a year in nyc book buying (and reading)
books i liked, books i bought, etc
Last night, I decided to compile a list of my ten favorite books of the year. This required sorting through my camera roll—like many of you, my most consistent journaling and note keeping habit is the unintentional sort, mostly sourced to my phone’s camera—and typing titles into a doc then deleting the titles that I liked a little less or remembered a little less vividly than others. I arrived at a list of books that was not really surprising to me because I have been referencing these books and recommending them to people all year. If I had criteria for “favorite books,” it would probably be this—the books that I excitedly shove into people’s hands and which find their way into my thinking either on the page or in conversations with others. In that way, assembling my ten favorite books was less like an exercise in encountering the surprise of my unconscious and more like walking into a room and finding the same-old suspects, Oh, it’s you again.
I read these books in New York and in Paris and in London and in Iowa. I read them on the train, in the back of Lyfts and Ubers, and on airplanes. I read them in my bed, at my desk, in my office. I read them waiting for students to show up for office hours or waiting for meetings to begin. I read them as audiobooks and in hardcover and paperback. I read them with sticky notes and pens and pencils. I underlined and drew stars and check marks and exclamation points and brackets. I tweeted and took screenshots and took pictures. Sometimes I stopped reading to look up a reference and to order another book that was also referenced. These books were exciting and thrilling to me, and it’s not that I think you should read them. I mean, people should do what they want. I feel queasy about wielding influence. But this is a record of time I’ve spent this year, and also the books that have shaped my little perch from which I see the world. Plus, they were like, so fun, tbh.
These are not the only books I’ve read or the only books I’ve enjoyed this year, obviously. I have read some really worthwhile books that I’ve loved and argued about and recommended. So think of this as a companion list to my ten favorite books of the year. Ten more very good books I enjoyed that have stayed with me for months and months after reading them.
I feel that my reading life has been more disorganized this year than in other years, but somewhat paradoxically, this disorganization seems to come from the fact that my life has been increasingly regimented by professional demands. As my time has been increasingly split up among teaching, a fellowship at the NYPL, reviewing books, and now acquiring and editing books for a press, my reading life has become so diffuse and disordered. I end up carrying two or three books with me at all times, which means that I have this feeling of being in several books for a long long time, and so the experience of the individual books grows less distinct. It’s not that I don’t recall the books as clearly. It’s more that my experience of reading is less distinct. The information still gets absorbed and stored, but I have less of that aesthetic bliss of reading, that deeply visceral satisfaction of vibing out with a book. My reading in a lot of aspects has become professional. I’ve lost the joy of the dilettante except in rare moments of abandon. I think I might make it a project next year to regain that freewheeling reading. More time dedicated to reading and just reading and less reading amid the sundry demands of life. Purposeful absorption.
In reflecting on a year of reading, I also found myself reflecting on a year of book buying and how my habits have changed from when I lived in Iowa City and just a few steps from an independent bookstore. Before, I mostly bought my books from Prairie Lights and sometimes, I’d buy them from Amazon or Book Depository (for the frequently superior UK covers). But since moving to New York, I’ve bought fewer books in stores and have bought more books online. This is not for lack of visiting bookstores. I try to go into a New York bookstore at least once or twice a week. I try to make time to go and browse and look. But the experience is often a little fraught. I feel a little stressed in the two Manhattan stores I visit most often. A little harried and hurried. This is true of New York City in general—it is a place necessitating a kind of vigilance. Not paranoia. But it does require you to be a little more aware of your surroundings than a place like Iowa City if only because the odds of you standing in someone’s way are much higher here.
In Iowa City, Prairie Lights is a store, but more than that, it is a place that invites you to sit and buy a coffee and think about the book you are reading or to gather with friends and talk and laugh and joke. I spent many lonely hours feeling drastically less lonely in Prairie Lights because I could sit at the long back table and watch the snow fall or watch people down in the street. Sometimes, it was crowded with undergraduates who suddenly had remembered they were students and needed to study, but mostly, it was a place where you were not urged to hurry through and do your transactions. It felt like a real place.
