The time of lists is upon us, when popular media narrow down the year’s artistic output to a manageable form. I do it myself, composing a Top Ten album list, or responding to inquiries about the best books I’ve read this year, even though some of them might have been from years gone by (Origin of the Brunists, Lit) and some from this year (The Flamethrowers, Tenth of December). But when I think about books, although they’ve been my constant companions since I was child, my papery insulation against despair, I can’t say for sure that I have favorites, or that any of them, as so often claimed by others, changed my life.
What I remember most about the books I’ve read is not the individual stories themselves, but the intensity of the conversations I was having with the authors of those books. Reading a book really is like a torrid love affair. A relationship, however fleeting. Not only did reading Infinite Jest wring me out emotionally, it also tested me physically, as I lugged that ten-pound blue brick of a hardcover from place to place and squinted to read the footnotes. While reading The Secret History, I almost stepped off a curb into traffic on a busy DC street. By the end of Ulysses, I had drunk with Stephen and Leopold and was screwing Molly in a Dublin bed. After reading Netherland, I started what would become a lifelong love affair with cricket. When I was a kid, The Great Brian series by John D. Fitzgerald gave me hope that a smart kid could be popular, and on family car trips, Albert Camus’ A Happy Death kept me morbid company, pouting in the backseat alongside me as I played the license plate game.
Now I’m trying to decide if I should start The Goldfinch, The Murder of Christ, John Barleycorn, Sixty Stories, or simply finish Our Story Begins and decide later. Who will carry me through the holidays, into the eternal promise of the new year? These are important decisions. Resolutions can wait.