|Middlemarch at The Strand's rare books room!|
If books have seasons, then spring is democratic, summer is feminist, fall is poetic, and winter is nostalgic, at least, that was the literary calendar of my 2019. Books are also a more enjoyable way of measuring time as I take stock of the year. It’s like reminiscing on characters in a familiar village, except the village is your mind, and most of the time, its inhabitants are rather observant and chatty friends.
I’ll start with an old one who kept me company throughout the seasons: I first read George Eliot's Middlemarch five years ago, and since then it has been like a best friend who won't shy from revealing your own ridiculousness, capaciously. This time around, I saw more clearly my own misbeliefs in Lydgate’s conviction of submissive loveliness as the ideal of femininity and Dorothea’s glorification of the mind of man and his doomed "Key to All Mythologies.” I found some fates (Ladislaw’s, Mary’s) more admirable; others (Lydgate’s, Rosamund’s) more tragic.
Like the youthful idealism and somber realism that runs through Middlemarch, Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things brought a springtime restlessness that said: You are not alone in your desire for authenticity, sincerity, caring. Politics is how we make decisions together to build our world. It took me to Purdy's A Tolerable Anarchy which asks what we mean when we employ American freedom. How is freedom personal and political? How is it traditional and radical? These practical and utopian dimensions of freedom, along with the matriculation of a sweep of women and minorities in Congress, roused an energy in me that oftentimes felt misplaced against the backdrop of gentle Hudson waters and delicate cherries outside my window.
Freedom is also at the heart of This Life by Martin Hägglund: if our time in this life is limited, then it matters urgently what we choose to do with it. The limits on our time make imperative that we live in a realm of freedom, to care for the things that we love and find worth preserving. Such care, Hägglund argues, cannot be found in a vision of a Christian afterlife, but in a vision in this life, in politics and democratic socialism. Hägglund's strictly secular account informs how I think about a personal relationship with Jesus and a kind of private Christianity that speaks at the level of nation.
Our minds flicker and rest, between people and places and time, and the shifts between minds are fluid, yet unknowable and impenetrable. My summer subway reading of 2019 was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. After Lila’s marriage in The Story of a New Name, I instinctively clasped the book shut and wrote in my journal that I would never lose my last name. I fumed at Nino, a man who fed off the care of women and took advantage of his multiple relationships for personal gain. Summer was heated marvel for stories that could speak so much untold truth about my and this world. I learned from Ferrante and Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, that to write is to co-create our stories as women. My writing took a new shape and gumption, and I wrote my first op-ed articles in 2019 with these inhabitants in mind.
The necessity of writing did not hamper its joy; it illuminated the beauty of the sounds of words. Wendell Berry was a companion and guide in this journey, as I woke in fall mornings with his A Small Porch poems and essays, where "a world of words could not describe this wordless world." Mary Oliver passed away earlier in the year, and her A Poetry Handbook walked me through the assonances and endings that gently stream, rippling over stones, smooth and strewn. In autumn, I collected words as I collected leaves, scattered into corners of my village-mind: apricity, venation, luminous; my favorite one: nefelibata, one who walks among the clouds.
We write to heal, we write to be seen, we write to make amends with a past impossible to amend, and to communicate with those who will never speak our language—those most close to us, like the Ma that Ocean Vuong addresses in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. The shimmering words, lexically and grammatically, had the power to bridge distances between spaces geographical and generational--as close as two dashes side by side.
Reading the novel shortly after my trip to my heritage-land, Shanghai, I was reminded of my attempts to record and preserve the stories of my grandmothers. As I sat by Nainai on her couch, she asked, why do you ask these stories we forget and don’t speak about? It was the irony of a generation thrice removed trying to go back to roots before their roots, to understand the self—myself.
This desire to understand added a new neighbor to my village, Reading with Patrick, a memoir by Michelle Kuo, a Taiwanese-American then in her twenties who self-identifies as a contemporary Dorothea Brooke, navigating a world of heartbreaking inequality and immigrant pressures of economic security. It’s also a book about novels; about how reading, and reading with another, changes you both. It was during this season that I had been reading, also through another's eyes, classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, which opened up a city-outside-a-village, and I found my New York City merging with the porousness of minds and affect in 19th Century Russia, or with pervasive ennui and cliché through the French Revolution of 1848.
It must have been in the second-to-last week of the year when I entered again one of the final scenes of Middlemarch: Dorothea attempts to read a book of Political Economy, a detail which made little impression in my 2014 mind, but in 2019, I found startling, for the subject has been a centerpiece of my thoughts and questions. Like life and like literature, 2019 revealed a sharper sense of the mistakes of blind idealism; things change and we can’t go back, which doesn’t necessarily ebb hope, but strengthens it with realism and co-creation.