February 5, 2023

The Year in Rereading

The staff of The New Yorker read hundreds of new books this year, plucking out the most worthwhile and compiling The Best Books of 2022 So Far. (Stay tuned—we’ll keep updating the list through the end of December.) The magazine’s writers also revisited works they had read before. The reasons varied: the selection might have been connected to an upcoming article, or inspiration for a family wedding—or, possibly, the book happened to be sitting near the writer’s desk. Whatever the draw, these works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry became relevant once again in 2022, simultaneously fresh and familiar during a tumultuous year.


Book cover of Diaries on a neutral background

The former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is, reportedly, speed-writing a memoir of his time in Downing Street, having decided not to take another run at the Tory leadership at least until he’s maximized the earning potential of his previous, chaotic tenure at the head of the British government. As he decides which of his former colleagues to throw under the bus—Johnson famously loves buses—and which of his own manifold failures of character to cop to, Johnson will no doubt have in mind the gold standard of parliamentary memoirs: the “Diaries” of Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. Throughout this tumultuous year in British politics, I’ve been dipping into Clark’s “Diaries,” the first volume of which was published in 1993, just three years after Thatcher’s downfall. He describes that event in moment-by-moment detail that could be cut and pasted into an account of more recent events: “The Party is virtually out of control. Mutinous. People are not turning up for divisions. Dissidents get bolder and bolder with their little off-the-cuff TV slotettes.” Clark’s book is valuable not just for its chronicling of political machinations but also for its self-scrutiny: “Trouble is I just adore the House of Commons,” he writes. “I am seduced by its gossipy, club-like regimental atmosphere and love also the delicious karate-type confidence that being an MP gives me.” I am not sure I’ll be able to bring myself to read Johnson’s eventual memoir; I certainly won’t be contributing to his royalties by paying for it. But if his book is to have any enduring value, it will be because Johnson, like Clark before him, acknowledges—or perhaps merely betrays—the degree to which his political career has been driven not by lofty aspiration to public service but by the lower, irresistible urges of vanity. —Rebecca Mead


Book cover of Glyph on a neutral background

I was not smart enough for “Glyph” on my first go-around. It was some years ago, in grad school, and I, like any graduate student, possessed a bright-eyed enthusiasm for the seeming revelatory purpose of criticism and theory. “Erasure,” the usual entry into Percival Everett (the author of over thirty books, more than twenty of them novels), loomed large for me—a classmate pointed out, however, that perhaps this other novel, his tenth, about an infant who has language but refuses speech, might also help answer whatever questions I had then. I took the suggestion and bought the book and read it and laughed and laughed and finished and set it aside.

“Glyph” is about—to the extent that Everett’s work entertains that preposition—Ralph, a baby with an I.Q. in the upper 400s or so who can read and write and narrate (with a borderline-insufferable wit) and is kidnapped when his genius becomes conspicuous. I returned to “Glyph” late last year and midway through this year to help me think about, this time, the opposite of revelation—knowledge as a sort of letdown, when the smart stuff of social science and cultural theory becomes a bore. Little Ralph is Black, by the way, and this information is conferred exactly like so, a quarter way into the novel. “Have you to this point assumed I am white?” Ralph asks. “It is not important unless you want it to be.” The F.Y.I. reads like a dare, a barbed invitation to sensationalize race—as is our wont—despite its unspectacular appearance, related as an afterthought. Race is not unimportant, but it is not very interesting, either, and is certainly of small use to baby Ralph. The greater drama in the novel is the hilarity of a caper, which is itself sliced and sorted into a schematic of Everett’s design. Make no mistake, I am still not smart enough for Everett, yet I am wise enough to set aside that psychodrama in favor of the pleasures of reading. —Lauren Michele Jackson


