Sunday, January 02, 2011

Favorite Nonfiction in 2010

Most of my "professional" reading (which I don't usually chronicle here) falls into the "nonfiction" category. So my reading "for pleasure" tends to be thinner in this area. But here are five standouts (with one hat-tip to a professional book worth mentioning):

5. David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. I'll give one shout out to a theology book--as I noted earlier, this is a masterpiece that will need to be digested for a generation.

4. Thomas Wolfe, The Story of a Novel. This little tome--really an extended essay--was mentioned in the introduction to a collection of Wolfe's letters. And then lo and behold I came across it at MacLeod's Books in downtown Vancouver (if you're ever in Vancouver, do NOT miss the chance to visit MacLeod's). In it Wolfe, in his inimitable blend of charming narcissism, recounts the story behind and around the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, a wending tale of drama and relationships. And in the midst of this I was taken aback by a passage which instantly explained why Look Homeward, Angel had become so important to me:
"From the beginning--and this was one fact that in all my times of hopelessness returned to fortify my faith in my conviction--the idea, the central legend that I wished my book to express had not changed. And this central idea was this: the deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man's search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united" (p. 39).
While critics would seize upon this as evidence of Wolfe's Freudian modernism, I hear in it an Augustinian parable.

3. Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. This is a strange book: really just a cumulative, chronological assemblage of news clippings leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II. A haunting, non-theological refutation of the so-called "What about Hitler?" refutation of pacifism. While I think Baker is somewhat given to a rather utopian notion about the "effectiveness" of pacifism, he nonetheless recounts why and how World War II did not have to be, and how the Allies were certainly not concerned with saving "the Jews."

2. Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. A solid collection of Smith's prose (some of these essays will be familiar to readers of Harper's and New York Review of Books). The long concluding essay on David Foster Wallace is as insightful as it is controversial, and "The Crafty Feeling"--on the craft of writing--is worth the price of the book all by itself.

1. David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. It was strange to read this a month after reading Wolfe's The Story of a Novel. This is almost the DFW equivalent: Lipsky, commissioned to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone, spends five days with him at the conclusion of the book tour following the release of Infinite Jest. There's a price to pay to enjoy this book: you will end up pretty much detesting the parasitic Lipsky, fawning over Wallace while at the same time trying to keep up with his genius, trying to feel like "the writer" that Wallace has just become. But tolerating Lipsky is well worth it for what amounts to a lit geek's wet dream: hangin' out with David Foster Wallace who has to be one of the most lovable creatures of late 20th-century fiction. It's like he never lost that Midwestern accessibility and earthiness. (Indeed, something like this becomes a theme of conversation: "It's way beter for me to be living in Bloomington," Wallace recognizes.)

It will be no surprise to hear that Wallace's conversational voice is as supercharged as his writing. And in his various riffs you get to hear the sorts of original metaphors and neologisms that cut to the heart of things--like when he talks about the rare kind of book that activates "that kind of stomach magic" that makes you say, "God damn, it's fun to read. I'd rather read right now than eat"--or when he talks about the force of music that gives you "an erection of the heart" (some way, some how, that is making it into the sequel to Desiring the Kingdom!).

By the end of it, you'll feel like Lipsky: sorry it has to end. Which is also how we feel about the life and writing of David Foster Wallace.