Top 10 Books in 2007: 7 and 8

7. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how this book could possibly be a movie. Not because it isn’t a compelling story with all sorts of chilling thriller potential. And not because it isn’t populated with deep, fascinating, haunting characters (Chigurh is one of the most chilling characters I’ve run into in a while). The reason I can’t imagine this as a movie is because of McCarthy’s genius, namely his ability to paint such powerful pictures with such a simple palette and so few strokes. McCarthy’s prose is so frugal it borders on being stingy—and somehow (just how?!) he creates an engulfing world with two-bit dialogue and miserly description that says so much with so little.

The book also got me thinking: I think those who regale McCarthy for his “nihilism” (as I was wont to do a couple years ago) might be falling for a trap. I think we need to perhaps read McCarthy the way we ought to read Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: we ought not confuse the author’s voice with that of the protagonist. So is it Chigurh who embodies Cormac McCarthy’s “worldview?” Or should we rather listen to the voice of Sheriff Bell?

Heading out into the chaotic moonscape that is Chigurh’s habitat (and creation, in a way), in an exchange with Molly, Sheriff Bell

pushed the chair back and rose and got down his gunbelt from the coatrack behind his desk and hung it over his shoulder and picked up his hat and put it on. What is it that Torbert says? About truth and justice?

We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Something like that.

I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.

8. Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972. Wilson was one of the twentieth-century America’s great critics—from a time when criticism mattered (Norman Mailer, in a Paris Review interview, talks about his respect for critics like Wilson and Kazin), as well as a time when critics weren’t housed primarily in academia. Wilson and Kazin were part of a class of public intellectuals that has almost passed from the contemporary scene (Christopher Hitchens might be a bit of a throwback in this respect). I’m a correspondence junkie, so it’s easy for me to have a soft spot for a collection of letters from a sparkling figure like Wilson (who also was quite famous as a “character” in the literary scene; if the letters became a movie it would almost surely earn a ‘R’ rating). But letters like these also bring out my Luddite romanticism: it seems to me that the advent of email means we’ll never have books like this again. Our correspondence is too fleeting and flippant, too mechanical and utilitarian. No one will confuse our terse emails with the rich sorts of letters that Wilson and his circle used to swap. Wilson valued the letter (even the post card) as an outlet for literary flair and creation. Though he lacked any social filters and was only too willing to let his friends (like F. Scott Fitzgerald) know exactly what he thought of their work, one also finds here his appreciation for wise teachers and literary confreres.