I didn't read as much as I wanted this year—but I did get to read somewhat eclectically, which was nearly as fun. Here's a list of the things that made the deepest impression on me over the course of the past year:
I only averaged one novel a month in 2017, and most of those were slim. But I felt like I covered a good variety.
- Out of the two novels I read that were new this year, my favorite was Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, an ambitious novel remarkable for its technical control (especially of narration) and plotting that I hesitate to write about in brief only because it any description cheats the work of its due. (I will write more about this novel later, I promise; in the meantime, read it!)
- In the spring, I read Toni Morrison's 1970 debut novel The Bluest Eye, and walked away astonished once again by the author's ability to craft stories with the lapidary quality of myth and the sentence-to-sentence poetic intensity of verse epic.
- Around the same time, I finished the early-twentieth-century Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki's 1908 campus novella Sanshirō, which despite some aesthetic shortcomings (it can read a bit like its American near-contemporary This Side of Paradise), transformed my understanding of the history of modernization in East Asia.
- The final surprise was a novella in French by a young author named Elisa Shua Dusapin: Hiver à Sokcho, a brooding, chilly not-quite-romance between a biracial French-Korean woman stuck in the northern South Korean beach town of Sokcho and a French graphic novelist who comes to stay at the hotel where she works. I came across this book merely by chance in a bookshop, and I'm glad I did: Shua Dusapin perfectly captures the moods of northern Gangwon, and the loneliness of resort towns in the winter.
- Early this year, I finally finished reading Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China, a book that I'd read portions of in college but had always wanted to finish. I followed it up with his breezier, briefer book The Chan's Great Continent, a series of lectures on the reception and representation of China in European and American culture. Both taught me a lot—not merely about their subjects, but also about graceful writing, which abounds in these two books.
- I also finished Jürgen Leonhardt's Latin: Story of a World Language, which is about far more than the world of ancient Rome. Leonhardt takes pains to point out early and often that the vast majority of all the Latin literature we have comes from after the "fall of Rome," written during the Middle Ages and early modern period—and most of it has gone unread. Leonhardt also offers useful discussions on matters of theory, literature, and linguistics, such as: what is a "world" language? What's the relationship between the "literary" version of a language and the everyday spoken language? How do grammar and spelling become fixed, and how do they change after they've become fixed? It's a book that should draw interest not just from people in classics, but literary studies and especially comparative literature as well.
- Three books I read this year, in the wake of the election, stayed with me. I think of two of them together: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land. Both are works that start with a posture of sociological inquiry but progress deeply into problems of civic emotions—fear, pride, vengeance, envy—and the decisions that result. Though they take different routes in getting there, both books offer sympathetic and measured yet unequivocal cases that persistent and systemic racism not only stains our civic conscience, but impairs our collective reasoning, scapegoating blame for real problems on imaginary racialized ones.
- I saw the death-row advocate Bryan Stevenson speak when I was a college student, and it changed my understanding of the death penalty forever. His book Just Mercy offers, in the form of a professional memoir, a strong case against the death penalty: frail institutions with a legacy of habitual, often racialized, injustice can't be trusted to hold the power of death in the name of the people. It's also fantastic narrative writing about the law, better than any number of thrillers.
- I became a little obsessed with the art and life of Agnes Martin a couple of years ago. Still, I wasn't expected to be so taken with Agnes Martin and Me, a memoir by Donald Woodman, a man who assisted Martin in her work for years. Martin's antic disposition refracts at strange and often funny angles through the lens of Woodman's demure tone (and tendency to lapse into self-analysis entirely unrelated to his subject). Amidst it all, Woodman scribbles—almost as an afterthought—a number of amazing details about Martin's process and materials, which entirely justify reading the book, at least for a serious fan.
- The Mengzi.
- Finally finished the Aeneid in full in Latin.
- Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book was one of the most aesthetically striking things I read all year.
- Queen Heongyeong's underappreciated Hanjung nok. This 17th-century queen of Korea's Joseon Dynasty wrote a striking sequence of remembrances concerning a grotesque high court incident: the murder of the crown prince (her husband) by the ruling king, committed by locking the heir in a rice chest for days on end. It's rich with details of the Joseon court, and also one of the few works of the period written by a woman with a known identity.
- Byron's Don Juan, which I liked far more than I expected, and might well have been the funniest thing I read all year as well.
- The new Penguin Classics edition of the late-Joseon Korean novella The Story of Hong Gildong, translated by Minsoo Kang. This gave me a much stronger sense of the cultural and historical world of 19th-century Korea, and I highly suggest it to anyone interested in learning more about the Korean past.