I have been trying to find a link within the books that I loved this year. There's nothing overt in subject or voice, but in retrospect, I think I gravitated toward books that forced me to slow down. This might be (is) grand bathroom psychologizing, but I think this has something to do with the fact that 2014 has been my most prolific year of online reading to date. Many of the most memorable pieces that I've encountered have been delivered to me on a scroll, already couched in other peoples' comments. I read them greedily so that I could join whatever conversation they sparked, or feel that particular satisfaction of telling someone else that there is a new piece that they simply must read, like now.
This hasn't been a bad thing at all—it's been a year of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mallory Ortberg, Jeff Sharlet's Instagram essays. But I think it has put extra pressure on the books that I've read. Frankly, I've had a hard time paying attention. In the end, the books that stuck out were the ones that slowed time, that meandered in the best ways, that were unafraid to linger.
Three essay collections resonated with me this year. First, Hilton Als' White Girls, which came out at the end of 2013. Als is the best critic working in America and many of the essays in the book have been published already, but, for me, they took on new life when collected. He writes about varied subjects—Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor, among others—with patience, nuance, and imagination. But my favorite essay in the collection is perhaps the most personal. "Tristes Tropiques" begins the book and extends for a hundred pages, tracing Als' loves over the backdrop of the films and literature that help him understand his own life. It's fucking incredible.
I was also, like everyone else, completely blown away by Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams. For me, the pleasure came from the wandering quality of each essay in the collection. Whether she's writing about ultra-marathoners or prisoners or her own relationship to pain, she lets the feelings and ideas sit and germinate, paces around them on the page. This quality reminds me of my other favorite collection of the year, Angela Pelster's Limber. Jamison's work is loosely tied to a common feeling (empathy), while Pelster's revolves around a common subject: trees. I myself am not a tree aficionado, but it doesn't matter—each essay roots in so many different directions. Trees become art, love, morality—everything that we read for packed into a slim, wholly unexpected collection.
Finally, onto fiction. In the story of my reading life, this has been the year of Marilynne Robinson. I am, I realize, decades late to this party, but now that I'm here, it has become very difficult to remember the other novels I've read recently. I'm reading Lila right now, the only book of Robinson's to come out in 2014. It's amazing. But it's particularly amazing because I'm reading it fast on the heels of Gilead and Home, the first two novels in the same trilogy about a fictional Iowa town and two families that live there. Each of the books reflect the story through the lens of a different character. Each is as purposeful, deeply felt, and fully human as any novel I've ever read. Marilyn Robinson cuts through the noise. Now, I know that I'm by no means the first person to make that observation, so I will end with this specific direction: Buy Gilead. Open to page 51. Read the paragraph about honeysuckle.