Time to recap the books I completed reading in 2017. I wanted to share some quick recollections, impressions, and reflections. I read 49 books in 2017, one more than 2016. For some reason, in late summer I came to a near-complete standstill with my reading. I was on pace to read well over 50, maybe 60 titles, but I really slowed down. Much of that has to do with teaching load: prepping classes can wreck the reading life. I think something else was going on–perhaps a malaise having to do with the times we live in right now. Who knows. Let’s hope I get back into it in 2018.
Without further ado, onward to the titles!
Counterculture through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Read the ebook version and used it to help prepare an English 102 course themed on counterculture texts. It was most helpful. Goffman writes in an accessible style for a general audience, and he was especially good at showing interconnections between disparate time periods, moving from the ancients all the way up to the present day hacker subcultures. Thumbs up on this one.
Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. I was steered back to Aeschylus by the Goffman book mentioned above. It was a rewarding read. The Greek dramatists are special. Prometheus is a figure I’m learning more about, thanks to Ken Goffman again. I also read Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and will be re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2018 (as I’ll probably be teaching it next fall). What I’m realizing is how important Prometheus is as a figure for Romanticism and the Modern Age. He’s up there with Faust in the mythic stratosphere.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I taught selected chapters from Defoe’s novel in Literature & Environment in Spring 2017, and re-read the entire novel in preparation for that. There’s a very nice ebook edition at University of Adelaide which includes illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Robinson Crusoe is a great novel in spite of itself. It’s one of the first British novels and important on that score. But it’s also relevant because Crusoe is one of these mythic figures (like Faust, Don Juan, Prometheus, etc.) who resonate through the years. For my course, we examined how Crusoe tackles nature when on the deserted island. He controls it, manages it, dominates and cultivate it, like a good young Capitalist. He’s about the best example I can conjure to show anthropocentric and Eurocentric attitudes in operation.
Candide by Voltaire. Another re-read for a Western World Lit II course taught in Spring 2017. What can you say? One of the greatest satires ever written. Voltaire rips everyone to shreds with great brio. Honestly, I don’t know what the students thought of it, given our hyper-sensitive times, but I’m glad I exposed it to them again.
Steppenwolf by Hesse. I taught this one in English 102 and this is the third time reading it. It’s a strange book and may be becoming a dated period piece, due to the overwhelming Jungian analytical psych perspectives loaded into it. That being said, I still love the book. It takes chances, and offers students a lighter-weight exposure to Modernist literature.
Faust part 1 by Goethe. Taught for Western World Lit II. It’s tough to teach, and tougher in these current times, though it remains highly relevant. If only people would pay more attention to what Goethe was going for here.
Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. Many of the books I taught in Western World Lit II seemed displaced by our contemporary moment. This was one of them. Here we have a wretched man, self-loathing and massively egotistical, I don’t know, maybe a kind of inverted narcissist. He’s totally insecure, hard on himself and on others. I have no clue what the students really thought about it. My impression was they rejected it as out of bounds. There were, however, one or two (and there always are) who were moved by it, which is why I put it on the syllabus. All about exposure.
An Enemy of the People by Ibsen. I teach this regularly in Literature and Environment and it sparks thoughtful debate every time. I also made a print-on-demand version of the public domain text, available at sprucealley.com. It came out looking great.
The Dharma Bums by Kerouac. Re-read this one for my counter-culture themed course last Spring. Kerouac goes over well, usually, although this time out we paid more attention to the problematic treatment of women in the novel, and some of my better students wrote excellent feminist analyses of the book. In keeping with what is now a running theme of my commentary, I felt like this book is starting to feel dated. I got the strong sense from some students that the idea of running off on the road like that and living on mountaintops is just completely foreign. You mean, he did it without a smart phone? Yeah.
Madame Bovary by Flaubert. This was the centerpiece of my Western World Lit II course, a high point in European realist fiction. I had not read the book since college! I loved getting the opportunity to revisit it, and it was even more impressive to me.
Franny and Zooey by Salinger. I retaught this one in Spring and Fall English 102 courses, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Neurotic, precocious twenty-somethings searching for more meaningful lives. When are the purported new Salinger books coming out, anyway?
Hyperion by Holderin. I was led to this book I think because it was mentioned in my Western World Lit II textbook, and we did a short poem from it. German Romanticism is a pretty interesting space to me, and while I don’t have strong impressions to share about Holderin’s book, I’m glad I gave it a read.
