Some books which have made an impression on me this year, presented unsystematically and in no particular order…
As someone who’s spent the last few year being excited about the work of Chris Kraus it was a great thrill to get the chance to attend a reading she gave, this year, at Waterstones, Deansgate. Kraus’s appearance in Manchester was in support of her new book After Kathy Acker – the first book on this Top 5 of the year list of mine – which is Kraus’s biography of the great 70s/80s punk literary experimentalist who appropriated, and made her own work from everyone from Milton and Dickens right through to Harold Robbins.
Kraus’s book is a scrupulously researched run through of Acker’s life and achievements but, as well, it’s also a portrayal of the various literary/bohemian milieus Acker existed in and moved through: artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians helping each other and supporting each other and, just as often, stabbing each other in the back . . . It’s a tremendously exciting read and very evocative of a time and place I dearly wish I’d known.
Two writers younger than Acker who yet moved in some of the same circles as her are Lynne Tillman and Mary Gaitskill; and whilst reading Kraus’s Acker book, by chance, I came across books by both Tillman and Gaitskill in charity shops . . . And though I’m not going to include on this list anything by either Tillman or Gaitskill I will heartily recommend, in particular, Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Haunted Houses and Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.
Maggie Nelson is a writer seeming to be exploring some of the similar areas to Kraus, the intersections between autobiography, art-writing and critical theory, and, though she’s someone who’s been around for a while, Nelson’s a writer I only got around to reading this year. This year I read, from Nelson, first off, her Bluets followed by The Art of Cruelty. Bluets was the standout title for me and so takes the second position on this Top 5 list. It’s a meditation on Nelson’s relationship to the colour blue charting, as well, some of the historical uses the colour has been put to. The book is poetic, moving and profound. And, at the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it before. It’s only a slim book but one which contains an awful lot.
Whilst poetry has long been my primary writing activity I haven’t done that much of it, comparatively speaking, over the last couple of years, having been busy – instead – on a seemingly never-ending, ever changing book-length prose work; my reading of poetry has also slipped a bit . . . This year, poetry-wise, it’s been just Eileen Myles’s Collected I Must be Living Twice; Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems and Neruda’s Elemental Odes which seem to have left an impression on me. Room for none of those on this list though . . .
In the constantly threatening to topple book pile by my bed I’d say its film-related texts that have supplanted poetry; this past year I’ve got through a load of film stuff . . . theory; histories and biographies. The ones I’ve enjoyed most would probably be Robin Wood’s very precise, detailed survey of 6 of Hitchcock’s films; Jean Luc-Godard’s collected film writing, edited by Tom Milne; Robert B Ray’s The Avant-Garde finds Andy Hardy and Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The Rosenbaum, in particular, impressed me a lot and takes the third spot on this list. Rosenbaum, a long-standing movie critic for the likes of Sight and Sound, the Village Voice, Film Comment and, latterly, the Chicago Reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and his writing is never less than fascinating. The essays collected in Placing Movies include considerations of Barthes on cinema-going and extended meditations on some of my favourite directors including Jacques Rivette and Bela Tarr. Also, the list of movies I found myself noting down, movies I hadn’t seen but wanted to, grew longer almost page by page as I made my way through Rosenbaum. 2018 definitely looks like being a year of filling in some gaps in my movie-watching record as well as further investigations into Rosenbaum’s back catalogue.
A new area of reading, for me, this year, has been art writing; some of the titles I’ve enjoyed include Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Arthur C Danto’s What is Art?; and Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery. The art book which blew me away though, this past year, and which I’m going to put in this list at number 4 is Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: a survey of a handful of contemporary artists plus an attempt to identify and analyse certain theoretical concerns recognisable behind the work of the artists Foster has focussed upon.
I found the book demanding but, also, endlessly exciting. Every couple of pages, it felt like, I was being introduced to some new idea; ideas not just to do with art but to do with psychoanalysis, critical theory and political resistance. As per Rosenbaum, I expect next year will see me digging deeper in Foster’s work.
Finally, the number 5 spot of this list is going to be occupied collectively, by a rather random selection of a few of the books I’ve read this past 12 months which appear, from my perspective of today, to have left some kind of imprint in my brain. Firstly, there’s Pierre Guyotat’s autobiographical Coma detailing the deterioration of his health which led, eventually, to him falling into a coma in the pursuit of his literary vision. An unsurprisingly intense read which, however, encouraged me to seek out other translations of Guyotat. Renata Adler’s Speedboat: a collage of impressions; snippets of conversations; half-finished stories; dialogue overheard on the street; and advertising slogans and things off TV which seemed to me to add up to a much fresher, newer way of creating ‘fiction’ and, as well, an example that, it could be argued, hasn’t really been followed up. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Wharton being a writer I’d long been convinced might prove hard-work, and hard-work of the not particularly rewarding variety I was, to my surprise, blown away by this novel. A beautifully written, stylish account of love and manners amongst the upper class new Yorkers of the early 20th century; I loved it and currently have several more Wharton novels sat on my shelf awaiting their turn to be read. Finally, I want to mention Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up: a short story collection of tales of the uncanny and strange featuring Axolotl obsession and young men who vomit bunny rabbits. Lots of sci-fi-esque effects happening in non-sci-fi settings. Weird as anything; also brilliant.
. . . and having finished this list I’m, immediately, remembering more books from the past year that I’ve enjoyed and which deserve a mention here but, you know, it’s Sunday morning and I want some breakfast, so I’ll end this here.
– Richard Barrett