Contrary to what most people think, I'm not actually a very prolific reader. At all. In fact, I've read exactly ten books this year -- or eleven, if I finish Moby Dick before January -- and that includes three short children's novels. I mean, I read pieces of other things… I read about half of a collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories, several chapters of The House of the Seven Gables, the first quarter of The 1,001 Arabian Nights (which I'm still reading; at the moment I'm about halfway through the story of Aladdin), and a few chapters of The Iliad, The Red and the Black, and Nietzsche's Antichrist. I intend to finish reading all of these at some point... hopefully within the coming year...
In any case. Some of you have been trying to "read your height" in books, or read a book for every week of the year, or something of that sort, and then commenting on those books in your journal in little blocks. I've entered on no such ambitious enterprise, but now that the year is out, I figure I'll take a moment to comment briefly on the books I did manage to read this year. No spoilers, or at least only very minor, oblique spoilers. In the order in which I read them, then:
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
This book I've already commented on fairly extensively in my journal. Much as I'd expected it might, the book has grown on me a great deal since the time I read it. When I picked it up, I was expecting something very different, so the novel was sort of jarring to me. But looking back, it's one of the most memorable books I've ever read, and contains some wonderful scenes and dialogue clips. I'm still not particularly fond of the Master himself, or of Margarita; in fact the only characters I'm really drawn to are Pilate, Yeshua, and to some extent Woland. But the overall idea of the thing, and the interactions between the characters, and the sort of ambivalent, amoral way that things pan out, are excellent. I should probably read the book again, now that I know what to expect and can appreciate it properly.
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
Just the opposite of The Master and Margarita – I was absolutely amazed by this book at the time I read it, but now, most of a year later, I find it rather unmemorable. The plot and the characters were in no wise exceptional or enthralling: it was the language that drew me in; the beautiful and disturbing sensuality of every line. Nabokov has been equated to Joyce, and rightfully so. Linguistically, Lolita was every bit a work of the most sublime genius. The only trouble is that whereas Joyce's stories are also captivating, so that one can appreciate him even without remembering the precise exquisite turn of every phrase, Nabokov's stories, I think, rely a bit too heavily on the words themselves. To be sure, the medium was perfect for a book like Lolita which is intended to be all sensation and libido. I wouldn't change a line of it. It's just that, somehow, brilliant though it was, I just can't quite mark it down as a favorite.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
An instant favorite. I'm not sure how to go about describing this book at all. There are so many characters (all with the same names!), and so many relationships and interactions, that it's almost impossible to keep track of them all, or to get to know any of the characters as well as one might like to. The style of the thing is almost biblical: we know the characters through their actions rather than through internal monologues or narrative explanation; and most of those actions are not epic: just small kindnesses and petty cruelties that somehow take on an epic feel owing to the scope of the novel.
What impressed me the most was the density of it, the succinct and subtle economy of every line – a stark contrast to the sprawling eloquence of Lolita, the whole of which Marquez would probably have set down in one or two pages. Any other author might have considered Aureliano himself a complex enough subject for an entire novel. But not Marquez: for him, Aureliano's is just one of many stories, just one of many solitudes, and his tragedy is not unique, not more terrible than anyone else's.
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
Stephen King never fails to hook me: I pick up one of his novels and then simply cannot put it down, even though I know from experience that he will always disappoint me in the end. I'd read the Gunslinger before, but not since eighth grade, so I didn't remember how it ended. I should have known, though, by the fact that I never picked up the next book in the Dark Tower series, that The Gunslinger must not have impressed me overmuch. Still, reading it over, I was fascinated. I really do like the gunslinger himself, and King is a master at building up suspense and curiosity. I enjoyed all the back-story bits, and was intrigued by the hints at deeper memories to come to light later on.
But then – the ending! King, King, what are you thinking – what are you ever thinking? Shoddy pseudo-physics jumbled up with some sort of shoddy metaphysics, and unraveled as if it were the most profound of revelations... egad. And I remembered that yes, I did read this in eighth grade, and even then, at the age of thirteen, I looked at it and said to myself: Mr. King, these are revelations I myself had in second or third grade; please do not tell me that the gunslinger is impressed by them. But apparently the gunslinger was impressed. Oy, King. How is it that you do this every time?
Number the Stars (Lois Lowry)
I read this book with the sixth graders, even though it's actually more a third- or fourth-grade level book. If I had read it in third grade myself, it probably would have been one of my favorite novels, dealing, as it does, with the Holocaust, which was a topic of particular interest to me at that age. And even from an adult perspective, I must say that the book is very well written, well characterized; the tone and pacing are all very good. To me, it isn't quite dark enough, doesn't really give one a sense of the scope of the war – but then, it's told from the perspective of a child, and she doesn't really understand the scope of the war. She never sees the camps, or finds out what "relocation" really means. And for third and fourth graders, it's probably about as much Holocaust as an author can safely discuss.
The Devil's Storybook (Natalie Babbitt)
I am still utterly, utterly enamored of this book. I suppose it's written at about a third-grade level, but the stories touch on topics which are not only very adult, but very controversial. Moral relativity, heaven and hell as states of mind rather than real places, the Devil is a mere scapegoat for the evils of man, condemnation of the innocent through ignorance... Each story is quite short, and written in very simple language, and the themes are subtle enough that they might easily be passed over. But my god! I am in love with the woman who wrote this book. I wish I could bring it to work and read it with the kids -- but mark my word, I would be fired the very next day if I did.
