You’ll find us here.
You’ll find us here.
Not pictured is my first book of the year, Stephen Greenblatt Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018). Brilliant.
Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor. Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of under classes. In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable. But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.
He promises to make England great again. How will he do that? He shows the crowd at once: he attacks education. The educated elite has betrayed the people. They are traitors who will all be brought to justice, and this justice will be meted out not by judges and lawyers but in a call-and-response between the leader and his mob.
But Shakespeare grasped something critically important: although the absurdity of the demagogue’s rhetoric was blatantly obvious, the laughter it elicited did not for a minute diminish its menace. Cade and his followers will not slink away because the traditional political elite and the entirety of the educated populace regard him as a jackass.
Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.
Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and 375 pages stand between me and the conclusion of The Mirror and the Light, so I am calling it at 233 books read this year. (As always, I have included only cover-to-covers.) Here is my complete list, here are all of the posts annotating that list, and here are a few numbers:
♦ 233 books read this year
♦ 105 fiction titles (not including graphic works)
♦ 61 non-fiction titles (not including graphic works)
♦ 6 poetry selections
♦ 37 plays
♦ 24 graphic works (three of which were non-fiction selections)
♦ 34 rereads (i.e., books that I had first read sometime in the past, not this year)
As I shared here, my goals for this year were to read 100 books from my shelves (i.e., books in my collection before the end of 2019), including at least 24 non-fiction titles and at least one book from each of the following categories: Shakespeare (by, about, retold, etc.) poetry, NYRB, Kurt Vonnegut (by or about), Joyce Carol Oates, philosophy, art, and children’s / YA. I read 148 books from the shelves, 47 of which were non-fiction titles, and I met each of the category challenges:
This year, seven plays (Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, King Lear, and Richard II) and two works from the Hogarth Shakespeare series (Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler; 2016) and New Boy (Tracy Chevalier; 2017)) satisfied the challenge. Next year, I will not consider it complete unless I also tackle at least one of the many non-fiction works I’ve collected.
With Aimless Love (Billy Collins; 2013) and Crow (Ted Hughes; 1970) I met the challenge, but I had also hoped to increase the amount of poetry I read this year, whether from my shelves or not. With six books, I doubled what I managed last year, but there is still much room for growth here.
Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker; 1962)
Mother Night (1961)
Joyce Carol Oates
Give Me Your Heart (2010)
How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life (Seneca; ed. James Romm; 2018)
How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management (Seneca; ed. James Romm; 2019)
How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life (Marcus Tullius Cicero; ed. Philip Freeman; 2016)
How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (Epictetus; ed. A.A. Long; 2018)
Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein; 2006)
Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Deborah Heiligman; 2017)
Children’s / YA
I, Juan de Pareja (Elizabeth Barton de Treviño; 1965)
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh; 1964)
I rose to Robin’s challenge to read three Agatha Christie titles this year: The Mousetrap (1952), Crooked House (1949), and Endless Night (1967). And I tossed in a challenge to read a book about my bird of the year, which in 2020, was the crow: Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans (John M. Marzluff; 2012).
The only goal on which I stumbled was “Read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy,” and, gosh, I came close. In fact, I’ll return once I finish.
It is already 50 here, but the wind that will bring temperatures in the teens overnight is picking up, and it is gray. On a more cheerful note, Jólabókaflóð continues. I think two more boxes are due before the flood reverts to a trickle.
Since last week, I’ve finished seven books, bringing my total for the year to 228.
■ Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh; 1964. Fiction.)
As I mentioned this was a reread in anticipation of the new biography.
■ Crooked House (Agatha Christie; 1949. Fiction.)
■ Endless Night (Agatha Christie; 1967. Fiction.)
One of Robin’s mini challenges was to read three books by Agatha Christie. In January, I read The Mousetrap, picked up a few new Christie titles… and promptly forgot about the challenge. Better late than never, right? Crooked House may be my new favorite, especially now that Josephine is uneasily paired with Harriet in my readerly imagination.
■ The Silence of the Girls (Pat Barker; 2018. Fiction.)
A feminist Iliad.
Now, he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains. There’s no way of avoiding the agony – or even of getting through it faster. It’s got him in its claws and it won’t let go till he’s learnt every lesson it has to teach.
■ Bring up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel; 2012. Fiction.)
As I mentioned last week, “Read the Mantel trilogy” is a 2020 goal. You don’t need me to tell you what an achievement these books are.
■ Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans (John M. Marzluff; 2012. Non-fiction.)
