Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ten Books of 2015

 The Times Literary Supplement annually asks writers to name the books that meant the most to them in the past year. I think this approach is more respectful of the reader than the typical “best of 2015” list, as it does not imply some kind of participation in a literary-award industrial complex built on annual marketing or career-making cycles. In that same spirit, here are the ten books that have meant the most to me this year:

Claude Le Fustec. Northrop Frye and American Fiction. (U Toronto, 2015)
            A focus on genre, character and narrative arc: what’s so wrong with that? This book
            brought me to the hope of a syncretic approach to critical work: jouissance and the
            redemptive as correlative narrative functions. Sometimes gets a bit too ventriloqual.
 Paul Giles. The Global Remapping of American Literature. (Princeton, 2011)
            Explores literary history as a geographical imagination, and as such he inverts a lot of the
            basic assumption guiding that narrative as it has been developed in academic terms.
Francis Parkman. France and England in the New World. Particularly the books on the Jesuits
            and Montcalm and Wolfe. I hadn’t studied Parkman before, but am very glad for the
            attempt at narrative here of what did happen. So much of the first “world war,” that
            between Britain and France (and allies everywhere) in the 1750s, determined the
            outcomes of the American Revolutionary era and the transformation of American
            landscape and its peoples. But Parkman has real narrative skill, despite all the
factual & intellectual liabilities we know goes with this territory.
Wayne Booth. Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism.(Chicago UP, 1979) In
           his very unusual argumentative style, Booth brings us to understand what it might mean to
            consider (or perhaps conjugate) two critical assertions that share next to none of their
            basic premises. This is a project I wish more people would undertake, as he summarizes
            the arguments of three of his favorite thinkers (R.S. Crane, Kenneth Burke and M.H.
            Abrams) and they reply to him at the conclusion of the chapter. While Booth was
            influential in college composition pedagogy (rightly so), this is I think the fruit of his
            “rhetoric of criticism” efforts. 
Denis Johnson. The Incognito Lounge. (Random House, 1982). Poetry. A great collection, or as
            the reviewer on the giant book website says: “a breath of the magnificent”. If I can make
            recommendations, then the whole of the The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations
            Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (1995) is an encounter I hope
            you’d try to have.  
Geoffrey Hill. Selected Poems. (Yale, 2008). Glad to have made its acquaintance.  
Dave Eggers. The Circle. (Vintage, 2013). I remember when I was 15 and read Orwell, how
            hopeless it made me feel. Eggers understands the legacy of Orwell’s picture of
            totalitarianism. What confounds me about the story of Mae Holland is that she is such a
            sympathetic figure, and yet she is on the opposite side of the mirror from Winston Smith:
            this novel tells us how O’Brien became O’Brien. I felt hopeless, but more importantly,
            the book exerted a palpable sense of how one can become entirely two-dimensional and
            annihilated as a person.
Robert Fitzgerald. Enlarging the Change: The Princeton Seminars in Literary Criticism, 1949- 
           1951. (published in 1984).
James M. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (Oxford, 1988). American     
           history. I should have read this in college in 1990. Enormous craft and scholarly depth.
           Most scholars consider this, even after 25 years, the best book on the subject.

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