Turning the Page
Thoughts about reading circa 2008 and the death of David Foster WallaceIs the surfeit of lists touting the "best books of 2008" leaving you thoroughly confused about what to read next? Relax. This is not another one of those tidy wrap-ups. Instead, I'd like to muse on what I read this past year, regardless of when it was published. (If for some reason you haven't had your fill of actual year-end lists, here are favorites from Paste, NPR, and by journalist/blogger Maud Newton.)I once thought biography was a genre for the middle-aged. My favorite book that I read this year is a biography. So depending upon how you define "middle-aged"-I am 42-I was either wrong or right. Regardless, I was blown away by the mastery of John Matteson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. I read it in that kind of obsessive, "What comes next?"-manner usually reserved for a thriller, sneaking 15-minute installments here and there.Sticking to the Alcott theme, I also re-read Little Women. I was surprisingly impressed by the novel's sophistication. According to a wildly unscientific poll I conducted, men don't read this book. They should. It is absorbing, complex, and features quite a range of male characters to boot. So, boys, grab a copy and read it proudly-even out in the open.Speaking of being ashamed to read a novel in public, I furtively revisited Lady Chatterly's Lover in 2008. It is shockingly graphic. Still. Are there any women literary novelists who have described the inability (and ability) to reach orgasm so thoroughly as D.H. Lawrence? I also picked up The Catcher in the Rye again and was underwhelmed, but you probably already knew about that.
Like biography, I used to think opera was for the over-the-hill crowd. This year, I attended three performances and was enchanted by them all. Feeling a bit insecure about my musical knowledge, I am thankful to Alex Ross for his The Rest of Noise: Listening to Music in Twentieth Century. As I read it, I wished I had his ability to tell stories and be erudite at the same time. I am also indebted to the hilariously nimble The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa, a light, comic novel that taught me about vocal training and other operatic thingamabobs.Young American novelists typically underwhelm me due to their lack of ambition. Case in point: novels about making it as a young literati, such as Ed Park's Personal Days and Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men. Both are admirable and fun to read, but ultimately safe-as are domestic stories, such as Roxana Robinson's Cost, which rarely stray beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family. Three novelists, however, took chances and swept me away (even if they sometimes exceeded their grasp): Salvatore Scibona's The End, Alexander Hemon's The Lazarus Project, and Rachel Kushner's Telex From Cuba all won my approval and garnered National Book Award nominations. I can't wait to read these young authors' next offerings.But, the novelist I read this year with both the ambition to take on a big topic and the chops to pull it off is Kevin Brockmeier. I read A Brief History of the Dead this summer. Months later I still lie in bed thinking about his audacity to create a realistic, thickly described afterlife and the compassion he displays when summoning up scenes of loss that brought me to tears over and over again. The novel is suffused with a sense of genuine empathy and love.On the topic of death and love, there is an overarching ache of 2008. The literary event that trumps all others is not a book at all, but rather the death of David Foster Wallace (pictured at top) at age 46. He was the voice of my generation, middle-aged or not. He struggled to counter the cynicism in which we cuspy Gen Xers too often take refuge, without denying its omnipresent temptation. He started with cynicism as his premise, not a final, apathetic stopping point. He abandoned snobbery, the last refuge of the insecure. Then he wrote: He thought it all through, carefully, slowly, taking irony and intellectual analysis and language to their limits, ever thinking, ever seeking to find, what on the other side? Faith? Hope? Love? Through him, I learned that one can yoke metaphysics and ennui to a persistent desire to be optimistic. For him, I will continue to try.I do not know if the afterlife is as Brockmeier describes: a warm, familiar place where one exists as long as someone is alive to remember you. But if it is, then DFW will remain there as long as the Earth is peopled. For what it's worth, Mr. Wallace, this year is for you.(Photo of David Foster Wallace from Flickr user Steve Rhodes)