Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Year in Books

Every year round about now a certain type of newspaper heralds the new year with a generic article called something like “best books of ….” In which any round number of mostly obscure writers choose their Best Book/Ten Best Books/Favorite book of the year.

Every year I read the bloody things, having sworn I wouldn’t, and every year I buy books from them having sworn I wouldn’t and every year I regret the decision.

So I’m an obscure writer, and instead of reading someone else’s, here’s mine.

Literary biographies.

My favorite genre, and it’s been another good year for them. (2012 was also good with the publication of good biographies of Wyatt, Spenser and Jonson).  I started 2013 by finishing Hadfield’s Spenser, which is an excellent scholarly biography, and Byron Rodger’s biography of R.S Thomas which is simply excellent, and ended it by reading Leo Damrosch’s Swift which is not so scholarly or so excellent but enjoyable and informative. 

The “most anticipated literary event of this year”, for me anyway, was the publication of Richard Burton’s biography of Basil Bunting A Strong Song Tows us.  Only the announcement that Alan Garner had written a new book (2012: Boneland) has had an equal potential for crushing disappointment.  Fortunately the biography was the one Bunting deserved and even if you don’t know who Bunting was it’s worth reading as a history of English poetry in the twentieth century.


It’s been a bad year for new poems. I began the year by buying a book called Meme which was recommended in one of these lists. Still it’s memorable for its awfulness, which can’t be said for a lot of the new poetry books I’ve bought this year which were neither awful nor memorable. I Have To Go Back To 1994 And Kill a Girl wins the most memorable title award but I don’t remember anything else about it.

Best poetry reading experience of the year was rereading the Complete Poems of W.B.Yeats in chronological order, twice.  Other enjoyable moments, though not necessarily of books written in 2013: Tom Pickard’s ‘The Ballad of Jamie Allan’;  ‘Crazy Horse in Stillness’ by William Heyen  and encountering (I think that’s the right word instead of reading) Frank Standford’s ’The Battlefield where the Moon says I Love You’. 

Michael Longley edited a selection of Robert Graves’s poems for Faber which demonstrates both the strengths and weakness of Graves’ poetry, and the intro is worth reading.

Come to think of it, the best new poetry I’ve read this year has been in email attachments from people I know and in the journals I subscribe to.

My other ‘eagerly awaited’ event was the publication of Broken Hierarchies. It's not the kind of book you come to terms with overnight and a good decade or so should give me the necessary perspective.

It could have “and sod you reader” as the subtitle.  I've never read a book before where the reader seems so utterly irrelevant. No editorial intro, although it’s edited by the same man who edited the complete prose which at least has a page explaining the editorial policy;  no explanation of the dust jacket claim that these are definitive versions; no indication if this is a collected or complete which given Hill's penchant of the nuances of his trade seems a bit odd.  

Of course Hill has long been devoted to the modernist cult of impersonality, and has always followed Bunting’s advice (though whether he’s ever read anything by BB is an interesting question): “Never explain, your reader is as smart as you are”.  However, the modernist cult of impersonality is in itself an obvious contradiction. There is nothing more personal than a poetry in which the poet relies on a range of  literary references no one else can possibly share.  And I can’t think of any other modern poet where the poems and critical prose rely so heavily on the guarantee of the man’s name. A Hill poem by Hill is a work of obvious genius regardless of whether or not anyone understands the thing. A Hill poem by me would be needlessly obscure and incomprehensible.  Still, there are so many great poems in this book it is worth having all of them between the covers.

Seamus Heaney died. Time will sift the poems against standards we can’t predict, but hopefully the way in which the man brought a wry dignity to the role of poet will be remembered. One has to wonder at Faber’s decision to reissue a hard back copy of Opened Ground so soon after his death. But then, whoever designed the cover is a genius. Heaney is standing slightly to one side of the picture, and although he’s looking directly at the camera, the expression is not quite.  He could be smiling, or weighing up the reader, or just squinting into the cold.  Perhaps he's trying to avoid looking at the quote near his left ear:  "The Greatest poet of the age"...He in fact, looking awry…which sums up so much of the man’s poems.

These two books seem the wrong way round. Hill is still very much alive so a definitive, complete, or collected seems premature, while Heaney deserves (and will doubtless receive) a good quality collected or complete rather than a reissue of poems written before 1996.  However, it's good to replace the dying paperback with a good hardback edition. 


Wade Davis’ mammoth Into the Silence and Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins were two of the best History books I’ve read this year.  Davis sets the British attempts to climb Everest in the context of their historical time and in doing so manages to explain so much. Cunliffe  takes detailed specialist information and makes it into a coherent narrative which for all its maps and details manages to evoke what it might have been like to live through the periods he describes.  Unlike some TV archeologist he is also aware of the limitations of his own discipline.

Richard Holmes continued to do what he does best, and although I have no interest in the History of Ballooning Falling Upwards was one of the most enjoyable books i read in 2013.  I’ve never read a dull book by Holmes.

Also excellent, though not from 2013, was Jonathon Rose’s The Intellectual life of the British Working Class which should be compulsory reading for every literary critic and theorist who wants to bang on about the ideological effect of books or the evils of the “Canon”. 


Scariest read of 2013,  though not published in 2013,  Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright, with the chilling statement “the fact you don’t remember these crimes prove you did them. Confess to them and you will remember”. I was lead to it by Peter Brooks’ Troubling Confessions.  

That should be enough. A list of critical books I've read would be painful. 

Anyone who buys a book on this list does so at their own risk. 

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