But in New York, the bookstore feels like a place of volume business. There are very real reasons for this. For one, there are simply more people. For two, space is more expensive. For another thing, the temperament is different here, again for very rational and practical reasons. Different cities, different regions, different people have different ways of thinking and approaching public space. As is their right. As is natural. All of this makes for a different—not worse or better—bookstore experience, and one I’ve had to acclimate to. The other thing I’ve learned about buying anything in New York is that New York is a city of specialists. Each store has its own vibe, its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Even an alleged generalist of a store like Target is more specialized on a New York block than in Iowa City. You don’t go into a Target on the Upper East Side hoping to buy a trash can. Or a broom for that matter. You don’t go into the Target on the Upper East Side hoping to buy a particular cable for your computer or your TV or your phone. The superstore in New York City is not really a superstore. It is a more a store with slightly more departments than a speciality store, none of which will have the object you actually need. And it works because most people know to go to the hardware store or the electronics store or the store for drapes or the store for housewares. In the same that I had to learn to live with the one store that sells everything and had to accept that as a way of life, I’ve had to learn the opposite, that one should not expect everything from one store because to be large enough to accommodate this great swell of people would cost more money than is strictly wise to spend.
Bookstores have always been like this, of course. In Iowa City, you don’t go to Prairie Lights looking for used books. You go to Haunted Bookshop. In Madison, you can go to a bookstore dedicated to mysteries or to the one that is a radical co-op downtown or to the brilliant A Room of One’s Own, where I spent many hours browsing and hanging out among books. Bookstores have always been somewhat specialized, obviously. I feel that here in Manhattan too. For used books, the Strand is pretty amazing. If you want an interesting, vibey new book, you don’t go to the Strand, you go to McNally Jackson. If you want French, you go to Albertine. If you want an edition of the Paris Review’s writers at work interviews, you go to the basement of the Strand. My understanding is that the place with the best recommendations is Three Lives and Company or Housing Works or Yu &Me Books. And then there’s Brooklyn—Greenlight, Books Are Magic, Unnameable, Community, and so many more. Then there’s Book Bar which seems to offer an interesting hybrid experience—I went to a friend’s party there once, and it was really fun. Books and a bar and cafe and the ambience was really wonderful. More than any other city I’ve visited, the bookstores of New York have such vastly divergent vibes and focuses and approaches that it’s impossible to generalize them. There is this buzzing electricity in the air in these stores. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same people twice in any of them, which is wild to me. In a place like Prairie Lights, the bookstore is a site of gathering. The Manhattan Bookstore is more akin to a voltage-gated channel. Both experiences are centered on the encounter, but staged differently.
However, one thing that does seem to pervade New York is the general vibe in most kinds of stores and cafes is that if you want somewhere to sit to read or jot some notes you go…home. Recently though, I went to The Drama Bookshop, which was a delightful surprise. It is the closest I have come to the experience of a Manhattan bookshop as a third place in the kind of Prairie Lights mode. My cortisol levels have never been so low in a New York bookstore. There were chairs. I cannot stress this enough. Chairs. Sofas. Tables at which people were sitting and drinking coffee. People were reading in chairs. READING in a bookstore. Like. Chairs. There were horizontal surfaces at which people were…sitting and reading. I hear that P&T Knitwear is similar in this respect. I have to make my way down there to see. And so it is possible that the vibe I’m after—the leisurely time signature of French cafe culture and suburban sprawl—does exist in its way in New York.
