This year, I made a point to read more widely. I promised myself there would be things that I would not teach, research, or use in any other way than to reclaim my love of reading that spurred my many degrees in reading closely in the first place. Although the beginning of December does not count or feel like the end of the year necessarily–and definitely not when piles of marking haunt you from the edges of your desk–I would like to issue an invitation to think back on the texts–literary and otherwise–that moved us in some ways this year. It’s not a top 3 (or 10 or 100) for me, because I am not a big fan of rankings and hierarchies, but it can be for you. What’s more, an eclectic bunch of things have ignited my imagination, dread, or hope this year, of the apple, orange, and kumquat varieties, so comparisons would not work for me, but they might for you. I’ll go first, if you promise to add one or two things in the comments.
Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being has devastated me, making it difficult, at times, to come back to it, while also compelling me to go on by inferring that life cannot possibly be so bleak, and then reaching even more dismal abysses. Like many contemporary texts, Ozeki’s muses on how neoliberalism dismantles humans’ responsibility towards one another and towards other life forms, including the environment more generally. (You see, you can take the literary scholar out of the classroom, but you can’t… oh, you know how it goes.) Ozeki’s style, and the novel’s nested structure does not allow the reader to give up, however, and I kept returning to the trauma scene, only to be confronted afresh with more unrelenting realities. The novel’s ending, although attempting some sort of reprieve, manages to undercut itself by narrating a hopeful dénouement, only to throw the optimism into doubt. The same kind of device appears in Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, but I’ve only just finished this novel, and I need some more time to mull a deeper comparison over.
This one I will definitely not teach, as it’s nowhere near my area, but it has become an aspirational model for me: Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. First, it’s the traditional feminist methodology. Byrne unearths documents, events, and actual things that recuperate a picture of Jane Austen as an assured, knowledgeable, and intentionally astute commentator of her time. Byrne talks back to the official biography released by her family after Austen’s death, which paints a period- and gender-appropriate picture of the writer as a humble and modest recluse, who merely stumbled upon writing as a pastime. Being an Austen amateur, and nowhere near scholar, I cannot assess Byrne’s suggestion that, for a long period of time, Austen scholarship took that family-released biography for granted. However, my amateurism lands me at my second reason for loving this book: its success in making literary scholarship accessible, nay, enjoyable to the general public. Arguably, biographies have always been the most marketable type of literary scholarship, but this book does so much more work in illustrating the connections between historical events, Austen’s life, the politics of her time, and her novels by openly doing close readings for example, that I would put it up there as a great model of public feminist cultural studies.
Finally, my life circumstances have made it logistically difficult to go out much, but this past weekend I went to see and listen to one of my favourite singers, Basia Bulat. Live! In person! (both me and her!). If I’m not much of an Austenite, than I’m even less of a music critic, so I will spare you my inane squeals of joy, and offer you one of her songs in closing.
What’s your year-end reckoning?