My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

14 thoughts on “My Year in Reading: 2018

  1. Ah, the Enigma of Arrival has been a favourite of mine for years… It has a strong kinship to Wordsworth’s poetry of Salisbury Plain. SO glad you liked it.

  2. This is an insightful post, and Fanny Howe’s quote about the stifling of art could not ring more true here in the States. It seems that fewer and fewer people care about art and literature these days and that I am on an island with my continued interest in reading great books. Your list of books is interesting, and it reinforces my belief that, for me, the best books to read are ones written in the past. I also want to check out The Enigma of Arrival. You’re not the first to appreciate deeply this work. So in the new year I want to tackle it. I’m closing out the year reading The Confidence-Man by Melville, a collection of letters between Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon (I want to read more letter collections in the new year), and some of the short stories of Chekhov. I might dip into Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, too. Of course, this is all subject to change in a moment, but I do want to finish The Confidence-Man!

    • It isn’t any more hopeful in England. Art, serious art, is being stifled by market forces. I used to follow a 10-year rule and ignore anything that didn’t survive a degree of posterity. It serves well to see beyond the band-wagons and marketing department’s campaigns, which have taken over so much of book blogging and book chat on social media. I’d like to read Melville: Pierre is what I have in my sights.

      • Oh, that novel by Melville sounds very good; I wasn’t aware of it. It’s interesting because most of his novels were failures when they were published, yet his work has endured. I took an American literature course in college, and Melville (Moby-Dick) and Dreiser (Sister Carrie) were required reading. I skimmed through Moby-Dick at the time and would like to revisit it one day though I am not a fan of Dreiser. I also had to read To the Lighthouse in college, and I skimmed that one, too. I revisited it last year, and I liked it, but I much prefer Mrs. Dalloway and The Years (I will get to Jacob’s Room at some point, and I have dipped into the diaries). The older I get (I’m 49), the more tired I get of the boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl storylines of so much modern, literary fiction so I don’t read it much anymore. Another author I’m looking forward to reading in the new year–because I don’t know much about his work–is Conrad. I’ve got Victory and The Secret Agent on my list.

        • My Woolf favourite drifts back and forth between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. The Voyage Out is very rewarding and there is the minor thrill of meeting Mrs. Dalloway in an earlier incarnation.

      • “It amuses me to read, in Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, how he wants us to believe that a West Indian living in southern England in the 1950s would not be the butt of racial prejudice. I remember meeting for the first time my daughter’s headmaster at her school in Kent, in the early nineties, and being greeted with a condescending “So you’re the foreigner!”

        “A Reading Diary” by Alberto Manguel

        With beautiful words Naipaul sets a trap for his readers and they fall for it without noticing that he plays a game.

  3. Pierre is wonderful. I loved that.
    my favourite woolf one is jacob’s room, but been meaning to reread the waves since ages.
    thank you anthony… it is nice being bookcompanion with you, sharing those things, fanny howe has a very special place in my heart….

  4. Lovely quote from Fanny Howe though, particularly on how few miss the loss of the arts.

    A knowledge of the shortness of time is partly why I’m sometimes happy with merely being entertained. There seems so little life that mere entertainment becomes rather important. A different reaction to the same realisation of course.

    But then, taking an axe to the internal frozen sea can be a much more profound stimulation I admit. I do find that I have to balance myself between lighter fare and more profound, and after a while of being entertained I do start yearning to be challenged once more.

    • A lot of the time I end up being merely entertained. There is only so much that is genuinely profound and personally accessible (as much as I’d love to get to grips with Hegel, I lack the grounding-and perhaps the patience).

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