This time of year it is difficult to walk down an internet street and not run into a few dozen “Best ‘____s’ of 2011!” lists congregating en masse around your favorite pop culture sites. While ‘Best of’ lists make a certain amount of sense in areas like television sitcoms and music, I’d argue things get more difficult with movies and harder still with books. I single out these latter categories because most people don’t spend their year watching movies or reading books solely released in 2011. Whereas tv and music feel (emphasis on feel, there’s exceptions to every rule) much more expiration date oriented, film and fiction are trickier to contextualize immediately. Books especially, which can’t be consumed as quickly (maybe that’s just me) build up a kind of critical mass over the years. That wasn’t meant as a pun but you can read it as one.
I’m not a very journal-centric person. Which is why a site like Goodreads is great. You spend a few seconds plugging in the book you are currently reading (or adding those you come across to your burgeoning ‘to-read’ category) and it acts as a book log / wishlist all-in-one. You can add as much or as little annotation as you’d like, from bare bones like the date finished to where you purchased the book in the first place. Using my Goodreads account as my guide, here is my ‘Year in Reading’ a la what the Millions is doing over on its site. Looking back on a whole year I’m sad I didn’t get to as many books as I wished to, but isn’t that always the case.
First the broadstrokes.
1. I need to read more non-fiction. Only 3 of the 26 books I finished qualify as such. My friend Oline is weeping right now as I type this.
2. I read a TON of pulp. By that I mean sword ‘n sorcery, noir, spy thrillers, bumps that go thing in the night style pot boilers. Even if said bumps were written by genre-slumming ‘literary’ authors. And totally not counting the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of comicbooks I read and don’t file away on Goodreads.
3. This was my year of David Foster Wallace.
4. Novels in translation are fairly well represented. 5 of them. A couple of Germans, a French, a Dutch and a Russian all walked into my literary bar. Unsurprisingly, they were some of my most enjoyable reads.
5. My list of abandoned, not-yet-finished, and just dabbling with them books include Montaigne, J. G. Ballard, the Bible, and a fling with Tristram Shandy. Sterne is wonderful but daunting. I feel like a college freshman who has gone out on a few dates with a completely awesome person, somebody who can make you happy for just about ever but who you’re pretty much incapable of making that kind of long term commitment with right now. Someday, Laurence, someday.
Regarding point one, Out of the Vinyl Deeps was amazing. Ellen Willis was the first rock music critic for the New Yorker and her essays from the late 60s and early 70s are refreshingly devoid of all those things you hate about contemporary music criticism. Particularly adept at situating music politically, Willis nonetheless never let you forget she was just a girl who liked to put her headphones on and dance about her apartment to her favorite record.
Michael Herr’s Dispatches is probably the best book I read all year. An unforgettably troubling, funny, hopeful and masterfully written account of the Vietnam war.
Where to start with point two? I read some classics (Red Harvest, Casino Royale) continued on with the Richard Stark penned Parker series (Green Eagle Score, Sour Lemon Score) detoured through fanged country (The Last Werewolf, Dead Until Dark), an imploding zombified New York City (Zone One) and tried on some new classics (The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, Best Served Cold). All were excellent entertainment and quite a few were better written than most ‘literary canon’ works I’ve suffered through over the years.
We shift to point three seemlessly seeing as there’s more than a little otherworldly / scifi / pulp-ish stuff going on in Infinite Jest. The Pale King, which I read 9 months later is less alternate history-esque (The Entertainment and the Great Concavity have been replaced by the ubiquitous boredom of everyday life), unfinished and nowhere near as good, which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it. 1,600 pages of DFW. Phew.
Some of the best fiction I read this year were works in translation. Jenny Erpenbeck’s economical Visitation (just 151 pages) was as heartbreaking as Soul of Wood was darkly humorous. Angel Maker (a modern day retelling of the Frankenstein story with cloning replacing grave-robbing) and The Explosion of the Radiator Hose (a kind of Sebaldian travelogue) were good but harder to recommend. Master and Margarita is one of my all-time favorite novels.
And finally, some addenda. The frustratingly inconsistent but brilliant Lost Books of the Odyssey was a complete surprise. Bartleby the Scrivener was pretty much perfect. If you don’t count Dead Until Dark (she didn’t exactly twist my arm to get a taste of Sookie) my wife is directly responsible for my reading of A Separate Peace and Rabbit, Run; two novels which couldn’t be less similar and terrific reads, even if I didn’t like them quite as much as L who will defend each to your bloody dismemberment and painful death. And then there was my first Rushdie, Shame.
If I had to wrap things up with a kind of Top 5 list, bearing in mind the apples and oranges nature of the stuff I read, here goes something:
05. Bartleby the Scrivener
04. Master and Margarita
03. Out of the Vinyl Deeps
02. Infinite jest
I can safely recommend all without fail. Here’s to 2012!