Book cover of Loving Picasso on a neutral background

Next April will mark fifty years since Pablo Picasso died, and that anniversary has given me occasion to revisit “Loving Picasso,” a wonderful compilation of the journals, memoirs, and letters of Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first great love, which I last read while writing about Françoise Gilot. They met in the summer of 1904, when Olivier was twenty-three and Picasso a few months younger. Both were living at the Bateau-Lavoir, an artist-filled slum of a building in Montmartre that has acquired a mythic aura through its association with Picasso, and fair enough; when Fernande first visits his studio, she finds the “astonishing” canvases of the Blue Period, then in full swing. (She also finds Picasso’s pet, a tame white mouse, “which lives in the drawer of the table, and which he cares for lovingly.”) But while Olivier’s writing is essential for understanding the young Picasso’s work and character—practically at first sight, she diagnoses him with the “mixture of toughness and softness, balance and imbalance, will and weakness” that would apply to him all his life—it is also remarkable as a self-portrait of a guileless young woman who, through a curious combination of instinct, courage, passivity, and chance, freed herself from domestic misery and launched herself into the heart of Parisian bohemia’s golden age. Born out of wedlock, Olivier, like Jane Eyre, was raised by a mean aunt who favored her own daughter; at eighteen, she embarked on a disastrous marriage to a man who beat and raped her, finally fleeing to Paris, where she immediately took up with a sculptor and launched herself as one of the most celebrated artist’s models of her day. It has been the fate of Picasso’s many muses to be known primarily through his eyes. How good to return to this account and accompany Fernande as she brings herself to life on the page. —Alexandra Schwartz


Book cover of The Artful Dickens on a neutral background

For a long time, I kept the opening paragraph of the first chapter of Dickens’s “Bleak House” typed out above my desk. “London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall,” the first lines read. “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” I found it thrilling—the dateline phrases; the cinematic flair; the sure, swift, conjuring of a dinosaur in Victorian London; the bemused estimate of its hypothetical length, with that reasonable “or so” tacked on. What a lede!

John Mullan’s “The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist” is a book I bought when it came out in 2021, and began dipping into repeatedly over the last year. It helped me understand what Mullan calls the “qualities of formal ingenuity” for which Dickens is not always appreciated. But it also offers a master class in the techniques of descriptive writing, especially at the level of the sentence. Mullan, a British academic and journalist, devotes his opening chapter, “Fantasising,” to Dickens’s frequent, singular use of the phrase “as if.” “No respectably literary novelist,” he writes, “would ever have imagined” that outlandish dinosaur in the lines from “Bleak House.” “The Dickensian as if is the phrase, more than any other, that unlocks the novelist’s fantastic vision of the sheer strangeness of reality.” Journalists, too, are often called upon to find the strange in the ordinary. To do so with an ounce of Dickens’s verve would be so wonderful—in the nineteenth-century sense of the term and in ours. —Margaret Talbot


Book cover of Anna Karenina on a neutral background

Lately, a lot of people I know around my age—I’m in my thirties—have been returning to the classics that they read too callowly, too sloppily, or too studiously in school. Probably this has something to do with the pandemic. (Everything has something to do with the pandemic.) It might rise from the endless, exhausting, soul-sucking, democracy-abrading flow of junky media that, we all know, is eroding attention spans and shortening our lives. But it’s also because much of what remains is really good. For me, this year, the revelation hiding in plain sight was Tolstoy. Over the summer, in an idle moment, I picked up an old paperback of “Anna Karenina” (a novel that, I confess, I have little memory of encountering the first time) and was stunned from the first page. I felt as if a novel I’d been prowling for among the new releases—crisp but ambitious, funny but empathetic, pluralistically generous and historically smart—had landed in my lap from a hundred-and-forty-year drop. As a reader, I was surprised at how ageless Tolstoy’s sensibility seemed: his human and social portraits are so finely tuned that, but for the plainest period details, they could have been written within the past decade. And, as a writer, I marvelled at his simple but radical technique. The novel is, in broad form, patient. (We are eighteen chapters in before we meet the title character; Tolstoy seems to regard society almost as a set of bicycle wheels, and traces out the character spokes as they converge and turn.) Yet, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, the book is lean and engrossing and bright. What James Joyce exclaimed of Tolstoy more than a hundred years ago—“He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!”—seems truer than ever, and no less astonishing a feat. On this rereading, I was haunted by Tolstoy’s strange, beautiful multi-chapter scene about Konstantin Levin mowing his own field with a scythe: an intimate portrait of the anguish and the miracle of graceful work by a writer who knew both. —Nathan Heller


