Updated 19:15 PM PHT Fri, December 23, 2016
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Little did I know that when I started the year reading George Orwell, I would spend much of the rest of 2016 bearing reluctant witness to instance after instance of the very iniquities that the great novelist and essayist sought to overturn: the corruption of politics and the bastardization of language. For better or worse, though, even when the bitter realization had dawned upon me, and in the total absence of a more favorable option than to die, I carried on all the same. I carried on living and I carried on reading.
Every morning I wake up to a view of the stacks of books at my bedside, a sort of skyline defined against the clear sky of my off-white bedroom wall, and I become mindful, if not exactly thankful, of the fact that I’m still among the living. I get to live and read another day. I’m reminded that “there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories,” as so plainly put by one of my literary heroes, Mario Vargas Llosa, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, in whose company I was fortunate enough to spend my birthday this year.
Throughout 2016, I read and reread Orwell, Vargas Llosa, and plenty more besides. I revisited old favorites and discovered new ones. I read books made into Oscar-nominated films and books with “Girl” in their titles. I read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” for the first time (it wouldn’t be the last) and gave Murakami another chance (it paid off). I savored short stories by masters of the form and lost myself in the acid- and fluff-free pages of NYRB Classics. I was amazed by this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” right up there with the 2012 awardee, Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son”) and awed by the various works of Nobel laureates.
One of those Nobel laureates, Bertrand Russell, writes in “The Conquest of Happiness”: “There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” I plead guilty on both counts. I am pleased to report that I enjoyed the vast majority of the more than a hundred books that I read this year, and I am embarrassed to confess my tendency to boast about them every chance I get, as in this article. (I am ashamed to admit, though, that this year I got to read only one book by a Filipino author, “Report From the Abyss” by Karl R. de Mesa. I intend to rectify the imbalance next year.)
Of course, given the stacks of mostly unread books at my bedside and other spots in my apartment (not to mention those back home in the province), accumulated over years past, just a tiny fraction of the books I read in 2016 came out in 2016. So I’m in no position to post an exhaustive list of at least the most notable among this year’s new releases, let alone identify which of them are the best. Instead, I humbly present here, in coincidentally correspondent pairs, the six books published in 2016 that a guy with far too many books and way too little time managed to read (and love) in the same year, amid conditions of personal uncertainty as well as escalations of political turmoil.
Old and new
When Bob Dylan was announced as this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was among those who expressed dissent, holding the view that the singer and songwriter’s words were so inextricable from his music to be deemed “literature.” But since then I’ve allowed that the question is moot, swayed as I’ve been for the most part by Patti Smith’s heartfelt rendition of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” stumbles and all, at this month’s Nobel Prize ceremony. It still stings a bit, though, realizing that another year has come and gone without a Nobel awarded to Don DeLillo, someone who I and many others think is long overdue for the prize.
In the year dominated by Trump and other terrors, the chief chronicler of American anxiety — whose fiction seemingly predicted 9/11 and the global financial crisis — would’ve made for a very timely winner. It’s also the year of publication of DeLillo’s 17th novel, “Zero K.” A pensive story about a billionaire who is motivated by his wife’s terminal illness to seek immortality through advanced cryogenic preservation, “Zero K” affirms that 45 years after his debut, “Americana,” DeLillo remains alert to the dread and paranoia of his country and the world at large, and remains adept at wielding his weapon of choice: the incisive, surgical sentence.
There is also no shortage of remarkable sentences in Emma Cline’s debut novel, “The Girls,” narrated by a middle-aged woman looking back on her coming of age in the precarious company of communal settlers evidently based on the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson and his murderous followers. But here the prose takes precedence over the plot. As it traffics in such issues du jour as patriarchy and feminism, innocence and consent, agency and apathy, “The Girls” puts forth passages so vivid and precise as to invite criticism of being overwritten and over-stylized. But when the littlest phrases can make the mundane sound extraordinary without going so far as turning purple, when even the shortest of paragraphs can elicit multiple sighs of recognition and rapture, that’s neither overwritten nor over-stylized — that’s just writing carried to refinement rather than excess.
Front and back
If there’s one seemingly bad book-related habit that I’ve yet to outgrow, it’s my inclination to literally judge a book by its cover. And why should I, when a book’s cover is often indicative of the quality of its content? A good case in point is the catalog of wide-ranging titles and series published by Penguin Classics, such as its deluxe editions, orange collection, and black-spines (which include José Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” Jose Garcia Villa’s “Doveglion,” and, soon, Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman With Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic”).
This year, in celebration of its 70th anniversary, Penguin Classics published “Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover,” edited with an introduction by Paul Buckley, the imprint’s creative director, and with a preface by Elda Rotor, its vice president and publisher. The book may look the part, but it’s more than just a coffee-table ornament. As a visual overview of Penguin Classics’ pioneering book cover designs, it’s filled with images and stories, including several funny anecdotes and at least a couple of slightly unflattering revelations, straight from the designers, illustrators, editors, and authors involved in the creation of some of the imprint’s most interesting and striking covers.
On the subject of book covers, those of the books by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri barely come to mind. More often than not, they show little beyond stereotypical references to India (e.g. the Ganges, henna-painted hands, exotic flowers) even when most of the stories they contain are set in America. No one is more aware of this than Lahiri herself. At last year’s Festival degli Scrittori in Italy, Lahiri presented a speech in Italian about book covers, lamenting how authors have little or no involvement in their designs and how she herself would have preferred her book jackets to have a uniform. It was translated to English by her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, and was published this year in book-length essay form as “The Clothing of Books.” It’s worth noting that the book contains no images at all, probably so as not to shame the designer of a certain cover for one of Lahiri’s books, which she says she dislikes so much that she feels the urge to rip it off the book each time she’s asked to autograph it.
Then and now
Literature is in and of its own time. Reading is a form of time travel. A book is a time machine. In his latest book, the cleverly titled (and covered) “Time Travel: A History,” the acclaimed science writer James Gleick examines our long-standing fascination with the titular concept and its impact on our perception of time itself. Beginning with H.G. Wells’ seminal science-fiction novel (“The Time Machine”) and concluding with everyone’s favorite pastime (the internet), the book explores how time travel is pretty much embedded in the cultural consciousness, from philosophical discourse to pulp fiction, from “Doctor Who” to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” It’s at times baffling, what with the occasional talk about dimensions and the recurring alphabet soup of scientific symbols, but it’s never not interesting. If nothing else, the book asserts that we were, are, and will be always in need of more of the very thing that we seek to further understand: time.
Along with travel, art, and politics, time is one of the primary concerns of “Known and Strange Things,” the first collection of essays by the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. Taking its title from a poem by Seamus Heaney, the book conveys a sharp intelligence and a subtle eloquence rarely encountered in the era of hot takes and half-assed think pieces. Among the more than 50 essays in the collection are compelling pieces on literature (topics include James Baldwin and W.G. Sebald), film (Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Red”), photography (Cole’s own and others’), and race relations (Black Lives Matter and Barack Obama not only as the first black president of the U.S. but also as the country’s first “reader in chief” in decades).
I’ve never been one to underline, highlight, or otherwise mark the pages of a book to draw attention to particular lines and passages I want to remember. But in the case of “Known and Strange Things,” I’d like to think that some invisible force had intervened on my behalf. When I pulled the book out of my bag to read its last few pages, I was struck by the sight of a fold on its front cover. I was appalled at first, but now I don’t mind. It’s as though the entire book had been dog-eared for my remembrance, which is just as well, seeing as “Known and Strange Things” is my best read of the year.