Maybe three years ago, my wife read a brief interview with Art Garfunkel where he described a journal he kept that listed every book he had read for nearly thirty years. We immediately stole the idea, and began keeping our own lists in a moleskin notebook on our bookshelf.
Looking back on my list from 2010, I simultaneously feel the speed and slowness of time. Has it really only been 11 months since I read Stoner, a novel so perfect that it feels like, to some extent, the experience of reading it has always been a part of me? Yet at the same time, it feels like only days ago I was reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, with its near-future dystopian vision of a frighteningly present NYC existing solely for the wealthy, whose existence is defined by their handheld devises.
In 2010, I started reading two new genres of books, dystopias and young adult fiction. I have never been much of sci-fi/fantasy guy, but this year I found myself pulled over and over again into dystopian visions, ranging from Dune to Room. Attending readings by Shteyngart and Rick Moody this summer, I asked them why they thought this type of literature was seemingly experiencing a resurgence. While both suggested a growing acceptance for the breaking down of the walls between literary and genre fiction, both of their answers basically boiled down to, “look around you.” I wish I could say dystopian fiction was my escape from a troubling world, but more and more I found these books to be truer mirrors than much current realism I’ve read.
In a similar way, in my re-engagement with young adult literature (which began in preparation for an independent reading program I was to do in an english class I didn’t end up teaching), I often found a more honest engagement with the challenges of making it trough the day than I have much in much adult fiction. Like many, I was completely sucked into The Hunger Games Trilogy’s critique of the use of violence, media, and pleasure to ensure complacency amongst all classes of an inherently unequal society. I also thoroughly enjoyed the similarly dystopian visions of M.T. Anderson and Michael Grant, even if they lacked the literary quality of Hunger Games.
But when I look back at 2010, there are two reading experiences that will stand out above the rest. The second was reading Jonathan Franzen’s justly-hyped Freedom. I inhaled this monster of a book in the first week of my new commute, and found myself wishing I somehow spent more than two hours on the subway each day so I could read more. More than any book I have ever read, other than perhaps The Great Gatsby, Freedom captures something of the duality and complexity of the promise of the American dream of freedom and what it means for individuals to deal with its expectations and failures.
The former experience, reading Norwegian Jan Kjaerstad’s trilogy of books about fictional television celebrity Jonas Wergeland, was the most unique reading journey I have ever taken, and fear I ever will take. I wish I remembered how I ever heard about the books, but sadly I don’t a year later. What I do remember is the unbelievable frustration I had with the first two books, only to have them all come together with the final in one of the great literary payoffs of all time. Each book, told from the perspective of a narrator that is only revealed in subsequent books, asks the question of what incidents in one’s life determines who they are and what they become. In a completely non-linear fashion, each chapter is either a vignette from Wergeland’s youth, from his sexual conquests or failures, from one of his television programs on great Norwegians, or from the narrator’s immediate point-of-view. To say more would ruin the joy of the book, but there is a central mystery that runs through the series, though that is not revealed until the end of the first book. Characters who may seem essential in one book disappear from the next, and incidents that seem to be growing towards some climax are abruptly cut off, showing how different the same person, his life, and what is important in it can look from different perspectives. In many ways, Kjaerstad’s realizes the modernist project in mirrored-form; through four different pairs of eyes (including Wergeland’s in parts of the finale), the complete complexity of modern individual consciousness is realized. At somewhere north of 1500 pages, the series in a huge commitment, but one I cannot recommend highly enough to serious readers.