The task of describing one’s or indeed any one experience of reading in 2016 is daunting. It’s daunting because, in a lifetime of heavy reading I don’t think there’s been a year when I read more. When I say reading I am aware now that to speak only of reading literature or even words is to place arbitrary limitations on a phenomena much more expansive than that. To read is to recognise patterns and relationships and to spin from them narratives that become the contextual framework we use to navigate reality. There’s a lot to read.
This year I read books in order to counteract the negative effects of constantly disrupted timelines and notifications and screen glare and codependency. I tend to read things as I come to them and seek out the connections between them as I go. These are the ones that were there when I needed them. I’ve pulled a tarot card for each because in this time of context collapse we need more complex points of collective reference than just ever cascading superlatives.
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels (Translated by Ann Goldstein)
(The Tower: awakening, revelation, purification, breaking free)
I began the year late-to-the-party-obsessed with these books. Their narrative begins, as almost everyone now knows, in Naples in 1944 and follows two working class girls growing up under fascism and undertaking to educate themselves. For Lila and Lenu reading is as much a means of physical and material escape as well as it is a theoretical endeavour. The conversations I had with others reading these books at the same time that I was were some of the most hopeful and energetic I have ever had about a shared cultural experience. It felt so good for once not to be reading alone.
Simone De Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal (Translated by Leonard M. Friedman)
(Six of Swords: moving on, transition, letting go)
A Christmas gift from my mother, that I read alongside Ferrante, De Beauvoir’s history of Europe as outgrowth of toxic colonial masculinity is a cautionary tale told by its vampiric avatar to an actress terrified by her own mortality. Coming on something like a post-war Orlando without the gender optimism, De Beauvoir’s misandry-in-hindsight has plenty of room in it to build a powerful though tragic narrative full of sympathy and tenderness and beauty despite a total absence of hope for anything but death.
Rosamund Lehmann, Dusty Answer
(The Hermit: introspection, wisdom emerging from isolation)
In April a friend recommended that I read Dusty Answer. It’s a sort of late Bloomsbury young/lonely-girl story – an account of a wealthy and over-educated only child’s coming of age and struggle with the out-of-reach-ness of others. In 1927 the book raised a scandal with its frank discussion of teenage sex but perhaps the bigger questions it raises can be read more clearly now. Is coming to terms with awareness and consciousness and self and their ruptures always to become entangled with others, and is there violence inherent in this sense making?
(Five of Swords: hollow victory, honourable defeat)
Anguish Language, an anthology that “approaches language as a core aspect of the present crisis” was published in 2015, but I kept coming back to it this year. It’s concerned with the material conditions in which we find ourselves writing (and collapsing). The collection opens with such a dedication as to set this tired heart afire; “Too many friends have informed this project to list them here, yet this book is for all nameless friends who have been and shall be”. Its “Table of Discontents” lists essays, fictions, manifestos and poetry by, among others, Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, Anne Boyer, John Cunningham, Anthony Iles, Mira Mattar and Marina Vishmidt. This is a book which refuses to fall into the false confidence of at-least-things-can’t-get-worse and which, if there can be any such thing as an ‘us’ anymore, is an index of these times that we desperately need.
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
(Nine of Swords: inner struggle, responsibility)
Fluently intersecting accounts of a few tightly knit lives and how they came to be so converge on a cold winter day in Harlem in the nineteen-thirties. Though it’s the young boy John, coming of age, whose story frames the novel, every one of Baldwin’s characters is, despite many limitations and misfortunes, vivid with agency. Perhaps the most intense description of masculinity, fatherhood, inheritance and legitimacy I’ve read, Go Tell It On The Mountain also demonstrates a commitment to women’s experience right through to the centre of the story. It’s about family, and church, and prayer, and the trials and struggles of mid-century Black American lives. Baldwin’s novel is a rapturous acknowledgement of grace that passionately and critically defies both secular and religious certainties.
Sarah Schulman Conflict is Not Abuse
(Six of Wands: possibility, recognition, communication)
This is a book about the parallels between traumatised behaviour and supremacist behaviours. Sarah Schulman traces harmful relational dynamics such as shunning, bullying and overstatement of harm through a cross section of scenarios starting with intimate relationships and working up to state level conflicts and abuses such as those inflicted in 2014 on the people of Gaza by the state of Israel. Drawing on theories and practices developed by social workers and the Schulman’s own experiences, the book has a rough and ready quality. It’s not so much a theoretical work as a manual for anyone seeking to nurture relationship and group dynamics, provide support to reconcile conflicts before they turn into cycles of abuse and encourage accountability in themselves and others. The book’s weakness is perhaps an oversimplification of the role of mediating technology in the dynamics described — there’s a naivete in underestimating the mental stress that makes shunning and blocking out others a viable coping strategy — but Schulman is absolutely right to emphasise what’s at stake and the harm that is possible. Schulman has courageously laid the groundwork for a conversation that is much needed and I read this book with immense gratitude.
First posted: Tuesday, December 27th, 2016.