The 36 Best (Old) Books We Read in 2021

From The Literary Hub:

I know, I know, it’s December, we’re all contractually obligated to tally up the Best Books of the Year That Was—and don’t worry, we will. (No shade to book lists, end of year or otherwise; they are, as Eco reminds us, a cultural bulwark against death. Also they are fun.) But as your father says, age before beauty, and so before we take the measure of the new kids on the block, the Lit Hub staff would like to celebrate some non-2021 books that we discovered (or re-discovered) this year.

After all, one of the great things about books is that they don’t disappear after the first year of their publication—barring floods and thieves, they can loiter forever on your shelves, waiting to be picked up and rediscovered, manic publicity cycle be damned. They can be revisited, loaned out, traded, forgotten and found. They can have strange, long lives. And hey, sometimes you’re just in the mood. So here are the older books we’ve been reading this year, whether for the first or the tenth time.

Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997)

I am not a huge re-reader, but in the middle of a rainy weekend bookshelf alphabetization disaster I uncovered Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, a book I read a decade ago in an MFA class called “The Hysterical Male” taught by Gary Shteyngart. I remembered the very end of the book scene by scene; I also remember finishing the book exactly at my subway stop and uncontrollably crying, much to the absolute terror of everyone around me. Either because I was aware the organizational project was soon going to break me or because I needed a distraction, I found myself spending the rest of the weekend with the curmudgeonly Barney Panofksy, self-described “wife-abuser, an intellectual fraud, a purveyor of pap, a drunk with a penchant for violence and probably a murderer.” It is an exceptionally fun book to read, and from a craft perspective, Richler’s mastery of both voice and unreliable narration still feels surprising. Thoroughly recommend for a first, or second, read.

Sebastian Castillo, Not I (2020)

Sebastian Castillo’s Not I is a book of accumulation. It has twelve sections, one for each of the English language’s verb tenses; each section uses English’s 25 most common verbs to create a series of first-person sentences. The maybe-Sebastian, maybe-nobody, maybe-everybody speaker catalogues the quotidian: “I make toast.” “I go to the park.” “I will be getting surgery tomorrow.” And the emotional: “I felt depressed.” “I thought you were my friend.” “I felt sorry for myself.” The speaker bends to authority figures; indulges in moments of luxury; longs for closeness; worries about doctor’s appointments. In mapping the everyday, Castillo’s doing something close to Perec’s idea of taking an account of the infra-ordinary, but with an inventory of time instead of space.

For Not I is concerned with the end. Juries, judgments, and grades make recurring appearances. “I have accumulated the bits of my life,” says maybe-Sebastian. And: “I will have called it the past.” Not I is aware and skeptical of the urge to accomplish, to turn your life into something you can look back on and feel pride. (Like, a book.) But its format knits the past to the future, promising that even banal experiences add up. When the book hits future tense, the sentences read like mantras, and the future experiences start to feel like the reader’s. It becomes a book of faith: look at all we have done, we will do, we will have done.

. . . .

Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952)

To my great shame, I must confess to never having read a Patricia Highsmith novel before 2021. Despite my love of the film adaptations of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Price of Salt (aka Carol)—all of which I consider to be masterpieces—I never bothered to walk the quarter mile to my local used bookstore and spend the price of a pint on a battered paperback by the troubled poet of apprehension. What a fool I was. The atmosphere of unease Highsmith conjures in her novels is thick enough to choke, and this tale of sexual awakening, obsession, and liberation is (despite being, I think, murder-free) no exception. The story of a disaffected New York set designer/shop girl who becomes infatuated with a glamorous suburban housewife, The Price of Salt is also a tender, bitingly witty, and surprisingly hopeful love story.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

If you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally a thousand times, as I have, it’s perhaps time to venture into the rest of Nora Ephron’s oeuvre. Reading this novel feels like watching one of her beloved movies, at a tilt. It comes with all of her signature wit, but it’s by no means a romantic comedy. (NB: Heartburn was, in fact, adapted for the screen. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, it’s definitely not what you’re expecting. But the book! The book feels closer to classic Nora.)

Reader, meet Rachel Samstat. She writes cookbooks for a living. She’s a devoted wife, a doting mother, she’s pregnant with her second child—and then she finds out her husband is having an affair. The rat bastard! For a book that revolves around such devastating discovery, it’s unexpectedly light. We have our effervescent narrator to thank for that. She’s smiling through her tears! She’s finding something funny in the tragedy! And she’s doling out tips for a killer vinaigrette!

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

2 thoughts on “The 36 Best (Old) Books We Read in 2021”

  1. I think that my definition of “old” involves a rather longer time than that of the writer. I realise that Emily Temple is a lot younger than me and that this may have affected her choices, but I still find her idea as to what is an “old book” odd.

    • I thought she defined that pretty well: “… the Lit Hub staff would like to celebrate some non-2021 books that we discovered…”
      So old is not-this-year. Like you, it doesn’t seem quite to fit to me, but it is her definition, I suppose.

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