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.


Top 10 Books in 2007: 9 and 10

Caving in to the general media mania for “lists” as the year draws to a close, I’ve looked over my shelves and recalled the ten best books I’ve read in 2007. A couple of provisos should be made: (1) These are books I read in 2007, not necessarily books that were published in 2007 (in fact, I think only one of them appeared in the past year); (2) by “best” I simply mean books that were significant for me in some way. Usually this just means that they were books I kept thinking about, books that kept re-inserting themselves into my consciousness and imagination, perhaps books that changed my mind in some way.

So over the next week or so I’ll be posting some brief reflections, in reverse order (though the ranking shouldn’t be taken too seriously).

9. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Since reading this book, I’ve continued to dive into Burke’s corpus (in fact, he will be an important part of the Studies in British Culture course I’m teaching in York, England next semester). As David Brooks has noted, Burke’s conservatism is precisely what has been forgotten by the neoconservatives that currently pass for the Right.

10. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (in the old Random House Faulkner Reader, which also includes his Nobel Prize address). This is one of those reads by which I keep trying to make up for my lack of a liberal arts education. Faulkner is often cited as an important influence, or at least background, of the “Southern Catholic” writers I appreciate (Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor), so I felt an obligation to dive into this rather intimidating book. You sort of have to let it wash over you. It requires the reader to be willing to be out of control, to feel lost, to trust the author that it’s going somewhere. At times I have to say it felt maddeningly obfuscating. But Faulkner also paints multiple words in a minimalism that brought to mind the sparse dialogue of Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I need to check about influences of Faulkner on McCarthy, since Faulkner also has an uncanny ability to let the third person narrator’s voice accommodate itself to shifting characters and locales, as well as an art for dialogue (including difficult dialects) that are true to the characters. Nothing short of a literary experience.