Top 10 books I read in 2012: Absalom, Absalom! (#1)

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom!

Vintage, 1991; 320 pages.

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. — Absalom, Absalom!

I don’t want to write this review.

I don’t know how to even talk about this book, except to say that I feel like it changed my life.

I don’t think it should be surprising that this is my best book of 2012, the best book out of the 142 that I read. Absalom, Absalom! is called the best Southern novel over and over again and I think it should be called the best American novel.

This is the second time I read this book. The first time I read it, I was probably 18, and I swore I’d never read Faulkner again. I didn’t understand even a third of it. But this time around, I took it seriously. I spent hours with it. I took copious notes. I treated it like a class. It is not easy to read. (Some liken it to the American Ulysses.) But don’t take that to mean that this novel isn’t enjoyable, beautiful, profound, or moving. It is all of those things in full volume.

Absalom, Absalom! is the ultimate testament to memory. Particularly, are our family histories reliable? Is anyone’s history reliable?

Faulkner’s prose is unbearably vivid and alive. His language is precise and startling. His images are disturbing and resonant. He writes with a breathlessness that sweeps you up, into the dusty plantation hallway, into the dark bedchamber of a dying man, into the cold space of a New England dorm room.

Absalom, Absalom! is remarkably relevant. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in his essay about the novel, published in the New York Times, regarding Faulkner’s choices:

Even when he does tell you everything, you can’t entirely trust it. No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too.

America’s preoccupying obsession with race is still present. It is dangerously present in Absalom, Absalom! and it is dangerously present today. Faulkner won’t let us forget this. Let it sit with you now. Let this novel bring a historical consciousness to life. Let it make you see that we have not progressed with any great strides.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: King Lear (#4)

King Lear

King Lear

Barnes & Noble, 2007; 408 pages.

Who is it that can tell me who I am? — Lear

I am sitting here staring at a blinking cursor because, come on: What am I going to say about King Lear that hasn’t already been said?

I re-read King Lear for my church classics book club and I eagerly threw myself into it. I confess that reading this particular version (Barnes & Noble, 2007) was very helpful, as it provided an accessible gloss and very readable marginalia (without making the text cluttered). It’s been many years since I read Shakespeare, and my brain needed a little assistance. So, if you’re like me in that respect, I recommend this edition.

It’s just… so good. SO GOOD. Everyone should read it before they die. I’ve read 18 of Shakespeare’s plays (not that many, actually, within his body of work) and this one is the most profound and affecting to me. I think I could read King Lear another hundred times and still be blown away with every re-reading. That’s all. Now go read it.