I might mention that it's also a very, very good thing I didn't read this book when I was in third grade, because I would have fallen head over heels in love with the Devil instantly, and if my dad had ever found out about that, he might possibly have killed me. As it is, I didn't end up falling in love with the Devil until I was about twelve... by which time, my dad had given up trying to curb my fascination with villains.
The Devil's Other Storybook (Natalie Babbitt)
Alas, the sequel does not at all live up to the original. These are the sort of commonplace, moralizing stories one might expect to find in a children's book about the Devil. People are petty, cruel, or stupid, and get their just desserts. The Devil is a bumbling prankster. There are a few good stories in here, and none of the stories are bad; it just isn't anything like the first book.
Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny)
There is an extremely long discussion of this novel between me and hamsterwoman in her journal. The book was very, very good. In spite of the presence of what the novel calls "gods" and "demons" and "reincarnation," it's really a work of science fiction, not fantasy: almost all of the "magic" is machinated or, at least, in theory, scientifically explicable. Zelazny takes up some fairly traditional themes: prophets, messiahs, religious oppression, wars between gods, demons, and men; but he addresses them from a very colloquial, human angle. He also employs an unexpected pantheon: the Hindu gods. Overall, the characters in Lord of Light are not as developed as one might like, and some of them almost seem to be prototypes for the princes and princesses of Amber; but the plot is much more consistent, contained, complete, precise. An argument for the worthiness of fantasy as a genre, I should say.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)
Of course, I have a whole post written about this book in my journal. I liked it. It wasn't epic and amazing, didn't turn the entire series on its head and reveal great new depths and heights of the wizarding world or Rowling's literary ability: it was, instead, the precise sort of conclusion one would expect, given the six preceding novels. I liked the way most of the characters ended, was suitably horrified by the deaths of several, appreciated Harry more than I had in any of the other books, and enjoyed most of the plot. I even found the epilogue amusing. It could have been better, sure; but I wasn't expecting it to be better, and I was content. It did its job.
Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett)
It's been a while since I've read any Pratchett. His books, if I recall, tend mostly to follow this pattern: for approximately the first half of the novel, every character is comic relief, half the pages are sprinkled with ridiculous footnotes, and most of the chapters end in a punchline. Then, suddenly, the characters begin to get serious, the plot begins to sober up, the footnotes diminish; and somehow, by the end of the book, you wind up actually caring about the characters and feeling a completely inexplicable sympathy for their tragedies. So, basically, while I find him invariably hilarious, I can only really care about the latter half of any given one of Pratchett's books. The first half is like watching a sitcom. A good sitcom, yes -- but still a sitcom.
So it was with Guards! Guards! I liked Sam Vimes from the beginning, but had no particular attachment to him, and the rest of the characters were just sort of there, in a Three Stooges sort of way. But somewhere around the middle of the novel, things shifted, and little political and philosophical jibes began to show up, and catastrophes began to befall Ankh-Morpork, and in spite of myself, I began to be rather fond of Vimes and even Sybil. And the Librarian, of course. My favorite character in this book, though, hands down, was Lord Vetinari. I don't remember taking much notice of him in the other novels, and if I remember, he's never much more than a cameo, which is probably for the best. But the man is fucking awesome, and his talk with Vimes at the end, about rulership and morality... very nice indeed.
Moby Dick (Herman Melville) [in progress]
I'm still reading this one, but I expect to finish it before the year is out, considering that I've only got about a hundred pages left to read. It's been sitting on my shelf for nearly ten years, and I have no idea what prompted me to pick it up this month. I'd always sort of wondered what the point of reading it would be, since the plot is pretty widely known, and not terribly complex. How, I wondered, could Melville have possibly written such an immense tome all about a guy chasing a whale around the ocean? Well, I soon found out that he didn't; he wrote an immense tome about whaling, and about whales, and about ships and sailors and whalemen and, indeed, the better part of humanity in general, and there just happens to be this Ahab fellow threading through all of that, and this whale-hunt which is continually there in the background, driving the thing along, but which is only rarely the actual focus of the narrative.
I love the way Melville writes. Like most authors of his period, he does absurd things with dialogue, making it do the work of narrative sometimes, or dragging it out in preposterous soliloquies; but overall, as a voice, I prefer Melville over every other author I've read this year, from Bulgakov to Marquez to Zelazny. He reminds me of Hugo, but less patronizing; of Hawthorne, but subtler, cleverer, and bolder; of Dickens, but less quippy and more sincere. In short, he has all of the best qualities of 19th century authors, and only a few of the worse ones. Where Hawthorne skirted around, halfway challenging the crimes of Christianity and then hastily recoiling, Melville sets his fist right down and calls the very church an enterprise for profit, and cheerfully offers his prayers up with the heathens and the bawdy whalers; vilifies priests; denies the existence of hell. This isn't just a book about Ahab and his whale; it isn't just about the equality and brotherhood of all men of all races and creeds; it isn't just about the unsubtly homoerotic relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg; it isn't just about the solitary, dangerous lives of whalemen: it has so many themes I can't even count them. It's bloody amazing. And at this point, it doesn't really matter how the book ends. It's been wonderful enough so far that whatever happens, it can hardly fail to take a place among my favorite novels ever.