The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Re-taught this book. Every time I teaching a book again, I read it along with the class.
Drop City by T.C. Boyle. I ambitiously tackled this novel for the first time with a class, and though I probably won’t teach it again, it was fun to share with them, and it paired nicely with other things we were reading and watching (Dharma Bums, Into the Wild, for instance).
Hedda Gabler by Ibsen. Taught this one in Western World Lit II. The second time I’ve taught it. Ibsen is always in style for me. We screened the Ingrid Bergman teleplay version on Youtube, which really brought the words to life.
The Pleasure of the Text by Barthes. Why do I insist on reading theory? It’s like an itch I can’t scratch to satisfaction. This short book was OK, I guess. I rather like Barthes’ precious style for what it’s worth, but honestly, I can’t remember much of what it was about.
Oryx and Crake by Atwood. I taught this for the first time in Literature and Environment for the first time in Spring and again in Fall, and it’s now in regular rotation for that course. Great novel, part one of the Maddadam trilogy. Atwood is in vogue again, what with the Handmaid’s Tale TV series being so popular. She’s a sharp, witty, prescient, smart, and effortless writer.
Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo. Ken is a friend and colleague. I really enjoyed his book of ekphrastic poems and reviewed it for Turk’s Head Review.
Selected Cantos by Ezra Pound. In my leisure reading time I’ve been exploring a lot of early 20th century work, so Pound is a big part of that picture. I’m not a huge fan. His poetry is challenging and uneven. His political views were rabid and unhinged. This selection was OK. Wouldn’t rave about it though.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. I taught this novel again in Spring and Fall, and I’m liking it more and more each time. Excellent counter-culture themed book, and the history is recent enough to be of interest to the students. You can use it to teach 60’s, 70’s, and 90’s cultural history. Music plays a large part in the book too. Spiotta will send you hunting on Spotify and Youtube for obscure tracks.
Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. Awesome and timely book that I taught in English 101 this year. I really wanted to get the students’ eyes opened up on just how much our personal technology is affecting us — as individuals, social beings, and citizens. It’s a book anybody should read.
Book of Hours by Rilke. There’s a bookstore in my hometown that I like to support now and then. They sell deeply discounted clearance type titles. The Rilke showed up at a good price so I snagged it. This is a recent translation that I liked a lot, except for the liberties the translator took with the source text. In the notes you’ll find edits confessed to, such as I left out the last nine lines for whatever reason. What’s here was fine, and I got exposed to some new Rilke, but I’m left wondering what got left on the cutting room floor.
Creation Myths by Marie-Louise von Franz. This was an impulse buy at the used book store run by the West Chester Senior Center (I throw a lot of business their way). Jungian psychology applied to creation stories from different cultures. Really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Maybe too much of a good thing though. I got a bit weary towards the end.
Battle of the books by James Atlas. Another used bookstore pickup. Dim memories of this one. It was a polemical history of the early salvos in the culture wars.
Marxism and Form by Fredric Jameson. A used bookstore find. Bought it because I thought I could sell it on eBay or Amazon. Then I read it just for the hell of it, and because, as noted above, I have this perverse attraction/aversion to literary theory. I’d say the first half of the book or so was pretty good, and then (like most theory) it got tiresome. Yes, I sold it! Kaching.
Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. I have been slowly making my way through Hesse’s oeuvre and for reasons unknown I got bogged down in this one, not because it’s bad–I think other books just intruded on my attention. Finally when I got to summer I had the time to push through the second half of the book. Solid Hesse all the way. The Medieval/Renaissance setting gave this one a different feel than his other novels.
Culture is our Business by Marshall McLuhan. This is a weird period piece of a book. McLuhan riffing on magazine ads. It’s fun to try and figure out what the hell his words have to do with the advertisements. I almost feel as if dope was involved in putting this one out. McLuhan can be completely inscrutable, but he’s also rather fun, unlike many theorists.
The Great Ideas Today 1966. I love these Britannica annuals. They are such time capsules.
Nova Express by Burroughs. Really entertaining William Burroughs cut-up style fiction. Who knows what it’s about, but it was a fun ride.
In the Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Part 2 of the Maddadam trilogy. Loved it, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t gotten to it yet.
19th century American poetry vol. 2, Library of America. Took me a while to get through volume 2. So many poets and not enough time! These anthologies are invaluable resources though.
