The [Insert Superlative Here] Books of 2011: My Year in Reading

Posted on | December 20, 2011 | 2 Comments

I recently, and much belatedly, got around to reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. It’s brilliant—not a word I use easily—and really deserves its own post, but there is a point on which Frye and I disagree, in practice if not in theory.  “The demonstrable value-judgement,” he claims in his introduction, “is the donkey’s carrot of literary criticism, and every new critical fashion…has been accompanied by a belief that criticism has finally devised a definitive technique for separating the excellent from the less excellent.”  Attacking Matthew Arnold for his effort to establish a pecking order among the great poets, Frye writes witheringly: “We begin to suspect that the literary value-judgements are projections of social ones.  Why does Arnold want to rank poets?”  His dismissal of such exercises is indisputable but for one omission: lists are fun. There’s a satisfaction to the categorizing and ordering, to the confidence of knowing in your bones that one book is better than another.  It may not do justice to the works at hand, but the brain—or my brain, anyway—can’t help itself.  And so, without further ado, my year in books:

Best New Novel(s): As discussed a couple posts ago, I came down favorably on the new Eugenides, but not for the reasons I anticipated.  I was excited by the idea of a novel that took on novels as a subject, by the promise of a meta-masterpiece from an author I trusted to get it right.  Instead, I found that The Marriage Plot has gotten too much credit for making a coherent claim about literature and not enough for its simpler pleasures as a Bildungsroman.

But not everything I read makes it onto Apostrophe, and my other favorite novel this year is a kind of zanier, and in its way more ambitious, obverse of The Marriage Plot. I expected The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, to be all tricks and little substance. Phillips is an author I’d never taken particularly seriously, mostly because unlike the writers with whom he shares a demographic—Eugenides, Franzen, Lethem—he doesn’t beg to be taken seriously.  I read and liked Prague a few years ago, but in the kind of way that made me want to go live out my expat fantasies in Budapest rather than in the kind of way that made me want to keep reading his work.  Phillips’s apparent lack of interest in jockeying for literary status makes The Tragedy of Arthur’s vexing questions of authenticity and authorship all the more intriguing: What makes a work great?  Where does artistic power end and consensus begin?  He’s talking about Shakespeare, but one might ask the same questions of some of his peers.  (Was Freedom really that good?)  I could take or leave Phillips’s faux-Shakespeare play (or is that only because I know it’s not Shakespeare?) but the novel posing, Pale Fire-style, as an introduction to the play manages to do what The Marriage Plot couldn’t quite: it uses fiction to address, and challenge, some of our most closely-held assumptions about why and how we read.  It’s also, I should add, extraordinarily funny. usa welcome online casinos

Best Old Novel: The Radetzky March. Of all the books I read this year, Joseph Roth’s chronicle of European decay is the only one that contends for the “Best Books of All Time” list that I keep in my head.  As I make my way through his letters, the fact that his life—peripatetic, impoverished, paranoid, drunk—could have produced a work so quietly beautiful and dignified makes The Radetzky March seem all the more miraculous.

Best New Old Novel: Melville House’s new Neversink Library has brought many authors back from the brink of disappearance (for an English-speaking audience, at least) and I have them to thank for introducing me to Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight.

Best Novel Everybody Liked But Me: As reviews and year-end round-ups continue to salute the greatness of Teju Cole’s Open City, I’m starting to feel crazy.  What am I missing?  While I still think the novel struggles to carry its weight, so enthralled is it with its own seriousness, thoughtful pieces like Karan Mahajan’s have persuaded me to grudgingly respect it, if not to actually like it.  It’s not you, Open City, it’s me.

Most Disappointing Classic: Sometimes, when my reading and thoughts are beginning to feel aimless, the only solution is to pick up a fat, nineteenth century novel—ideally of British extraction.  I wanted to love Vanity Fair and instead found it at best disjointed, at worst cruel.  My Penguin Classics edition insists that Vanity Fair is “the only English novel that challenges comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”  Not even close.  Thackeray seems to relish degrading his characters, where Tolstoy despairs at the trials of Pierre and Natasha even as he creates them.

Best Novel I Reread: Heinrich Böll’s The Clown. Still awesome.

Best Book I Failed to Finish: 2011 was the year that I, apparently along with half of America, discovered Geoff Dyer.  I’ve been dipping into and out of his essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition and while some subjects appeal to me more than others (I can’t quite get into the essays on photography) it’s impossible not to admire the range of his curiosity.

