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epic adventure: my 2021 reading itinerary

One year when my husband and I were first married and living in Boston, we discovered a huge warehouse of books called the New England Mobile Book Fair, billed as “New England’s Independent Bookstore.” There was nothing “mobile” about this bookstore—it was hard to imagine its cavernous interior on wheels hurtling down I95 headed for a new location. We chose to visit the store that year on new year’s eve day, and it was such an unusual experience that it became a staple of our afternoon every December 31st before heading downtown for first night events. We often went with friends, and if family were visiting, they came along, too.

Its vast aisles and soaring shelving clarified for me why I read in the first place: the world is vast and boundless, as are the efforts of humans to document and imagine the world they live in. Here was this tremendous collection of human thought laid out in front of me in a seemingly infinite grid of aisles that vanished into the distance. Everything was arranged by publisher, and while I have some favorites presses, I mostly just enjoyed wandering the expansive aisles and selecting things at random. We spent hours in there, and then another hour afterward getting coffee and showing each other what we had picked out.

I’ve just checked their website, and I am disheartened to learn that they have been closed since August 28th, 2020. Due to the virus, no doubt, although nothing is specified. Another victim of this horrific plague that continues to ravage our communities all across the country and all across the world. Will they be able to open again at some point? I often wonder what the world will look like if/when we emerge from this devastation…but since I can’t bear this view for very long, I will return to my book shopping narrative.

This year my new year’s eve day book shopping happened online. For Christmas I was lucky enough to get three gift certificates to some of my favorite bookstores: I received two for Powell’s in Portland, OR, and one for Arcadia Books in Spring Green, WI, my favorite indie bookstore outside of Madison.

To assist me with my book choices, I turn to the many “best-of” lists that you see all over the Internet in the last days of December. This year I chose NPR’s Book Concierge to be my guide.

In addition—I always make some reading goals, a sort of jumping off point to get me started, which also informs my book choices. I love setting reading goals for the new year as a way to intentionally place and anticipate new voices and new lived experiences along my path.

Last year I started the new year reading Nicholas Jubber’s Epic Continent, a recounting of his travels to sites around the world that figure in iconic works of world literature. In the first section of his book he visits Greece and the sites in Homer’s Odyssey. I had decided that as I finished each section, I would read the work of literature itself that was being discussed. Several years before, my husband had given me the Odyssey, the translation by Dr. Emily Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania classics professor. This version is heralded as the first translation of this work into English by a woman. I hadn’t yet read it—as much as I wanted to, it is daunting to take on a text that is thousands of years old without any sort of guidance, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to follow it. I had read parts of the Odyssey many years ago in a literature class, and I didn’t think that would be much help now. But I found Dr. Wilson’s language completely accessible, and I was thrilled to be able to chart my progress and my comprehension as I finished each Book of the saga. And Jubber’s take on the story and his visits to the actual sites in the story offered me an additional salve and an enlightening peek into this work that dates to the 8th century BCE.

So, my reading goals for 2021 look something like this:

Artists. The first few weeks of January in the United States we witnessed brazen displays of crude, ignorant posturing, and I find myself turning to the lives of people who choose instead to add beauty, reflection, and exquisite, thoughtful complexity to the world: artists, writers, and performers. One of my favorite virtual programs that I have regularly tuned into over the last several months is Cocktails with a Curator, put on by The Frick Collection in New York City (on YouTube). Every Friday evening at 4:00 (CST), for about 20 minutes, one of the Frick curators talks informally about one artwork in the collection. We learn about the work, the artist, and the time in which the artwork was created; my favorite curator is Aimee Ng, who is extremely knowledgeable and engaging. So, I decided that I wanted to include in my reading goals this year the study of at least one artist and their life.

I came across the work of Ruth Asawa sometime last year, and her amazing wire sculptures, and as I explored her life and work a bit, I learned that she and her family had been among the Japanese Americans interned by the United States during World War II. I thought her life experience and the art she created could teach me a lot about those that prevailed amid a horrible world event, made even more intolerable by baseless, ignorant government policy. I selected this book about her and her work: Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa, by Marilyn Chase, a journalist who lives in San Francisco.

