(Lev Grossman writes about books here every Wednesday. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
Over in some other post on this site, we all listed our favorite Cultural Moments from 2011. That struck me as such a good idea that I thought I’d splinter off a whole freestanding autonomous list over here just for books: The Top 10 Moments in Reading from 2011.
This isn’t the best books of the year, necessarily. It’s not even the best writing. This is ten examples of books doing what they do best: bringing the whole world into sharp focus, for a moment, through the lens of one perfectly turned paragraph.
(MORE: The Top 10 Fiction of 2011)
This list comes with a lot of caveats. You could do a whole Top 10 Caveats list to go with it. A fuller and more accurate version of the headline might read, “these are the top 10 moments in reading in 2011, from books that were actually published in 2011, that I can think of, and which I happen to have a copy of handy at home, since I’m writing this on a sick day, and which also aren’t too spoilery to talk about without annoying people.” I wanted to include something from Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, for example, but I can’t remember the exact details, and I can’t for the life of me find my copy of that book. So that’s out.
So in conclusion: if you’ve got my Kate Atkinson, give it back. If you don’t, go ahead and read the list. The first three are here, in that other post. These are the rest, in no particular order:
The Book: Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes
The Moment: “Gorst vs. Scale on the Old Bridge”
This whole novel tells the story of one horrendous three-day battle between two armies, the Union and the North. Abercrombie doesn’t play favorites: it’s one of those wars where nobody’s in the right and everybody loses. Over the course of the book (which is fantastic) Abercrombie’s been artfully building up the idea that two of the combatants are virtually unbeatable. For the Union: Bremer Dan Gorst, a disgraced former royal bodyguard whose shame drives him to train brutally and take suicidal risks. For the north: Scale, who’s the son of a king and bloody humongous. Midway through the book, Abercrombie marches the two of them onto the same bridge. Unstoppable force, immovable object. Only one of them marches off. Beautiful.
The Book: James Gleick, The Information
The Moment: “Claude Shannon Splits the Informational Atom”
In 1948 Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs, published a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” thereby inventing the entire field of information science. To do this, Gleick writes, “first Shannon had to eradicate ‘meaning.’” For Shannon’s purposes the actual content of a message was arbitrary, so he split the idea of information off from that of meaning, a distinction that is now second nature to us, but which at the time was totally radical. It’s like the Trinity test site for modern English. (As a by-product Shannon created the fundamental unit of information: the bit.) (Wonderful extra trivia: Shannon and Alan Turing used take daily tea together in 1943, when they were both working as cryptographers in the war.)
The Book: Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
The Moment: “The Right Wrong Turn”
This book completely annihilated me. It’s a history of WWII that emphasizes first-person accounts and anecdotes – it takes you right through the mud and the ruins, shells on all sides, bayonets fixed. (Eerily similar, and almost as good, was Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a comparable approach to WWI.) I could cite hundreds of really upsetting, horrific moments of violence and deprivation from Inferno, and probably should, but in keeping with the tone of the rest of the column I’ll cite a rare moment of humor instead. To set the scene: British armour is advancing through Normandy with difficulty, because the terrain is unfavorable and because the Germans have better tanks.
A Lancers officer edged his Sherman forwards into a wood, ordering his squadron to follow him. The commander of the next tank forgot to switch off his set before speaking into the intercom, and thus the entire unit heard him order, “Driver left, driver left.” The reply came, “But he’s gone right, sergeant.” The tank commander said, “I know bloody well he’s gone right, but I’m not following that f—ing c—t, it’s too f—ing dangerous!”
Seriously, it could come straight out of Blackadder.
(MORE: The Top 10 Nonfiction of 2011)
The Book: Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
The Moment: “The Audition of Celia Bowen”
Describing magic so that it sounds real is hard work. Trust me: that’s what I do, or try to, when I’m not writing for Time. But Morgenstern makes it look easy. One of a pair of magicians locked in a secret lifelong duel, Celia turns up at a circus that’s auditioning illusionists. She brings no equipment, no stage name, no resume. The circus managers are skeptical, until she picks up her jacket and throws it into the audience, where it becomes a raven and flaps up into the balcony. Then she takes the secretary’s notebook and throws that too. It turns into a dove. Spoiler alert: she gets the job.
The Book: Lars Kepler, The Hypnotist
The Moment: “Going Under”
Our hero, such as he is, is a hypnotherapist who used to run a therapy group for patients suffering from psychological traumas. Kepler handles these scenes with a sinister delicacy that’s many cuts above the usual run of Swedish thriller — he (he’s actually a couple writing under a pseudonym) is my pick of the post-Larsson litter. The conceit is that this therapist experiences his own sessions as a kind of light hallucination, in which the whole class is being submerged in an imaginary ocean as he puts them under. I’m going to quote a paragraph of it in full, two hypnotic sentences, because this is a blog, and I have room:
My patients were each seeing something completely different, of course; all drifting down into memories, into the past, ending up in the rooms of their childhood, the places where they had spent their youth; returning to their parents’ summer cottages, or the garage of the little girl who lived next door. They didn’t know that for me they were deep underwater at the same time, slowly floating down past an enormous coral formation, a deep-sea plinth, the rough wall of a continental rift, all of us sinking together through gently bubbling water.
It’s a lovely metaphor for their cautious, ultimately disastrous forays into each others’ unconsciousnesses. Also really good writing, gracefully translated.
The Book: Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
The Moment: “Steve in Wonderland”
Even for a long time Jobsologist like myself, some of the details in Isaacson’s biography were new and startling. (Full disclosure: Isaacson used to run TIME, hence I am his former employee, and totally biased.) An especially choice moment comes early on, when Jobs and Wozniak, short on cash in high school, go to work at a shopping center. They got paid $3 an hour to wear full-body costumes of characters from Alice in Wonderland. What an incredible image: Jobs and Wozniak, the architects of our bizarre digital landscape, dressed up as the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit. Naturally Jobs didn’t see the poetry of it. His comment to Isaacson: “It was hot, the costumes were heavy, and after a while I felt like I wanted to smack some of the kids.” [Second greatest costume-related moment in the book: Jobs shows up at Apple’s first Halloween party dressed as Jesus Christ. You can’t make this stuff up.]
That makes nine. The last slot I’ll leave open. Fill in your own, if you’ve got one!