Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

2012: My Scattered Year in Reading

By Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 25, 2012 09:48 pm

I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.

Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).

I bet there was a lot more amazing fiction published in 2012, and I didn't even get to most of the must-read novels of the year (sorry Zadie, Hilary, Jess, Dave -- I'll get there!). For some reason, I became possessed in 2012 by weird impulses to consume military histories, memoirs, cultural studies, classic philosophy and economics texts, and unusual biographies. Looking back on the non-fiction titles I blogged about in 2012, I see a scattered, kaleidoscopic mix that I don't even understand myself: Fug by Ed Sanders, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson,Letter to Kurt by Eric Erlandson, Nothing and Everything by Ellen Pearlman, The Passage of Power by Robert Caro, Red Sorghum by Mo Yan.

I also hate to even admit how many rock star memoirs I read in 2012; this is a format I apparently simply cannot resist, and I'll be reading Rod Stewart's memoir shortly. Neil Young's book was the 2012 book I opened with the greatest anticipation, but surprisingly another rock star autobiography came from behind and impressed me more: My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman. Stupidly, I never got around to blogging about this book, perhaps because I was in subconscious denial about the fact that it was ghostwritten co-authored by Alan Light, a music writer I've never liked (he wrote about the Beastie Boys all wrong). However, I have to admit that Alan Light coaxed a hell of an honest, warm, searing book out of Gregg Allman.

I was also very moved by (but never blogged about) Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley Ann-Jones, a happy, affectionate book with a suddenly sad ending. I'm not sure what music biographies or autobiographies I'll read in 2013, but here are a few I wish would write memoirs: Roger Waters, Sinead O'Connor, Bob Weir, Lou Reed, Prince.

Another fascinating and vivid book I totally failed to blog about this year was Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. I am always a fool for Russian history, but until I read this book I had no idea how completely twisted and wonderfully histrionic the court of the Romanov royal family could be. The Empress Catherine emerges from her biography as a true and unlikely hero, and certainly a role model worthy of wider acclaim. The book's best discovery is its comic foil, Catherine's hilariously inept but arrogant husband, who briefly reigned (before he got murked) as Tsar Peter III. His combination of odd intelligence and infuriating emotional immaturity makes this book as psychologically fascinating as a Jonathan Franzen or John Updike novel. Perhaps I failed to write about this riveting history book on Litkicks because I just wasn't sure I could do it justice.

So: that was my year in reading. Beyond all this, 2012 felt to me like a hopeful year, but a year of scattered gifts. I will always remember this as the year that Barack Obama kicked Mitt Romney's sorry corporate-banker ass, and there are a few moments from this epic presidential contest that have already become cherished memories and will bring me smiles, I suspect, until my dying day. 2012 was an exciting election year, without a doubt.

2012 is the year that Brooklyn got a professional sports team, the Brooklyn Nets. For many old-time New Yorkers like me, this stirs up big feelings, because Brooklyn hasn't had a pro sports team since the Dodgers went to Los Angeles in 1957. I still can't believe it whenever I see the Brooklyn Nets logo -- it feels like something ghostly, apocalyptic (but in the good way). Anyway, I know many Brooklynites were against the stadium building project, but I'm kinda psyched to see a beautiful new stadium just south of the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, in the core of downtown Brooklyn. Not a bad look at all.

2012 is the year I bought an iPad, and began to appreciate (after initially resisting the hype) the innovations this format brings. I've begun experimenting with the Apple iOS software development kit. I'm not sure what I have in mind (though I'd like to do something mobile with Action Poetry), but I've built a few little test applications in XCode, and I may be putting out some new things in 2013. I also enjoy fooling around with apps like Paper, which I used to scribble the Jackson Pollock knockoff at the top of the page. (By the way, I learned that imitating Jackson Pollock is not as easy as it looks; this was my fifth try.)

2012 will soon be history. As we all look forward to the next year, I'd like to thank all my Litkicks readers and commenters and poets and friends. I wish you all great scattered joy and good fortune in 2013.

9 Responses to "2012: My Scattered Year in Reading"

by w.j.wiippa on

Nice picture! It reminded me of abstract expressionism immediately!

I feel this is an invite to list books we read this year.

The only book I can remember reading that was from 2012 was Sacco & Hedges Days of Destruction Days of Revolt. It paints a very gloomy picture of the USA and how things are in too much of the country..

I couldn't get through Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Calculus due to my personal PTSD from 3 years of engineering at the university.

Being able to list only two books from 2012 put me into despair and made me wonder how I was so disengaged. I read a lot and can only tell you 2 new books that I remember for the year.

The newest book that reached me was DeLillo's 2007 Falling Man. I am sure that I have read newer books that were just as good but none come to mind.

Happy 2013! I resolve to list all the new books I read this year!

by Levi Asher on

Thanks, WJ -- and yes, I would love to hear what books you all read this year!

by Bill_Ectric on

I really enjoyed Bobby Whitlock: A Rock and Roll Biography, by Bobby Whitlock and Marc Roberty. Whitlock was in Derek and the Dominoes with Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and Eric Clapton.

I read a lot of books in 2012, but the ones that stand out in my mind are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Rebel at the End of Time by Steve Aylett, and the Collected Works of Nikolai Gogol.

by w.j.wiippa on

I read A Confederacy of Dunces in the '90s and it was not a new book then but it was well known among discerning readers. After that, I wonder what I was missing out on. I tried to read Gogol after I saw the movie Namesake and Gogol was an archetype-creator, as John Kennedy Toole was with his novel, which is the funniest book that I have ever read.

