I didn’t open a book “with intent” this year until sometime in late August. I cannot explain why but I just did not feel like reading, which was sort of worrying since I’ve been a voracious reader all my life. I finished Trout Fishing In America right around the New Year, and since I did not include it in my log for 2010, I’ve included it here.
Once I did start reading, I managed to get some pretty good books in before the year’s end. The best book I read this year was the one I just finished last night, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s examination of Dust Bowl migrant farmers. If you have never read it, do. If you have read it, read it again. I hadn’t read it since college about 15 years ago, and it is much better than I remembered; in part because I think I’m a better reader now than I was then (more practiced in critical thought and close reading, and more appreciative of well-crafted writing), and in part because it speaks directly to a lot of the things that I have been thinking heavily about lately: suffering, economic equality, cruelty, generosity, etc. It has been called communist propaganda but I think it would be more accurately described as Humanist propaganda. On top of the grand themes, Steinbeck is a master of prose, able to both construct a large and intensely believable plot and cast of characters, and stick the emotional knife into the reader and twist it to maximum effect. Most classics are classics for a reason and The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect example of this.
I am making an effort to consume more non-fiction, and while I didn’t get the 1-to-1 ratio of fiction-to-non that I’d aimed for, five of the 14 books I read were non-fic, all of which were edifying if not always entertaining. Eating Animals made me continue to look hard at what I put in my body (which currently constitutes a vegetarian diet and may ultimately end up closer to vegan…did I just write that?); 1491 and Mornings on Horseback broadened my deficient knowledge of New World/American history (I know more about the Peloponnesian War than the American Civil War, sadly); and Fear and Loathing: Campaign ’72 and Consider the Lobster helped me realize that there are great authors writing non-fiction (I knew about Hunter S. Thompson, but Lobster is the first David Foster Wallace book I’ve read, and he is a simply brilliant, gifted writer).
My first and greatest love remains fiction, specifically novels. Whether pulpy sci-fi or big meaty lit-class stuff, I love a novel, and I read some good ones this year. It turned out to be one of the first books I ever read, The Hobbit, that helped me get back into the rhythm of reading this year after that inexplicable eight-month hiatus. I normally read quite a bit of sci-fi, but this year the only thing I read from that genre was Man Plus, well-written 1970s psychedelia with a sense of humor and a sense of horror. All the Pretty Horses is top notch (though the best thing I’ve read by Cormac McCarthy is still Blood Meridian), and J.G. Ballard’s Crash is disturbing on both a psychological and a visceral level (but still worth reading!). I got a few lulz out of the Tarzan book I read (review linked below). The most disappointing books I read this year were The Thin Man and The Nigger Factory, in both cases because I expected them to be so much better.
So here’s the list for 2011. As I said I finished The Grapes of Wrath last night, and this morning I began reading Triumph, Jeremy Schaap’s book about Jesse Owens at Hitler’s Olympics, which will be the first book on my log for 2012.
1. Trout Fishing In America — Richard Brautigan (1967)
2. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again — J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
3. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays — David Foster Wallace (2005)
4. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 — Hunter S. Thompson (1973)
5. Crash — J.G. Ballard (1973)
6. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus — Charles G. Mann (2005)
7. All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy (1992)
8. The Nigger Factory — Gil Scott-Heron (1972)
9. Man Plus — Frederik Pohl (1976)
10. The Thin Man — Dashiell Hammett (1934) [review here]
11. Eating Animals — Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)
12. Jungle Tales of Tarzan — Edgar Rice Burroughs (1919) [review here]
13. Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt — David McCullough (1981)
14. The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck (1939)