The worst things I read in 2010:
The delusion – as he now thought of it – had lost its power over him, and so the books only magnified his sense of the hopelessly laughable amateur he was and of the hollowness of the pursuit to which he had dedicated his retirement. (Everyman, Philip Roth, 2006, p. 128)
That’s just – that’s just terrifying. I wish I hadn’t read it. Breathe slowly. Calm. Calm.
The books in that passage are art books. The character is an amateur painter. And I’m not even retired. Never mind. Everything’s fine. That’s not about me. Onward.
Few amateurs are endowed with a tender susceptibility to the sentiment of a picture; they are not won from an evil life, nor anywise morally improved by it. (The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1860, Ch. 37, “The Emptiness of Picture-Galleries”)
More pictures, so that’s not so bad. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is some distant analogy that I might apply to myself. The passage is accurate. I do not have a tender susceptibility to sentiment. I’m not morally improved by my reading. As a reader, I have a heart of stone, although passages like this introduce doubt. But maybe there is no analogy.
On the other hand, I read continually, from morning till evening, and far into the night. I always read German books, and in the queerest way. Every evening, I intended on the following morning, and every morning, the following noon, to throw aside the books and get to my work; I even fixed the time from hour to hour, but while I turned the pages of the books, utterly oblivious of time, the hours slipped away, days, weeks and months vanished, as lightly and slyly as if, gently thronging forward, they were stealing away and vanishing with laughter, to my eternal discomfiture. (Green Henry, Gottfried Keller, 1854, III.8, 368, tr. A. M. Holt)
Oh no. That’s just – I have to look away. Too horrifying. The “work” Green Henry is avoiding is, again, painting. The reading interferes with what he thinks is his vocation. It is so much easier to consume art than it is to produce it. Those hours, those months – those years! Green Henry is, at this point, a lot younger than I am. Try not to think about it.
I suppose the title of this post may be a little misleading. These were all good books. It’s their content that is unnerving. Their meaning.
I don’t really read so many bad books. What were the worst in quality this year? The first half of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters (2010), the last half of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890), and the last four-fifths of Susan Ferrier’s Marriage (1818) – the first fifth is high-larious. These books, or parts of them, may have been pretty poor, but they did not do any harm. The Grossman book may have done a great deal of good, of the thought-provoking variety. But those terrifying Roth, Hawthorne, and Keller passages, those I will carry around with me, trying, futilely, to suppress them.