Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Irrelevance

2007 was almost certainly the first year in my adult life that I abandoned more books than I finished. For years I was a masochist about reading, and once I made any sort of investment in a book –bought it, checked it out from the library, cracked the pages– I felt obligated to finish the damn thing, no matter how unpleasant I found the actual reading experience. But after gutting out way too many lousy books in 2006 —The Emperor’s Children, for instance– I was reminded of something that someone (John Irving, I think) once said about the subject in a Paris Review interview. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of it was this: When you get to be a grown-up you no longer have to finish everything on your plate if it doesn’t taste good or you’ve had enough.

I’m also at an age where the math has become daunting. I now have to face the sad fact that I’ll never get around to reading all the books in my house, let alone all the other books that I keep bringing home with me or would still like to acquire and read. A lot of probably essential stuff just isn’t going to make the cut, so why should I be making crappy compromises at this point?

I shouldn’t, of course, but I still do. I still get sucked into all manner of atrocious nonsense, some of which I have to confess that I genuinely enjoy. In the last year I’ve read or spent too much time looking at books on rats, ants, dowsing, stuttering, flying saucers, tongue speaking, cremation, and circumcision. I’ve read what is essentially a history of dirt (Theodor Rosebury’s Life on Man), as well as pulp histories of torture, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and Voodoo. I spent a good deal of time browsing in The Faber Book of Madness and The Oxford Book of Death.

There are also books that I return to year after year: the stories of Borges, Eudora Welty, and Chekhov, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Cellarius’ Harmonia Macrocosmica, Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and various collections of photographs.

Every year, as I spend more and more time trying to play catch-up, I seem to read fewer new books, and to spend more time simply looking at books, and many of my favorite books from 2007 were visual pleasures, which isn’t to say they didn’t have stories to tell. My favorite, in fact, is a small and lovely collection of photos and captions that is as powerful, heartbreaking, and life affirming as any novel I read all year. It made me, however briefly, glad to be alive, even as it made me terrified to grow old.

Here are my favorites, roughly in order of how much time I spent looking at and thinking about them:

  1. The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, KayLynn Deveney
  2. The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, Zbigniew Herbert
  3. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
  4. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, Robert Kirk (a classic of 17th-century weirdness reissued by New York Review of Books)
  5. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano. The other Bolano stuff I tracked down was equally terrific.
  6. Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, Jenny Uglow
  7. Dog Days Bogota, Alec Soth
  8. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon
  9. Cultural Amnesia, Clive James. I found this obsessive and irresistible, despite the wrong-headed takedown of Walter Benjamin.
  10. Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories, Jim Shepard
  11. The Last Novel, David Markson
  12. Paris-New York-Shanghai, Hans Eijkelboom
  13. The Principles of Uncertainty, Maira Kalman
  14. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Anders Monson