The Year in Reading 2008: A Conversation

Every December, lists of “Books of the Year” proliferate across pages and screens, and we’ve certainly done our part, as you’ll see in our contributors’ selection of the Year’s Best Fiction and Nonfiction. But since the conversation in books that all readers treasure is more curious and wide-ranging than any list can communicate, we asked a small group of our regular reviewers — Brooke Allen, Michael Anderson, Daniel Menaker, James Parker, Katherine A. Powers, and Tess Taylor — to engage each other in an email colloquy on their 2008 reading. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the result. –The Editors


Monday, November 3


What was the most surprising reading of the year for you? –The Editors


Tess Taylor


Hello, all. Today’s a writing day for me, so I’m going to jump in. I’m afraid I’m not going to answer on the nose! None of what I’m thinking about has to do with BOOKS, exactly. We’ve been living through a very interesting year in reading — not just because of all of the wonderful things that have been published, but because it’s been a fascinating year in which to be a reader, we’re living in a moment where the government is about to change. I’m writing this on the day before the election This morning, in The New York Times, I discovered that during the final days of his campaign Barack Obama was reading Ghost Wars, the 2004 Pulitzer winner by Steve Coll. 


I also read that book this year, and I’m so happy Obama is reading it, too. I keep talking about it to anyone who will listen and think I might send it to two or three friends at the holidays. It’s four years old but hasn’t gotten less relevant: confusing times, and it helped me to understand an entire generation of thinking. I have to say, reading about our blunders (and sheer misunderstandings) in Afghanistan only seems increasingly crucial as we think about an exit strategy from Iraq. Ghost Wars explores how our preoccupation with one kind of expected threat (in that case Cold War Russia) can make us oblivious to another that we are creating (in that case, fundamentalist training camps). We won’t do the same things wrong as we leave Iraq, exactly, but the danger of missing out on what we do need to do there is very great. The book completely satisfied me in a way I didn’t know I needed satisfying– it had arc and historical scope and it also gave so much insight into global geopolitics. Coll has written a whole new book about Osama bin Laden’s family and origins. I’ll freely admit I haven’t gotten to it yet. 


I am normally a news junkie, but this is an election year, so everything has been more intense. Much of my non-required reading in recent weeks has been current events — thinking about what’s going on in Ohio and Pennsylvania and on Wall Street. There are so many things to think through in this election — culturally, historically, economically. News sources per se aren’t the stuff of literature but I’ve been drawn too look up the kinds of books that get at that literary landscape of say, Ohio or Pennsylvania. So I’ve been drawn to James Wright or Toni Morrison or Sherwood Anderson. 


Another big event this year was the death of David Foster Wallace, which, I think was a blow to many of us in the writing business. I haven’t had the chance to go back and reread his work at length, but I did reread a few of the essays I have always loved. His loss lingers like a presence. I think it’s hard for us to realize that the struggles between meaning making and meaninglessness that actually animated so much of his work were actually part of a larger human struggle that had very real emotional consequences for him. I do not mean at all to suggest that his philosophical play led to his illness, but he himself owned an uneasy relationship between them. It also made me reflect that some of the times when he began writing — his famous essays about cruise ships or web pages — already seem part of a kind of joyful and buoyant nervous ’90s that are gone. He came of age as a writer in the roaring ’90s, the age of high irony. He wasn’t merely an ironist, but some of the fuel of the work was in poking fun at American decadence (the supposedly fun thing he’ll never do again, for instance). Now we as a culture are grappling with our own failing economy. We’re doing fewer supposedly fun things. I’ve found myself wondering what he would write about this recession, how he would cover this election. It’s not that irony is dead, it’s just that the world around it seems grimmer. 


So I feel this sense of both real and literary uncertainty as the year winds to a close. Who are we going to be as Americans? What comes next? 


Daniel Menaker


Hello, everybody. I’ve stopped biting my nails just in order to post this. 


Well, something about what’s next in American literature might have been revealed by a young woman who sat in front of me at the Key West Literary Seminar last winter. Junot Diaz read from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and he was great. But when it was over, a young woman, caramel in color, turned around and said to me, out of nowhere, “Well, that was wonderful, but don’t you think ‘immigrant fiction’ is already a little past it? I mean, I know this book isn’t all like that, but look at me and my friends. My father is half Irish, half black, my mother is half Finnish, half India Indian, and a lot of my friends have mixed backgrounds like that. I don’t know how much longer stories about the immigrant experience in itself are going to be of interest, as they have been for the last decade or two.” 


This seems in retrospect, politically prescient, as well as fascinating from a literary-history point of view, and it put me in mind of the movie Bullworth, also a prescient artifact, in which the title character, drunk, on a TV show (as I recall) says something like, “The way to fix this country is for everyone to f___ everyone else for a hundred years until we’re all the same color.” And of course it reminds me of Obama, on the eve of this election, because of his mixed provenance. It’s fitting that McCain is from the Old West, inasmuch as that region, and the South, seem to be the last bastions of America’s former mythic, rugged, gut-guided, frontier-formed basically white core identity. 


