Every year, the literary magazine the Millions pools writers to offer the highlights from their own reading in the previous year, a project simply called A Year in Reading. Inspired by this, I offer some of the best books that I read in 2011 that I recommend without hesitation.
1. A Late Start
The reading I did in 2011 was more challenging and trying for my mind and soul than any other year. I was acquainted with chaos and brutality in a way I could have never imagined. I read and was deeply struck by tragedy the likes of which one could not experience in a lifetime of reading the Bard himself. This year, reading meant nothing less than pushing myself to my emotional limit.
I say this because I spent most of the year as a graduate student, and therefore my reading was largely confined to material of a graduate syllabus in addition to the undergraduate papers that I was required to grade. Only recently having completed this phase of my life, the memories of such harrowing tales, read within in an environment that revealed to me the darkest and most depraved side of humankind, still stirs fear in the old blood.
The fact is that academics affords you little time for leisurely reading, or reading that you do by choice. It was really not until September or so that I reached that state for which I so longed and was able to walk up to my shelf, take off a book that I chose, and begin reading. It felt good. Below are some of the highlights of my rediscovery of reading for pleasure.
2. The Lives of Others
Another unfortunate side-effect of academic life is that you learn to read in a particular way. With such a great volume of reading that needs to be completed, you adapt yourself by reading strategically and extracting only the most necessary points and arguments from a text. You are concerned more with comprehension and analysis than you are with “savouring” the text. Taking your time and letting every word and sentence wash around your mind is simply not a priority when there is so much to do in a very finite amount of time.
As a result, reading texts that required such an approach became difficult. Having become so used to this academic style of reading, I became eager to rush through a text and “get to the point,” rather than gradually letting the text take me there. Two particular books were instrumental in helping me learn once again that there is nothing to fear from sizeable volumes, and that there is a great satisfaction in navigating one’s way through a text without rushing and that the most rewarding literary experiences often take time.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s the Mists of Avalon is, to use a word that is overused and applied inappropriately too often, epic. At just under a thousand pages and spanning decades in the lives of its main characters, the cast of which is quite vast, it certainly requires patience and commitment. It helps, however, that this book is incredibly addictive and absorbing, owing mostly to its story, a retelling of the Arthurian legend through the female perspective, particularly those women who are engaged in a battle to preserve a pagan tradition in which women are respected, revered, and worshipped, as monotheism begins to take over Britain.
It is these women that make Mists of Avalon such a compelling read. They are beautifully crafted and complex characters who drive the story in every way. Romance is certainly part of the Arthurian legend, but here it is only a part of the multifaceted stories of the women of Avalon, rather than the driving force of the story and it is not the sole focus of their journey. As cliché as it may sound, Mists of Avalon is a story of strong and inspiring women wrapped in one of the greatest and most enduring tales ever told. It is, perhaps, the perfect gift for the Twilight lover in your family who is in need of some rehabilitation and real storytelling driven by real women.
Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, the story of the building of a cathedral in 12th century England, has been so widely read and praised already that there isn’t really much that I can add to the conversation. Attempting such a lengthy read, over one thousand pages and also spanning decades, was also a bit daunting after the exhaustion of life as a graduate student. Over time, however, I learned once again of the satisfaction of a lengthy novel that invites you into the lives of others in a world and time completely outside of my own.
Much like Avalon, what made this novel was its characters whose triumphs and setbacks left me genuinely affected as a reader. It is also, as is much often mentioned in praise of Follett’s work, brilliantly researched and rich in detail. Historical fiction serves precisely the purpose of putting the reader in another time and seeing beyond their own immediate surroundings and perspectives. Follett accomplishes this mission effortlessly.
3. Inexhaustible Subjects
Gates of Fire also takes as its setting a story that many perhaps feel has been revisited to often, namely the Battle of Thermopylae, where three hundred Spartans, or so the story goes, met with Persian forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The most famous recent retelling of this story, of course, is the film 300, an insanely over the top misogynistic and bellicose retelling of a story which pitted the unquestionably manly and valourous Spartans against the effeminate and hedonistic Persians.
Pressfield’s work is essentially the anti-300. This retelling is not about a buff Gerard Butler in a red speedo screaming at the top of his lungs to lead the charge of a bloodthirsty army. Rather, it is the story of men who have families and lives and are torn in the conflict to balance this with their need to fight for their city-state. They are not abstract or allegorical stand-ins in a showdown between good and evil, but mortal men who form bonds with one another through the rigorous training they endure, which Pressfield describes in brutal and vivid detail.
The warriors of Gates of Fire are not untouched by death and the hell that is the battlefield. They feel every wound that is inflicted on their comrades and on their own person. Take this passage in which a member of the 300 mourns a fallen comrade:
He lifted the young man’s head, tenderly, with a hand beneath the back of his neck. A cry of such grief as a never heard tore from my master’s breast. His back heaved; his shoulders shuddered. He lifted Alexandros’ bloodless form into his embrace and held it, the young man’s arms hanging limp as a doll’s. Polynikes knelt at my master’s side, draped a cloak about his shoulders and held him as he sobbed.