Despite the long adjustment period to the way one shops for anything in New York City, I have had many positive experiences in Manhattan bookstores. Most often in the basement of The Strand, where I’ve found many of the books I’ve loved most this year. I spend most of my time in Manhattan bookstores browsing the literary criticism and theory shelves down in that basement. I think this must account for something like 90% of the time I spend in bookstores these days. It’s the best place in the whole city, I think, because you can see all of these really excellent and strange little books about esoteric topics that seem very relevant to our current moment. Books that have been forgotten or discredited or refuted or so thoroughly absorbed into discourse that they’ve been totally erased. I found a book on psychoanalytic thought in fiction and found a book that was a critical examination of the rise of the inner life in Anglophone poetry from the early modern period to the postwar era. I found the published diaries and correspondence of Edmund Wilson. I found a critical study of the “contemporary” French novel, meaning, I think the 70s. I found a study of the English historical novel. Down in the basement of the Strand, I encountered many familiar names that I only know because I have read them in passing in other books. It’s like when you watch a movie and encounter a gif you’ve been seeing for years in its native context. Also, the books are often quite old and it’s nice to see the change in cover design over the decades, and also interesting to see how there can be like five copies of a recent collection of literary essays down there but only one copy of a book by Trilling.
The shelves of literary criticism and literary nonfiction down in the basement of the Strand also reveals a glimpse into an earlier mode of publishing. By this, I just mean that it’s cool to see evidence of a time when there could be like three different editions of the same Trilling volume, and that he was published by different presses at different times, and how there seemed to exist all of these publishers and imprints and it was all so chaotic and wild. I like the sense of the unruliness of publishing that I can glimpse on those shelves. Because authors became the property of certain publishers and only those publishers, before everything got all locked up and corporatized.
It was in such a place that I found the book The Court and the Castle by Rebecca West. It’s a strange little book but a brilliant one, provocative and cunning.
West says that she is tracing a theme in Anglophone literature that centers on the tension between the individual and authority. This theme slowly matures into a meditation on free will and and the question of inherent goodness in humankind. Whether society is redeemable or not. It’s a rousing book. And funny and deft and strange. West is obviously a charismatic, sharp writer, but the thing I appreciate most is her searching warmth. Her desire to want to understand this fundamental question of whether we are redeemable or not, and how this orders our world, as read through our literature. It’s a model for a kind of book I want to write one day. Not a memoir or a loose assemblage of essays, but a searching literary and critical study centered on some idea or notion. I want to write a work of criticism that is not academic because I am not an academic. I to write in the way I want. Free and open. But about books and things that matter to me. But not personal history. There are models of course. Peter Brooks, Sianne Ngai, Kyle Chayka, Timothy Bewes, Lauren Michele Jackson, Margo Jefferson, and Darryl Pinckney, and others. But also I aspire to do something like Fiedler or Trilling or Hardwick. But it seems harder and harder to do. Like people will only read the nonfiction if they feel they’re buying access to your life. Not as refracted through literature, but as told like a fucking bedtime story.
I have so little interest in my personal history. I have no desire to know who my parents were or my grandparents or who their parents were. I have no desire to know anything about the land on which I was raised or the manner in which I was raised. I have no trace of a desire to know anything about the people I was raised with or how they felt or what they thought. The time in which such things would have been relevant or useful or good to know has long since passed. I have no desire to know the facts. My interest, what interest there is, arises from my dramatic and fictional instinct. I am interested in that history insomuch as it will provide material to shape into fiction. I am not interested in meta-narratives or autofiction. Creatively, I am only interested in the facts of my biography insomuch as they let me make things up. I have no want or desire to see it written in a memoir. Everyone has a past. I don’t think it makes you special or interesting. I can’t think of anything more boring to me as an artist than the fact of my having been born in a place to a particular group of people. I did not understand this when I wrote my first novel. I thought that I would find it very freeing or interesting to write down things that had happened to me. And I spoke about this in a very naive way. But honestly, it’s all very boring. Frankly, the matching game that has become our dominant literary discourse is so deeply tedious.
