“September 2” — Wendell Berry

The Best Books of 2008

We read many, many books this year, but most of the books we read–especially the very best ones–were not published this year. And as usual, we’re always playing catch up. Case in point: we finally finished Roberto Bolaño’s much-lauded-in-2007 hit The Savage Detectives just last month, and despite feeling that it was kinda overrated we couldn’t help picking up his much-lauded-in-2008 hit 2666 at Green Apple Books in San Francisco this weekend (sidebar that will not surprise any San Francisco reader: San Francisco has the best book shops. Sick). So, we will spend at least the first part of 2009 getting through that massive tome.

Bar none, the best book we read in 2008 was Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian, published back in 1985. So good we read it twice, and so should you. We also loved loved loved Philip Pullman’s Nietzschean sci-fi trilogy His Dark Materials. Finally, we must highly recommend E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, which we finally got around to reading this year (last week, so, no review). This book is great, and you will wonder why you haven’t read it before now. A somewhat neglected classic. But. Let us move on.

a-mercy

There were a couple of fantastic highlights in 2008, of course, most notably Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, a novel on which we cannot heap enough praise. In a time of overstuffed, overlong novels, A Mercy is rich and complex yet lean at just over 170 pages, and, as many critics and reviewers have pointed out, the novel serves as a touching counterpoint for her 1988 masterpiece Beloved.

violence

We also loved–and frequently returned to–Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, a work of cultural criticism that managed to be fun and infuriating and serious and frivolous at the same time. Too often reviewers fall back on hackneyed phrases like “thought provoking,” but Žižek’s work really is provoking, often to the point of confrontation. Like Plato, Nietzsche, and Derrida before him, Žižek is the gadfly, the upsetter, the spoiler. He has earned his haters.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III and The O. Henry Prize Stories collections were also sublime–great interviews, great stories, lovely tasty morsels. Ralph Ellison, William Carlos Williams, Stephen Millhauser–what’s not to love? We also really were digging Mark Reibstein and Ed Young’s sumptuous children’s book, Wabi Sabi. You’d think a book that included a haiku on each page would be cheesy or cloying or too precious, but no. Great stuff.

wabi-sabi

We’d also be remiss not to give props (again) to Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics,” published in the May, 2008 issue of Harper’s. Berry’s piece is beautiful and sad and timely, and everyone should read it. It was one of the best things we read all year. Speaking of Harper’s, the latest issue includes–along with a touching memorial to critic John Leonard, who died last month–the remarks of those who spoke (including Zadie Smith and Don DeLillo) at David Foster Wallace’s memorial service this October. Wallace’s suicide was and is awful, and remarking on it in a “Best of 2008” section seems tacky, but we can’t help it. We love his work and are sad that there won’t be any more, or at least much more, or at least any “finished” work from the man, but, as George Saunders puts it in his portion of the memorial: “In time–but not yet–the sadness that there will be no new stories from him will be replaced by a deepening awareness of what a treasure we have in the existing work.” So, if we remark on DFW here, it is only because he was one of the best, and he died this year, and in some sense, we need to remark on it yet again, despite having written too much already.

But let’s not end on a sad or sour note. Plenty of great reads in 2008, and surely we neglected a tome or three in this rehash, but hey, we’re human, we err, etc. We look forward to more reading in 2009, and perhaps, improbably (we lie to ourselves, who doesn’t though?) we may actually defeat that stack of books by the bed, on the night stand, on the coffee table.

Wendell Berry on Mephistophilis, Limitless Animals, and the End of Cheap Oil

Yesterday, the discussion on my post last week on the rhetoric of environmentalism got a little heated. I was accused in the comments thread of proposing two conflicting ideas. I don’t think that’s true, and I’m not going to go back to the post and nitpick over my own rhetoric; I’ll let it stand on its own. Oddly enough though, last night I read novelist Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics” in the latest issue of Harper’s. Berry’s piece is simply beautiful and beautifully simple, and certainly the best essay I’ve read in a number of years. He discusses our propensity toward the illusion that we are “limitless animals,” reveals the etymological connection between free and friend, points out that we are in an “economy of community destruction” (not all of us unwittingly), and proposes that, “in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.”” For Berry, this is a good thing. Again, the essay is awfully compelling, and he makes a much more solid case for what I was trying to say in my previous post: existence costs.

Berry’s introduction:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily forseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible–the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed–and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry, but–thank God!–still driving.