Cardboard Books: The Year in ReadingDecember 29, 2008
When I’m not working or sleeping or staring at baseball cards or the television, I’m reading or walking to the library to get some more books. I guess there are a couple other miscellaneous activities I engage in now and then, but that’s pretty much what my life boils down to.
This year, for the first time in my life, I kept track of what I read. Good thing, too, because if I hadn’t done that I’d have surely forgotten most of the books that passed through my brain. I forget most things that happen to me. Whole years go by in a blur. But at least this year I know what I read.
I’d like to keep this brief, just pass along a few titles that stood out to me and turn it over to you all for thoughts on any books you’ve read this past year that stood out. I’ve already got a stack of books waiting for me in 2009, but I always like hearing suggestions on what I should add to the pile. (I have an annoying habit of not getting around to following people’s suggestions for years, but a few baseball books mentioned by readers in comments on this site—The Celebrant, False Spring, The Greatest Slump of All Time—did make their way into my reading list for 2008.)
One thing my list-keeping told me was that my reading basically breaks down into four major groups: fiction, sports, music, and the rereading of favorites. So here are my 2008 highlights from each category.
Favorite Revisitation of a Personal Favorite
On the Road: the Original Scroll, by Jack Kerouac
This 2007 publication may not actually qualify for this category. The scroll, in fact, is an altogether different book from the previously published classic, one of my all-time favorites and maybe the most important book, personally speaking, that I’ve ever read. The scroll is more direct, more honest, wilder. Allen Ginsberg got it right in his first reaction to the scroll years ago, when he called it “dewy.” The real question for me is, when I go to revisit On the Road again in a year or two, which version will I turn to? I think I might go for the Scroll.
Honorable mention in this category goes to Bruce Jay Freidman, one of my all-time favorite guys. A year would not be complete without a dip into one of his classic novels from the 1960s and early 1970s. This year’s selection was About Harry Towns, a sad and hilarious novel about a middle-aged man adrift in the coke-addled early stages of the Me Decade.
Favorite Music Book
This year I read and enjoyed an oral history of the Replacements, a short book on the greatest album of the 1980s, a bio of Townes Van Zandt, and two books on Dylan (one about the making of my favorite Dylan album, another a song by song analysis), but the one that stood above the others was a biography of Iggy Pop called Open Up and Bleed. I timed the reading of the book perfectly, finishing it just in time to diverge briefly from my daily rituals to see The Stooges in concert for the first time in my life.
Favorite Sports Book
I mostly read baseball books this year, and my thoughts on a few of those books have shown up on this site (if you’re interested in seeing those appreciations, type “Cardboard Books” into the Google search window on the right-hand sidebar and they should all come up), but the top book for me was one about soccer, of all things: Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby. It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who reads this site that I’m interested in tracing the connections between sports and personal life. Hornby did a great job of doing just that for his own life, and while his season-ticket-holding version of being a fan is a lot different than my own perpetually-distant, fantasy-glutted, past-haunted version, his story shed a lot of light on my own, giving me more conviction than ever in my belief that a life on the sidelines is not a completely worthless life after all.
Favorite Fiction Book
OK, before I get to my favorite fiction book of the year, which in any given year is going to be my favorite book of the year, a couple honorable mentions.
First, a salute to Australian writer Tim Winton. He was my favorite “discovery” of the year. It’s pretty silly to consider him a discovery, since it’s not exactly a secret that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the world, but the sad fact is I hadn’t heard of him before this year. I read a couple of his books this year, The Turning and Breath, and loved them both. The first is a book of interconnected short stories about working class people in a somewhat desolate coastal region in Australia; the second is a coming of age novel in the same setting.
Second, some shout-outs to the novels that yanked me all the way out of this world and into that other world behind the page: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland (the only book I read all year that actually came out in 2008), and The Road. I read a lot of good books this year, but these were the ones that stood out in their ability to pull me into their worlds, which after all is what I’m most looking for when I read. It sounds like I’m looking for escapism, but why would I want to escape, for example, to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s horrifically convincing gaze into the apocalypse?
I’m not sure why, but maybe there’s something in all us readers that wants to connect with a wider, deeper current of meaning than the one that we’re connected to for most of our waking hours. I know I’m always feeling better about things if there’s a good book bouncing around in my knapsack.
Anyway, my favorite book that I read this year was actually the first book I read in 2008: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. I’ve already mentioned this book at some length during my long Born in the USA series, so I guess I’ll just wrap things up, finally, and turn it over to you.
So how about it, what were some of your favorite reads this year?