I tend to read a lot. At least a hundred books a year. I sometimes worry that this quantity of reading is beginning to water down the actual experience of reading. But I tend to overthink things so I shouldn’t worry too much. Also, from a habit born of study I tend to read according to some kind of unofficial syllabus. I hit a topic or an author and go through them as thoroughly as I can or until I hit something else and head off in another direction. One last thing to consider going into this is I’ve now become thoroughly addicted to audio books via Audible (this is not a promotional post). This has a tendency to swerve me towards books which have good narrators, especially memoirs. It also affords me the opportunity to ‘reread’ books, something I usually do only rarely.
So, let’s start with some rereads. I’ve gone through The Lord of the Rings for what must now be in double figures. I’ve always had a love-love-love hate relationship with Tolkien. I can’t quite get over his silliness. In LOTR that’s not such a big deal, because there’s plenty of humour in the books, but in The Silmarillion, which I read for only the second time, boy, does that become turgid. Like doing an exam in Esperanto. But going back in time and being transported to a wholly different universe was a huge comfort in 2020, as was my returning to PG Wodehouse and the Maturin/Aubrey books by Patrick O’Brian. This is comfort food for the eyes, but what can be nicer than comfort food when you really, but really need it? My annual reread of Wuthering Heights offered sterner stuff and the wind off the moors. Every time I read this, I come to the conclusion there is no more popularly misunderstood classic. It is not a love story and Heathcliff is not a romantic hero. It’s a hate story and Heathcliff is a rapist.
I already knew Toni Morrison’s work from Beloved, but I made a determined effort to go a little deeper. I read Sulla, Song of Solomon, A Pair of Blue Eyes and God Bless the Child. The latter was the weakest of the bunch, but throughout her writing she has the tensile strength of a sentence of a Nabokov. Her storytelling is at once elusive and thoroughly absorbing. She has become someone I will quite happily pursue. JM Coetzee is a fellow Nobel winner who I endeavoured to know better. Summerland is like a mirror we had in the bathroom. It was actually a cabinet with three mirrors that served as doors. You could put your face in the middle mirror and open the other two into a triangle with your face as the apex. The infinity of complex self-absorption is precisely the same effect. It bit more straightforwardly if a little duller was The Master of St Petersburg where Dostoyevsky stands in less convincingly for Coetzee.
I read a lot of film books this year. Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server gave me the juice on Robert Mitchum and offered me the excuse to go through his filmography a bit deeper. A biography of Burt Lancaster and Oliver Reed and autobiographies by Ken Russell – excellent – Woody Allen – shit – Debbie Harry and Matthew McConaughey – entertaining but daft – all added something to my knowledge but with dollops of self-justification that makes you constantly have to adjust. Oliver Stone was by far the most interesting memoir I read this year, perhaps because with his experiences in Vietnam, he’s led a more interesting life. Rather than then we made this film/record, then we made this other film/record. All successful lives have the same trajectory, so the voice is really important. The most imaginative film book I read was Sean Hogan’s England’s Screaming, a take on David Thompson’s Suspects. Basically, an anthology of short stories in which all the characters come from British horror movies and live in the same ‘universe’. It’s enormous fun, but you will probably want to skip the stories which are based on films you haven’t seen.
New novels were fairly light on the ground this year. Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind amused and irritated me in almost equal measure. It’s the kind of novel a famous person is allowed to write because no editor dare say, you’re flailing here, you need to cut this piece etc. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner tells the story of an American poet living in Spain and learning the language and trying to fit in, but always staying a bit out of it. It’s funny and beautifully put down, and it’s short. Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is nigh on perfect. Every short story invents its own world and its own voice. The only quibble is the final story which feels like he’s letting his hair down.
Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad – his just published prequel to Life and Fate – is stunning. One of the most profound reading experiences of 2020. There are more moments which are written for the censor which need to be picked out, but on the whole the epic scale of the storytelling and the insights on human psychology make the comparisons to Tolstoy utterly justified. Another new to me novel was Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor which gives a fictional portrait of Bram Stoker and his friendship and professional partnership with Henry Irving and the actress Alice Terry. It’s a profoundly moving piece of working.
I read deeply in nonfiction. Politics – especially Trump – history and popular science have all been looked at. I particularly enjoyed Lisa Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, which posits that emotions are a culturally constructed description of a wide variety of internal physical sensations, rather than elemental things which reside in certain parts of the brain or have a certain fingerprint. Barack Obama’s Promised Land was perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the year. Just so well written, thoughtful, perceptive, and humorous, it also served as an antidote to the stupidity playing out on our TV screens. Obama was by no means a perfect president and he’s fully aware of his own limitations, but I’d rather have a centrist than a moron with a flamethrower.