In nonfiction, increasingly, what I want to do is study literature. I want to understand how we live and act today, as read through our literature. Meaning of course cinema, theater, television, music, and books. Literature as the whole cultural catalog. Biography is an important thing. Memoir is important. Some people do it brilliantly. So people, many people, wield memoir with real elegance to say something rich and interesting about the way we live. But I am not one of those people. In my hands, memoir is just an accounting of stuff that happened to me and some thoughts I had at the time. But nothing I’ve ever written about my own self and the events of my past has ever achieved the transformative potency of my fiction. Because, at bottom, I am simply not interested in my past. I have no analytic capacity to turn upon my biography. And what effects I achieve, I come by them cheaply. And perhaps I might develop a faculty for it. I might develop some skill at it. I might one day join the ranks of people who have something to say with memoir and biography. Perhaps. But that day is not today and it will not be tomorrow. Because simply, as an individual, I find it very boring, the stuff of my own life. And I can recognize in my own bad personal writing a real failure of imagination and force. A real aesthetic dumbness. It has nothing to do with memoir in general, and everything to do with memoir as it relates to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Also, like, as an aesthetic project, it does not get me up in the morning to my own paper. I want to write a book of literary criticism and cultural commentary. That’s the kind of nonfiction I want to write. Trying to resolve the question of my own personhood for a public audience feels, idk, a little white gaze-y to me. I don’t have to prove to myself that I have eyeballs and a window. I’d rather just get on with it.
Anyway, back to the reading thing. So this year, a combination of factors led me to make a very very very very late-breaking discovery that I will try to explain to you. As you perhaps already know, I have struggled to find a new home bookstore that fits the vibe I’m after without going to Brooklyn (as I do not live in Brooklyn and going there as much as I would like to visit a new bookstore would be…unreasonable), I’ve developed this Amazon habit of ordering old books by which I mean out of print books. Specifically out of print books because when I am reading a book that is an older work of literary criticism, I’ll come across a book that seems interesting or an author who is cited a lot, which sends me to go find their book. But then it is out of print. Okay, so then, I go to Amazon because I just know that I won’t find it if I get on the train and go downtown and spend two hours browsing. And the last time I asked a bookseller to order a book for me, he looked at me rather confusedly and asked why I hadn’t just done it online. So, to Amazon, I went.
The issue is that when you go to find an old book on Amazon, you end up facing down the barrel of a bunch of print on demand editions. These editions are not necessarily bad. They serve an important function. But, like, they do feel cheap and sometimes they are badly made. I recently ordered a copy of Edith Wharton’s Hudson River, Bracketed after reading Hermione Lee’s excellent Wharton biography. The edition arrived from a print on demand service and it was…let’s say, not great. But at least it wasn’t one of those editions with a blurry and bad photoshop cover or a slanted typeset. But it did make me wish I could get what felt like a real edition, so that I could have some faith in the contents. This has happened to me also with Leslie Fiedler’s No! in Thunder, his first collection of essays, and it’s happened when I’ve ordered books by Adorno and others. The editions arrive—at least in one case, with the glue from the binder still a little wet—smelling chemical and feeling like bad copy shop paper.
So I was rather frustrated.
At the same time, I’ve been ordering the UK edition of books I like because the covers are superior. In the UK, book covers are made for adults, and in America, there are other considerations, let’s say. I will leave it at that. So anyway, I order the UK edition of books I want to read. This sometimes means that I wait weeks for delivery. And I do mean weeks.
Last night, I was browsing Edelweiss and trying to figure out which books I would read next year. I came across a new edition of Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front, which I’ve never read but which also was mentioned in the Lee biography of Wharton. I immediately went to Amazon—because, have you tried to buy an Edith Wharton novel in a Manhattan bookstore, let me tell you, if it’s not The Reef or The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, forget it—and there was a sea of really, really, really badly made print on demand copies. So I was like, maybe I can ask the publisher to send me a copy. But a couple hours later, I was looking at my copy of The Court and the Castle, and I realized that it was from the 1950s, when the book was published. And I thought, oh right, this book was published before there was ebooks and stuff like that. This book existed. There must be copies of it. I don’t know why I still have this assumption that all books published before, like, 2008 were lost in some sort of great fire. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that there might still be books from the before time around. This is particularly silly because I spend my days in the NYPL looking at magazines that were published in the 1960s and 50s. Touching them, flipping through them. I spend my time literally touching the physical artifacts from an earlier stage of cultural production. For whatever reason, it just never occurred to me that I could…simply buy old books.
