On the evening of January 4th, 2009, I was settling in to write about a post about my favorite books of the past decade (2000-2009), the final part of my Man Out of Time series. I was in the middle of my second paragraph when I got the terrible news that one of my good friends had been found dead of a heart attack. Yesterday was the first anniversary of Sang’s death, and the best way I can think to honor his memory is to get back to those books and what they mean to me.
(Actually, the best way to honor Sang’s memory came up last April, when I took his best friend to the final New Jersey Nets game to be played at the Meadowlands. Sang & I had plenty of good times watching the Nets at the arena during their run to the NBA finals in 2001-02. Â I think of him every day.)
At a year’s distance, “the decade” still doesn’t make much sense to me. Literature, it’s been argued, has fragmented in ways that reflect our multicultidigital age. My attempts at following literary websites have been fruitless; RSS feeds pile up with entries about books I’ll never get around to reading.
Last week, I walked through a used bookstore I once adored, and I thought, “A generation from now, kids aren’t going to believe these places existed.” Half an hour later, I visited an upscale liquor store nearby and had a far more engaging conversation about gin than any I’ve had about books in months.
Pessimistic? Sure! I know I make myself out as some sorta classics snob, but I did manage to read nearly 80 books from the decade during its span. (I’m even reading a contemporary novel right now!) Sure, some of them were terrible, and very few of them would crack the top 10 of favorite books that I read for the first time during the decade, but my point is that I haven’t avoided all contact with the books our of times. I just have ridiculous standards.
For the record, here are my favorite non-recent books I read for the first time that decade, just so you know what the competition is like:
Essays – Montaigne
Middlemarch – George Eliot
The Power Broker – Robert Caro
In Search of Lost Time – Proust
The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James
Clockers – Richard Price
Little, Big – John Crowley
Alcestis – Euripides
With Nails – Richard E. Grant
Norwood – Charles Portis
Ajax – Sophocles
Yeah, I could swap out a couple of those books with ones from the past 10 years, but I did introduce myself to some awfully good older books during that span. I don’t mind being a bit out of touch with contemporary fiction, as long as I’m reading great work from the past.
Back to this era: I wrote a long post in the middle of the decade about the failures of modern literature. In it, I mentioned an evening I spent with book reviewer and fiction-writer David Gates and my pal Elayne, a writing prof at NYU. I asked them what books from 1980 onwards would become “canonical” (for lack of a better word). Which of today’s books did they think people would still be reading passionately 50 years from now?
“And,” I said, “take Philip Roth off the table.”
Me, I can’t take Roth off the table. He’s in my DNA. And on Christmas day of 2009, a few days before decade’s close, I read Everyman, Roth’s first short novel in what turned out to be his Nemesis Quartet. It was a one-day read on my Kindle, beginning in the early morning at my in-laws’ home in rural Louisiana.
I was puzzled by the shape of Everyman, which begins with a man’s funeral and tries to depict the marriages, illnesses and compromises that made up his life. As with every Roth novel I can think of, the women are more vessels for displaced anxiety than characters, but at least this novel admits the absurdity of our elderly Everyman trying to put a move on a young lady whom he meets out for a jog. It’s a crushing, painful scene, putting the lie to the notion that “though much is taken, much abides.”
Recent novels by Roth tend to go into great detail about specific crafts or vocations. The pinnacle/nadir was the glove-making segment in American Pastoral. In Everyman, that craft is grave-digging, and the unnamed lead character’s conversation about the subject is with the man who will shortly dig his. I’m certainly not doing it justice, making it sound obvious and heavy-handed. In an interview with the Guardian, Roth talked about the title of the book:
Everyman is the name of a line of English plays from the 15th century, allegorical plays, moral theatre. They were performed in cemeteries, and the theme is always salvation. The classic is called Everyman, it’s from 1485, by an anonymous author. It was right in between the death of Chaucer and the birth of Shakespeare. The moral was always ‘Work hard and get into heaven’, ‘Be a good Christian or go to hell’. Everyman is the main character and he gets a visit from Death. He thinks it’s some sort of messenger, but Death says, ‘I am Death’ and Everyman’s answer is the first great line in English drama: ‘Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.’ When I thought of you least.
Everyman didn’t take hold of me right away. When I began writing this post a year ago, it was an afterthought. But after Sang’s unexpected death, I’ve found the book inescapable. Does that make it my favorite? I suppose it has to. It may become the book I remember and return to most often from this era.
Here’s the best of the rest, by my lights.
Favorite Fiction of the Decade
Everyman (2006) – Philip Roth
Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) – Richard Flanagan – The runner-up. I just adore this novel about painting, Tasmanian penal colonies, love, storytelling and, of course, fish. I buy extras of the hardcover, with its beautiful, subtle color printing, to give out to friends.
Up in the Air (2001) – Walter Kirn – So much better than the movie. The narrator is apocalyptically messed up, not just “trying to make a connection,” and the depictions of corporate life and constant travel are tremendous.
Lush Life (2008) – Richard Price – I was torn between this and Samaritan, which are similar in tone. I guess I just liked the setting of the Lower East Side more than Samaritan‘s stand-in for Jersey City.
Carter Beats the Devil (2001) – Glen David Gold – One of the best page-turners ever. One of my pals said he started reading it one evening and the next thing he knew, his wife was asking him if he wanted orange juice with his breakfast.
Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) – Elliot Perlman – I’ve never read Empson’s literary treatise of the same title, but I adored this Australian novel of obsession, love and disconnection.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot Diaz – I liked this a bunch, but I’m perplexed as to why critics didn’t figure/point out that it’s largely a prose mashup of the Hernandez Bros.’ comics.
The Immensity of the Here and Now (2003) – Paul West – The first real post-9/11 novel. I published it back in my micro-press days, and I still think it deserves an audience. You suck for not reading it.
Favorite Non-Fiction Books of the Decade
Moneyball (2003) – Michael Lewis – A year in the life of the Oakland A’s, as they try to use smarts to overcome their small-market status. It’s a fantastic book about revolutions in information and how smart people can identify market inefficiencies. Plus, it has an anecdote about Jamie Moyer that’s one of my favorite baseball stories.
The Good Rat (2008) – Jimmy Breslin – Through testimony transcripts and reporting, Breslin uses the story of Burt Kaplan, who ratted on some killer mafia cops in NYC, to evoke a weirdly more innocent era of evil.
George, Being George (2008) – Nelson Aldrich, Jr. – I got this for Sang a few weeks before he died. He’d made some remarks about wanting to get published in the Paris Review, so I thought he might dig this oral history of George Plimpton and the magazine. I kinda doubt he got around to reading it.
The Shakespeare Wars (2006) – Ron Rosenbaum – Longtime VM fave writes about the various ways of interpreting and staging Shakespeare over the years. It got me back into reading the bard. Also, I’m in the acknowledgements of the paperback edition, which has a horrible red cover.
79 Short Essays on Design (2007) – Michael Bierut – The best essays in this book are about the process of design and how it works in the world. The worst are about the uses of design for propaganda. The best outweigh the worst pretty handily.
The Other Hollywood (2005) – Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osborne – An oral history of the, um, adult film business. Wonderfully illuminating stuff.
Chronicles, Vol. 1 (2004) – Bob Dylan – I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I have no idea how much was “written” by him, but the voice was much more personable and the stories more revealing than I expected. It’s allusive and elusive, in the best possible ways.
Letters from New Orleans (2005) – Rob Walker – A beautiful book about what New Orleans lost during and after Katrina, without the ranting and pedantry of other books on the subject.
And, because you didn’t ask for it, here’s the complete list of novels and non-fiction books from last decade that I read during that period (alphabetically, by author):
The Underminer – Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan
Heyday – Kurt Andersen
Ravelstein – Saul Bellow
The Lemur – Benjamin Black
The Biographerâ€™s Tale – A.S. Byatt
Daemonomania – John Crowley
Endless Things – John Crowley
The Muse Asylum – David Czuchlewski
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Dark Reflections – Samuel R. Delany
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris
Gouldâ€™s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
Spook Country – William Gibson
Carter Beats the Devil – Glen David Gold
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Michael Haddon
The One from the Other – Philip Kerr
The Cheese Monkeys – Chip Kidd
Up in the Air – Walter Kirn
The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril – Paul Malmont
No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy
Saturday – Ian McEwan
Number9Dream – David Mitchell
Netherland – Joseph O’Neill
Snow – Orhan Pamuk
Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman
Prague – Arthur Phillips
Plowing the Dark – Richard Powers
Lush Life – Richard Price
Samaritan – Richard Price
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Everyman – Philip Roth
Exit Ghost – Philip Roth
The Dying Animal – Philip Roth
The Human Stain – Philip Roth
Radiance – Carter Scholz
Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson
The Confusion – Neal Stephenson
The System of the World – Neal Stephenson
Mergers & Acquisitions – Dana Vachon
Porno – Irvine Welsh
Lit Life – Kurt Wenzel
The Immensity of the Here and Now – Paul West
George, Being George – Nelson Aldrich, Jr.
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko – Blake Bell
79 Short Essays On Design – Michael Bierut
The Good Rat – Jimmy Breslin
About Writing – Samuel R. Delany
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue – Samuel R. Delany
Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva – Patrick Dillon
Chronicles, Vol. 1 – Bob Dylan
Book Business – Jason Epstein
The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood – Edward Jay Epstein
Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos – Bruce Jay Friedman
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke – Peter Guralnick
Why Orwell Matters – Christopher Hitchens
On Writing – Stephen King
Killing Yourself To Live – Chuck Klosterman
Moneyball – Michael Lewis
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management – Roger Lowenstein
The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry – Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osborne
A Readerâ€™s Manifesto – B.R. Myers
Why New Orleans Matters – Tom Piazza
The Substance of Style – Virginia Postrel
Intelligence Wars – Thomas Powers
Taliban – Ahmed Rashid
The Shakespeare Wars – Ron Rosenbaum
The Look of Architecture – Witold Rybczynski
The Business of Books – Andre Schiffrin
On the Natural History of Destruction – W.G. Sebald
Love is a Mixtape – Rob Sheffield
Letters from New Orleans – Rob Walker
Master Class – Paul West
Loose Balls – Jayson Williams
Thanks for sticking around till the end of this post. Sorry the Man Out of Time series took so long to complete. I might put up a “what I read last year” post next week, just to continue the torment. Meanwhile, the point of this whole series, I guess, is that I’ve got my own garden to tend.