This is a list based on books I read in 2010, not those that were published in 2010. More or less in alphabetical order:
JG Ballard: The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
The novel examines the enormously distended contours of what it calls “the media landscape” (the modern urban environment as transformed by coca-colonizing US mediatization) . In an environment increasingly dominated by billboards and advertising hoardings, the word “landscape” is not at all metaphorical. “What The Atrocity Exhibition was about was the way that the media landscape has created something very close to a gigantic art gallery with a lot of very lurid paintings on exhibition [...] and the way in which psychopathic strains which were normally either ignored or suppressed were beginning to use the media landscape to express and reveal themselves.”
In a sense, the phrase “atrocity exhibition” is a strictly literal description of this media landscape as it emerged in the early 1960s, populated by images of Vietnam, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The novel deals with the violence that haemorrhaged in the 1969 in which it was published: Manson, Altamont, War across the USA. But, for Ballard, the events of 1969 are merely the culmination of a decade whose guiding logic has been one of violence; a mediatized violence, where “mediatization” is a profoundly ambiguous term which doesn’t necessarily imply a disintensification. As they begin to achieve the instantaneous speed Virilio thinks characteristic of postmodern communication, media (paradoxically) immediatize trauma, making it instantly available even as they prepackage it into what will become increasingly preprogrammed stimulus-response circuitries.
JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)
. . . war as a high stress situation that paradoxically both anaesthetises and sharpens emotion. People are at times vacant; at other moments, full of a desire to live. They’re greedy at the camps, forming alliances just to get through the day, eating weevils if they have to. Of course, Jim is the most compelling figure of all. He grows up with the war and understands its mechanisms as if it were all his doing. In fact, there is this incredible moment early in the book, just before the the Japanese attack a British vessel. Jim is watching from the window of his parents’ suite at the Park Hotel; he begins to drum against the glass as if to signal to the soldiers on board. Minutes later, when it’s clear the war has begun ‘[Jim] realized that he himself had probably started the war, with his confused semaphores from the window that the Japanese officers in the motor launch had misinterpreted. He knew now that he should have stayed in the cubs. Perhaps the Reverend Matthews would cane him in front of the whole school for being a spy.’
JG Ballard: Super-Cannes (2000)
Eden-Olympia’s great defect is that there’s no need for personal morality. Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems. … Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any Messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won’t walk out of the desert. They’ll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.
– JG Ballard, from the novel
Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962)
ed. Donald A Yates, James E Irby, tr. from the Spanish by various
The last great invention of a new literary genre in our time was achieved by a master of the short form, Jorge Luis Borges. It was the invention of himself as narrator, that “Columbus’ egg,” which enabled him to get over the mental block that until nearly forty years of age prevented him from moving beyond essays to fiction. The idea that came to Borges was to pretend that the book he wanted to write had already been written by someone else, some unknown hypothetical author — an author in a different language, of a different culture — and that his task was to describe and review this invented book.
Part of the Borges legend is the anecdote that when the first extraordinary story written according to this formula, “El acercamiento a Almot√°sim” (The Approach to Al’Mut√°sim), appeared in the magazine Sur in 1940, it was in fact believed to be a review of a book by an Indian author. In the same way, critics of Borges feel bound to observe that each of his texts doubles or multiplies its own space through the medium of other books belonging to a real or imaginary library, whether they be classical, erudite, or merely invented.
What I particularly wish to stress is how Borges achieves his approaches to the infinite without the least congestion, in the most crystalline, sober, and airy style.
– Italo Calvino, ‘Six Memos for the Millenium’
Margeurite Duras: The Lover (1984)
tr. from the French by Barbara Bray
Very early in my life it was too late. At eighteen it was already too late. I aged. This aging was brutal. It spread over my features, one by one. I saw this aging of my face with the same sort of interest I might have taken, for example, in the reading of a book. That new face, I kept it. It’s kept the same contours, but it’s like it is destroyed. I have a destroyed face.
– Marguerite Duras, from the novel
Nikolai Gogol: The Diary of a Madman [. . . ] and Selected Stories (1832 – 42)
tr. from the Russian by Ronald Wilks
Check out Vladimir Zimakov’s illustrated Gogol. Looks great!
Knut Hamsun: Hunger (1890)
tr. from the Norwegian by Robert Bly
The hero suffers, but only because he has chosen to suffer…From the very beginning, it is made clear to us that the hero need not starve. Solutions exist, if not in the city, then at least in departure. But buoyed by an obsessive, suicidal pride, the young man’s actions continually betray a scorn for his own best interests…He seeks out what is most difficult in himself, courting pain and adversity in the same way other men seek out pleasure. He goes hungry, not because he has to, but from some inner compulsion, as if to wage a hunger strike against himself. Before the book begins, before the reader has been made the privileged witness of his fate, the hero’s course of action has been fixed. A process is already in motion, and although he cannot control it, that does not mean he is unaware of what he is doing.
