2020: A Year of Reading
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
From poetry to theory...
It would be a grotesque understatement to say that 2020 has been a crap year. I have been luckier than many, but I cannot count this last twelve months as an especially fond period even selfishly. Lockdown and isolation are excruciating, and while I agree that we all share a paramount duty to contribute to containing this illness, I believe there is value in admitting that it has been a wearying experience. If for no other reason than to be in good faith.
Coronavirus has, as often observed, exposed many of the faultlines in our capitalist societies: the chronic problems of atomisation, inequalities and fragile health infrastructures, including mental health services. It has therefore disproportionately impacted workers, minorities and the oppressed (encompassing a terrifying slaughter of the elderly and disabled). In this context, it has been a year that exposes the lasting shames, complicities, and traumas that are normally allowed to fester more invisibly (which is not to imply that such injustices have been fully and properly illuminated).
We are facing, in this catastrophe, only one manifestation of a much greater metabolic rift, a rupture between humanity and nature theorised by Marx. In such times of turmoil and crisis, often with few other options to divert myself, I have turned largely and characteristically to reading. In part I have sought answers in books, more on which in a bit, but a large part of my reading has also looked away from a strict obsession with the moment and to sources of stability and joy. This has been a year—even more than other years—when books have proved one of the greatest sources of relief.
It is my habit to meticulously record the books I read. I do so in a Scrivener database of ‘reviews’; these often amount to collections of haphazard notes and those quotes that stand out to me as I leaf through a volume of fiction or nonfiction. It has therefore also become a habit for me to reflect back on my year’s reading in December. And while this year’s reading is incomplete, I have decided to make that reflection into an essay on the solace and euphoria of reading itself.
The medium I have found myself turning to foremost is poetry. I began a complete read through my assortment of Cinnamon Press collections, and did a two-part review of five of those books focussing on the authors Susan Richardson and Gail Ashton, but also including the anthology In the Telling edited by them both. (Part one can be found here, and part two here.) I have read other books published by Cinnamon too, greatly enjoying (for example) John Barnie’s The Roaring Boys and The Forest Under the Sea as well as Elizabeth Ashworth’s Flashes and Specks. (The haphazardly alphabetical ordering of my Cinnamon project is probably apparent.)
The book of poetry that left the strongest impression on me is another anthology. Introducing Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive, its selecting-editor Neil Astley describes it as ‘a book about what poetry means and how it can help us as people. A book about staying alive.’ He seeks, in his choices, to offer a vital and joyful—if also and intentionally contradictory and thoughtful—roadmap to contemporary poetry; one aiming to be ‘closer to Shakespeare than to Modernism in its address to concerns shared by the reader and in the way the poet often celebrates human and spiritual values instead of mirroring cultural fragmentation.’ Rereading W. H. Auden’s ‘Gare du Midi’ from this book gave me chills: ‘He walks out briskly to infect a city/ Whose terrible future may have just arrived.’ Poetry has been a lifeline during this pandemic, a connective assortment of humanising voices.
Whether it is a plunge into the primordial ocean or ‘dragon heads peeping out of seafoam’, Sonya Blanck’s pamphlet saturn's cove (available here) conjured a world of metaphor and myth, of resonances and occult natures. These poems are an invocation, a ritual in verse, ‘wreathed in blood, in pomegranates, in smoke, in leather.’ Blanck contributed a story to my utopian anthology, and I was happy to recently receive a numbered copy (that is, four), signed by the author. I read both Raymond Tallis’s Sunburst and Philip Terry’s Dictator to review for Envoi, and posted my assessment of the latter alongside Michael Schmidt prose history The Life of a Poem: Gilgamesh as a patreon exclusive (now unlocked and to non-patrons here); that work’s themes, spoken from a radically different historical lifeworld, nonetheless communicate so much of loss and calamity. John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, lent to me by a comrade, does the same for another, more proximate but still profoundly other time, and gave me a much more nuanced appreciation for Donne’s work.
When it came to theory, a project with a comrade had my focus, aptly, already on the earlier mentioned metabolic rift. Andreas Malm’s history Fossil Capital emphasises the agency involved in class conflict and the centrality of a distorted relationship to nature in capitalism’s origins; McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red looks to a radical utopianism to escape our impasse; finally, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan assesses how systems of political sovereignty could shape our probable futures, for good or ill. Similarly, but not connected to these other books, Walden Bello’s Counterrevolution has given me a greater understanding of the class forces involved in ongoing reactionary movements, which have all truly come to ahead this year—both in terms of their limits and undoing, but also and aggressively in their capacity for reinvention and fresh outrages.
At the same time, a subscription to the Left Bookclub pushed me to read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pieces of revolutionary theory deeply enmeshed in a concern for human flourishing and agency, two books that take their cues from engaging in active struggles. Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny was a stranger one for me, coming from a tradition not my own (i.e. analytic philosophy), but that nonetheless presented a robust argument for a conception of misogyny that rightly emphasises its role in enforcing patriarchy. When it comes to fiction, the final instalment of my mum, Jan Fortune’s Casilda Trilogy was wonderful to read—a book I had been anticipating for some time. For Hope is Always Born was a fitting finale, one that settles on a titular hope that is hard won and vital. Stefan Zweig’s Chess, in contrast, spoke to the horrors of isolation and the limits of human resilience. While Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books proved to be a tour de force of experimental prose and a moving exploration in itself of human liberation as set against the historically calamitous drive to dominate and oppress others. These books all aptly complemented the theory I was reading alongside them.
I did not read so much horror in ’20 as I did in ’19, but three I did read stand out as amongst the best horror I have encountered. Or, in the case of Tracey Fahey’s Unheimlich Manoeuvres in the Dark, substantively re-encountered. Christopher Slatsky’s The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature and George Daniel Lea’s Born in Blood: Volume Two were both also impactful. And I wrote on all three: see here, here, and here respectively. I worked on Kit Power’s My Life in Horror Volume 1 (see here) professionally, and that book, especially his essays on friendship, are wonderful testaments to the form. And I would be remiss to forget Tim Hutchings’s Thousand Year Old Vampire, a horror based journal-prompt solo RPG that I will undoubtedly revisit in a future blog, and which is a splendid invitation to explore the gothic through one’s own imaginative apparatus.
I do not know how well I would have negotiated this trying year without such books. I hope to cleave even more to literature in coming years, sure that they are not only a means by which to test and hone my mind and understanding, but a spiritually enriching and utterly human means by which to engage in another’s communicative art, to further our species unique capacity for dialogue (a notion the earlier mentioned Freire stresses as key to his pedagogy). We need to appreciate our capacity to listen (that is, to read), and to see in it an artistry of a sort. Reading, whether poetry or theory or prose fiction, can be a great asset even in the bleakest of times, a reminder of our humanity and the deep ties we necessarily have with one another, to the past, and to the possibilities of various futures.
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