A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Lately …

Lately I’ve listened to a lot of music, intensely, for two to three hours a day. My musical taste is shaped by the punk era, though by the time I discovered punk, it was all over. I’m a child of the post-punk period. Those are my formative musical years – about the only time I wish I was ten, even five years older is when I dream of being present for the early years of the Sex Pistols and the Bromley contingent. But it is post-punk that I still turn to: bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, it has survived a lot better than most of the earlier punk stuff, which sounds crusty.

I’ve also been playing a fair amount of classical music, Schubert, Sibelius, Pärt, Ligeti and, of course, Beethoven whose late music is rough, abstract, beautiful and I’m kidnapping him as protopunk. The whole 60s-70s musical thing bores me to tears, with the exception of 70s Bowie (and from time to time, Dylan). I’m glad that I’m far too young to not remember the sixties. Jazz, which mostly I don’t get and what I do like is inextricably caught up with context, mostly from reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Colour of Memory, hence Mingus, Monk, Chet Baker, but dominated by Miles Davis, mostly because he so fucking cool.

Lately I’ve been to the cinema at least once a week, mainstream films like American Hustle (intelligently written, captivating), Wolf of Wall Street (usual bloated Scorcese male-ego study), and Gravity (silly but technologically fascinating). Despite twice lapping up all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, my film tastes feel uncultured. I’ll watch Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu films with great pleasure, but also with the sense that I am missing a lot of depth and meaning. Watching Room 237 (after reading Molly Laich’s top 2013 films list) showed me depths to my favourite horror film The Shining that I hadn’t even considered after watching it at least a dozen times.

Lately, surprise, surprise, I’ve also been reading a lot. Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is one of the most intelligent, sensitive readings of art and literature that I’ve read, ever. Both Carole Maso books were worthwhile but I preferred Defiance to Ava. Defiance succeeded in making a female psychopath multi-layered and sympathetic. It is also deeply upsetting. There were many beautiful moments in Ava but for me its fragmentary form never quite cohered into a sustained narrative, and I’m ambivalent about the literary romanticising of cancer and death. I had a fascinating debate on Twitter with @DeathZen about Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. In a moment of afterglow I compared it to Greek tragedy, a bit silly, but its portrayal of mental collapse and fury is reminiscent of the aftermath of Jason’s desertion of Medea. Ferrante is no Euripides but she can write with great potency, and to borrow a phrase from James Woods, is able to rip ‘the skin off the habitual’. I’m reading Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal, which is quietly devastating, immensely personal, and also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Vermeer’s Girl Sleep

Girl Sleeping (circa 1656-16570 -  Johannes Vermeer

Girl Sleeping (circa 1656-16570 –
Johannes Vermeer

Each Vermeer I see becomes my favourite Vermeer, Girl Sleeping is no exception to this rule. In Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination, Grace Dane Mazur writes:

Her eyes are closed, but despite the title, I do not think that she is sleeping. She ignores the platter of fruit and the carafe of liquid in front of her as she relaxes, forming a diagonal, her slightly bowed head propped up by her right hand. Her left hand rests on the carpeted table. The chair beside her is empty, the absence of another freeing her to explore within. On the wall hangs a painting but it is hard to see what it depicts, though it is thought to contain Cupid, whose leg can just be seen along with a mask, Behind the girl, an open-door leads to the room beyond. This is more illuminated, with a drop-leaf table, another painting or a mirror, and what looks like a window because of its heavy wooden frame. It is as though as we gaze on her, in her reverie, we are allowed only hints of what she is imagining, ion that room beyond consciousness. She is too pensive to be sleeping. The mood of utter quiet-despite the intricate texture and colour of the carpet she touches-shows that she is daydreaming, imagining. For her, that chair in front of her is no longer empty, but filled with the presence of the someone we cannot yet see, for she is still writing him into existence. That this occurs in an ordinary room surrounded by ordinary things, chairs and tables and food and drink, indicates that incubation can happen anywhere that one can achieve the necessary stillness.

I prefer Mazur’s reading of Vermeer’s painting to the more customary interpretation that the carafe suggests an image of drunken lethargy. When sold in 1737 the painting’s title was A drunken girl asleep at a table. Most scholars identify this particular model as Vermeer’s wife.

Incidentally I am unlikely to write directly about Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges. I read to discover books precisely like this. It is unspeakably beautiful.