Year enders 2019: Steve Hanson

What have I read this year?

Highlights in terms of things I covered for Manchester Review of Books were Stuart Elden’s text on Canguilhem (Polity) Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter (Splice) Colin Herd’s click + collect (Boiler House Press) plus Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey’s Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism).

Macbeth, Macbeth was of special interest as I will have a book out next year that is part of a series which includes a reissued edition of that work. You might say I was checking out the competition, but it turns out they don’t have any competition. Well, certainly not from me.

Also peerless is Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran’s Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons). Book of the year for me, that, in terms of things I’ve reviewed.

I tackled a load of lit-crit I hadn’t read. I have crossed a lot of it already by studying semiotics and structural linguistics – and teaching semiotics in art schools. But I wanted to build on that base by reading academic literary criticism.

Barthes I’ve read – most of the books in English – but I haven’t read the Pleasure of the Text yet, I need to. I read more of Terry Eagleton’s key work, Criticism & Ideology (1976) The Function of Criticism (1984) and I started The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990). I need to try to finish that. I feel slightly guilty when I see it around.

I think I actually started those in 2018, time seems to bending the further down it I get…

I read The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode. Utterly brilliant. And delivered in lectures at an obscure Welsh college. That’s an incredible book, actually. I read The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Repetitive, patchy, quixotic, but a reactionary poke in the ribs. T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture is all over the place. Stuffy, so vague in places it verges on a spoof. I read a book on Thomas Mann by someone – I can’t find it now, but it was absolutely brilliant.* I’m reading Lukacs on Mann a chapter at a time. I can feel the Mann-binge coming on, in 2020. Magic Mountain, finally, I reckon.

I read a massive biography of Disraeli. By Robert Blake. I don’t know why I started it, but I can explain that I got a strong take on his whole era from it. I became less and less interested in Disraeli and increasingly interested in the politics of the late 18th early 19th century all over again. Plus Disraeli is interesting as a young Byron-obsessed dandy and less so as an old duffer. There were lots of side-trips into other books when I took myself through that one.

I read a lot of Burgess. I go to quite a few International Anthony Burgess Centre events and so I got through The Devil’s Mode, the first two Enderby books (great fun) Dead Man in Deptford (fantastic) and The End of the World News. IABC keep the man in mind, so their job is being very well done.

I read a pile of sci-fi. World of Tiers, which swerves from the great to the ridiculous, sometimes on the same page. Michael Moorcock’s Black Corridor, and I re-read his Rituals of Infinity, both are great. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which is kind of a collection and kind of not, but brilliant, which Bradbury was. I read White Light by Rudy Rucker, which is full-on Acid Scifi by a mathematician. Really astonishing stuff.

I read Atomised and Whatever by Houellebecq. I’ve been seeing curt dismissals of his work for a long time. The reality is much more complex. Atomised is a moralising utopian novel. It is right on-geist in that it reflects the sicking back up of the neoliberal era completely. In fact the new left and Houellebecq are on the same page, though I guess neither would admit that. They have very different answers to the crisis but the diagnosis is coming from the same historical place.

By reading him I’m trying to do justice to my own advocacy in my article about reading things that don’t already square with one’s own politics:

I have read a bunch of other things. An MIT book on computing, Benjamin on Brecht – some of that was fragmentary – a book on Kelvin Corcoran, and the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe.

I have started things and put them aside. The usual bad novels and trash-fi that’s too trashy even for me. I picked up a copy of Nicholas Rankin’s Faber on Ian Fleming’s 30 Commando at a book swap and was disgusted by the language. I managed to take it to a charity shop and not torch it outside in a barbecue tray. I nearly did. He explains the Lancashire Fusiliers ‘winning a load of VCs before breakfast’ in WW1, jolly-what-ho. My great grandfather and his mate – who I met as a boy – were Lancs Fusiliers in WW1. My great grandfather was killed and his mate told me to never join the army. Disillusioned with the world, he then pottered around on a bit of spare ground for the rest of his life. He was a lovely man. Rankin profits from Tory war porn made for village idiots.

Other ‘epic fails’ as the kids call them: I have this wager with my friend Nigel Armitage, he reads a Dickens each year to get through them all. I decided to take this on because it’s a great idea and I raised him a Shakespeare. I have failed the core Dickens challenge and excelled in the raised game. No Dickens. Two Shakespeare, King John, and I read all the sonnets.

The biggest challenge has been the one I’m still tackling: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I read Lot 49 and the Slow Learner collection in the 1990s and have finally strolled into the vast madhouse. This is no idle metaphor. You walk into Gravity’s Rainbow thinking you’ve been had.

I’m only just over halfway through. Gravity’s Rainbow is sprawling, messy, scattershot. It is ‘bonkers’, but it is very far from nonsense.

Happy reading folks and thanks for reading us.


* I have found the book now, it was Thomas Mann, The Ironic German by Erich Heller.

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