Books I’m Most Excited for In 2012: Lots to choose from!  At the top of my mental pile: Men in Space, Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, as-yet-unpublished in the US, and The Lady in Gold—a portrait, as it were, of Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.”


2 Responses to “The [Insert Superlative Here] Books of 2011: My Year in Reading”

  1. Robert Denham
    December 22nd, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    The first step in developing a genuine poetics is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, ideological perorations, and other consequences of taking a large view of an unorganized subject. It includes all lists of the “best” novels or poems or writers, whether their particular virtue is exclusiveness or inclusiveness. It includes all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value judgments, and all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange. (Anatomy of Criticism 18)

    From Frye’s Notebooks

    The Greatest Book Ever Written (at Oxford). I’m in Oxford now, & from my point of view the greatest book ever written at Oxford is the Anatomy of Melancholy. [RT, 132] (Abbreviations to texts below.)

    The Greatest Book in the Bible. Genesis. [LN, 1:337] slot machine games for pc download

    The Greatest British Monarch. King Arthur. [LN, 2:598]

    The Greatest Creative Mind of Modern Times. Shakespeare. [NRL, 108]

    The Greatest Critic of His Time (potentially). If Hopkins could only have got rid of his silly moral anxieties, his perpetually calling Goethe a rascal and Whitman a scoundrel and the like, he’d have been the greatest critic of his time. [RN, 325]]

    The Greatest Eros Poet (English). The greatest Eros poet in English is probably Marvell. [RT, 136]

    The Greatest Eros Poets (Non-English). Dante & Plato are the world’s greatest Eros poets. [RT, 407]

    The Greatest Example of Linearity. Christianity to the Bible was typically a linear, step by step response, the sacramental disciplinary habitus of which the greatest illustration is the interlocking march of Dante’s terza rima from one end of the chain of being to the other. [RT, 240] real gambling systems

    The Greatest Fiction Writer of the Century (potentially). God, I wish D.H. Lawrence had some sense of real satire: if he had he’d have been by long odds the greatest fiction writer of the century. [LN, 1:322]

    The Greatest Form of Prose. The Utopia. [LN, 1:404]

    The Greatest Form-Shaper. Dante is an analogical visionary & stands opposite the Scripture, the “paradox” involved being that the greatest of form-shapers turns out to be the supreme analogist or reverser of the Word (Logos). [NAC, 4]

    The Greatest Historical Novel. War and Peace. [LN, 1:407]

    The Greatest Imaginations. Defeated nations have the greatest imaginations. [RT, 185]

    The Greatest Impersonator in History. There are three kinds of geniuses: imposers, imposters, & impersonators, & I may be the greatest impersonator in history. [RN, 33] safe online casino slots

    The Greatest Literary Genius after Blake. The greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe. [LN, 1: 165]

    The Greatest Masterpiece of Experimental Prose in English Fiction. Tristram Shandy. [LS, 63]

    The Greatest Moral Virtue. Jesus speaks of hypocrisy, which may be a vice in the gospel context but is one of the absolutely essential cementing force that holds society together. Morally, it is the greatest of all virtues. [LN, 1:270]

    The Greatest Number of Demonic Images. The book with the greatest number of demonic images in it I ever read (the Inferno of course doesn’t count) was Melmoth the Wanderer. [TBN, 142]

    The Greatest Occasional Writers. The occasional writing, of which the supreme example is the epistles of Paul, & the greatest English example probably Burke, needs more development. [RN, 77] reputable online casinos australia

    The Greatest Play of Shaw. Saint Joan. [LS, 180]

    The Greatest Poet for Shakespeare. Ovid [TBN, 315]

    The Greatest Protestant Poet of the Pathos. Bach [FMW, 166]

    The Greatest Shakespearean Comedy. The Tempest. [LS, 158]

    The Greatest Symposium Writer. Plato. [LN, 2:552]

    The Greatest Thanatos Poem. The Iliad. [NR, 168] real money casino app for android

    The Greatest Titanic Spirit in Literature. Hamlet himself is the greatest example in literature of a titanic spirit thrashing around in the prison of what he is. [LN, 1:13]

    The Greatest of Vices. Pride is the greatest of vices partly because it is the most futile of vices: man has nothing to be proud of. [LS, 87]

    Abbreviations and links to primary texts after the break.


    FMW = Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings

    LN = The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye

    LS = Northrop Frye on Literature and Society

    NAC = Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism”

    NRL = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature

    RN = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance

    RT = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts

    TBN = The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye

  2. Tom
    December 25th, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Wow, the Molly Awards have gone legit!

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