“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.” Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating. For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.) If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton. Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop. On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it. Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids. Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals. Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org. Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
Students at Brooklyn’s International High School come from more than forty-five countries and speak more than twenty-eight languages. Their stories are now recorded in Brooke Hauser’s new book, The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.