Flying in the face of this literal melting pot — the place where the ingredients really do mix instead of remaining separate — is the best novel I’ve read this year (in my opinion): Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. In it, the Bosnian (as I recall) protagonist, Brik, find himself alienated from a kind of Wonder Bread Americanism embodied by his wife, a doctor, as he investigates for a perplexingly well funded research project the killing of a Jew in Chicago 100 years earlier. The novel still posits a nation pragmatic and unphilosophical and bland, and Brik’s discomfort with it leads him to return to his native land with a friend, and there he must decide who he is — and whether he is really an American or not. So this novel and Diaz and Lahiri and many others may be the last or the next-to-last of their kind. 


So the question is, will American fiction eventually leave race and background behind as a result of the blurring into unimportance the lines of ethnic and racial identity, as the Key West caramel-colored harbinger sitting in front of me implicitly predicted, and if it does, as I think it will, what, if any, new kinds of fictional identities can emerge as indicators of characters’ nature, besides their individual characters? Does that make any sense? 


Back to my nails. 


James Parker


Hello, all — Tess, thanks for breaking the ice and diving in there. Delighted as I am to be participating in this forum with all of you, I feel I should immediately confess myself to be an extremely scattershot and unchronological reader, whipped along at all times by the contradictory imperatives of whatever-thing-I-happen-to-be-writing-about-at-the-moment and a kind of general, shapeless urge to improve myself. The end of October, for example, was divided more or less equally between Murray Engleheart’s AC/DC: Maximum Rock’n’Roll and John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions — and the, uh, tension between the two, I am fairly confident, will not be resolved in this life. Or not by me. Piles of books, no system. All very chaotic. So surprises tend to hit me in the form of stray lines, odd images, moments when I feel the author or subject buttonholing me through the fog and blather — speaking to me directly. One came while I was sitting on a rock reading Emerson’s great essay on experience. The line: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist.” Well — it knocked me out, and continues to. So dry, so wry, so poised in its clauses, so utterly and profoundly modern — Emerson’s edge, his literary edge I mean, is easily obscured by clouds of Transcendental piety, and I love to hear him cutting through. We exist! Oh dear. 


Perhaps not entirely unrelated, tonally at least, is a line I gleaned from Mark Edmundson’s excellent The Death of Sigmund Freud, which was published in 2007 and relates Freud’s last, painful days in Vienna and then London to the march of Hitler and the coming agonies of the Second World War. When the Nazis allowed Freud to leave Austria after the Anschluss, one of the conditions they imposed was that he sign a letter exonerating his country’s occupiers of any taint of oppression, declaring that he had been treated well and allowed to continue his work unmolested, etc., etc. Freud signed it, practical old fellow that he was, but he added one line of his own: Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen. “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.” 


Tuesday, November 4


Katherine A. Powers


Hello to All, 


I have been sitting here for sometime trying to think of even one incisive statement about fiction in America or the World and the temper of the time and all is blankness. So I’ll just seize upon the opening question and say that among the novels I read this year, three really surprised me in that they completely satisfied my taste for the “bleakly comic.” (I did read a few other novels this year that filled that particular bill, but I knew they would be and was not disappointed —Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton, being one — or rather three.) 


The first of the “surprises” is White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize, as you know — thus providing a further surprise in being one of the few Booker winners that I could read with real pleasure. You all know what this novel is about, so I’ll just say that I thought that the depiction of the master for whom the “hero” works as a driver was especially brilliant. In him, Adiga shows a man whose time in the U.S. has given him a sentimental regard for humaneness which he acts upon sporadically, but which is in grotesque contrast to the realities of the “New India.” And, indeed, he easily dispenses with it when his own interests are at stake and in the most ruthless way — and thus ensures that it will be him, the nicest guy of all in an exceedingly not-nice company, who is sacrificed to our hero’s rise to riches. 


The second is A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living by Michael Dahlie. The first surprise here is that a writer with such a restrained style could give his novel such a tediously arch title, but after that all is goodness from my point of view. It is the story of Arthur Camden who has inherited his wealth and ruined the family firm out of general ineptness and lost his wife to someone more interesting. He is an innocent, in fact, a good man, but inadequate and naive. In the end the novel treats him kindly, but along the way the reader is regaled with the spectacle of much callous behavior, badness of the sort Evelyn Waugh was such a master at portraying. Until the very end, in other words, it’s “hard cheese on Arthur.” 


The last is Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It’s Sung (another unfortunate title). This was published last year and recently issued in paperback. It is the best novel I’ve read in a year, maybe more. It combines two stories that one might think impossible to meld — the sad and, yes, bleakly comic, tale of a present-day London journalist and his failing marriage, and the life and death of one of the conspirators in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler. Cartwright’s technical brilliance in making this one narrative is simply preternatural and is one with his sense that bringing coherence to life (in a secular world) is what only art can do. Or so I see it — if you see what I say. 