Great picture for sure. I was surprised to learn you read more non-fiction than fiction this year. I've never seen that before; most rations run reverse.

by Michael.Norris on

I rarely get around to reading a new book in the year that it comes out because I'm in the process of working on ten others.

I have been re-reading a lot of the sixties stuff like Heller, Kesey and Brautigan. I also read "Lint" by Steve Aylett which is a wild read (recommended by Bill Ectric).

I'd like to point out two rock memoirs that came out a while ago that may still be available: "X-Ray" by Ray Davies (1994), a different take on the memoir form and full of Kinks lore, and "Stoned" by the Rolling Stones infamous ex-manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (2000) which gives a great behind the scenes look at the Stones and show-biz back in Swinging London. This gem about how the Stones went on tour for Robert Stigwood, who went bankrupt during the tour and refused to pay the Stones their share of the tour profits - 16,000 pounds: Keith Richards catches up with Stigwood (who at one time managed Eric Clapton) at the Scotch of St James club. He instructs Oldham, Mick Jagger, and journalist Keith Altham to block Stigwood's retreat, while he exacts a physical payback. "Keith proceeded to pummel him in the balls and many of the other soft parts of his body, to the tune of 1000 pounds - bang - 2000 pounds - wallop, until the 16,000 pounds was paid back according to the law of Keith Richards".

I always try to take a break between books and read a little Shakespeare. This year was Titus Andronicus - very bloody. I also re-read Julius Caesar, and then I had to read about Caesar in Plutarch's Lives. I call this reading on the tangents. A tangent like this could also lead to reading about Antony, then Cleoptra, then Liz and Dick. See where this leads?

By the way, by coincidence, I have Confederacy of Dunces on my Kindle, and I will probably get to it soon.

by mtmynd1 on

Even though this topic has moved on, I thought I'd put in my own thoughts based upon a recent trip to the local Barnes & Noble.

As usual, whenever I make a trip here, which may be 4-6 times yearly, I peruse the latest top sellers and then wander rather aimlessly randomly picking up a book of promise by the book's cover. Anyone remember Bo Diddley's song, "You Can't Judge a Book by It's Cover"? I ignore that and see a great looking cover and if it's REALLY fantastic, I pick it up, absorb the front cover before turning it over and reading the positive remarks by (hopefully) well-known or at least recognizable personalities that (hopefully) will push the casual reader to invest in the author's efforts to become a writer worth following.

My Gawd! The number of books out there..! Is there anything you'd like to know about? Barnes & Noble gives me a hands on experience to pick up and skim thru books of every topic... all new or quite new, if not reprints of greats... unlike the library experience.

And this hands on doesn't include the vast magazine experience, a particular favorite of mine. I love the immediacy of the magazine experience... news and opinions of varied natures to suit the many flavors of the day for the general public... complete with colorful pictures and even ads promoting the latest and greatest. It's something about how we test our talents to make money.

Make money? Make money! It's our hu'man survival mechanism that we do what we do. Authors hope to sell their books... magazines hope to publish articles that will appeal to the interested or the enthusiasts. The publishing business is in it for the money to make a life for themselves just as we all do. Opinions are a dime a dozen, as the old saying once went. But opinions are what is in between the pages of books and magazines in hopes of selling the interested reader the latest and (hopefully) better opinion on whatever the subject may be.

We, the reader, find comfort in finding that writer who speaks to us. Nothing new about that. But what is new, and this is what I see as the most important opinion of our 21st Century - what is new if the delivery system for those opinions.

In our immediate future, it is clear that the old 'brick and mortar' buildings all societies have gone to for their wants and needs throughout history, is rapidly being replaced by this monitor screen in front of us today. Literally, anything we need or want, from knowledge to material goods is available thru this delivery system - the internet.

This brings me to the point of my excessive verbiage and this subject - I read vastly more on my monitor(s) than I ever have which has drastically reduced reading books or even magazines that I once thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to monthly. My reading habits have changed by leaps and bounds because of this machine that miraculously is connected to every other computer or it latest incarnation RIGHT NOW! or as soon as our words are posted.

Is or has all our philosophies, our religions, our entertainment and education being radically reformed by this internet phenomenon of the 21st Century? I mention philosophies in regard to this reply to this post - is any opinion (philosophical opinion) up to the standards of today in our rapidly changing lives? With so much information bombarding us daily, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week... we are hu'manly unable to digest that much information without consequences. What those consequences are have yet to be figured out, I think. But clearly the way we 'used to live and communicate' is either gone or rapidly disappearing before our eyes and minds. Our attention spans have radically changed and will do so throughout this century and beyond. How do we support ourselves in this new Century as our need for labor is reduced? How do we value our very hu'manity with an equitable and fair economic system? Clearly with the economic crises we are witnessing in Europe and U.S.A. are but the beginnings of a much larger problem we will face in the coming years. Perhaps this is the Great Philosophical Debate we must have as thinking people... this radical change the internet has brought about and will continue bringing is a lifestyle change that necessitates a new economic value system that serves the people fairly and freely. All else seems trite...

by tolmsted on

Levi -

I loved HHhH! I'm so glad you enjoyed it too. It received such mixed reviews - in particular James Woods review for the New Yorker (which was a bit unfair) - that I've been questioning my initial reaction.

Another book by a French author which I read & enjoyed in 2012 was We Monks & Soldiers by Lutz Bassman (University of Nebraska Press). Bassman is a nom de plume for Antoine Volodine - who is endlessly fascinating. If you're not already familiar with him you really should look him up.

Happy New Year!

by David Sage on

I loved HHhH! You mention Zadie Smith in passing, personally I couldn't get through NW and would advise you not to bother. I've never loved her style but in this case the, I don't know, maybe the earnestness of the book finally outweighed my motivation.

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