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler’s blog has descended into hackery and older man crankiness. He’s been repeating himself for years, and his comment section is a cesspool of thought crimes. So I don’t go over there much anymore. Geography of Nowhere is an earlier book (when his ideas were fresher) and a smart critique of what went wrong with American community planning in the 20th century. The book has been sitting around for a long time and I decided it was time to finish it and sell it, which I did.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque. I picked up a lovely Heritage Press edition of Remarque’s novel at the used book shop, and listening to Bob Dylan’s description of it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech made me want to read it through. This one may be my highlight of the year. I absolutely loved it. An incredible war novel. Highly recommended.
Literary England Photographs. This was an old photo book we got from a library sale, probably. Fun to leaf through and read the notes. The photos weren’t all that great, however.
I Look Divine by Christopher Coe. This one was a Vintage Contemporaries title. I have been collecting that paperback series. A slight curiosity of a novel, perhaps too precious in the writing. Just OK.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Over the last decade I have become a Hardy fan, but when I was first exposed to The Return of the Native in high school, I bailed on it. I got stuck in the heaths. I’ve read most of Hardy’s major novels and this one stood out as an unfinished goal. So I tackled it, and loved it! Not quite the same person I was in high school, I guess. That’s a good thing.
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I wanted a change of pace, so I read a crime novel. Leonard is great with the dialogue. Ultimately, though, I found the book to be just a notch or two better than a waste of time.
How to Speak How to Listen by Mortimer Adler. Adler is a fascinating figure to me. A nebbish pedant but also a true popularizer and dedicated educator. The theme of my 101 course was Conversation, so I thought I might learn a few things from Adler about the topic. It’s OK. If you liked How to Read a Book, you’d probably like this one.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It’s on my agenda to read more James Baldwin. We did a chapter from Nobody Knows My Name in Western World Lit II, and I often teach “Sonny’s Blues” in Short Fiction, so I pulled this title off the living room shelf and read it in a day. Makes Ta Nehisi Coates look like a great pretender. Baldwin is the real deal.
The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust. My journey through Remembrance of Things Past reached a milestone this summer. I got halfway through by completing this book. When I set myself to completing it, I sank deep into its grooves and so many of the scenes were riveting. A lot in this one about the Dreyfus Affair, too. Cool to see Proust tapping into the zeitgeist.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I found a vintage edition of this one that I wanted to sell (and did). Before I shipped it, I read it. Glad to check it off my bucket list.
Vida by Patricia Engel. Came back to this book of linked stories for a English 102 class in the fall. It went over really well, and I enjoyed teaching it again.
Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger. Teaching Franny and Zooey made me want to plug a gap in my Salinger reading. Have never read these two stories and made it easily through the book in a couple of days.
What is Zen? By D.T. Suzuki. Nice introductory lectures/essays on Buddhism by the man probably most responsible for introducing Buddhism to the west, at least this century.
To deny our nothingness: contemporary images of man by Maurice Friedman. Kind of an interesting piece of existentialist literary criticism. Friedman covers a host of 20th century writers with insight. The pace was slogging at times, but I made it through eventually.
Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder. Might be Snyder’s most important book. Took him decades to finish.
Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis. Up and coming African-American writer. The poems are opaque and haunted. Difficult read for me, but there’s clearly talent in evidence.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Another Vintage Contemporaries. I liked this book of stories (her debut, I think) a lot more than the Coe novel mentioned above. Good 1980’s fiction. Gaitskill can write a sentence. Some stories are much stronger than others, but it’s an overall solid collection.
The Somme by Peter Barton. Phenomenal coffee table history book with panoramas of the battlefield then and now, vintage photos, heaps of excerpts from soldiers’ diaries and letters, super detailed maps. Who knew trench warfare could be so absorbing to read about? This is crack for war history buffs.
And now, my top 10 favorites of the year 2017
I define a favorite as a book that impressed me the most, that I remember the most vividly, that changed the way I think, or a book I learned the most from. Drum roll please….
10 -The Fire Next Time
9 – Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction
8 – Madame Bovary
7 – Eat the Document
6 – The Somme
5 – Reclaiming Conversation
4 – In the Year of the Flood
3 – The Guermantes Way
2 – Oryx and Crake
1 – All Quiet on the Western Front
Honorable mentions go out to Bad Behavior, Nova Express, The Return of the Native, Of Mice and Men
Happy New Year of Reading to all!