Brooke Allen


As long as we have broached the subject of contemporary politics and the political culture, I will start with that, since there have been so many fascinating developments in the last year. Going to a symposium at the New York Public Library nearly a year ago got me started. The subject was political propaganda and how it has evolved over the last 50 or 60 years. The book that came from the conference was a collection of essays by many of the speakers: it was called What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, edited by Andras Szanto. This set me off on books by a couple of the contributors. George Lakoff, a neuroscientist with a special interest in observing how political discourse strikes the human brain on the most basic level, was especially interesting, and I read his new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand Twenty-First Century Politics with an Eighteenth-Century Brain, which I highly recommend. At least as pertinent is Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear by Frank Luntz, a famous pollster and political consultant whose know-how has been instrumental in several Republican victories and who is remarkably frank about his often nefarious practices. 


The most important and enlightening political/economic book I have read this year, along with What Orwell Didn’t Know, is David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Govenment Expense (and Stick You with the Bill). Johnston gives a blow-by-blow account of how the “deregulation” policies of the Reagan era, continued into our own time, has paved the way for a number of corporations, CEOs, lobbyists, politicians, and others to rig the system so that taxpayer dollars flow into their pockets. The book is enraging and absolutely essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand how our economy and political system really work. 


All of this sent me back to the original text, the bible of the free-market economy: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which, it seems obvious, very few of those who reverently cite it have actually read. Smith was a far more nuanced thinker than the market purists paint him, and surely, if he were alive to day, would not be a market purist himself. He was also (like so many Enlightenment authors) an exquisite writer, and it is a pleasure just to linger over his prose. 


Other books of great interest: Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal; Joe Conason’s It Can Happen Here; Moyers on Democracy; George Soros’ The Bubble of American Supremacy


Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America gives a riveting account of two years in the life of Patrick Henry College, an evangelical institution with the purpose of taking very bright, homeschooled kids and preparing them to “take back the culture” through political careers. Judith Levine’s Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping contained many important reflections on consumer culture and why we so compulsively buy. 


And with all the talk about “real Americans” that has been dredged up in this election year, I find nothing more pertinent than Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Main Street. So many things have not changed since then, that it is quite startling; much of the book is entirely applicable to today’s culture. Then again, lots of other things have changed. The denizens of Lewis’s fictional Gopher Prairie would have been utterly astounded at the idea of a black presidential candidate, and it is doubtful whether they would have risen to the occasion, as so many of their 21st-century counterparts have done. 


Daniel Menaker


Let me try to answer that question at long last, instead of divagating about the future of Earth. The most surprising book I’ve read this year is The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, by Henry Hitchings, author of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. It has just been published, by Farrar, Straus. I’ve always been a logophile, and, like many of my fellow roundtablers, I bet, I’ve read a lot of the books that are clinically symptomatic of logophilia — starting with The Elements of Style and coming up to the recent past with Woe Is I, by Patricia O’Conner, copyediting legend of The New York Times Book Review. The Secret Life of Words is one of the few such books that succeeds in making a really engrossing narrative out of the development of a language. Hitchings has a cheerful, almost ebullient style, and so, for example, as he describes the evolution of the hegemony that the East India Company had over commerce on the subcontinent, he cleverly works in the 18th- and 19th-century equivalents of etymological verbal pop-ups: of one contemporary author, Hitchings writes, “He was the first to write of an avatar, the sweet song of the bulbul…and dharma.” 


The italics are in the original, and they’re keyed to a wonderful index in the back, which allows readers to look up any word so italicized in the text. Try jeopardy — it’s an amazing story. In fact, the apparatus of this book in general is one of its best attractions. But mainly, it’s the spirit and liveliness of the writing that take one by surprise — very much as the English language itself does, constantly. The book is nearly anthemic about this amazing instrument we get to play every day, and it makes you understand, speaking of hegemony, English’s gigantic global influence. WIWO, I call it: words in , words out . 


I am interested to see The Political Mind, which Brooke Allen mentions, because it seems to me that popularization of neuroscientific discoveries may be the single most important non-fiction development of our time — even more important in the lng run than the crucial political texts about this period in our history — especially as it begins to affect the conduct of policy and jurisprudence and individual choice making. Ariely, Gazzaniga, Taleb, Gladwell, Gawande, young Jonah Lehrer, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which I reviewed for this site — such writers are starting to have a general-public impact on the way we think about our own natures, and even on the way business is conducted. This is why I was so interested to see James Parker’s reference to the Emerson reflection about the curse and blessing of our knowledge of our own existence. Talk about prescient! But, on the other hand, I’ve always thought Emerson was something of a charlatan — a maker of sentences so eloquent that their many, many self-contradictions were elegantly camouflaged. 


Tess Taylor


Hah! I love that statement about Emerson, Dan — I’m teaching him now and I think some of my students feel the same way — I’m trying to convince them otherwise, but it can be an uphill battle! They hate the strings of clauses. I’m an intermittent admirer, but sometimes I wonder what all the bombast adds up to. But I also loved the Hitchings book, and read passages to the word lovers in my life. It’s an absolutely excellent examination of how our mingled and mangled tongue came to be — and it