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How to Read Recklessly, Part 2
Six of my favorite reckless reads of 2022, and how I found them.
Previously, on Bang Flag: “Like many people, I was spurred to look back at my reading list of ’22 – but not just at what I read, but how I read, because it was something I had been thinking about a lot and I started last year with a new manifesto: to read more recklessly….”
Okay, so I wanted to read more recklessly. But what exactly does that mean?
My time for pleasure reading is rare and very precious (not because I am cool or popular but because I have mundane life obligations). So the pressure I put on each individual book had become untenable. I too easily got stuck reading only books I preemptively believed I would enjoy or felt obliged, for one reason or another, to engage with. I’d stopped experimenting, reaching, sampling, gambling, or reading spontaneously.
So this year, I set new goals: Browse more. Purchase impulsively. Let books surprise me. Give myself a chance to stumble on something revelatory.
I wanted to leave the windows of my reading life open and see what might fly in.
And it worked!
Here’s six of my favorite reads that illustrate why:
HHhH by Laurent Binet
I bought this book on a whim while browsing at one of my favorite used bookstores, Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. HHhH is a fiction-ish meta-novel about Binet’s lifelong fascination with telling the story of Operation Anthropoid, a World War 2 espionage plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi SS leader in Czechoslovokia. The novel is not new (2012); it’s not an author I’ve read before (it was Binet’s debut); the title, while eye-catching, is not exactly enticing (“HHhH…choo!”); and I’m not especially interested in WW2 history, or Nazis, or meta-books about writing. And yet!
I bought it for three reasons: Not long ago I read an alternate history crime thriller about Nazi Germany, Fatherland by Robert Harris, that I really liked. And I loved Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments, about the strange experience of having his memoir, which incidentally has the greatest title in publishing history, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, turned into a movie – and that was also a sort-of meta-mirror-ish autobiographical book about storytelling. Also, I was in a used bookstore with money in my pocket.
So I bought HHhH, and read it, and it was maybe my favorite read of the year. Not only a thrilling espionage page-turner but a smart book about our compulsion to turn everything — world history, our own messy lives — into neat narratives, for good or ill. Apparently — I found out later — there’s something of a minor cult around this book. I highly recommend it, which means you have one more reason to read it than I had.
Lesson 1: A.B.B. Always. Be. Browsing.
The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne
I bought this one summer day at the Strand Bookstore outdoor kiosks at the south-east corner of Central Park, which is maybe my favorite spot in all of New York. Mostly I bought it because I really, really, really wanted to buy a book, if only as a souvenir. I love to buy books that will one day remind me of the time and place where I bought them, so I was determined to find something enticing in the Strand’s generously stocked bins. Which is when I stumbled on The Glass Kingdom.
At first glance, this novel was more in my wheelhouse, though I’d never read Osborne before. I was familiar with his best-known book, The Forgiven, and the fact that he’s often named among the literary offspring of Graham Greene, likely because of his recurring subject matter (louche expats in peril) and his own biography (Osborne’s a British journalist living in Bangkok). Otherwise I knew nothing about this book other than what I could glean from the jacket copy.
What the jacket copy of Glass Kingdom promised, however, ticked off many of my personal boxes: Someone with a shady secret (a young American woman on the run from a literary world con-job); a suitcase full of cash (the reliable ticking-time bomb of many a satisfying thriller); and a cloistered community (a decaying luxury building in Bangkok, amid a city collapsing into civil unrest). I bought it, read it, and it’s great — a little bit Greene; a little bit J.G. Ballard; exactly my favored cocktail of steamy ennui and dark dread. So I not only discovered a wonderful new book but a new author I will revisit again and again.
Lesson 2: Books make the best souvenirs.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
This one came to me by a more conventional route — it was widely lauded in 2021 and included on the New York Times Top 10 Books of the Year. I sought it out when it was released in paperback and bought it new at McNally Jackson at City Point mall, the best bookstore in New York that no one knows about.
My theoretical ideal read — what I am constantly prowling for —is a short, crystalline, discomfiting novel about the surreal dread and discomfort of modern life.
This is that.
This story of a translator working at the Hague hit me perfectly. The novel astutely examines all manner of intimacies (as the title suggests!) and the tone and mood are unerring (and unnerving). A bullseye.
Lesson 3: When critical consensus and your personal proclivities align, act.
The Cook by Maylis de Kerengal
I bought this for craven purposes: I’d set myself an embarrassingly modest reading goal for 2022, which by mid-December I’d given up on achieving. But after finishing a novel on Christmas Day (The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton; found free in a Little Library; weirdly good? Or certainly surprisingly weird; about which, more later, maybe), I realized that if I read three books in six days I would make my goal. But the only way for me to read three books in six days was if I cheated.
Reader, I cheated.
Or, at least, I went to a bookstore after Christmas, purposefully seeking out very short books. I had two criteria: Under 120 pages (3-4 hours of reading time for me); looks vaguely palatable.
I bought three books and they all turned out to be fantastic. (Two of the three were staff picks. God bless staff picks.) Starting with: The Cook, which is translated from French and very slim (~ 100 pages).
The Cook is the kind of weird project you could never successfully pitch in a room and would have a hard time publishing in America: a short fictional biographical sketch of a young man obsessed with working in the food industry. One review called it “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chef” and that seems about correct. In a satisfying resonance, it was translated by Sam Taylor, who translated HhHH. So now apparently I also have a new favorite French-language translator.
The other two standout shorties were Horse at Night by Amina Cain — collected musings on her own habits when reading and writing fiction. Also great! And, lastly, The Grownup by Gillian Flynn. This one was the real cheat: it’s barely 60 pages, has the generous margins of a freshman-year term paper, and is essentially an anthologized short story that got published as a standalone book for the sole reason that Flynn just published Gone Girl and this also happened to exist.
Also, it won an Edgar! (Which Gone Girl did not. Which: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
It was also very satisfying. And let me hit my goal for 2022.
Lesson 4, 5, 6: Very short books are a great way to leaven your reading routine and let you take risks you might not otherwise take. Also, trust staff picks. Also, if you set a reading goal, cheat with abandon.
Having once again blown past my self-imposed word count (1251 and counting!), I must sign off quickly now. I promise that future installments of whatever this is will a) be much shorter and b) move away from self-indulgent recaps of my own reading habits toward topics of practical utility, about reading. Or writing. Or both. I hope.