– Paul Auster, ‘The Art of Hunger’
Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten (1909)
tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton
Jakob’s journal is a record, impromptu, of moment-to-moment life in the Benjamenta Institute. He is a boy, seventeen years old perhaps, who has run away from home in a remote province. The framework of improvisation, which suited Walser’s temperament, contains Jakob’s life design. This design assumes the form of successive small waves of time, etching on Jakob’s sensibility their contours and contents. Constant in their flux, as fact and fantasy collude, is Jakob’s passion for surprise, for paradox, and for self-knowledge. There are all kinds of ribbings and ripplings across the surface of Jakob’s record. After Lisa Benjamenta’s death, Kraus solemnly says: “When we eat, the fork will tell us how thou hast desired us to handle and manage it, and we shall sit decently at table, and the knowledge that we are doing so will make us think of thee.” This oddness is straight. Then one asks: or is it? One should not identify Jakob and Walser. They have much in common, but the book is not a self-portrait.
– Christopher Middleton, from the introduction
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1921)
tr. from the Russian by Mirra Ginsburg
True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.
There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times.
The old, slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past; today the rule is brevity – but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage.
Yesterday, there was a Tzar and there were slaves. Today, there is no Tzar, but the slaves are still here. Tomorrow there will be only Tzars. We walk forward in the name of the free man of tomorrow, the Tzar of tomorrow. We have gone through the epoch when the masses were oppressed. We are now going through the epoch when the individual is oppressed in the name of the masses.
– Yevgeny Zamyatin, from A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin
- Kate Chopin: The Awakening (1899) — What the title suggests.
- China Miéville: Perdido Street Station (2000) — The closest thing to straight-fantasy I’ll ever read.
- Anaïs Nin: Little Birds (1979) — The best erotica I read last year.
- Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963) — The phrase ‘mordant wit’ gets defined.
- Peter Straub: If You Could See Me Now (1977) — Supernatural horror.
Book you should stay away from:
Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1973)
selected and tr. from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
Leningrad, 1 April 1957
– from ‘Requiem: 1935 – 40’
Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband (2002)
Her lady shadow mounted the stairs ahead of her experimentally.
– from ‘XVII. Sometimes above the gross and palpable things of this diurnal sphere wrote Keats (not a doctor but he danced as an apothecary) who also recommended strengthening the intellect by making up one’s mind about nothing’
Timothy Donnelly: The Cloud Corporation (2010)
You were the sparrow in the laundromat. I trapped you
in the whelm of a pillowcase, showed you to the street
with human decency, care. You looked me back into
myself. And as then, so now — I commend you to the air.
– from ‘Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow’
Forrest Gander: Eye Against Eye (2005)
..;;;;;;;;;The depicted instant: a galvanic pre-storm eclipse. On a bridge, the photographer bends, shrouded behind her tripod. As she guesses the exposure time, lightning hisses and rips so close that the air, for seconds, isn’t breathable. At once, the river quicksilvers. Its surface bulks and brightens. The heft of the scene, though, and the dynamic tension flee to the margins. There,
………in the rumpled quiet of the trees, we catch the most animate qualities. In the riffle of leafy detail, we sense the respiration of the forest.
– from ‘Late Summer Entry: the Landscapes of Sally Mann’
Luke Kennard: The Solex Brothers (Redux) and Other Prose Poems (2007)
I kissed the scarecrow: the scarecrow was cold and inert and tasted of sawdust. It was damn silly. Abelard took the photographs and advised me as to how I should kiss the scarecrow — with a hand on its shoulder, for instance.
– from ‘Scarecrow’
Jennifer Kronovet: Awayward (2009)
You see me: seeing
the way a highway
has treated a town
– from ‘Prepare’
Carl Phillips: The Tether (2001)
The hunt — was good; the kill,
less so, as you’d said to
expect. I don’t listen, always –
Plus the noise. Plus distraction:
the dogs, naturally, the boys
whose job it is to hem and then
beat at the brush, driving
the animal in, closer, toward
the men, the men beautifully
negotiating their mounts
– from ‘For the Falconer’
Agha Shahid Ali: Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (2003)
At the moment the heart turns terrorist
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?
– from ‘Land’
- Rae Armantrout: Versed (2009)
- Vivek Narayanan: Universal Beach (2006)
- Frank O’Hara: Meditations in an Emergency (1957)
- Don Paterson: God’s Gift to Women (1997)
Paul Auster: The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook (1997)
I read Auster the way I do Sontag: with a notebook by my side, making a reading list from the references in his essays. Of course, both are more than the blurb generators my previous sentence makes them out to be, and Sontag will always be more special. But the set of essays, prefaces and interviews collected in The Art of Hunger offer considerable rewards to the reader.
Susan Bordo: The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private (2000)
At no point does Bordo claim to know what it’s like to be a man, any kind of man. She clearly states that she is a straight woman, a woman who loves men and male bodies, and having written so much about women, wants to know more about men, and has done a lot of work to get there. In thinking about what makes good nonfiction, I realised that I like work with some sort of personal stake in it. For me, Bordo has done a lot of work that ideally I should have done myself. I sense so much empathy and warmth and desire for understanding from her project. I really admire her for that.
Michel Leiris: Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility (1939)
tr. from the French by Richard Howard
. . . this is brutal writing, utterly shameless and self-flagellating, and beautiful.
Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966)
Fuck it. It’s Sontag. Just read her.
Susan Sontag: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (1990)
Taking questions now.