In Samuel Johnson's last great work, "The Lives of the Poets," there is a fascinating passage about the intellect and reading habits of one of Johnson's most important literary models, 17th-century poet John Dryden.
"Of him that knows much, it is natural to suppose that he has read with diligence: yet I rather believe that the knowledge of Dryden was gleaned from accidental intelligence and various conversation, by a quick apprehension, a judicious selection, and a happy memory, a keen appetite for knowledge, and a powerful digestion; by vigilance that permitted nothing to pass without notice, and a habit of reflection that suffered nothing useful to be lost.
"A mind like Dryden's, always curious, always active, with which every understanding was proud to be associated, and of which every one solicited the regard, by an ambitious display of himself, had a more pleasant, perhaps a nearer way to knowledge than by the silent progress of solitary reading. I do not suppose that he despised books, or intentionally neglected them; but that he was carried out, by the impetuosity of his genius, to more vivid and speedy instructors; and that his studies were rather desultory and fortuitous than constant and systematical."
Johnson doesn't think that Dryden engaged in any sort of programmatic reading; he simply kept his lively mind alert and attuned to what was going on around him. He learned things by talking to bright people, by direct observation. Dryden, Johnson submitted, did his own research.
This seems a curious theory to put forward, given there's no way Johnson — born nine years after Dryden died in 1709 — could know about Dryden's reading habits. Those of us who know even less about Johnson than Johnson did about Dryden might suspect Johnson was projecting a bit, because we know from James Boswell, Johnson's friend, contemporary and biographer, that Johnson himself had drifted away from the sort of "hard reading" he had undertaken as a method of self-improvement in his youth to a more "desultory and fortuitous" pattern.
Boswell took this passage in Johnson's "Lives" to be a "portrait of Dr. Johnson's own life and manner." While Adam Smith contended Johnson "knew" more books than any person then alive, you don't have to be familiar with or to have assimilated a book to claim to know it. Most of us "know" "Infinite Jest." We know Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" and James Joyce's "Ulysses," even if we only dipped a toe in the text.
Johnson read a lot, but only what interested him. He didn't punish himself with books he found dull.
I don't either. No one assigns me a book to review. I pick my own shots, which means I don't review a lot of the books that fill up the best-seller lists or rate cover reviews in literary journals. I don't pay much attention to so-called young adult fiction or children's books. If I start out reading a book that turns unpromising, I usually stop. (The exception might be if there's something about the book that I want to write about.)
I say this in the spirit of full disclosure, because I don't want anyone to mistake this for a list of the year's "best" books. It's not. It's a list of some interesting books I read last year, some of which you might want to read. Take them as suggestions.
◼️ "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain," George Saunders, Random House, $28 — The subtitle of the book is "In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life," which may be enough to scare at least some of you off, though it's really a book about the process of writing, derived from lessons drawn from seven short stories by Russian masters (Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev).
Saunders, who for 20 years has taught a class on the Russian short story to master of fine arts students at the University of Syracuse, typically takes examples from the text of these stories, then examines them in a direct, forensic and simple manner. What information has been imparted? What do we feel we need to know? What might we expect to happen next?
It's challenging to approach these stories as wide-eyed acolytes alert to the possibility of fresh delight. It requires a stripping back of one's sophistication and vulnerability on the part of the reader. But Saunders is a gentle, generous and unjudging guide, an insightful companion intelligence whose love of craft shines through. This book might make you nostalgic for a favorite professor — or mourn the absence of such a teacher in your life.
◼️ "Louis Sullivan's Idea," by Tim Samuelson with Chris Ware, University of Minnesota Press, $45 — Samuelson, a Chicago-based architecture critic, and artist/writer Ware have collaborated on a handsomely illustrated professional biography of the modernist Sullivan, an early mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright often considered the father of the skyscraper. Sullivan, Samuelson and Ware make clear, considered himself more of a poet than a builder. The title comes from his observation that, were he to live long enough, Sullivan would happily watch all his works crumble. For, as he said, "Only the idea is the important thing."
◼️ "The Prisoner," Hwang Sok-Yong, Verso, $39.95 — Korea's leading political novelist and pro-democracy activist, Hwang Sok-Yong was accused of espionage and imprisoned in Seoul in 1993 after returning from a trip to North Korea, the country from which he had fled with his family at the onset of the Korean War. This sprawling, deeply reflective and insightful memoir moves effortlessly from personal history to geopolitical concern while warning that "a society where artists have lost their faculty of criticism and submit unconditionally to power is well on its way to losing its democracy."