I had in fact bought this very old book! From a store! I’d bought it and carried it home on the train! But then the idea that they’d have the Wharton seemed very dubious to me. But then it occurred me. I could simply order it from eBay. Recently I had done this very thing. I wanted the the superior UK edition of two Kawabata books, so I ordered them from eBay. They arrived in like five days. It was amazing.
This is all very silly, I know. For one thing, do you know how much time I spend on eBay buying old things? Almost all of my cameras and my camera equipment has come from eBay. I ordered deadstock pencils from eBay. I order old film stock from eBay. I order so many things that are no longer made from eBay, yet it never occurred to me that I could also order books that were printed in the 20s or the 50s or the 30s. It never occurred to me that people might have these things lying around, waiting to off-load them for $15 including shipping. I don’t know why. Probably because I’ve never thought about it. There’s always been a place I can go to get the thing I want. Amazon. Target. The drug store. The grocery store. Instacart. Shipt. I’ve always been able to use a machine to get the thing I want and it is usualyl new and brightly wrapped and smelling perfectly chemical and it comes in like 18 hours.
But increasingly, what I’ve wanted hasn’t just been the object, but the object in the right way. I’ve wanted a particular edition. I’ve wanted a particular make of camera or lens. I’ve wanted a particular film stock in a particular ISO. I’ve wanted a particular sweater from a particular brand. I’ve wanted a particular notebook. Or a particular style of paper coffee cup. Or a particular kind of creamer. Or a particular brand of pen. Or a particular shade of ink. Or a particular nib size. I’ve become a person who has tastes, I guess, instead of being such a generalist. I’ve started caring about the particular material reality of my life. This feels a little like a sin. Or, a lot like a sin, because I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama, so, like, you know, the idea that you’d be picky or have preferences about anything feels prideful and bad. I make fun of my friend for wanting his hamburgers cooked a certain way. I mean, I truly am the “I’m just a hole sir” of life preferences. And yet. I’ve somehow become a person to whom these things matter.
But also like a lot of people—particularly people who have been trained as scientists—I always thought that new was better, forward was better. I subscribed to a progressive view in all things. But increasingly, I’ve felt the opposite. The things and ideas that have brought me the most comfort this year and the things that have shaped my outlook this year have been things from the past. The commentators and criticism that have made the contemporary moment clearest to me have been Rebecca West and Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler. The novels that have moved me the most have been Zola and Tolstoy and Turgenev. There have been many novels written in historical modes this year, and I’ve hated all of them except Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark precisely because that novel feels vibrant and lively and full of characters and it reminds me of early 20th century literature. The things I’ve loved most this year feel like they belong to some other era, and I feel a little out of time.
But that’s okay. I don’t ascribe a moral superiority to these things. I mean, I do, which is why I find pleasure in them, but it is a subjective moral superiority that means something only in my very very very very very very individual experience that should not have any meaning to other people or have any bearing on what they value. Which I guess is just a way of saying, I liked what I liked because it gave me pleasure and taught me new things about my values. But next year, I could hate all this shit.
I typed A Son at the Front into eBay, and sure enough, there were many copies of the novel in hardcover. Oh, duh, I thought to myself. Right, books exist. Then I put in Hudson River, Bracketed for a hoot, and…there were copies available as well. I ordered one of each. They will arrive sometime right before Christmas, who knows.
Also, please preorder The Late Americans so I can write more homosexual novels—it comes out next year!