And then I came across a book about five women painters, and because women have so often not been recognized for their contributions in the art world, I’ve added this to my list: Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. This is by Mary Gabriel, a journalist and previous Reuters editor who lives in Ireland. Here's an interesting article published in the Guardian in March 2020 about female artists working in the shadow of male artists.

Book Arts. One of the fun things I’m doing this year is book arts—I have dabbled in this other years and felt like this was the perfect time to do more. Right now I’m taking a virtual class through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis: Non-linear Artist’s Books. This class will meet for six weeks; the first night we made 9 different one-sheet books, and I keep returning to these fascinating structures each week to find different uses for them (probably everyone in my family will get one of these designs this year as a birthday card). My instructor recommended a book artist and her work—Esther K. Smith, based in New York city—and I have already picked up her book How to Make Books, Purgatory Pie Press, the press she runs with her husband Dikko Faust, a letterpress printmaker.

I learned a lot about artists’ books several years ago in an art librarianship class I took when I was getting my master’s in library and information studies; this is one of the best classes I took in the program. The two instructors, both librarians at the Kohler Art Library on the UW-Madison campus, explored all of the facets of art librarianship: the facilities themselves, how and why and what to collect, the relationship with faculty and students, reference and instruction, and so on. For one of our assignments we were each given a reference question that they had dealt with at some point; my question was about 14th and 15th century Italian and Middle Eastern Renaissance automata. It was fascinating to do the deep dive into the many art information resources and to learn about these sometimes functional sometimes whimsical creations that contained a heady mix of art and science. We also learned about the Kohler’s extensive collection of artists’ books—over 1000 titles. If I had an art degree of some kind, this is the type of librarianship I would want to do.

Some book artists I’m thinking of learning more about this year are Ed Ruscha, for his minimalist LA cityscapes and pop art signage, and Claire Van Vliet, who founded the Janus press. She lived and worked in Madison for a while.

Japanese fiction. Several years ago I read a number of Haruki Murakami novels and was enthralled with his work. There’s something fantastical about stepping into a work of literature set in a landscape and culture that is foreign to you. This author additionally weaves fantastic elements into his stories. I’m not a big fan of sci-fi or fantasy, but I seem to be more accepting of it in his work: reading anything set in Japan is already a singular experience for me, so I guess I’m more accepting of the additional weird elements—they don’t dissuade me in this case. He also is one of those rare male novelists that can write believable, complex female characters; they aren’t protagonists in his stories, but each one is deftly constructed with a significant role to play.

Two years ago I was planning on reading IQ84 with a friend, but then she backed out saying that she didn’t like how Murakami always had so many references in his books to the West—music, literature, etc. I thought this was unfair since this no doubt reflects the author’s inclinations, and why can’t we all be free to seek out the cultures we want to explore regardless of where we’re from? I went ahead and read this book—it’s a long one—over 700 pages! But I had a paperback copy that divided it into three books, and so it didn’t really seem that long of a slog. Plus, I was really curious to find out how he would tie up all the tantalizing story lines.

But I have thought about my friend’s comments a lot, and I realize that I can’t learn much about Japanese literature by reading one novelist with a penchant for creating characters that are enamored of Western culture. I have read a handful of novels by other Japanese writers, and I want to do more. So I have decided to read a variety of contemporary Japanese authors as a way to get a better sample of the literature and to see what this might teach me about Japanese culture. The way I pick titles and authors is entirely random right now since I’m just beginning to learn about who these contemporary authors are. One I read last year, Sayaka Murata, the author of Convenience Store Woman, is on my list this year with Earthlings. Another author on my list is Hiromi Kawakami. A year or so ago I read her book The Nakano Thriftshop; this year I’ve got Strange Weather in Tokyo on my list. And there will be others as well.

Literary translation press. I read a lot of literature in translation, and last year I discovered a small, indie press I hadn’t known about before: Charco Press. They are based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and specialize in getting contemporary Latin American writers published in English. I have read a few of their titles and am enjoying the destinations and the lives described in other cultures. I have read stories set in Argentina—Dead Girls, by Selva Almada, and The Adventures of China Iron, by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara; stories set in Colombia—Fish Soup, by Margarita García Robayo; and I am about to start one set in Mexico—Loop, by Brenda Lozano.

