Ah, the books of 2008: Who can number them? All About the Beat and The Art of the Public Grovel; American Earth and American Pests; The Lost Spy and The Terminal Spy. This was the year of Original Sin and The Forever War and a great wall of books about China. Fiction? Palace Council and Moscow Rules; The Butt, The Brass Verdict, and The General of the Dead Army; and a whole shelf of mysteries from Scandinavia . In 2008 we got not one but two posthumously published books by William F. Buckley Jr. (memoirs of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan), not to mention Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Sanction, by Eric Van Lustbader. With so much to choose from, finding a perfect match for all the booklovers on your list would seem painless.
But just in case, here are a few possibilities. The books you give to family and friends at Christmas will be read at all hours and in every conceivable setting—on trains and planes, in bathtubs and reclining chairs, in coffee shops and cabins, on iPhones and Kindles—but mostly they will be read at the end of the day, in bed. The first requirement of a Christmas booklist, then, is a good bedside book, one that can be read in snippets.
Roy Blount Jr. has just the thing. It's called Alphabet Juice, and the subtitle alone tells you what it's like: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory.
Maybe you've never read Roy Blount, or you lump him with humorists, a tribe for which you have little regard. In which case, let me commend his book to you. Alphabet Juice is an artful miscellany of short entries—alphabetically organized, of course,
but funny and loaded with idiosyncratic learning. Working by indirection, without a trace of boosterish huffing and puffing, Blount inspires in the reader a renewed sense of awe at the sheer potency of language (the English language in particular) and the profligate excess of human speech (which points us, I think, toward the gratuitous splendor of Creation).
Another splendid new bedside book is So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley, Fitzgerald's son-in-law. Published this summer in England, it will presumably be issued in the United States sometime next year. Meanwhile, fugitive copies have already crossed the Atlantic.
Fitzgerald (1916–2000) was a member of the celebrated Knox family (her father was for many years editor of Punch, and one of her uncles was the formidable Ronald Knox). She started writing novels when she was sixty and published nine altogether. With the exception of her first (which suffered editorial mutilation), the novels are all superb: sadness, tenderness, toughness, and indomitable hope mingle in them, the whole conveyed in an understated style that is quintessentially English and yet distinctively Fitzgerald's own. (You might include her novel The Bookshop in a package with The Letters.)
But bedside books, with their small nightly portions, are not sufficient for readers. There must be books to hunker down with as well. No doubt you have some Shakespearians on your gift list. For them, John Reed's All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare—a slim volume that would fit nicely in a Christmas stocking—delivers what it promises.
The words are (mostly) by William Shakespeare, but they have been rearranged by John Reed. Perhaps a summary of the action will help: “Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride—by unnecessary bloodshed—Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered father, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the prince goes mad with jealousy.”
All the World's a Grave is a most unsettling book. I felt dizzy several times while I was reading, and I paused now and then to pull King Lear or Hamlet from the shelf to reassure myself that the familiar texts remained intact. What's destabilizing—and often wildly comical—is not just the rude mash-up of characters and settings violently plucked from their canonical sources but the way in which the power of Shakespeare's language flickers uneasily, surging and hissing and fizzing out only to revive and fade again as the words play against their new contexts.
Like many parodies, Reed's brilliant travesty is a mixture of homage and savage attack. You can't read All the World's a Grave without feeling in your bones how prefabricated our responses to Shakespeare—on the page or on the stage—are perpetually in danger of becoming. One effect of Reed's book will be to freshen and sharpen our next encounters with the great plays from which he fashioned this cunning patchwork.
But Reed is also animated by passions that you might not intuit from the play itself, to which he gives vent in an afterword. He thinks a lot of good contemporary writing languishes unappreciated (which is true), and he lays the blame squarely on the dead hand of Literature (which has a degree of truth, wildly overstated). Better, he says, if we could somehow do away with “the classics” once and for all and start with a clean slate (which is nutty). But never mind. This book is one of the year's treasures.
I have a weakness for writers with interesting, well-stocked minds who don't seem to be in a rush to get anywhere in particular. The late, late hours, when the house is quiet, seem best for such unhurried reading. Geoff Nicholson is a satiric novelist distinguished by sardonic wit, a scabrous imagination, and raffish charm. A Brit who “divides his time between Los Angeles and London,” he has given us The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. Don't be deceived by the winking subtitle. There is not much history, science, or philosophy in this book, but it is none the worse for that. The Lost Art of Walking is a ramble, and you never know where the next chapter will wander.
As a non-driver and a heavy walker, I am always on the lookout for good books on the subject. I remember—decades ago, while I was working at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena—Ray Bradbury, a bright-eyed imp of a man, came to the store to do a book-signing. I knew he was a non-driver, and I'd seen him from a distance a few times in Los Angeles, but this was the first time we had met. While we were chatting before the event began, I mentioned that I too was a walker. Bradbury exclaimed in delight and threw his arms around me.
I recollected that incident while reading The Lost Art of Walking, a book that is the literary equivalent of a long stroll. One chapter, for instance, begins with an anecdote about John Paul Jones, the bass player for Led Zeppelin—“a story that he still trots out in interviews, of how he was arrested in the 1970s for leaving his hotel room and daring to walk the streets of Los Angeles. ‘I didn't realize you're not supposed to walk anywhere,' he says.” Nicholson then adduces D.J. Waldie's Holy Land, Bradbury's short story “The Pedestrian,” and a couple of pop songs before winding up with a bit from Jean Baudrillard's America to establish the extent to which silly ideas about walking in Los Angeles—and Los Angeles in general—have been given currency, even by some of the city's best writers.
All this comes in the first two pages of a ramble that will also follow in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler and give a nod to the street artist Kim Jones, known as Mudman, who “coats his body in mud, puts on a foam headdress, and then straps to his back a large lattice structure made of wooden slats, tree branches, wax, wire, tape, sponge, and whatnot. Sometimes he also wears a glove on his left hand from which a long number of long wooden spikes protrude all the way to the ground. The effect is visually and conceptually compelling, especially if you see him walking toward you in a city street.” Alas, on matters of faith Nicholson is tone-deaf. His skepticism is genial, but there are many missed opportunities.
And no Christmas list would be complete without a lullaby book. It's Time to Sleep, My Love, written by Eric Metaxas and illustrated by Nancy Tillman, is a ravishingly beautiful volume that my wife and I will be giving to our grandchildren. (We plan to get a back-up copy to keep in readiness for visitors.) “You are loved,” it says, and neither irony nor absurdity nor the most bitter pain puts a dent in that sentiment, which mysteriously undergirds the universe.
Of course, as you assemble your list, you may stumble across a book you'd love to unwrap yourself on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Perhaps, with this list in hand, you'll be able to drop a hint in the right quarter.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.