I’m a sucker for a reading list, so much so that for many years I had an obsessive relationship with a “100 books” list copied from an old edition of Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan. The list, which moved with me from city to city and wall to wall, included nothing post-1978, few women, and only grudgingly departed Britain and the U.S. to tap the odd German and a Russian or two. I ignored the list’s omissions and biases, seduced by the pregnant roundness of “100” and the treasure-map appeal of the list itself, its typing fading, its edges growing ragged as it travelled. I was convinced that if I read those books the fundamental secrets of the world would be laid bare in an alchemical flash and I would be transfigured, but only if I adhered to the magical-thinking rules I had set for myself: I must read from the beginning, chronologically, and read nothing else in between. With each fresh attempt, I would pace happily through the Greeks, stall somewhere in the Middle Ages, skip with guilty pleasure to Melville or Tolstoy, then give up altogether, relieved, to read something new. I never could throw out the list, though. Every few years it surfaces in an odd place, sifting to the top of a drawer or edging out from under a drawing tacked to a wall, and I’m tempted to start again.
My reading list this year was short. When I’m drafting something new and I’m deep into the process, I read less and more warily, hoping to modulate that unwitting, sponge-like process whereby one’s prose becomes infused with whatever one is reading. This year, because I’m working on a sort of children’s book for adults, I revisited childhood favorites including The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
The novels I most love grant me access to immersive fictional worlds, long, atmospheric, and unafraid of artifice. This year I enjoyed the unabashedly Dickensian flavor of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, packed with coincidence and and melodrama, riding a line between Victorian conceits — an orphan, a ring, a mysterious painting — and contemporary realities. Tartt’s prose has the unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation, reward for the decade-long waits between her books.
Though I’m only halfway through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it’s already my other favorite of 2013, for its ingenious structure, blithe disregard for the primacy of character in fiction, and heedless invention.
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