Books Of The Year And How To Read Them

Yes, I do consider myself a hero.

“Phenomenologal!” — Alex Balk, The Awl

I read fifty-eight books this year. If it sounds like I’m bragging then I have finally achieved my goal of getting my point across, since it was a very conscious effort on my part to do all that reading and I want the whole goddamn world to know about it. Because oh my God, it was work. Not that the books weren’t good — with very few exceptions, I loved everything I read — but the labor required to read a (ugh) longform piece of writing here in 2016 is so much more herculean than it was even ten years ago, given the many distractions we have these days and how truncated our attention spans are now. Would you like to hear my secrets? Well too bad, it’s my website, I’m going to share them anyway.

  1. Read printed books. Kindles and Nooks or ewhatevers are great, they’re very portable, you don’t have to worry about losing your page, etc. They are also connected to the greatest idiot-making poison-dispensing waste of time ever, which is the Internet. Don’t give yourself the chance to just click over “for a few seconds” and see what’s going on. You don’t need to check your mail. NOTHING GOOD IS HAPPENING ON TWITTER and you’re lying to yourself if you try to argue otherwise. If you read the Internet on the phone, put your phone in another room. Don’t look at it until you’ve finished 25 pages, or whatever amount you’ve given yourself as a minimum. Keep a pad of sticky notes and a pen with you if you think you’re going to need to write something down to look up later but do not give yourself a chance to go look it up until you are done reading, because you will never come back.
  2. Always be reading. Have a book ready for when you finish your current one, and as soon as you are done with the one you are reading at the present moment, start another one. Don’t give yourself an opportunity to “take a few days off to catch up on the magazines,” because you will never come back. You won’t even catch up on the magazines either, you will just read the Internet and get dumber and sadder. The Internet wants you to be book-illiterate. Don’t let it. Also, once you start the next book make sure there’s another one on deck.
  3. Find the half an hour a day that you are doing your dumbest, least necessary thing and use that time to read a book instead. I am almost 100% certain that you are using that half hour to do dumb shit on the Internet, but maybe you’re a big Bravo fan. Whatever it is, cut it out. Read the book instead. You’ll feel better about yourself and less bad about whatever it was you used to be doing, especially if it was watching “Vanderpump Rules” or watching people argue on Facebook.
  4. Keep a list of what you’ve read. This might not be all the way necessary and may only appeal to the part of the man-brain that loves lists, but there is something about the feeling of accomplishment you get in seeing the number of books you’ve completed grow larger that keeps you at it, and if you don’t maintain that feeling of accomplishment you will take time away from reading books and never come back.

Another important part of keeping a list is it will let you remember which books you’ve read over the last year, a thing that gets harder and harder to do as you age. Anyway, of the 58 books I read (that’s a lot of books, right? You’re correct to be in awe of me) a number of them were from previous years in which I was less literate (it turns out everyone was right about how good that Viv Albertine memoir was back in 2014), but there were at least five books that were published this year (or thereabouts) that were excellent and I will share them here in case you are looking for something to get you started.

Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs: I already told you about this one, here’s what I had to say.

Novel Enjoyed

Claire-Louise Bennet’s Pond: Same deal.

Here’s A Novel You Might Enjoy

Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey, My Own Life: I guess I talked about books more than I thought this year.

Here’s The Hot New 17th Century Biography For Fall

Erika Robb Larkins’ The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil: Okay, this is sort of a cheat since it came out in 2015 but I am going to count it anyway since I’m the person making the rules and also it’s a university press book and they really need all the help they can get. This one gets a little academic in parts, and God knows ethnography has all sorts of opportunities for accusations of problematization — if there’s something particularly egregious about the volume in question please let me know, I am always willing to learn — but its lack of sentimentality and sheer on-the-ground reportage more than make up for the parts you spend yelling “Go back to grad school!”

The Spectacular Favela

Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Picture it: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron have apricot cocktails at some bar in Paris. Aron “opens their eyes to a radical new philosophical method known as phenomenology. Pointing to his drink, he says, ‘You see — with phenomenology you can make philosophy out of this cocktail!’” If this anecdote sounds familiar to you it is probably because you have read any review of At the Existentialist Café that was printed this year. They all mention it, which may have something to do with the fact that it is related right at the beginning of the book and in the accompanying press materials. In any event, this was the most delightful thing I read in 2016, because it made extremely complicated philosophy comprehensible to an idiot like me. Think of how easy it will be for you, who, except for the fact that are you still reading my post at this point, are demonstrably smarter. Beyond turning the complex, possibly nonsensical, work of Heidegger into something that does not make you fall asleep, Bakewell keeps the narrative moving along and also juggles any number of characters with ease. There is a lot of addressing the reader in this book in a way that usually makes me itch but somehow works in this case, and it is maybe the knowledge that you are in the hands of someone who has a deep affinity for the material and wants to share it with you that makes the whole thing so appealing. Anyway, if this is the sort of thing that sways you, the New York Times also named this one of its best books of the year and they read even more than 58 books. 58 is still pretty impressive though.

At The Existentialist Cafe

Tell you what, order these five titles now and get yourself set for 2017. With the world set to end at some indeterminate point it will be good to have a couple a books by your side as you wait for the radiation poisoning to do its work. Happy reading!