As 2016 draws to a close, we begin our inevitable tallying of these last twelve months. Particularly, which books we did and did not read. How many we bought in a swoon of impatient desire that have not been cracked.
On November 5, John Berger—storyteller, artist, poet, novelist, critic—turned ninety. That day and in the weeks since, I’ve celebrated by reading and rereading a selection of Berger’s essays, notebooks and fiction. In that work, I’ve found a worldly guide, one who gazes far and wide at art, literature and the stories of individuals and crowds, with urgency and enviable energy.
They appeared in magazines and literary journals with the frequency of periodic comets, and for those of us who ordered our days so that we could live inside of literature, navigating through the prose and plots and poetry and places of the great works that tell us who we are and who we can be, the mere rumor of a new story by Stuart Dybek incited exhilaration.
As long as there are new audiences, novels will continue to speak. Lovers of literary quotes know that the most famous sentences can stand independent of their book’s plots and characters, making their own way into the personal mottos and mythologies of readers around the world.
But Jennifer Levasseur finds that often when she most needs the comfort and escape of a novel—in times of grief, of uncertainty and anxiety—she's too fragile and too distracted (perhaps too afraid of losing even more of herself) to fully enter a fictional landscape.
So how to dive back in?
Leonard Cohen, poet, musician, novelist, icon, died on November 7, 2016. Throughout his career, he investigated everything from love and loss, religion and history, politics, inheritance and sexual longing. His songs segue from sensual beauty to affirmation of the world’s delights to apocalyptic worry.
As we celebrate his life, we take another look at this work, particularly his two novels, Beautiful Losers and The Favorite Game.
Kevin Rabalais has a chance encounter in a bookstore, the kind that sends us home to read a special new book right now, even though there are stacks of unread ones waiting.
In Idra Novey's Ways to Disappear, a Brazilian writer disappears up a tree with a suitcase and a cigar. Before long, she has everyone—her daughter, her translator, an ominous man with a gun—searching for her and trying to decipher her secrets.
At this year's Louisiana Book Festival, Jennifer Levasseur reflects on Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, its long life, the ways it continues to provoke, and how she's carried with her this story of a war veteran who chases his secretaries and escapes into films, all in the shadow of Mardi Gras.
More than fifty years after its publication, The Moviegoer speaks to how we should live, what we might be searching for, and even helps us understand the current US presidential campaign.
As Halloween approaches, Daniel Stephensen finds himself wondering what else Poe would have written had he not died at age forty, what strange treasures we would have received. The book of Poe's to make him wonder most in this direction is Eureka: A Prose Poem, an ambitious metaphysical investigation into the cosmological principles of what Poe calls the “Universe of Stars.” It is by turns measured and logical, vision-struck and enraptured.
Over the past few weeks, feeling that reader’s itch to devour everything we can, we turned our attention to this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. Some of the six novels on the list baffled us. In others, we encountered rigorous, deep meditations on the human condition. A few others were simply pure pleasures. In this installment of Sacred Trespasses, we offer short reviews of all six novels on the 2016 shortlist.
London, 1940. Three men browse the bombed-out hull of Holland House Library. The photograph testifies at once to a city’s perseverance and also to the necessity of literature. It reveals our need—that singular reader’s need—to plunge into the world of the book, deepening reality in spite of all circumstances. People who read in public seek to engage with two authenticities at once. They live simultaneously in the their immediate surroundings—the bustling city, the chatter of cafés, the joyous trill of crowded beaches—and the vivid hum and scent of the book itself.
A year ago, keeping in mind that iconic photograph of readers in Holland House, Kevin Rabalais began making images of readers in public places. This post of Sacred Trespasses offers a variety of readers—yet only a sampling of the many I’ve encountered—in Melbourne, Australia, a UNESCO City of Literature.
We all know, to paraphrase Whitman, that each of us contains multitudes. Without any contradiction, we are different versions of ourselves. Debra Spark's new novel about identity and the incomprehensible other, Unknown Caller, illuminates all we can't know about ourselves and others. It rattles and thrills.
Rolando André López Torres explores Fernando Vallejo’s explosive, flinch-inducing novel The Whore of Babylon to question contempt versus mystery in religious faith and atheism:
“Here’s the key: the choice between belief and unbelief does not depend on knowledge of information; it depends on what you look for in that information, on the temperament of your hermeneutic, or interpretive lens; that is, you can choose whether to view something as mystery or as mere contradiction.”
There's a period—a golden age—in each reader's life when everything is new and we're convinced that there will be enough time to read everything.
Kevin Rabalais experienced this golden age during his university studies, when he strayed to other courses' syllabi and received lessons from Tolstoy and some wise, straight-talking Jesuits.