It is easy to see why Gates of Fire is a favourite among members of the armed forces. Even for someone who has never felt the pain of war, I was moved by Pressfield’s ability to convey the human story of the battlefield and the shared sacrifice carried out by those who engage in it, and this is reason alone to read this book.
Robert Harris’ Imperium is a book for the political junkie. Through narration by his slave and
secretary Tyro, Harris’ novel charts the early political career of Cicero from his time as an advocate in the Roman courts to his ascension to consul, the highest political office in Rome. The prose is crisp, clean, and easy to follow, and difficult to put down. The speeches of Cicero as constructed by Harris are especially rousing and small masterpieces in and of themselves. The insight into the inner workings of political negotiation and electoral politics are both intriguing and bitterly funny in their central revelation that even as far back as the days of the Roman Republic, lawyers and politicians have been a bunch of scheming assholes.
4. The Fist and the Pen
The sport of boxing is perhaps the most literary sport, though baseball could certainly lay claim to the title. It is, and I acknowledge this as a devout fan, essentially legalized assault. In some sense, it goes against our instincts to flee from violence and only resort to it when it is absolutely necessary for survival. In boxing, however, what we see is men, and women too, who are willing to walk directly into combat and go toe-to-toe with another human being whose sole intention is to inflict harm upon them.
It can only be the case that such a sport is filled with fascinating characters and backstories, both from fighters and those who facilitate the fights. In the foreword to the brilliant anthology At the Fights, a collection of fifty articles and essays on the sweet science, author Colum McCann nails this fascination,
What’s most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it. They’re so goddamn literary. Every boxer you meet was fathered by hamlet, and if not the Dane, well, at least Cariolanus. There’s always the Gatsby moment and the gorgeous pink rag of a suit. Every promoter you’ve ever seen has Shylock on his shoulder. You know there’s a little bit of Prufrock in that grey-haired trainer hanging out the window with all the other lonely men in shirtsleeves. And that boxing wife or girlfriend you see at home, sitting at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes, watching the clock, well she has a little Molly Bloom to her, doesn’t she?
The essays collected in At the Fights do a superb job of capturing the cultural, political, and social aspects of the sweet science and deftly examining the reach of bouts outside the ring. Jack London’s reporting on Jack Johnson’s battle with Jim Jeffries explores America’s racial tension at the time as boiled down to a single heavyweight fight. Joyce Carol Oates offers a gendered analysis of the sport and the presence of hegemonic masculinity in and outside of the ring. Ray Mancini’s career makes us wonder as fans just how much we are willing to endorse and enjoy such brutality. We also learn that Don King is crazy.
My personal favourite of the bunch was Gene Tunney’s reflection on his two fights with Jack Dempsey. Tunney, a former marine who eventually lectured on Shakespeare at Yale, dispels the notion of the braindead pugilist and offers a piece that reads like a thrilling short story offering some insight into the psyche of the fighter.
Literature and sport are too often divorced these days, though there are certainly exceptions. Nonetheless, it’s likely most often the case that those who are more literary are not concerned with sport and those who are diehard sports fans are not capable of producing a coherent sentence, not to stereotype of course. This anthology, however, contains a full fifty examples of the delightful prose and insight that emerges when the two meet. You can say of At the Fights what is often said about the best books on sports, that is that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this book.
5. A Lifetime Reading Project
Finally, at I won’t say too much on this, but in 2011 I spent more time reading the Bible than I probably have for the past twenty-two years. To answer the obvious question and the one I most often hear, no, it hasn’t made me more religious or at all religious. Some of it, particularly the Old Testament, is simply unpalatable to a modern reader. The Gospels, however, have moved me, and at the very least revealed the beauty of a life centred on compassion and humility. I have acknowledged through these readings that I have often failed in such measures and have much to learn as an individual in the twenty-first century. I have so much more to read and understand so I can’t say much more than that. I suppose that I will write more on this in the future.
6. Coming Home
There wasn’t a great deal of reading done in 2011, but in the little that I managed reacquainted me with the fact that literature has always been central to my life in so many ways. I have always gone to books to understand life. When I wasn’t sure how to articulate or confront the complexities and conundrums that I confronted on a daily basis, great writers were always there to do it for me. Books were always the easiest means by which I could peer into the lives of others and explore the peculiarities of a different time and place as well as those that are universal and ubiquitous to the human condition.
Furthermore, reading can simply be escape. There is nothing more satisfying than brilliant prose, strong characters, and an engrossing narrative. There is nothing more intellectually rewarding than having one’s own views and values challenged and expanded through confrontation with ideas the likes of which we could never contemplate on our own. To read again for pleasure after five long years in the Ivory Tower was like coming home to place where I was always welcomed and always content. I don’t think I’ll be leaving anytime soon.