You don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a horribly misbehaved cat of a year, careening after poltergeists, tearing up the furniture, and generally knocking over the usually steady water glasses of your soul. The tumult didn’t leave me with as much space for reading as I would have liked. I suspect I’m not alone in that.
The upside is that the books I did manage to read, the ones that briefly unscrambled my brain, stuck in my mind a bit better this year than they would in most. It’s only a small blessing, but you can’t have everything.
I try, mostly, when I am not being paid to read something, to read only old books. Books born before 1990, for example. Time has a way of sifting out much of the crap that humanity publishes. What’s left are only the more interesting artifacts of what writers are writing, some books more successful at being art than others. Plus: old books remind you that we have been through bad things before, and will go through bad things again, and we will live through the tiny interstitial moments of joy that we get in dark times. Not because it is fair, but because we have to.
I am not talking about famous famous books, per se. I tend to pick up odd little artifacts just for the hell of it. For example, in September I ended up with a copy of Calvin Trillin’s Killings, at the suggestion of a friend and by the good graces of the folks at Abebooks. (Though now out of print, mercifully the book will reappear in a Kindle edition sometime this April.) This is a book of Trillin’s articles about random murders around the country, all filed as New Yorker pieces in the 1960s and 1970s, during the tenure of William Shawn, who believed in letting writers do what they loved.
“Reporters love murders,” Trillin writes. He is right. But not all reporters can write them up the way Trillin can. These stores all have the kind of careful narrative construction you don’t see much of anymore, not in the sprawling “investigations” of a Serial or a Making a Murderer. Trillin believes in beginnings and middles, though not in clear-cut Hollywood endings, which is something that was on my mind when I did some of my own murder reporting. The lack of an ending is starting to haunt me a bit, if I’m honest. I am beginning to wonder if anything is ever really, truly over.
In a single evening in May, at a point in my life where I was beginning to wonder if my attention span would ever return to me, I consumed the whole of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s memoir of, among other things, being married to John Berryman. Spoiler: he was a difficult man. I had read bits of the book before, in service of other research projects, but never had I sat down to read through the whole thing. It was delightful.
Fair warning: I am more susceptible than the average person to the intrigues of mid-century-poet gossip. I like them, even the drunk, dissolute, and occasionally abusive ones: in between royally fucking up, they seemed to be doing such meaningful work. They were not constantly publishing, of course, but also they were not tweeting. They were not debating the end of tweeting. They were not participating in whatever passes for the “cultural conversation” at all. Instead, they were trying to live lives that allowed them to write whatever the fuck they wanted. This, I have decided, should be a mission statement for me going forward in 2017. I am trying to make arrangements for the freedom to write what I really mean to write.
Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. I spent a good chunk of this year completing a book manuscript for which Hannah Arendt is something like an organizing principle. So for most of the year, I had her entire body of work at my side. Obviously she is a popular choice right now. People on Twitter claim to be reading her constantly, though sometimes it looks like they’re just scanning for quotes to tweet, particularly quotes from The Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem.
But rather than tell you about the content of Arendt’s arguments — some of which map onto our current moment better than others — I want to make an observation about the attitude that underwrote all of them.
To brutally oversimplify her for a moment (and sweep all the arguments about the factual underpinnings of her arguments in Eichmann aside): Arendt worried most, in authoritarian regimes, about people who could not think. Thinking, for her, was both a function of intellect and a quality of attention. It was not mere ordinary stupidity. She had, in her lifetime, watched both very stupid people and very smart ones fall prey to the delusions and lies. She had known some pretty dark times. But still, she’d write in the preface for one of her books, that she believed:
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…
Pulled out of context, that also seems to me a brilliant reason to keep reading in a time that threatens to upend almost everything the world thought it knew about itself.
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