Books and the Year

There are books that remain perpetually of the moment in every year in their different ways – The Bhagavad Gita, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying – or that come into focus some years more than others – perhaps Fahrenheit 451 this year; perhaps Carl von Clausewitz’s On War next (or will that be Bleak House?).

Most books are consumed in the reading; achieving effects that can be described, without much distortion, in a sentence or two. Only a very few of the nearly 200,000 books published in English around the world in any year will defy such compression; in fact, they will go on expanding in one’s mind after reading, sometimes becoming more like places that we visit, and re-visit, than fleeting experiences.What follows is a selection of some of the books that, in my estimation, belong in the second category, with little more than a couple of adjectives to give you the general idea and nothing much in the way of description of what they are ‘about’.

2011 was a very strong year for fiction with many superb books including: Ali Smith’s seriously funny, engaging There but for the, Richard Beard’s brilliantly ingenious Lazarus Is Dead, Anne Enright’s angular and gripping The Forgotten Waltz and Belinda McKeon’s quiet, lyrical debut of gathering power, Solace.

Foster by Claire Keegan is a haunting long story from a writer with incomparable powers of noticing. If a classic is a book, to adapt Italo Calvino’s observation, that is unlikely to finish saying what it has to say, then Foster, it seems to me, is already a classic.

The same could be said of Lydia Davis whose witty, penetrating stories have a totally convincing, expanding apprehension of human realities even in their smallest compass.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="165" caption="Illustration by Anna & Elena Balbusso, from 'The Song of Roland'"][/caption]

John Burnside (who introduced Folio’s edition of The Song of Roland) produced two of the year’s best books, a dark, mythic, and yet strangely limpid novel, A Summer of Drowning, and Black Cat Bone, what could be a properly great book of poems (it is, of course, too soon to tell).

Teju Cole’s Open City is a seriously beautiful performance in language of memory and place; a renewing occasion for us to think deeply and compassionately about ourselves and others.

One could trace the deep heritage behind Blake Butler’s There Is No Year through American letters as far back as Charles Brockden Brown, through Poe, to William Gass and Brian Evenson, but it is itself and no other’s; an indelibly eerie, gnawing, subcutaneous fiction.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="191" caption="Hope Mirrlees"][/caption]

If I could I would happily take a year off from all other forms of reading and read only poetry. Two collections, both by young poets, that I read and admired this year were: Sidereal by Rachael Boast, lucid, graceful and robust poetry, and the fabulous music of Timothy Thornton’s pamphlet Jocund Day. Hope Mirrlees was a friend of Virginia Woolf’s and a probable influence on T. S. Eliot. A new Collected Poems has recovered this complex and fascinating poet for new readers.

A book from last year that I returned to throughout 2011 was Creaturely and Other Essays by Devin Johnston; essays that are journeys into the everyday where culture and nature converse, in which he gives depth and lustre to the ordinary in a way that will be familiar to readers of Hazlitt, Thoreau and Montaigne.

Even though I count this as a golden age for historical writing I tend more often now to read and re-read established works in order to choose books for Folio members – recently, for instance, Keith Thomas’s masterwork Religion and the Decline of Magic which we’re publishing next year with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. I did, however, finally read A Monarchy Transformed, Mark Kishlansky’s fine, convincing and multi-layered account of Britain’s revolutionary century.

Waiting to be read is the latest book by one of the most talented historians working today, Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape – an original and fascinating-looking exploration of changing notions and experiences of place and the sacred in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

Also tempting me is Marina Warner’s new book Stranger Magic and, as good books on London are always a pleasure, there is also Craig Taylor’s Londoners.

I’ve more than run out of room and have yet to mention whole favourite categories such as children’s books – a new, wonderful Maurice Sendak, Bumble-Ardy – or art books – Turtle Fur by Amy Cutler.

And what’s more there’s another year in books only a few short days away…