◼️ "Words and Music Into The Future: A Songwriting Treatise and Manifesto," Michael Koppy, goodtrackrecords.com, $18 — I wrote a pretty long essay about this one back in October: "a brilliant, cranky, obsessive work of cultural criticism that might change the way you think about popular music and the work of some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed 'artists' of the past 60 or so years. It's a necessary corrective to some of the high-flung fanboy academic apologies for the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and The Band and similar prestige recording artists."
Anyone who thinks about songwriting ought to at least consider Koppy's arguments. It's a great work of scholarship and critical thinking.
◼️ "The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff's Journey Through the South on Screen," Ben Beard, New South Books, $28.95 — Informed by the criticism of Pauline Kael and J. Hoberman, Ben Beard took it upon himself to learn about the movies. Over a two-year period while attending graduate school in Missouri, he checked out a classic film from the library to watch every night. His book feels like an uncommonly readable text to a hypothetical college survey class on films of and about the South, which he recognizes as "both a region and thought experiment, real and fiction ... a place and an idea." He's right about that; every would-be Southerner constructs their own home, a South they can live in and with.
Beard is an insightful critic and film historian, and "The South Never Plays Itself " (the title is a play on film professor Thom Andersen's video essay "Los Angeles Plays Itself ") is a thoughtful and serious exploration of the way the South is depicted and presented, and what that means to the people who have escaped the stereotypes of place and those who can't.
◼️ "Francis Bacon: Revelations" by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Knopf, $60 — Stevens and Swan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for their 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning, posit that the "one big secret" of Bacon's life was his impulse to indulge in "the ordinary joys and solaces denied him as a child and a young man" while remaining paradoxically fearful of being revealed as "commonplace, vulnerable or pathetic."
◼️ "In Pursuit of Utopia: Los Angeles in the Great Depression," Errol Wayne Stevens, University of Oklahoma Press, $39.95 — A fascinating deep dive into the peculiar dynamic of Depression-era L.A., where all manner of unworkable radical movements — such as the Utopian Society, Dr. Francis Townsend's old-age revolving pension plan, Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California gubernatorial campaign, and Retirement Life Payments — found favor with working class voters. (Stevens, who died in 2020, was the longtime head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and one of the leading authorities on the radical movement in Southern California.)
◼️ "The Secret to Superhuman Strength," Alison Bechdel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 — Graphic novelist Bechdel — probably best known for inspiring the Bechdel test, a measure of the representation of women in fiction that asks whether the work features a conversation in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man — delivers a personal history of her fitness obsession that's by turns funny, bittersweet and ultimately life-affirming.
◼️ "The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth," Michael Spitzer, Bloomsbury, $35 — Spitzer, a pianist and professor of music at the University of Liverpool, convincingly argues that music is a large part of what makes us human, is central to such human experiences as cognition and feeling, and is the most important thing our species has ever done. While he claims in his end-of-book acknowledgments that he wrote the book "quickly" over the course of a few years, "The Musical Human" is obviously based in decades of thinking and talking about music.
He arranges the book into three parts, delving into music's central role in life, history and evolution. Starting with the individual, Spitzer points out that music begins for us as a duet between mother and child — the lilts and tones and trills that comprise baby talk. (See also John Colapinto's "This Is the Voice," reviewed in this space in January.)
We move on to group involvement, school choirs, singalongs and marching bands. Along the way to adulthood, most of us in the western world abandon music as an activity, deferring (sadly, Spitzer believes) to what we see as "gifted" and "talented" performers. His point is we are all born musical, but unexercised muscles can quickly atrophy.
While the organization makes it feel a little like a textbook — and one can imagine a wonderful graduate-level seminar based around it — Spitzer's writing style is light and allusively connective, bouncing from David Bowie to K-Pop to Guido d'Arezzo, the 11th-century Italian monk who invented staff notation. He folds in philosophy, archaeology and biology. He's funny and sharp and fired by passion.
◼️ "Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty," Patrick Radden Keefe, Doubleday, $32.50 — Maybe you've watched Hulu's "Dopesick" or the final season of Amazon Prime's "Goliath." If you want to know more about the family behind the opioid crisis, this book, by a New Yorker staff writer, is the place to start.
◼️ "Tales the Devil Told Me," Jen Fawkes, Press 53, $27.95 — Sly, sexy and only occasionally bitter, this collection of fractured fairy tales — which won this year's Porter Prize — is begging to be adapted into a live-action anthology series by someone like Ryan Murphy. There's no hard reading involved, though there's plenty of pointed philosophy.
◼️ "Klara and the Sun," Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf, $28 — A nonhuman narrator, a solar-powered AF ("artificial friend") chosen to be the companion of Josie, a fragile young teenager suffering from some vague illness, enlists our empathy as the author allows us to discover a terrible new world a data point at a time.