Environment/nature. After four years under a president who turned back decades of legislation protecting air, water, land, and endangered animals, and who started to open our pristine national parklands to drilling and mining, it is essential to understand what has happened and what is at stake if we don’t reverse this. I very recently read that Barry Lopez passed away in December; he has been on my to-read list for a while. I have picked up his book Horizons, hailed as his environmental masterpiece. I am so sorry that we will not be hearing anything further from him on the complex relationship between humans and their physical environment.

Travel writing. One of my favorite genres is travel writing. I have two books on traveling in France that I want to read this year. A few years ago I picked up a used book called The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography (by Graham Robb, a well known historian and biographer, published by W.W. Norton & Company), and a newer title, The Seine River: The River That Made Paris (by Elaine Sciolino, a former correspondent for the New York Times, also published by W.W. Norton & Company). And I will be reading more Jan Morris.

Medieval studies. The medieval period runs generally from the 5th century CE to the 15th century CE. I find this time period so intriguing—it always gets derided for being “dark” and backward, and yet it set the stage for the Renaissance—the Renaissance would not have happened when and how it did without the years of thought and discovery and achievement before it.

The Venerable Bede wrote his historical masterpiece, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, around 731. The beautiful, illustrated manuscripts meticulously created by monastery scribes were produced and reflect the intense scholarship and artistry of the time period. The earliest universities were established in the medieval period, and as they grew, the need to produce and reproduce books in greater numbers led to the advent of metal type and the mechanical printing press, dated to the 1450s, arguably the tail end of the period.

To continue my self-education in medieval studies, I’m going to be reading the Penguin Classics edition of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, two of the foremost thinkers of the time period. I’ve taken a couple of classes on medieval culture with UW-Madison Continuing Education, and my favorite was a four-week class about the medieval city of Laon in France. My Dad used to go to Laon to do what was called “TDY”—temporary duty—when we were stationed in France, a way for the doctors in the eye clinic at one U.S. air base to help out at another clinic at another air base. “Laon” always sounded like a magical place to me as I wondered what my Dad was seeing and hearing whenever he was called away on one of these trips.

Something in another language. This year for Christmas I got a wonderful assortment of books in other languages from my family. After binging on the Belgian police procedural "Professor T." last fall, I thought it would be fun to study Dutch. So my husband bought me one of the Harry Potter books in Dutch. And my daughter bought me two different language translations of Alice in Wonderland, one in Spanish and one in Old English, which I don’t read but have studied now and then. We’ll see how far I get with these!

Re-read. I’ve been watching the Durrells in Corfu again; it helps ease this long duration of staying at home, especially now that it’s winter and the landscape is white every day. So now I want to re-read Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I’ve also been missing two of my favorite authors, Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf, so I’ll be re-reading both of them.

My reading goals provide me with a sort of jumping off point, a road map, which takes me in certain directions but also allows me to explore other routes and byways that I come across that I didn’t initially envision. This serendipity is what makes real travel so much fun, and it’s what fills out my reading year, these unexpected moments of grace and rapture at trodding some totally new ground. My reading goals also equip me with traveling companions, the works and authors and lives that I choose to read and learn about. Last year, as the pandemic was hitting and closing things, I found I suddenly couldn’t read anything at all. One day I opened up Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and as I grew to know and trust her narrator, who is numb from life’s upheavals, I was able to recover somewhat. I finished her trilogy (it consists of Outline, Kudos, and Transit), and I also read The Last Supper, a divine lark about her family’s stay in Italy one summer. Her language is sublime.

All the books I ordered on December 31st have now arrived, and I’m having fun getting started with this year’s reading adventure! And I’ve already got an idea for my next book purchases (perhaps a birthday gift?), The New York Review Books book club. There are many book clubs out there: you pay a certain fee (many of them are quite pricey), and they send you a book each month for 12 months. The New York Review of Books is one of my favorite cultural/literary reviews, and they have a fantastic publishing venture that republishes literary classics that have gone out of print. Their book club is quite reasonable—you get 12 NYRB titles for $150. You have to order by February 17th to set it up.

So, enough about my reading goals. What do you want to learn about this year? Who are your favorite authors, your favorite presses? What does your reading journey look like?


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