I saw that a bunch of my favorite critics were writing a list of the best books of 2012. David Ulin has a great one. You can read it here at the LA Times: Best of 2012. So I started to think about making a similar list. But what’s different about my list is that I still read a lot of classics. Whereas a lot of critics need to be up to date on the newest and hippest books, I have never felt the need to be on top of what is hot. I remember reading a quote, I think by Kafka, that said never read a book that isn’t at least six months old.
Now, I don’t think that’s true, necessarily, but in a lot of ways I still feel somewhat behind the eight ball in terms of the scope of literature. So I’m catching up. I mean, stop for a second and think about how many books there are in the world. How in the world can anyone ever come close to reading all of them — or even yet, reading all the truly great books? It’s staggering to think about the task. I’m only on this Earth for a small amount of time, and I really hope I can find a way to expose myself to the best. So, here are ten books that I read this year that I loved. I’m starting with the first five.
10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The first book on my list is the last book I finished. I love Philip K. Dick’s writing, but the way I knew Dick’s work was through his short stories. I actually had never read one of his novels until now. And I love the stories, but A Scanner Darkly, which is set in a kind of L.A./Orange County hybrid, presented a futuristic and paranoid view of the city where I currently live that just blew me away. What I truly admire about the book is the effect it has on the reader. I kept reading on, fully aware that the sense of paranoia was deepening and the character was unreliable, but Dick had such a control over the story. I trusted him and followed him into his drug infested world. It reminded me of great L.A. Noir novels or even Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Or even a great Victorian book like H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After reading this book, I plan on reading the rest of Dick’s novels.
9. Concussions and Our Kids by Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman
Sometimes, a great book has an impact so wide that it just becomes digested, almost unknowingly, into the cultural lexicon of a generation. Dr. Cantu’s book, Concussions and Our Kids, is having a similar effect. One day, I think Cantu’s book will be required reading in school — too much dismay from the students — similar in scope to A Silent Spring, because it sheds light on the concussion epidemic and serious problem in our community. Cantu’s studies and his writing will change the way we play sports and think about our brains. His research into CTE — the degenerative brain disease — has done so much to teach us about our minds. It’s a fascinating read, and you’ll learn a ton about the current concussion dialogue. For example, did you know that after football, women’s soccer is the next leading cause of concussions in youth sports?
8. Hey Fudge by Travis Millard
Hey Fudge is a book of illustrations/comics put out by a great L.A. press, Narrow Books. I talked to the art designer of this book, and he wanted someone to flip through every page, because there is a story that unfolds, a narrative. Millard’s work is hilarious, but also vibrant and alive. Sometimes, whenever I need to clear my head from whatever analytical bullshit that is waging war on my mood, I open up Millard’s book and just kind of flip through. The beginning of the book features a series of clips imagining that Michael Jackson was lost at sea. The humor is definitely there — so is the craft.
7. Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson
Maybe this list is heavily influence by my current location — L.A. County — but I can’t help but devour L.A. writing. And one of those great L.A. novels is Joseph Mattson’s Empty the Sun. I wrote a piece about the book earlier this year at the LA Weekly, and it just seems to sum up a lot of the experience in the city — the fall out of the California Dream. That everywhere around the city, people come here and they become something, well, grimy, hardboiled, lost. In a lot of ways, it seems right in that same vein as a lot of my other favorite class L.A. novels — Post Office and Ask the Dust. Plus, this book even comes with a soundtrack.
6. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
Well, here’s another L.A. Noir. I’m loving anything set in L.A. There is just something almost paranoid, hallucinatory, distorted about these novels set in L.A.; something that’s just slightly off kilter. In True Confessions, it might be the murder and the way the community responds. A murder, in this world, is a headline, something to help the readers of the tragedy, the snooping citizens to forget about their meaningless lives. The strange thing about reading True Confessions was that, sometimes, instead of feeling like I was in L.A., all the Catholic politics and the Irish descendants made me feel like I was back in Massachusetts or reading a book by Dennis Lehane. I kind of liked that about this book. It’s a classic.
Okay, tune in tomorrow for the next 5. Saved my best for last.