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An End of the Year Review with William Callahan

    December 12, 2014 | News about

In the spirit of end-of-year top ten lists, here are my top ten memorable reading experiences from the last year. Some were published this year or very recently and some were published a while ago. I would recommend any of them to anyone looking for any kind of gift for any kind of person. Buy them! -William


Robert Walser, Translated by Damion Searls

New York Review of Books, 2013

Part of this book is a series of essays and the idea is that Walser is writing in character as a young schoolboy and anyone who still has memories of high school will laugh nervously and uncomfortably all through the one on Nature which begins, “It is hard to write about Nature, especially for someone in grade A-2,” and ends with, “There’s the bell.” Word count! Torturing young people for at least 110 years!



Dave Cullen

Twelve, 2009

Earlier this year I had my first and only bout with short-term insomnia. It went away. During my childhood I experienced a handful of what I guess sort of popularly goes these days by “night terrors”: I would wake up in an excited state and overcome with a desire to escape something. And in college I remember smoking pot, closing my eyes, and suddenly looking over high ridge onto a vast field that was punctuated every few miles by giant castles shaped like those cat statuettes in Chinese restaurant windows, and all the while endless saffron banners dropped silently from the sky. It wasn’t cute. It was awful, I promise.

But all in all I have rarely had problems with sleeping or nightmares or anything like that. Then I got Columbine and read that Eric Harris “shared his dreams in Internet chat rooms. He described them vividly to online chicks. In one, he was suspended inside a small dank room, like the interior hull of a ship. Futuristic yet decaying old computer screens lined the walls, covered with dust and mold and vines. The moon provided the only light, trickling dimly in through the portals, shadows creeping all around. A vast sea rose and fell monotonously. Nothing happened. Eric was overjoyed.”

And I had nightmares for several nights.



Edited by Elizabeth Longford

Oxford University Press, 1989

I like this book so much because you can open it to any page and be pretty much guaranteed to see the word “Duke” or “Princess” or “licentious”. Also, I liked that it included a story about a rich American who after the Revolutionary War thought that George III wasn’t all that bad and said “I should like to smoke a pipe with him” which means that Americans have been administering “the beer test” to our potential leaders since the very beginning. Cool!



David Quammen

Norton, 2003

Nicolae Ceauşescu killed a lot of bears!



Dodie Smith

St. Martin’s, 1998

This is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. It was recommended to me by a good friend who knows about these things. She was right, but this particular copy, published in 1998, (it was written in 1948) also comes with another recommendation printed on the cover from one J.K. Rowling, helpfully identified under her blurb as “author of the Harry Potter series” which looks funny now, but must have been necessary in 1998 when Harry Potter was only a year into publication. This book is perfect. It’s about a down-and-out family who live in a drafty castle with basically no money. If it ended there, after the first thirty or so pages, I would like this book a lot, and return in my memory to that happily drafty castle. But then there are these strangers who show up, fall in love with the castle—and with the girls!—and we’re off to the races. I want to read this book again, and I want a castle.



Janet Malcolm

Knopf, 1983

Man, I don’t want to be at a party with any of these people!





Usborne, date unknown

These are illustrated stories of children around the world, in space, and throughout time having adventures and stumbling into puzzles. You, the reader, have to solve these puzzles in order to continue the story. I recently bought these again after having read them many, many times as a child, and I was stumped by exactly the same puzzle that infuriated me as a child—one of the first in “The Ghost In the Mirror,” in which you are supposed to figure out how to get into Grimstone Manor by looking at the cluttered front yard and seeing what items could be combined to make an entry contraption for a second-story window. SPOILER: it is a completely baloney solution involving an inexplicably snow-white tire and a rope, and it made no sense when I was ten, and it makes no sense now, and in reality those kids would never have made it into Grimstone Manor, which is all for the best because there really actually is indeed a ghost in the mirror.



August Sander

Schirmer/Mosel, 2013

This is a giant book of portraits by August Sander (died 1964), whose life project over was to photograph as many German people as he could. He got a lot of them. I bought this beautiful book from the Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street (RIP). He labeled all of the portraits by occupation or social role, and my favorite is one labeled “Kinetics Researcher from Vienna” who is just a man walking in his underwear (I’m a kinetics researcher too!), and my least favorite is “Explosion Victim.”




Slim Aarons

Abrams, 2003 and 2005

These are both collections of gorgeous and wonderful photos of rich people around the world from the 1950s through the 1980s and I like to look at them and make myself feel better by thinking: “And yet none of you had the internet.”



Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Knopf, 2014

This is an unbelievable biography of a hard-to-believe man. I knew next to nothing about him when I picked this book up, and I could have read this as a novel if I’d wanted to. It’s so vivid and active, and rejects completionism and instead focuses on exemplary episodes from the man’s life. This is a great way to write biographies, I think. And a perfect way to read them. I’ve never read a biography which so well got to the heart of the problem of writing about someone who is so detestable and yet also so admirable and gifted and influential—and which doesn’t short-change any of those dimensions. This book is better than the man it’s about.

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