By Derek McDow, first reader and assistant to associate agent Jennifer Chen Tran
It’s a well-known fact among readers that personal to-be-read (tbr) stacks only oblige addition, often exponentially, by the veritable property of “I must read this” plus “this, this, and this” and “oh, yeah, this one too”, ad infinitum. One only need glance at the “to-read” portion of any active Goodreads account to see the exhaustive, unremitting lists of fascinating titles readerly folks load on themselves. Each year, tbrs all over the world grow at rates undeniably faster than people have time to catch up on their backlogs. Whether it’s the chase of fresh hype in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles or Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the desire to travel back in time with Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrain, the desperate need to finish a beloved author’s oeuvre—Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace still beckon from the shelves, the completionist’s impulse to conquer a tome like Don Quixote or William Gaddis’s JR, the curious compulsion to find out why everyone around you can’t stop raving about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between theWorld and Me or Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, the irresistible itch to scratch though more incredible stories by Roberto Bolaño or Alice Munro, the private irritation of having only vague familiarities with some of your favorite writers—irritations that Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky or Edwin Williamson’s Borges might help to quell, the hankering to broaden international fluency with Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red or Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, the desire to slake an appetite for more graphic novels—Talbot’s Alicein Sunderland or Hernandez’s Palomar should do the trick, or to simply get through the ones you’re currently immersed in like Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her; the tbr’s an aggrandizing force that towers over even the most unflagging & diligent reader.
And with December barrelling its way toward 2016 at spine-splitting speed, the listicles (like the White-Walkers) are coming. Best Books lists in every genre barrage us at almost every click. NPR Books provides a concierge to make the exploration a little more manageable. New York Times and Publishers Weekly will have their suggestions as will BuzzFeed, Vulture, A.V. Club, HuffPo, Atlantic, Harpers, and a slew of others. And while, like everyone else, I’m just as eager to scroll through every piece of “literary” click-bait to lengthen my list of reads—A Man Called Ove and Dead Wake, I’m eyeing you!—, I’m also excited about making my own top-ten literary list. This list however is a little different. Instead of frantically looking back over the year or trying to stay ahead of an unending barrage of new titles, I take a deep breath, step back, and assemble ten books that I want to read for the upcoming year—no rules, no pressure. While I try to collect an eclectic ensemble, I don’t stress out over the criteria for inclusion. Usually, this task consists of reviewing the score of crammed bookcases in my small apartment trying to recall when & why I purchased certain titles. It’s a pleasant meditative exercise that pairs well with tea. When a particular book jumps out at me, one that I want to triage, I add it to my top-ten. These are, despite the dozens of others I might read each year, books that I resolve to read without whimsy or defense. That said, and without further ado, I present my top-ten TBR for 2016.
- Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See Cont. Lit. Fiction
- Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone Cont. Lit. Fiction
- Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes New Non-Fiction
- Sousanis’s Unflattening Graphic Novel
- Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience Classic Fiction
- Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game Classic Fiction
- Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life Lit. Biography
- Alan Heathcock’s Volt Short Stories
- Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book One) Memoir
- CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance Poetry
Other titles, to my delight and interest, will invariably wisp in-&-out of my purview as the next twelve months blaze by but this small list provides an anchor to my reading tumult—especially when (blame “the paradox of choice”) the task of picking a new title can reach panic-inducing levels.
I first came across Anthony Doerr’s work in a used copy of The Paris Review(No. 159; Fall 2001) while on a Jim Crace kick. Sometime, in the winter months of 2003, I set for myself a completionist’s mission: read all of Crace’s novels & short stories (then eight or so)—a personal undertaking, to my chagrin, that never quite concluded. Needless to say, I bought the review for a Crace story—“The Devil’s Larder”—but closed it with a keen appreciation of an early work by a young Doerr called “The Caretaker”. At once impressed by Doerr’s prose, I decided to pick up his, then, already published short story collection—TheShell Collector. Fast-forward nearly a decade-and-a-half. Apart from purchasing About Grace, Doerr’s work hasn’t made much of a blip on my reading radar until this year when Doerr’s All the Light We Cannnot See procured the Pulitzer. Love or hate literary awards, they’re a cultural force of exceptional influence—even if only as flickering limelight. That said, with Doerr on the horizon of my reading future, I’d say the days ahead look brilliant even if the setting’s a drab WWII Europe.
Since Cutting for Stone—a title I can’t stop calling “Stones for Cutting”—is Abraham Verghese’s debut novel, I can’t say I have a history with his writing even if he published a couple memoir-ish works prior to the splash Stones made in 2009. Like most people, I imagine, I heard about Cutting for Stone from a friend—a fellow graduate student—who couldn’t stop talking about a pair of twins named Marion & Shiva. A sucker for epics, international fiction, and face-to-face rave reviews, I’ve decided after five long years of seeing this yellow-spined title on my bedroom bookshelf that 2016 is the year of Cutting for Stone.
Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, published this August, holds a distinctive place on this top-ten list. Not only is it the notable nonfiction title for 2016—an unimpressive caveat for someone with a voracious appetite for learning—but its subject matter, “The Legacy of Autism”, is keenly personal. While I’ve often been mistaken for a high-functioning aspergian—an assumption I rarely admit or deny—, I have family and close friends who have been medically diagnosed “on the autistic spectrum”. These people, like so many others—Temple Grandin, Tim Page, and potentially Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few—, unfortunately carry the undue burden of ableist rhetoric and prejudice on account of long-standing misinformation and misunderstanding about Autism. I wish I could say I’ve known about Silberman’s work for years now but my first encounter with him took the form of his relatively recent TED Talks back in March or April. Since then, I’ve been about as eager to read NeuroTribes as I have been to see Alejandro González Iñárritu’s TheRevenant!