Calm and terrifying, "Klara and the Sun" is bound to cross over to the best-seller lists and will no doubt be turned into a quality motion picture starring big names hoping for awards.
◼️ "The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories," Kevin Brockmeier, Pantheon, $26.95 — 100 very short ghost stories, some heartbreaking, some very funny, some elliptically beautiful prose poems about refugees from the sasha that feel ancient and absurd.
His ghosts are not cute Caspers or chain-rattling cliches. Brockmeier's ghosts rain like fat drops on windshields, attach themselves to doorways and moments, and experience time forward and backward. Some don't know they are ghosts; some are trying very hard not to "go to Toledo" — not to become ghosts. Others take it philosophically or eventually morph into the places they haunt.
One way to look at "The Ghost Variations" is as a series of intricate, contrapuntal meditations on the implications of perceiving while remaining (mostly) unperceived. I couldn't help but take the title as an allusion to Bach's "Goldberg Variations," and more specifically to the 1955 recording that made Glenn Gould an international star. There is a delicacy and control here — a clarity of articulation — that reminds me of Gould's playing.
◼️ "Billy Summers," Stephen King, Scribner, $30 — The first Stephen King book I'd read in quite a long while turned out to be a remarkably entertaining and sneaky smart story about what it's like to be a human being — specifically a principled hitman, a man with a code who kills only bad people, and is self-aware enough to understand that he himself qualifies. It's a book about the masks we wear and how we know who we are — if we ever really do.
◼️ "Crossroads," Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30 — This audacious and ambitious weaving together of the story of a pivotal day in the life of a fraying Chicago family struck me as Franzen's warmest — and probably best — novel yet.
◼️ "Tokyo Redux," David Peace, Knopf, $28 — On July 5, 1949, Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of Japanese National Railways, left his home in Tokyo on his way to his office. On the way, he instructed his driver to stop at a department store, saying he needed to shop for a wedding gift. They arrived at the store before it opened, so they drove to a bank and took a circuitous route back to the store. Shimoyama popped out of the car, told his driver he'd be back in five minutes, and went in.
He never came back. His body was later found mutilated alongside some rail tracks. The mystery of what happened to him has never been solved.
British writer Peace uses the Shimoyama affair to paint a detailed and credible portrait of postwar Japan under U.S. occupation in the early years of the Cold War. It is the third of a series of literary mysteries set in occupied Tokyo — after 2007's "Tokyo Year Zero" in which a fictional drug-addicted Japanese police detective pursues historical serial killer Kodaira Yoshio, a former Imperial soldier who raped and murdered at least 10 women during and after the war, and 2009's "Occupied City," which similarly explored a real crime: the Teigin Incident, in which a man disguised as a public health official murdered 12 bank employees by having them drink poison, telling them it was necessary to protect them from a dysentery outbreak.
Like James Ellroy, to whom he is compared, Peace weaves a metafictional narrative that suborns historical people and events in the service of his fiction. Peace thrives in the vast gray ocean that lies just beyond the conventionally accepted known facts.
◼️ "Nous Nous," John Vanderslice, Braddock Avenue Books, $18.50 — Vanderslice, a professor in the department of Film, Theater, and Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, has fashioned a deceptively literary thriller — a genuine page-turner set in small-town Arkansas — that sounds the depths and shallows of religious faith with generosity and compassion, even for his child-abducting monster.
◼️ "Whereabouts," Jhumpa Lahiri, Knopf, $24 — A largely plotless prose poem about a solitary writer in her 40s, teaching in an unnamed Italian city. It's pretty low on narrative, with each of the discrete chapters feeling of a piece within itself. The chapters could stand alone or be reordered in almost any sequence with no harm being done to the whole.
You can dip into this book here and there; treat it like a collection of very short essays if you want. It's concerned with the moment, the ongoing now of life and the inescapability of the self.
The narrator tells us she's never left her city but sometimes feels like a foreigner, a tourist on the earth. Her thoughts are odd and oddly familiar, her impulses recognizably human yet strange. There is a beauty to this book, but it is provisional and transient, a glint off the surface of a wave.
And while I've concentrated on new works here, the truth is any book you haven't read is new to you. Which is part of the reason I'm such a fan of the Library of America's ongoing reissues of important works — especially welcome this year are volumes on Ray Bradbury and John Edward Williams, who wrote the underappreciated 1965 novel "Stoner," a subject of a recent essay in this space.
And, were there space enough, I might go on about works of poetry and sports books. But I'll save that for another column, and another year.