A late entry to my list of reading goals: a book from the collection of ornithology titles, preferably one about my bird of the year.
■ We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence (Becky Cooper; 2012. Non-fiction.)
As she attempts to solve a decades-old mystery, Cooper excavates the pervasive misogyny of university politics while negotiating the creative non-fiction writer’s tendency to become the subject. Coming from such a young writer, this was particularly deft and compelling.
Breathing life into someone on the page was an act of both resurrection and transubstantiation: I wrote them by learning about them, then by holding them inside me, then by feeling for them. By the end, I’d become their host, so of course I would forget where they ended, and I started.
It occurs to us that a cousin of randomness is serendipity.
Some days I don’t even know what to tell you about Jane. I know even less about whether telling a responsible story of the past is possible, having learned all too well how the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know: There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.
Most of the packages have (finally!) found their way here. Only two candles, a sweater, and some face masks are missing now.
Eight years ago, when My Ideal Bookshelf was first published, I assembled the collection pictured above. Atop the stack on my desk this morning is one of those books, Harriet the Spy. Favorable reviews (e.g., here and here) of the recently published Louise Fitzhugh biography prompted me to revisit Harriet for the first time in many years; I have not been disappointed.
Most of the other books on my desk are marked with dogears and slips of paper for this entry. Since my last annotated list, I’ve read nine, bringing my 2020 total to 221.
■ Gideon Falls, Vol. 5: Wicked Words (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
This series is barreling toward the conclusion.
■ Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Ruth Klüger; 2001. Non-fiction.)
As I mentioned, Klüger’s is “an unforgiving memoir of growing up Jewish in Nazi-occupied Vienna and escaping death in a concentration camp.” (NYT, October 16, 2020) It was recommended in the lively discussion that occurred in the comments during Court Theatre’s Deep Dive: Leopoldstadt.
Remembering is a branch of witchcraft; its tool is incantation. I often say, as if it were a joke — but it’s true — that instead of God I believe in ghosts.
Of course, that’s always the case: men go to war because they are drafted. They usually go with enthusiasm, which lasts as long as their side is winning, never mind if their cause is good or bad. A minority know their minds, and the rest mistake the collective mind for their own.
I shed these prejudices quickly and quietly, as one takes off a pair of nylons under the table, secretly, so that no one will notice you’ve been wearing them.
No one is as dependent as mothers are on the dependency of their children.
■ Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel; 2009. Fiction.)
When The Mirror and the Light was released earlier this year, I quietly added “Read the Mantel trilogy” to my 2020 goals. These books are proving to be the perfect companions for long-nighted December days.
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and the processions. This is how the world changes….
■ Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (Alice Oswald; 2011. Poetry.)
In this startling and powerful reframing of the Iliad, two similes (on facing pages in my edition) begged to be pressed into my commonplace book. The first reminded me of the most exquisite passage in all of literature written in English (see below):
Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork
The second was so poignant it hurt:
Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting the whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip
■ The Dead (James Joyce; 1914. Fiction.)
In which one finds the most exquisite passage in all of literature written in English:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
■ The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (M.T. Anderson; 2018. Fiction.)
One of the most delightful books I read this year. Related article here.
■ In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book (Joel Stein; 2019. Non-fiction.)
Yes, Stein’s humor is an acquired taste. Related interview here.
■ Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myth (Helena Morales; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Related article here.
■ The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Bryan Doerries; 2015. Non-fiction.)
A wonderful reader recommended Theater of War to me in late spring. Since then, I’ve watched seven readings — most recently, The Book of Job with Bill Murray. Doerries’ book is as riveting as those performances.
It is not our job to judge the characters in Greek tragedies — to focus on their “flaws.” Tragedy challenges us to see ourselves in the way its characters stray from the path, and to open our eyes to the bad habits we may have formed or the mistakes we have yet to make. Contrary to what you may have learned in school, tragedies are not designed to fill us with pessimism and dread about the futility of human existence or our relative powerlessness in a world beyond our grasp. They are designed to help us see the impending disaster on the horizon, so that we may correct course and narrowly avoid it. Above all, the flaw in our thinking about tragedy is that we look for meaning where there is none to be found. Tragedies don’t mean anything. They do something.
Early Jólabókaflóðið gifts continue to trickle in; only a few more remain. Let’s hope they actually get here. Over the last two weeks, we’ve experienced many delivery problems: packages lost, damaged, misdelivered. It’s no one carrier; the entire system just seems a bit strained, to say the least.
A few more deliveries to go; it’s that time of the year.