Never are we able to read as much as we want; more distressingly, perhaps, we don’t always read the things we tell ourselves we want to read. An interesting exercise in place of the typical “my year in reading” might be to itemize the books we meant to read—but did not. Perhaps that would be too much like confession, but whatever the reason, I will be conventional and share merely those great books I did read this year rather than those possibly greater ones I did not.
If there is one book I read this year that I would urge you to read immediately, it is Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. A concentrated act of testimony and advocacy, Luiselli explains how she became a sort of intake counselor cum translator for nonprofit legal services trying to prevent children who are refugees from Central America from being deported. Many of these children have endured soul-crushing physical hardship in escaping from semi-military gang violence and passing through the gauntlet of horrors that comes with the journey al norte. Their ability to put their stories into words—and Luiselli’s challenge in turning those words into a narrative that would qualify them for asylum—is strained both by the unreality of these experiences as well as by the brute fact of their youth. Luiselli tries to tell their story not only to the immigration officials but also to us, explaining what kind of crisis this is, why it exists, and what kind of efforts are out there to meet it. Simultaneously with her work as a translator, Luiselli was also teaching a Spanish course in New York, and woven in with her explanations of this crisis is a narration of her effort to educate her own students about the crisis and their response. These passages are a kind of master class in pedagogy, and among the most hopeful and inspiring things I’ve read in a long time about a professor’s classroom experience.
Along with Luiselli, my greatest discoveries this year were the novelists Ali Smith and Han Kang. I read Smith’s most recent novel, Autumn, just a couple of weeks ago and was pleased to see it ended up on the New York Times’s year-end top ten. It really is that good. Billed as the first “post-Brexit” novel, it does capture the spirit of the moment in all its disbelief, indignation, repulsion, and exhaustion. But it is also—like all Smith’s work—intricate and playful, wise and warm, as much an affirmation of human creativity and stubborn joyfulness as it is a denunciation of the intolerance and provinciality of the Leave mob in England. It demands that we recognize an exuberant and imperishable human desire to share our latent talents with others. About Kang I have less to say, other than to note that I’m still reeling from the experience of reading her two novels, Human Acts and The Vegetarian.
Among the monographs which similarly bowled me over with their brilliance are Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (about which I wrote earlier this year) and Dan Bouk’s How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual. Bouk’s work is an intellectual history of capitalism, but like a number of such studies, he carries it off with a poetic verve and elegance that transcends its material, expressing not only the inner logic of capital but also its hidden melodies, little patches of fancy and wonder that defy the Weberian gloom of iron cages and profit motives. I would put his study alongside three of my favorites, Scott Sandage’s Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Richard Ohmann’s Selling Culture, and Lendol Calder’s Financing the American Dream.
Finally, I’d like to make a pitch for another novel that I think may appeal to readers of this blog: the Irish author Sebastian Barry’s Days without End. A novel whose hero is an Irish immigrant fighting in America’s wars against Native Americans and for the Union, Days without End recreates the nineteenth century as a moment of almost infinite possibility and shameful brutality. Historians often struggle to convey a palpable sense of contingency—in our articles and monographs, in our lectures, in our own minds. The novelist has it easier, but Barry creates a sense of openness and even innocence that is breathtaking: an idea that the history of the West could have been different, could have been less violent, more just, full of compassion rather than blood. Without in the least imagining the US Army—the setting for a good part of the novel—as a benevolent institution, the novel refuses to imagine enmity between Native Americans and whites as instinctual or violence as inevitable. (Southerners, on the other hand, come off worse.) Not quite a direct response to the “new,” post-Unforgiven Western of the past twenty-five years, Days without End nonetheless reveals the persistent rigidity of the Western mythos: while new Westerns may shift the faces around, a frustratingly tight set of well-defined and immobile roles remain the basic building blocks of these “revisionist” works—men and women, cowboys and Indians. Days without End is, in contrast, all fluidity.
And now, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books of the past year: please share in the comments!