Nine Books for 2017

This was a weird year of reading for me. I re-read some things that I love, but I didn’t finish most of them; the experience was more about seeking comfort in the familiar and drawing inspiration from beloved works than it was about completely re-experiencing them. There’s one exception there, a book I re-read which I devoured because it was exactly what I needed, but I’ll get there.

The books that changed my thinking this year were nonfiction, and they were all about the same thing: the end of the world—which, even if it’s not really going to happen, which some days seems like a rather large “if”, feels inevitable enough that it has to be dealt with—and the ways in which we (“We”) are completely unprepared to deal with it.

The fiction I read mostly made me want to write fiction again, which is a big development. After a couple of years of beating my head against that particular brick wall  I’ve had to do some serious introspection about why I do that, what I expect from it, and without these books, I’d probably just add “failed novelist” to my Twitter bio and move on. I’m not even working on anything yet, but now the thought doesn’t fill me with dread. Sometimes it’s the small things.

These aren’t in any particular order. I couldn’t pick a tenth one so I left it as it is.

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke

I read this book early in college, long enough ago that I didn’t remember much of it. The characters are mostly not characters, but vessels for epiphany or the lack thereof, and they all have the same God but they’re not sure he/she/it is particularly interested in what happens to them. This book didn’t really help me understand anything about the Vietnam War other than I’m thankful I wasn’t there, but I think that was the point.

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

People used to live their lives in one place. In living memory, if only for a little while longer, this was a wild place, an untamed one, where you could live so alone that no one knew of you. This book was unsettling, but beautiful, and it made me long for something. To explain what that “something” is would require me to write Train Dreams.

Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama

I read the NYRB translation of this on a plane to DC and a plane back. I picked it up because I read about it on biblioklept and it sounded up my alley. It was, emphatically so. The narrator of this book is so charming that you don’t realize for quite a while that he’s never going to get what he wants, and nothing will work out the way he wants it to, and even once you see all the way to the end of his life, past the end of the book, his voice still compels you to keep reading.

Oakley Hall, Warlock

This was (also) a re-read. America is a nation founded on and fueled by violence, even in our most hackneyed myths. Oakley Hall takes the Western and its honor codes and its machismo and shows you what it really is, and what it really means: the senseless killing that undergirds everything we think we know about ourselves. There’s a horror at the heart of this book that only sets in after you finish it, when it clangs around inside your head and you realize how many times you’ve seen this lie told elsewhere, and that’s all true even when it’s the second time you’ve read it.

Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Things are bad. Things are probably going to get worse. You can either live in tension with this fact, or you can start to imagine how you’ll continue to find meaning even within it. This book is the only one I’ve read so far that clearly elucidates a path towards the latter. Things will get worse. What do we do about it? What can we? Start here.

Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics edition)

After reading Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, I realized that people 4,000 years ago were just like we were: they told stories, they fell in love, they worried about money, they wondered what would happen to them in the time they had left to live. And then, one day (though it maybe wasn’t that quick) their entire civilization was wiped away, and no one knew about this great epic for thousands of years. Even when that happens to us, to our Babylon, we were still just like them. If there are people 4,000 years from now, maybe they’ll find our stories and feel the same way about us.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

Capitalism, of course, is most of the reason we’re in this particular mess, spiraling towards an end. An end of what, we’ll just have to find out. But at times, it feels impossible that other ways are possible, or that anything can be done at all. Can our global way of living be saved? Probably not, but it doesn’t help that our way of thinking has been so impoverished by the forces that drive us towards this indeterminate oblivion in the first place.

Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain

It’s been a long time since I was so viscerally captured by a book. I was compelled to keep reading it to the end, even as I was horrified by its unravelings. Religion, when curdled, takes sick people and makes them sicker, and this is a brutal exploration of what that can mean. Sometimes people’s brains break. They’re not always prophets.

Barry Hannah, Airships

This was another one I read because people on the internet talked about it. I’m usually not a short story person, but the language in this book is electric—Hannah cuts to the heart of things like no other American I’ve read. His visions for the smallness of some people, and the dignity of others, and the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves, the things we “speak” where no one can know them, filled my head up and I have yet to empty it somewhere.