Book cover of Ornament and Silence on a neutral background

I am not quite sure how Kennedy Fraser’s 1996 essay collection “Ornament and Silence” first made its way into my hands, but it has become one of my most reread books. I return to it every few years, and in the in-between years I give it away; I have replaced my copy four or five times by now, and I always seem to have more than one edition floating around my apartment, depending on when friends decide to return or borrow it. It’s my “take a penny” book. It is also the book I turn to first when I feel like I have forgotten how to write (which is distressingly often, for someone who makes her living at it). Fraser wrote for this magazine for many years—she took on The New Yorker’s fashion beat in the seventies and eighties and then turned to writing sweeping profiles and essays about women who lived complex and complicated lives. Fraser’s fashion writing is full of color and curiosity, mischief and meticulous detail. Her 1983 Profile of the Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who died this August, has one of my favorite opening lines of all time: “It had been one of those New York days when the Hudson River gives off the smell of Maxwell House and sea.” This fall, I found myself flipping through “Ornament and Silence” nearly weekly, after I felt my brain struggling to crawl out from underneath a heavy haze of post-COVID fogginess. There are certain writers whose sentences snap you back to life by making your mind overheat with envy—Why can’t I write like this?—and Fraser, with her beautiful adjectives and popping syntax, always pushes me to want to do better. The essay in the collection that I reread most often is “Going On,” a profile she wrote about the Russian writer Nina Berberova when Berberova was ninety-one years old. It is a remarkable chronicle of an uncompromising life, but also a sombre meditation on aging; I just love Fraser’s descriptions. Of Berberova, she writes, “there was something almost talismanic about her femininity.” She writes that the “bookcase containing Nina’s works is a yeasty, organic business.” A yeasty bookcase! Only Fraser would think of that sentence. I keep rereading the book to try to divine her formula, but it still feels like magic to me. —Rachel Syme


Book cover of The Goodby People on a neutral background

Anyone who knows me knows not only that I love Los Angeles but that I also love reading about Los Angeles, particularly about the city’s lambent surface and darker underside. (That old chestnut!) I’ve gone through many of the more or less predictable offerings of the genre—Eve Babitz’s “Eve’s Hollywood,” Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays,” Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero,” Dorothy B. Hughes’s “In a Lonely Place,” Julia Phillips’s “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” Danny Sugerman’s “Wonderland Avenue”—and so my main feelings as I recently tore into Gavin Lambert’s “The Goodby People,” from 1971, were surprise that no one had ever recommended this jewel of an L.A. novel to me, along with happiness that I had now, at least, finally come across it. (For this I must thank the newish, and very good, McNally Editions imprint, which reissued the book earlier this year.) Lambert was a British screenwriter who arrived in Hollywood in the fifties to work with the director Nicholas Ray (who was also, at one point, his lover). Until his death in Los Angeles, in 2005, Lambert wrote many screenplays, several biographies (including one of his close friend Natalie Wood), and five novels, among them “The Goodby People,” which is made up of three interlocking, longish stories, to which a nameless Lambert-like screenwriter serves as narrator, taking readers through the salons and squats of late-nineteen-sixties L.A. The book’s protagonists—a youngish, wealthy widow whose powerful producer husband has recently died, a hot bisexual hustler dodging the Vietnam draft, a runaway who pursues a perceived mystical connection to an older, has-been actress—are all wandering half-unseeingly through a world teetering between Old Hollywood grandness and freaked-out bohemianism. Lambert’s tone is detached but gentle, casual without being unfeeling. “When it was all over, I felt a mixture of relief and let-down,” the narrator reports, of an oceanside hippie rock festival. “The violence of the ritual subsided to an aimless drifting away. On many faces seemed to be written the question, Where can we go now?” —Naomi Fry


In September, my partner and I were tasked with finding a poem to recite at his brother’s wedding. The timing of the ceremony—the couple, M. and J., were approaching ten years together—had a sweetly paradoxical quality, at once sudden and belated. A phrase appeared in my brain: “precipitate and pragmatical.” It belonged to a poem called “The Shampoo,” by Elizabeth Bishop:

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