Monday, December 19, 2016


One of the great, if less heralded, discoveries of the literary world of Twitter and blogging is that, yes, those of us who read all the time are also always reading in all times. For every new novel being championed, there's someone out there ready to chat about diving back into Trollope, or just discovering P. G. Wodehouse. And, because there's little cachet in keeping up with the non-new, encountering company on the journey always feels extra special: you're there because you want to be there. This year more than ever, as the news insisted on being bad, the past between pages exerted a powerful pull.

Which brings me to my year-end list, such as it is. As usual, it's all hither and yon, disorganized and atemporal. There are new books here, certainly, but, as in any given year, the majority of what I read was by authors long dead, and they deserve a place, too. It's also incomplete, I'm sure. I read many, many very good books this year, books that surprised me or taught me things or opened new ways of thinking. They're not all here, probably because I didn't happen to spy them as I scanned my bookshelves tonight, but they were appreciated as I read them, and I'm sure they'll surface again, as good books do.

Herewith, some of the books that defined my year.


Autumn: An Anthology of the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
This is the first I read of a series of four little paperback anthologies from the UK that bring together contemporary nature writers--of which that isle has plenty right now--and older works. The selections are short, making it a perfect bedside or morning coffee book. Perhaps the latter is better, because like all good nature writing the book leaves you more alert to the world you inhabit; as you step out the door on the all-too-routine walk to the office, a reminder that nature is never routine can be a blessing. (And now that winter is here, I've just started delving into that one, more as solace, perhaps, than in celebration.)

Silver Ley, by Adrian Bell
Having grown up in a farm family in a rural community, I've always been extremely skeptical of people who talk of going back to the land. What I always see ahead of them is shock at the labor and isolation, followed by failure in the face of the uneasy relationship between nature and commerce. This memoir, published in 1931 and brought back by Slightly Foxed, won me over despite. A young man from a genteel family of some modest means takes over a farm, along with the position in the town that accompanies it. It goes better than my dire predictions, but that's not the point. Rather, this is a quiet book about coming to terms with who you are, what you can do, and what you want from life and the people around you. It's beautiful and quietly sad.

Terms and Conditions, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
I have come to trust the editors at Slightly Foxed to the degree that I now simply pick up whatever is new from them whenever I'm in London, regardless of author or subject. Terms and Conditions was my reward: a new history, rooted in countless interviews, of life at English girls' boarding schools from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is hilarious and shocking and strange and occasionally sad. Any reader who grew up pining to be shipped off to a glamorous boarding school or any Anglophile who simply can't ever get enough of the weirdness of the English will likely enjoy it. I recommend reading it in public or at family gatherings, because the looks people give when you reply to their questions about what you're reading are priceless.

William Morris, by Fiona MacCarthy
This is a classic of doorstop biography, and it earns its length and detail by presenting a compelling, complicated, largely admirable William Morris firmly ensconced in his historical, political, and cultural moment. This is one of those books that you're brought to by a thread from elsewhere--in my case, from Penelope Fitzgerald's book on his close friend Edward Burne-Jones and A. S. Byatt's short book on Morris--and that then sends you off in a dozen new directions. Thanks to MacCarthy, I feel I understand the Arts and Crafts movement like I never have, in all its ambitions, good intentions, and contradictions. This is the kind of book that makes me speak of biographers with awe.

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, by Alexandra Harris
I wrote a bit about this book for Open Letters Monthly already. Suffice it to say that I read it in March and find it still, nine months later, affecting my reading--yesterday, in the face of below-zero temperatures, it sent me to the Anglo-Saxon poets and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harris offers far more than simply a run through the history of writing on the weather--instead, we feel we understand how the weather actually infuses English literature, all but inextricable from it. And Harris is splendid company: authoritative and confident yet welcoming, and consistently reliable in zeroing in on the most interesting parts of a story. It's a landmark.

Henry James, by Leon Edel
This really is just a lead in to . . .


This year was dominated for me by Henry James. I read some new books that I liked very much (Elizabeth McKenzie's off-kilter The Portable VeblenMegan Abbott's fierce, obsessional You Will Know Me; Nina Stibbe's wonderfully comic Paradise Lodge, to take just three), but from the moment I dove into Edel's biography in February, I couldn't get James out of my mind. The James we meet in Edel's book is powerfully alive, and once I'd made his acquaintance I couldn't resist delving more deeply than before into his letters, masterpieces of the form, and then into his fiction--reading some previously unread novels, re-reading others, and recently embarking on what will be a long straight read-through of all his stories. This was the year that I finally knew I would eventually read all of Henry James.

Amid all this, I was proud to discover in Google Books The Henry James Year Book, a 1911 page-a-day book of James quotes that I was able to get republished by the University of Chicago Press as The Daily Henry James. It's been a source of consistent joy ever since, and a spur to continue every day to think about and engage with this man of great heart and great loneliness whose audacity in fiction was matched only by his caution in life. Few other writers draw my interest so powerfully to both their work and their lives--perhaps, in fact, only Virginia Woolf, who, like James, rarely put a paragraph to paper, fiction or nonfiction, public or private, that doesn't reward attention.

As the holidays approach, and I endeavor to replace frustration and tension and worry with the relative simplicity of gratitude, I'm grateful to these authors. They've been good company this year.

I'll leave you with a pleasingly dire quote from a letter James sent on January 1, 1893:
The year's end is a terrible thing, and the year's beginning is a worse.
And you? What did you read in 2016?


  1. What did I read this year? Too much for a short comment here. I will probably do a post on 2016s reading on my blog, later. There's still a few weeks left, and who knows what surprises await me. I'm speaking from experience because in the past two weeks I read two works that will have to go up near the top of the year's reading, one of which is by an author who had written a book in a different genre that was also near the top of the list.

    Kazuo is one of the authors of the year as I have read his THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which is straight fiction and THE BURIED GIANT, a fantasy work, both of which were very good. I shall have to go on to read more by him next year.

    The other late surprise, just finished last night, is SLEEPING GIANTS, an SF novel by Sylvain Neuvel, his first novel and a very good one. He also goes on my search list.

  2. Most notably: Kent Haruf's final book, Our Souls at Night; Pride and Prejudice (finally); and a summer of reading nothing but Steinbeck. The latter made me realize that Steinbeck is probably one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced.

  3. My reading year was largely dictated by whatever I found in charity shops - I preferred the serendipitous aspect of browsing in an Oxfam bookshop to the more ordered, predictable range of a Waterstones.

    Ino the Oxfam branch of Lewes, I came across Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and marvelled at how prescient it was. I've done a round-up in my blog, but forgot to mention the extraordinary 1930s novel They Drive By Night, by James Curtis.