Glowing, obsession, performance art, and a dead duck: my year in reading

Inspired by the The Millions Year in Reading series, I decided to post my favorite reads of the year. Narrowing it down to just a few, here are the books I enjoyed most in 2011 year:

The Illumination
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination has such a compelling idea as its central premise that I kept thinking about it, long after I finished reading the book. What would happen if our injuries, our illness, our pain started to glow? How would the world be different (would it?) with that sort of shining?


Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest is about obsession, discovery, longing, dreams, and sex. Valente’s imagination is extraordinary: a lesser writer would never get to you to believe in what she can see.

The Family Fang

Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang is one of the funniest stories about one of the most fucked up families you’ll ever read. Funny as in haha, as in something off, as in weird: the Fangs are all kinds of funny. The Fangs are performance artists who raised two children (as props? as performance?), so what does it mean, now that they are grown?

Duck, Death, and the Tulip

Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death and the Tulip is an unusual children’s book. It’s about death (not a common topic for picture books) and it isn’t preachy, sugarcoated, or evasive. The quiet illustrations are beautiful, evoking the right balance of sadness and acceptance. This books serves as a reminder that picture books are an art form.

You are reading right now. Aren’t you?

People don’t read. Wrong.

That’s what I say to myself every time I hear one of the “but people don’t read” arguments. People do. Sure, there is the tl;dr crowd, but the rest of us? We use Instapaper if we don’t have the time to finish, or pinboard, or some other bookmarking service. And most of the time, we really do go back and read the thing. My Instapaper account has a far shorter list of articles waiting for me than I have unread books in the house.

Lately I’m noticing a resurgence of reading online. I’m not sure what has sparked it. A fascination with a new form factor is no doubt part of the equation — using Flipboard makes a lot of web content more fun to read because it is an iPad app. It’s also more enjoyable because it is focused on the reading experience in a way that far too many websites are not.

One way to make “people don’t read” more accurate is to make it as difficult as possible for someone to read something on your site. First, shrink the font to an impossible to read at arms-length size. Then chop up content into pages, forcing a new page to load every two hundred words or so, so you can increase the number of page views where you serve up ads. Yes, make sure to liberally apply advertising: big obnoxious animated ads, ads that pop a box covering the content people came to see, little text ads sandwiched in between bits of real content, and my new favorite, ads that pop up in boxes when someone hovers over a link. Keep the real content to between two-thirds and one-half of the screen real estate. People won’t read if you make the experience terrible.

So there are all these new methods to make it less terrible, that make it fun, like Flipboard. Like Readability, which not only offers a vastly improved reading experience, but goes so far as to offer a different (and in my mind, more credible than most advertising) model for generating revenue from content published online.

There are so many tools to publish online — clearly we are all writers, of a sort — and yet I’m encouraged every time I see a new tool that makes it easy for people to publish on the web. Things like Posterous, which mainly relies on email to post stuff, meaning it’s accessible to anyone with an email account. Things like Pen, which is designed to let you publish “beautiful text based pages in seconds and share them with the world”.

Because the world that reads.

The goodness of the unread books currently in the house is almost unbearable

We went on one of our sprees last night. In other words, we had spent so much on used and remaindered books at Harvard Bookstore that we hit 20% discount time. We knew that going in: spree time involves a combination of careful planning (the need to have lists of “check for” titles ready) and being open to serendipitous discovery.

What did I get?

Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. I was feeling pretty good about her next book (whatever it might be) and then I read about it on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog: he said “If you can’t see the poetry in this book and the brilliance I kinda want to take away your birthday

Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. I loved Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, so as soon as heard about this I knew I had to get it. I didn’t realize The Art of is going to be a series, and Baxter is going to be series editor. (If this all weren’t excellent enough, Mark Doty is going to do The Art of Description.)

Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. This was on my “look for” list. I’ve seen it around, and it seems the wonderfully odd kind of thing I’d like. Plus, I’ve been on a short story kick.

Jack Pendarvis’s Your Body Is Changing was my never heard of it before but decided I had to have it find. George Saunders blurbed it on the back cover, and said the guy was a “dangerously funny writer”. I happen to think Saunders is a genius, so this means he’s probably right about Pendarvis. (He blurbed Miranda July, and I loved No one belongs here more than you, so I don’t think he’s an indiscriminate blurb whore.)

I think I’ll be spending as much time as possible reading tomorrow. And probably for the next little while. Forget warm puppies, happiness is books. (Not that I don’t like puppies. But I’m allowed to have books and more books…)