Sousanis’s graphic novel/doctoral dissertation, is also a relatively recent addition to my collection. Still somewhat new to the world of graphic fiction—though an ardent admirer of Chris Ware and not unsurprisingly, as a millennial, Neil Gaiman—, I first learned about Unflattening from an OpenCulture article last summer. I was at once impressed with the possibility of academia donning the graphic medium to build on what Edwin Abbott Abbott started with his classic, Flatland. Arrested by the images and the prospect of dusting off some undergraduate philosophy training, I opted to include Unflattening as an exciting interruption to my otherwise text-centric reading life. Oh, and I suppose, in passing, I could mention my sensorial appreciation for HUP’s printing materials.
James Joyce is one of my all-time favorite novelists, not only because I’m second-generation Irish—if the surname McDow hasn’t given it away—but also because he wrote spectacular interiority like few novelists ever will. So, when history tells me that JJ waxed lyrical about Zeno’s Conscious, my ears perked up. Well, that and I’m shameless in my attempt to read at least one or two of the Everyman’s Library classics each year. Ever since I read a LRBs article by James Wood—more than a decade ago—Svevo’s been simmering in the back of my mind. Every year or so, I take the book off my shelf to examine it and mull over the possibility of reading it, only to put it back accompanied by the thought: “I’ll save this for some other time”. Well, the obnoxious guilt that readers intimately know as “letting a book collect dust”—think “The Nothing” from The Neverending Story—has antagonized me long enough and 2016 will be the year I propitiate my bookworm’s conscience for this ostensible offence.
Similar to Ayn Rand for TeaPartiers, Hermann Hesse seems—or, at least seemed in my time, aka the late 90s—to be the staple of quasi-spiritual teens curious about “The East” and its exotic beliefs. I had a few Buddhist friends in high school who told me that Siddhartha would take me to new levels of philosophical insight—I suspect many of them weren’t privy to Hesse’s Western-European background—and despite my skepticism toward their hyperbolic praise, I figured it couldn’t hurt to read another short classic. I poured over it in a sitting. And although Siddhartha didn’t quite earn the same place in my estimation as it did among my high-school friends, it gave me a faint hunger for more Hesse. Regrettably, that hunger hasn’t yet been sated. Not yet, anyway. I hope The Glass Bead Game—a futuristic utopia of mind-bending brain-gasms—will live up to the hype I’ve seen heaped on it over the years.
Like most readers, the biggest celebrities in my world consist of literary figures. Is it any wonder then, that after walking by Vollmann one night in my old neighborhood, I stopped on the spot and stood still for several minutes in “shock and awe” of the encounter. I’ve had similar experiences meeting Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, Yiyun Li, Updike, and a host of others. This is all to say, I have an unnatural curiosity about how authors lived, thought, imagined, worked, and loved. I can’t even remember the first Cheever story I read—must have been “The Enormous Radio”, “The Country Husband”, or “The Swimmer” in high school—but since then, he’s become a personal favorite of mine, especially after I read his Journals in college. Like so many other authors on this list, after reading their work, I’ve wanted to know more about them and Cheever’s no exception. This is all to say, it makes Bailey’s definitive biography of Cheever difficult to pass up.
Among the other nine authors on this list, Alan Heathcock is rather anonymous by comparison. In fact, that’s why I chose to include him in this tbr. Volt is Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories, published by Graywolf and received a number of awards including the Whiting (2012) and Publisher’s Weekly Best Book in 2011. All I have going into this fiction collection is that Anthony Doerr called it “ravishing”. And since I don’t get ravished remotely enough I thought I’d give Heathcock the opportunity to carry me away.
It seems weird to say but I’m late to the Knausgaard party. In the world of breakneck publishing, Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiography, My Struggle, is something of an unparalleled Proustian achievement—or, so I’m told. Released only six years ago by the Norwegian author and translated to English only three years ago, My Struggle’s seen an astonishing, meteoric rise to acclaim; that, in addition to a critical reception unrivaled in the “multi-volume memoir in translation” genre. Serendipitously, because I’m a huge “works-in-translation” guy, I first encountered Knausgaard’s writing through Archipelago books—a small indie-press that specializes in foreign fiction. I try to support them as often as possible; and when I read Zadie Smith’s “Man vs Corpse” in The New York Review of Books a couple years ago, rife with references to Knausgaard’s work, I knew I’d be picking up My Struggle sometime soon. This is one momentous memoir I’m thrilled to sink into.
While Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness won’t be the only collection of poetry I’ll read in 2016, it will be the first. Now, if I’m not misremembering (as I’m more and more prone to do in my ripe early-thirties), C.A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank came to my attention a few years ago via the miracle of Goodreads analytics. I picked it up on the recommendation and tittered through the whole ribald thing. So, when the opportunity recently arose to see him perform in person, I jumped at the chance. His recitations were riotous. They added emphasis and intonation that only intensified my appreciation for his jocosity. So, like any good supporter of poetry and the literary arts, I bought his newest collection of poems on the spot. With that performance, I felt triage of this title to my 2016-tbr was entirely warrantable.
There we have it: a very personal Top-10 tbr for 2016. And to all my fellow-readers, a very merry new year.