Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best books 2018

I have written this year's "best books" blog  in the context of a popular internet meme that asks "what books have most influenced you?"

As the meme progressed during the year, I drew back from what seemed to me often dishonest lists of books, seemingly chosen because they would put a best foot forward, strike a pose, or make an individual look good or poetic: the most pernicious being a highly masculine author whose list included the first volume of Woolf's journal (really? The first volume, the "Miss Jan"  and "Stella took me for an ice cream" volume?) It sounded good, but I didn't for a moment believe it.

In defense of such lists,  however, the first books that jumped to my mind as most influential were Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch--so perhaps it is our initial instinct is to veer towards the canonized and acceptable. Those books did astonish me with what seemed to be their near perfection the first time I read them, but as I went deeper to bring up influential reading, laying it, as Forster might advise, out in the sunlight to examine it, my most influential books were not always the most acceptable.

And yet how interesting if we could get to the books that really influenced us. Every such honest list must, I believe, include at least one or two works of children's literature, as how do we become readers if not from those powerful early experiences? Yet how many of these lists include a children's book? Very few. Almost all of us probably also have an influential "middlebrow' book, perhaps of self help or genre fiction, that deeply touched us because we read it at such a young age: I can think of several, all gateways into a different way of thinking about the world. What if we mentioned these books instead of feeling ashamed?

All of this is a prelude to my approach to this year's reading.  Rather than lists of fictions and nonfictions, organized, carefully considered, and balanced,  I relied on memory to bring up the books  that emotionally touched me most deeply this past year. I worked from the assumption that if a literary work remains in my memory, it made an impression and an impact. These are perhaps not the "best" books, objectively speaking, that I read last year, but those that I subjectively responded to most fully.

In another departure, I did sustained Woolf reading this year, especially in the past six months, and 19 of the roughly 73 books I finished in 2018 (more than a quarter) are by, about, or connected to Woolf. Therefore, I will, with one exception below, exclude Woolf from this list in order to focus a later blog exclusively on that reading project.

I wrote down from the top of my head my "best" books without regard for categories. As it happened, I ended up with five fiction, five non-fiction, and one "bridge" books, so I reorganized them that way. Despite my conscious efforts to read more women, my list still split almost equally between genders:


 Louise DeSalvo's Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse: This was the most shattering book I read in 2018.  DeSalvo makes a strong case that Woolf's childhood was fraught with trauma. She argues that the psychological abuse and neglect that were characteristics of a normal upper class Victorian childhood permeated Woolf's upbringing, along with sexual abuse.  Treating all the members of the Stephen family with respect--noting especially that Woolf's parents were damaged themselves by their own childhoods--DeSalvo shows how Woolf made a point to quietly encode childhood abuse and suffering in her novels.  DeSalvo makes sense of and ties together Woolf's writing, her adult relationships, and her mental illness. It is a form of biography Woolf herself would have appreciated: passionate, with a strong point of view, and focused on approaching and illuminating the unspoken spaces of a life. I bought the book because I came across it in a Wooster, Ohio, used bookstore and had it on my list of Woolf books to read--but otherwise I would not have gone out of my way to read it. Once I started it, however,  I couldn't put it down. All else went on hold as I pored over this book that struck me to the core as coherently and convincingly explaining Woolf's struggles and pathos. If the book has a flaw--and no biography can cover everything--it is perhaps downplaying the opposite pillar of what Woolf's status as a member of a wealthy and prominent literary family at the center of empire did for her in positive ways (of which she was well aware)--but an intelligent person can add that to the mix. As an aside, I was sorry to hear of DeSalvo's death this year, just as I had "discovered" her.

Adrienne Rich's The Essential Essays: I can't praise this compilation of essays Rich wrote over the course of her career highly enough. Rich, who died in 2012, is an extraordinarily humane thinker and writer,  appalled and insightful about the political mess our country has been in for the last 40 years. Rich believes as firmly as can be in the underdog, and in the right of all people for leisure, the chance to pursue art, which she finds deeply humanizing, to be treated with dignity, and to have access decent work and education. She loves literature, writes eloquently about it,  and never forgets it is political.

Katie Briggs's This Little Art: I discovered that this book, purportedly about translation,  dismays people in translation studies as too superficial, but I loved it as a celebration of Barthes' deep humanity (Briggs translates Barthes), the open ended quality of literature,  and the provisionality of all interpretation.

Caroline Weber: Proust's Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siecle Paris:  I seem unable to stop thinking about this long, densely written and well researched book. It focuses on three leading society women who were melded into Proust's Duchesse de Guermante. The book fascinates because of the granular level of research it provides: what these women wore and what it cost, details about homes and living arrangements, accounts of how days were spent. With that in hand, one doesn't need Marx to show that these extraordinarily wealthy people were  stunningly stupid, narcissistic, and sociopathic parasites (and these generalized terms don't begin to describe them)  who contributed next to nothing to the larger society while wasting vast amounts of resources. Not only the French, but the British aristocracy--much worshipped by the French--are indicted, such as Robert Bulwer-Lytton, viceroy of India from 1876-80, considered by the French as "royalty." He had one the longest--60 days-- and most  expensive feasts on record, deliberately held during a mass famine, sometimes considered a deliberate genocide, that killed more that five million Indians. Nice guy, eh? The French aristocracy apparently thought so and feted him accordingly.  
Here is a link to a Guardian article about the book: Anyone who thinks there is nothing wrong with allowing a few people to accumulate vast wealth will think differently after this book: I wondered that all these people weren't guillotined in a revolution.

Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion/Voltaire's Candide: This may be one of the most unusual pairings ever, but a paraphrase from Kelly will--eventually--lead to Voltaire. It has been a joy to reread Kelly's Quaker classic about mystical spiritual encounters. Anyone who has had the spiritual experiences Kelly describes can almost feel the thought processes behind the words on the page. Kelly, writing about the plight of Quakers and other humane people in Nazi Germany, states that the German Quakers have learned what has always been true: that there is no earthly security and never has been. This truth is foundational to my understanding of the world. Nothing material is secure. Anything you think you have can be gone in an instance. This is simply truth. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that other people interpret the ending wisdom of Candide: "let us cultivate our gardens," as implying this cultivation  will make us secure. In fact I read a scholarly article (HT: Ellen Moody) that asserted harshly that Candide was a "gull" for putting his faith in this "garden" wisdom. While Candide may be a gull, for me cultivating my garden has been an important touchstone phrase as I pursue a year of retreat and contemplation, but certainly not because I equate it with security. Because there is so little security, it seems all the more important--urgent even-- to cultivate our gardens when and how we can.  I have not reread Candide cover to cover but have found solace this year in dipping into it and enjoying its vignettes, particularly near the end.

And that fictional work leads to this year's novels. I read far fewer novels than nonfiction works last year. These stood out:


Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown: This densely written 1966 novel, the first of Raj Quartet, with its layered perspectives from the points of view of different people (often women), provides a nuanced picture of social graduations in India under the British during World War II. It purports to be the story of the gang rape of Daphne Manners, a young British woman, but make no mistake: it is really the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian brought up British in England only to end up poor and despised in Mayapore, the fictional Indian town where the story takes place. If I have a quibble with this novel, it's that Daphne herself and her rape are treated dismissively, Hari's arrest dealt with more sympathetically than Daphne's terrifying and painful gang assault. (But, of course, are not men and what happens to them more important than women? Will such an attitude never change?) The details  make this novel come to life: for instance, Daphne's casual spending  for LP records in the same bazaar where Hari in raggedy clothes cannot muster a few pennies for a book. The tragedy of India is that people living side by side know nothing of each other's lives: or more precisely, that the British know nothing of the Indians.

E.M. Forster's A Room with a View: I will admit this is not, objectively speaking, as strong as Howard's End, which I also read this year (both books through the Trollope group) but it delighted me more. I had read the book decades ago, but  this time it appeared to me as a whole new novel. I have been for some years interested in the question of a l'ecriture humaine or humane writing: Forster completely understands the humane and inhumane in human nature, and this book shows all the small ways people can savage others under a guise of "goodness." Inhumanity is not here disguised as strength or an admirable trait used by "winners," but as the soul destroying force it is. I found myself copying quote after quote from this lively, kind, and insightful novel.

Ann's Leckie's Ancillary Justice: This is another reread. It was on my best reads of last year or the year before, and I said I hoped to reread it. This year I did, and it was just as good the second time. This is a sci-fi genre novel, which won't appeal to everyone, but I was taken by its deep humanity. The first-person narrator, Breq, is an ancillary--a person refashioned into a robot, and in her case, into the consciousness running an entire large spaceship. Breq is the colonized other, a servant, a worker, a being of no consequence in her culture. Because of her view from below, she is, however, a being/person of deep humanity. This only gradually emerges. Breq (or Eck One) presents at first in a very masculinized opening chapter as a possibly brutalized and threatening character--though she does save the life of a person she doesn't much like. Readers could easily be put off by this opening: this is story that has to be "stayed with" to be appreciated.  In both readings, I did fall in love with Breq  as a shattered, suffering, musically sensitive underdog who retains her core humanity. I also appreciated her culturally conditioned inability to distinguish gender, so that she refers to everyone as "she." Science fiction can be a radical genre, allowing us to explore new ideas in a variety of guises, and I appreciate it when it rises to that level. Leckie has several sequels to this novel: I am frankly afraid to read them for fear of disappointment. If Leckie is not a great writer, she is good enough--better than good enough--and her vision pulled me in.

Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn: I have been wanting to read Pym for 35 years, and finally did, again in a reading group. If this novel did not have quite the impact on me of the three above, it did delight me despite its "grim" topic of a "quartet" of single older people, two male, two female, on the brink of retirement. It was very well written, quietly humane, and about ordinary people. It seemed real, and had an upbeat ending, while in no way being falsely cheerful. I liked it so well that I ordered three more of her novels ... which are now on my book stack.

Michel Tournier's Friday: I was deeply drawn into this 1967 retelling of Robinson Crusoe. This Crusoe is a repellent character, but redeemed as he takes on Friday's far less repressive worldview and learns from him. The writing is very strong. My complaint with the book is that Crusoe never really, to my mind, becomes fully human, even after being changed by Friday. But what a compelling retelling of a story I keep stumbling across as influential--for good or ill--to so many writers and thinkers from Woolf to Deleuze.

More to come...


  1. I read a few of them with you! I must do likewise -- write a blog on the books this year that meant the most. Forster and Scott but my feeling is the one undoubted book that has meant the most this year has been Wolf Hall ....

  2. I did enjoy reading the Forster and Scott in the group read. And the Pym too, even if it worked out to be just us.