Friday, December 30, 2016

Ten best rereads 2016

I spent much of the first half of the year revisiting books, poems, plays and essays I had read before, often delving back far into the past to revisit books I hadn't thought about much in decades. Because the reading was so far flung, I allowed all genres onto this list, which is assembled in no particular order. But I found myself particularly appreciating the following works:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: The more I read it, the better it gets. Fitzgerald packed a tremendous amount of satire and social commentary, not to mention Gothic elements, into this grand, romantic tragic story: it's amazing what can be pulled from a mere 55,000 words. The novel is reminding me more and more of Mary Poppins's black bag, out of which you might retrieve a table and chairs.  Lately--or earlier in the fall perhaps--I listened to the popular songs of circa 1920 that made it into the novel through snatches of lyrics, and they too add a layer of complexity ... And speaking of lyricism, Fitzgerald's language is extraordinary. The novel was also particularly prescient this year: almost a century later, Trump fits Tom Buchanan to a tee: a privileged racist sexist brutal bullying brainless baboon who gets away with anything due to his wealth.

2. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: I first read this book when I was 11 or 12 and very sophisticated it seemed indeed. Now I read it as the simple satire it is, but still enjoy the vivid imagination Huxley invested in both his new world and the world of the Indian reservation. The questions it raises about what it mean to be human and how to constitute the good life remain relevant to us, and that buena vita must fall somewhere between the mindless, soulless ruthlessly conditioned consumer-hedonism of the new world and the tortured self-flagellation, sin and guilt of John the (Shakespeare-reading) Savage's world: maybe we would find that equilibrium on the island to which Bernard Marx is banished?

3.  William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:" This very (deceptively) simple poem gave me great joy and solace last spring: Wordsworth fully communicated to me the joy he felt watching the thousands of daffodils, like a crowd of people, in front of a lake swaying in the breeze. The poem simply made me happy to read and reread.  More distant contenders that I enjoyed would include Byron's "She walks in Beauty like the Night" (what can be more simple than  she's-so-beautiful-with-her-long-black-hair-like-the-night-sky-and-eyes-like-stars, followed by a stanza in which the poet insists he knows by looking at her she ain't-no-ho, and finally Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," which captures solitude so well, and brought to mind all the nineteenth-century prints showing a single person in a solitary scene that my grandparents used to hang on their walls.

4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: I never much liked this play before rereading it this past spring, but now have fallen under its spell. It used to seem to me only a very dark tragedy about the horrors of ambition, but suddenly it cracked open to me in all its multiple ironies: Lady Macbeth's conscience (not so different from a description I recently read of Hitler's night terrors) rears up as a timid but relentless being after all her bold words of smashing baby's brains out, and then the initially terrifying weird sisters are shown up as rank, fumbling amateurs in the witching biz by the truly terrifying Hecate, who is responsible for the final undoing of Macbeth: against her, Lady Macbeth is nada ... and on it goes. It was also a pleasure revisiting if not entirely rereading Othello, A Midsummer's Night Dream and dipping into sections of Julius Caesar ... not to mention Romeo and Juliet --  comic in its depictions of the histrionic impatience of lovelorn adolescence--and yet understanding of its seriousness too.

5. Audre Lorde, "The Uses of the Erotic:" I loved this essay that defined the erotic as the opposite of the pornographic and suggested we gain power for social movements as we build relationships with others based on a deep intimacy that can be sexual, but also and primarily, emotional/intellectual, and always authentic.

6. Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play:" I include this at the risk of sounding pretentious, but I did reread it this year for the first time in 30 years--and did have to read it twice to "get it"--but it held up and is really a stunning seminal piece. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin (see below), if people would just read this primary source, half the nonsense and hype about "deconstruction" would go away. We'd use terms like "kluge" instead of "bricolage"--and of course, none of this is as interesting as it was in times past as more of it has seeped (sort of) into the culture. But it was still exciting enough on revisit that I introduced it to my students last semester via Powerpoint: and some of them took cell phone shots of the slides.

7.  Virginia Woolf, "The Moth:" I read or reread several Woolf essays last year, but this minutely observed meditation on the life of 24-hour moth on her windowpane stuck with me. Beautifully described, and what seems to be my favorite word this year: astringent.

8.  Jane Austen, Persuasion: I reread all of Austen's major novels (I almost always catch most of them every year), except Sense and Sensibility in 2016. I found things to delight in all five I reread, but am choosing Persuasion because I hadn't reread it in several years and because I was so taken by the little vignette in which Anne comes across Admiral Croft staring at the painting of a ship in a shop window and critiquing it in a very literalist way for being painted out of proportion. It's these details that keep me returning to Austen.

9. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin: It's so underrated a novel and so often read through the false lens of post-Civil-War reconstructions that strip it of its savage irony, satire, dissection of human weaknesses, intelligent discussion of race and oppression, as well as the stunning moral courage of Uncle Tom, that one could scream. On top of all else, the "real" Uncle Tom is anything but an "Uncle Tom." It's far more than merely a novel of sentiment, though it's that too. Its reception since the Civil War is a case study in how to defang a threatening and subversive novel by distorting it out of all recognition. People need to read it, imho, if only to push back against how utterly it's been misrepresented by all those who "know" what it's about (except they don't). I also had a chance to dip into David Reynolds's (no relation of mine) Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, which discusses the novel's impact around the globe. Maybe in 2017, I'll actually read the entire Mightier than the Sword.

10. Anton Chekhov, "Gooseberries:" I was so taken with this story, though I can't say that I "like" it as a pleasure read, that I used it in class this fall. Much complexity and food for thought resides in this Chaucer-like story-within-a-story on the road.

I would have definitely included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the list, but had to drop my reread halfway through. But I was stunned with what I read. It's extraordinary.  Runners-up also include George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm: I reread both, and they retain, more than ever, relevance to our times. Shaw's Pygmalion, a wicked satire and send-up of the class system with a satisfyingly unromantic ending, continues to satisfy, as does an old favorite, Thoreau's Walden chapter 2. Emerson's, "Self-reliance," which I reread for the first time perhaps since high school and is an eloquent argument for being true to yourself, impressed me with its enormous string of quotable statements. Naturally, I would add my own book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the reread list.

On the other hand, as I revisited other books, I found they left me, some for reasons I can't pinpoint, with a feeling of distaste: To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men. Whatever feeling of delight  "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" raised in me, these raised the opposite. And I am not denying that these are good books: perhaps their messages are too heavy handed.

I found myself feeling so-so about A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a middle schooler, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which moved me to tears in late elementary school, and Into the Wild and Nickel and Dimed.

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