Friday, January 06, 2012

My Year in Reading: 2011

Since I didn't finish the book I’m reading last weekend, I have read 21 books in 2011. Not a bad count considering the pace at which I read.
Looking back over the year, I am amazed at the number of forgettable books I read. Maybe it’s because I didn’t immediately sit down and record my impression of every book, or just because the book left no impression, but there are a number books of which I cannot even remember the plot. Aimee Bender’s An Invisible Sign of My Own and Lorrie Moore’s Like Life both fall into this category. I would have expected to like and find inspiration in both, yet nothing remains. Then there are the pairs of books I read by William Faulkner (Sanctuary and Absalom Absalom!) and Cormac McCarthy (The Crossing and Cities of the Plain). I don’t doubt the quality of any of these novels, but over time the stories conflate and each pair becomes a muddle.
The books I read in 2011 are more notable for the disappointments, led in sequence and importance by Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The book was so highly lauded, and I was already a fan of The Corrections, so how was I not to like this book? The lack of a coherent arc to the novel is really what did it in. It can be as smart, clever, incisive, clairvoyant as possible and still fall down as a book if you can’t convince me that I need to read the next page.
But Freedom wasn’t the only let down. Add to it Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (reminiscent of Stephen King, but too childish and novel for its own good), David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (retelling the same story in different ways and with different facts isn’t exploration--it’s confusion), and Richard Yates’s Disturbing the Peace (like John Cheever at his most matter of fact and least insightful).
And then there were the surprises. Jane Eyre proved to be much better than expected. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth proved to me that a book can be a dramatically different setting and culture than my own (and even my own interests) and still be a fantastic book to read. Indignation proved that, despite the failings of Everyman and The Humbling, and other recent novels, Philip Roth still has it in him to write a great novel. And John Cheever’s Bullet Park, thought it was as dull at times as Cheever can be, showed the impact of a sudden, simple action and the well-laid phrase. It has the best final paragraph that I have ever seen.
The best books I may have read this year were two short story collections that didn’t surprise as a whole form. The Stories ofJohn Cheever and What We Talk AboutWhen We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver both revealed everything we think of as typical of each author. Some stories come out as caricature, like people trying to write the Cheever or Carver story. At the same time, there are stories in each that prove the author to be the master we expect.
Despite the masters on the list, it was an unremarkable year of reading. It does inspire a couple of new year’s resolutions. First, to find better books to read in the new year. And the second, to write down at least some thing about each book I read. It’s the least I can do.
The full list:
Freedom- Jonathan Franzen
Like Life - Lorrie Moore
Zombie - Joyce Carol Oates
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
Sanctuary - William Faulkner
Bullet Park - John Cheever
An Invisible Sign of My Own - Aimee Bender
The Keep - Jennifer Egan
The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy
Disturbing the Peace - Richard Yates
Legend of a Suicide - David Vann
Black Water - Joyce Carol Oates
Indignation - Philip Roth
Dusk - James Salter
Absalom Absalom! - William Faulkner
Disturbing the Peace - Richard Yates
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Stories - John Cheever
Cities of the Plain - Cormac McCarthy
Women With Men - Richard Ford
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - Raymond Carver
Cold Spring Harbor - Richard Yates


  1. I was worried when I saw the covers of Jane Eyre and White Teeth on this page -- glad they were some of the exceptions to your disappointing literary year! Jane Eyre is my wife's favorite book, and she introduced me to it; it's now a favorite of mine. And White Teeth was a lot of fun.

  2. You know a book is good when certain scenes creep back into your mind. Something from White Teeth did this to me just the other day.