2016 brought a bunch of new literary surprises for me, including the inimitable Alice Munro, whose books I plan on reading all of, and Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, which is a book that is so totally sui generis I'm not sure if I even want to read another of Stead's novels. Unfamiliar (to me) authors like Renata Adler, William T. Vollmann, and Elaine Dundy crowded a lot of more familiar names out of my top ten list this year.
I'm happy to say that this is the tenth year I've been able to reflect on the books I've read this year, and choose the ten that have meant the most to me. During those years I've read 512 books--okay, some of them have been repeats, but not many--and the net effect has mostly been to point me toward other books I want to read. So, it is with great joy that I present not only the ten best books I've read this year, but the fifty best books I have read over the last decade.
I set some arbitrary rules for myself: I didn't include Shakespeare, and I didn't include any author twice. That may seem artificial--a more honest list would have a whole bunch of Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, and Penelope Fitzgerald on it--but I like the way this list presents the intense diversity of what I've been able to read. And I didn't include anything I didn't read for the first time for this project.
2016 Honorable Mention:
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Tracks by Louise Erdrich
2016 Top Ten:
10.) The Takeover by Muriel Spark - Spark's "Italian novel" benefits from an enlarged cast of brilliantly realized characters--something not always true for a writer as chilly and distant as Spark. (For a contrast, think of The Driver's Seat--a novel with one really significant character, who ultimately remains a totally mystery to author and reader both.) The result is a masterpiece of black humor, involving pagan cults, murderous plots, and lots of illicit sex.
9.) The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach - Rokeach's study on schizophrenia, which reports with what I assume is unfailing accuracy the conversations of three men who believe they are Jesus Christ, ought to be unreadable. But in truth it is a profound meditation on how we construct--and scrupulously defend--the boundaries of our own identities.
8.) Despair by Vladimir Nabokov - Nabokov famously hated Dostoevsky, and it's tempting to see Despair as his way of tweaking on the ubermensch dourness of Crime and Punishment. What if the perfect crime, he asks, was not just flawed, but a complete bungle? Nabokov's narrator sets out to murder a man who looks just like him, but the joke is that they look nothing alike. It was worth reading if just to remember how funny Nabokov can be.
7.) Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies - There's something cruel about the central character of Davies' Tempest-Tost, an utter philistine who joins an amateur theater production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, though he doesn't have the least capability of understanding or appreciating it. But then again, no one in the novel does--they use the play as a means of performing their own deep insecurities and desires, to impress their crushes, or assuage their own egos. Davies, like Shakespeare, understands what's both tragic and comic about human pettiness and frailty.
6.) Argall by William T. Vollmann - Argall is, by any metric, bloated and overstuffed, partly because of its need for fealty to the literal story of John Smith and Pocahontas. But that over-literalness is more than balanced out by Vollmann's modernist approximation of 17th-century diction, which manages to bridge the divide between the present and the past. This year's showdown at the Standing Rock reservation made this book, about the immeasurable change that European colonization foisted on Native Americans, feel especially powerful and timely.
5.) Speedboat by Renata Adler - I am tempted to reduce this capsule just to a quote, my favorite sentence of the year: "A hideous family pledged itself to margarine." But I'll add that no book has really captured, for me, the frenetic quality of city life like Renata Adler's frenetic, slapdash novel Speedboat.
4.) The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy - Dundy's novel seems to be designed to answer the question, What if Isabel Archer were funny? It's a loving thumb-in-the-eye to the Bohemian dream of Europe, and sports a stronger, more confident first-person narrator than any other novel I've read in a long time. It's evidence that you don't have to be overly serious to be, you know--serious.
3.) The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson - I have no real problem with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, except that it means that other exceptional living American writers--a list with Robinson squarely at the top--will you never get the chance. Robinson's book of essays reassured me that there is a place for God in the modern world, but it also challenged me to reexamine some of my most cherished beliefs. And like in her novels, Robinson's style is simple and homespun, but somehow devastatingly powerful.
2.) The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead - I am still coming to terms with this book. Is it really like I imagined it? Or was it some kind of strange fever dream? Stead's semi-autobiographical story of a selfish but idealistic man who destroys his dysfunctional family is more bizarre than Naked Lunch, or any science fiction novel you might choose, even while it's made up of the stuff of real life. I understand why no one might read this anymore--in fact, I expect most people would hate it-- but I'll never be able to forget it.
1.) Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro - Unlike The Man Who Loved Children, it's hard to put a finger on what makes Munro's work so exceptional. As a prose stylist, Munro is spun from the same cloth as someone like Robinson, steeped in the language of the home and reliant on the perfectly turned metaphor. But the power of Munro's meditation of what it means to grow up female hit me like very little else has in the past ten years. Her story collection The Progress of Love, while not quite the tour de force that Lives is, convinced me that Munro is one of those authors I should have discovered years ago.
The Fifty Best! (2007-2016):
1. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford
2. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
3. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
5. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
7. Voss by Patrick White
8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
9. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
11. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
12. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
13. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
14. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
16. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
17. Paradise Lost by John Milton
18. Emma by Jane Austen
19. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
20. The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier
21. The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
22. Middlemarch by George Eliot
23. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick
24. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
25. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
26. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
27. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
28. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
29. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
30. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
31. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
32. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
33. Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban
34. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
35. Possession by A. S. Byatt
36. Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
37. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
38. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
39. Speedboat by Renata Adler
40. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
41. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
42. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
43. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
44. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
45. Argall by William T. Vollmann
46. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
47. Watership Down by Richard Adams
48. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
49. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
50. Silence by Shusaku Endo
Thanks for a great ten years, everyone! If you'd like to join us next year, we're always looking for new friends to chronicle their reading with us. Let us know in the comments.