote in Menelsohn’s collection about Mary Renault trying to push everyone into reading Thomas Malory.
The Book I Wanted to Like But Couldn’t:
Herman Melville, Pierre:
One need look no further than the comparison between Pierre and Moby Dick to dispel the cult of genius. An author may be able to produce a work of genius, but they may have just the one. Pierre was criticized as one of the world’s most unreadable books, and I took up the challenge only to toss it aside about halfway through. The plot is unbearably absurd, and I found that I could not get past the stilted and affected archaism of the dialogue. This work alone made me wonder whether it is not for the best that so much of ancient literature has perished, allowing us to shower the surviving poets’ works with accolades while being spared the disappointment of reading some of their abortive attempts at art.