I spent the first half of this year reeling beneath a perpetually renewing tower of MFA student manuscripts. Now that it’s summer again, I’m taking my opportunity to read whatever I want seriously. Because, look, if I read one book a week for the next forty years, I’m only going to get to read 2,080 more books. When you consider that the the New York Public Library’s collection is counted in the tens of millions, a couple thousand books starts to seem frighteningly meager.
So I try to be careful. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, travel, in particular, emphasizes the importance of choosing books warily. You don’t want to find yourself in Kenya for six months with a crappy novel in your backpack. I start thinking early about what I want to carry on a trip: a good trip book needs to be thick, but not over, say, three pounds, and most importantly by far: it has to be a sure thing.
I’ve failed often enough, but here are six of my recent successes:
Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth. Supposedly when slave traders finally would take on their last slave and raise the sails and wait for the wind to carry them away from the West African coast, a terrible, collective moan would rise up from the people imprisoned below deck. Sacred Hunger is about imagining, in utterly convincing detail, the moment to moment particulars of the slave trade; it’s also about being human, about single-mindedness, about how people find systems and rules very comforting. I’m so glad I found Sacred Hunger; it is an under-acknowledged masterpiece.
Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life, by Carl Zimmer. At a time when scientists can grow human insulin inside the bodies of bacteria, or tiny, perfectly-operable human kidneys inside mice, when practically every handsoap on supermarket shelves is marketed as “anti-bacterial,” when more and more microbes are evolving resistances to antibiotics, when synthetic biologists are trying to create a kind of E. coli that can transform solar energy into fuel, we’re learning more and more that we are inextricably linked to our ancestors and neighbors, all the way down to our genome, even to the trillions of microscopic bacteria and viruses that swim in our guts. This is a terrific, timely book.
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008: I try to read the O. Henry anthology every year. It is consistently excellent and its editor, Laura Furman, is superhuman: every single year she reads every short story published in every magazine that publishes stories in English. Then she picks her favorite 20 and, around May, Anchor puts them together in a book. There are some masters in the 2008 edition: Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, William Trevor, but there are also very good stories by very good writers you might not know: Olaf Olafsson, Yiyun Li, Rose Tremain. You can’t go wrong with this collection.
Michel Fourniret is a serial killer known as the Ogre of the Ardennes. Michel Tournier is a novelist, a frighteningly good one, and I’m in the middle of a translation of his 1970 novel titled The Ogre. Its protagonist is a big, creepy guy remembering his wartime adolescence. It’s dark as hell, poetic, and stuffed with obsessions and strangeness.
For thirty years, one of our best living American poets, Stanley Plumly, has worked on re-imagining the life and death, and life-after-death of John Keats. What is a poet’s ambition? What is poetic immortality? I’m not done with Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography yet; it’s dense, and it’s sort of a new kind of form: it’s a biography that assumes privilege to Keats’ thoughts and the moment-by-moment condition of his health and heart. If you like poetry, if you like the Romantics, if you like Plumly and/or Keats: this is a book worth checking out.
Wolves and Honey, by Susan Brind Morrow, is a regional history of the Finger Lakes region of New York, but that makes it sound sort of boring and this book is quietly transcendent. Morrow is one of our most underrated attention-payers: from beavers to coyotes, to a history of grafting, to an absolutely beautiful chapter on the lives of bees, her memoir consistently subverts the “I” in favor of tracing the infinite connections between the modern self and the larger world outside it. And she watches her language down to its rootlets: nectar, we learn, comes from Nek tar, “that which overcomes death” (91). Atom means “that which cannot be cut up” (76). Religio, the root of religion, literally means “tied up” (76). If you like Annie Dillard or Aldo Leopold or Mary Oliver, give Morrow a look.
Anthony Doerr’s most recent book is Four Seasons in Rome. His fiction has won the Discover Prize and three O. Henry Prizes. His latest Orion contribution, “Am I Still Here?” appeared in the January/February 2009 magazine. He lives in Boise, Idaho.