Sunday, January 2, 2011

Memorable Nonfiction 2010

Reading feeds the desire to write, and writing in itself is often an extension of reading. This explains why I read novels above most other works. Since I read so few biographies, memoirs, essay collections, and letters, I’m more selective, though maybe I ask of these works the same thing I ask of novels: that they feed my thinking and get me motivated to write. Three non-fiction books stood out for me this year.

The best biographers give you the life complete, baggage and all, written with no distracting bones to pick with their subject. The biographer takes on the self-erasing task of subsuming themselves in the life story, and sifting through the expected mundanity in order to reveal the exceptional. This could be difficult to accomplish for anyone compelled by their subject and trying to interpret the life, yet a degree of fandom is essential, as well as restraint. One of the best literary biographies for having covered this ground, and yet not shying away from either critical assessment, or candid and sometimes difficult judgment, is Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Though I was mostly a casual reader of Cheever’s well-known short stories before I picked this bio up, I came to admire the conflicted writer who, at heart, made a unique and solitary venture of his fictional output over a long and sometimes troubled life. This reading sent me to Cheever’s overshadowed novels.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto had me riffing on its provocations. Like any good book of philosophy, this one forces a reader’s reaction. The numbered paragraphs are widely borrowed from attributed sources and compiled to construct a number of dubious arguments (the novel is dead, “sampling” is the future of literature, truth is more worthwhile than fiction). Nevertheless, the resulting compendium is provocative for the daring of the broad sampling ( a preponderance for several quotable essayists), often rewritten to make Shield’s points, which proves or at least validates that his de-contextualization experiment might just be a hybrid form of memoir-slash-manifesto. Though it also provides a convincing case that the novel is alive enough to provoke diatribes against it.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940, are almost too specific, direct and intimate, like catching one side of an eavesdropped conversation, that a guilty taste of voyeurism is unavoidable. What comes through the young Beckett’s missives is a hubristic certainty, a kind of unassailable arrogance, as well as an authority tempered by doubt and perseverance, as when he declaims to his cousin Morris Sinclair: “Here I strut about, I cannot and will not do otherwise, and have no idea if God helps me or not.” One would have been honored and maybe intimidated to have received from Beckett a multi-lingual letter laced with multiple literary references. But even a partially committed Beckett completist will be curious to thumb through this first of four projected volumes for prime examples of an endangered, if not yet extinct, form of writing from a modern master.

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