Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2023)

It has been a year of abandoned books. Books I started and never finished. Books I never started. Books I started and put down and picked up again and still did not finish. Books I borrowed from the library and returned unopened. Books used as laptop stands and doorstops and coffee table clutter.

I abandoned genuine, actual, undeniable masterpieces. I abandoned accessible and thrilling novels whose entire purpose is to sweep the reader into a narrative current which is impossible to resist (I resisted). I abandoned books filled with interesting facts. Books that might have been self-improving and useful in various areas of my life remained unread. I started books filled with lines that glowed with poetic beauty and grew bored and impatient. I abandoned old favorites. I abandoned books that theoretically could have been new favorites (I’m looking at you, Jon Fosse). It was a year of the incomplete, of abandonment.

I share this because few books I actually finished this year (and I did finish some) stand out as I look back over the year. Much less than normal, anyway. To be clear: the problem here is with me, not with the books. It was a year of some big changes professionally for me and various stresses and upheavals. I just did not have enough attention to spread around. When I did want to read, I seemed to gravitate towards books that told stories of personal transformation and change (understandably so, in retrospect). I was most interested both in lives entirely unlike my own, or lives very much like my own that included episodes of change/transformation/risk.

Obviously, it has been pretty silent around the ol’ blog this year as well (for the same reasons I think – my attention and energy were focused elsewhere). While my life is starting to settle into some new patterns, I can’t promise there’s going to be a burst of creativity around here. We’ll see. I have ideas (I always have ideas). I have some renewed energy. I have some space to breathe. But, not sure where it’s going to take me.

So, this list of favorite reads is always partial and idiosyncratic – but is perhaps even more so this year (previous years’ lists can be found here) – but here they are (with a quote/comment for each):

Small Things Like These (Claire Keegan): “Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England? It seemed both proper and at the same time deeply unfair that so much of life was left to chance.” (Dickens, who receives multiple references in the text, would be proud of the emotional/moral knockout Keegan delivers – easily the best fiction I read this year).

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. (Jeff Tweedy): “Really the thing that pushed me to start writing songs is the same thing that compels me to keep writing songs today. I listen to music—new records, old favorites, the radio, anything—until I feel like I can’t take it anymore, I have to make something or I’ll lose my mind. It’s as simple as that. Even when I believe I’ll never be able to make something even remotely as perfect or beautiful as what I’m hearing, I can’t just sit there and let that challenge go unanswered. I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators.” (Probably my favorite read this year, I also liked his World Within A Song).

Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing (Alan Paul): “The officer took the papers, began reading through them, and marked every other page with a chop, the ink stamps without which nothing is official in China. Suddenly, he stopped chopping and looked up at me. I braced myself wondering what the problem was. He smiled and said, in halting English ‘I very like SLAM.'” (Reinvention, cross-cultural ex-pat life, music, family/fatherhood, SLAM magazine references – I was primed to love this memoir).

Meet Me At The Lighthouse: Poems (Dana Gioia): “Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts / We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes / Around the tree crowned with a fragile star. / No holiday is holy without ghosts.” (Comments feel clumsy next to Gioia’s poetry).

The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writers and Writing (Terry McDonnell): “Sometimes I saw talent everywhere, in everything I read. Other times I thought there was no such thing as a bad idea, just bad execution. This sounds self-serving, but being interested in everything makes you a more effective opportunist—and that’s what an editor has to be, a student of unintended consequences.” (Tales from when the magazine covers were glossy, everything was dusted with cocaine, and men were men [and they are mostly all men – something McDonnell acknowledges]. I enjoyed it.).

Faith, Hope and Carnage (Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan): “‘So, for me personally, having a religious dimension in my life is highly beneficial. It makes me happier, it makes my relationships with people more agreeable, and it makes me a better writer – in my opinion.’ So do you believe in redemption in the Christian sense? ‘Well, I think we’re all suffering, Seán, and more often than not this suffering is a hell of our own making, it is a state of being for which we are responsible, and I have personally needed to find some kind of deliverance from that.'” (A book that is entirely itself in the best possible way).