In my first column for First Things, posted on April 13, 2018, I recalled
a day in 1990, around this time of year, when I saw an unfamiliar logo on the shelf of Bungalow News in downtown Pasadena, where I was a very regular customer. I hadn’t heard anything about First Things, but I bought that first issue, and I’ve been reading the magazine ever since. . . .
In 1990, Wendy and I had been married for twenty-two years, and three of our children (who turned twelve, nine, and six in the course of that year) were still at home; our eldest (twenty years old that September) was at Middlebury. I was working as an editor for a publisher of reference books (a job in which I continued until partway through 1994, when Christianity Today hired me to start Books & Culture).
The thirtieth anniversary of FT has sent me back to 1990 again. One of my favorite projects during my 12-plus years at the reference publisher Salem Press was Magill’s Literary Annual, a two-volume set published each spring, featuring reviews (assigned expressly for this purpose, not previously published) of 200 noteworthy books from the preceding year. So, for instance, Magill’s Literary Annual, 1990 covered books published in 1989. A couple of years after I had started at Salem, I was given primary responsibility for putting together the list of books to be included each year (typically in two stages), though of course my bosses went over it before reviews were assigned. I found this almost indecently enjoyable, and I liked working with the reviewers too (most of them, anyway).
When my younger brother, Rick, and I were growing up in Pomona, California, in the 1950s and early ’60s, we spent countless hours with the World Book encyclopedia our Mom had acquired for us. I loved the annual Yearbook supplements that offered an overview of noteworthy events along with essays by experts in various fields: the year in business, for instance (crazily, I read even those reports, which I grasped only very imperfectly!), in science, in entertainment, in literature (my favorite). And, believe it or not, I thought how much I would like to do something like this someday. There was a seductive fascination in the idea: a compact account of a particular slice of time, highly selective (even as a boy I understood that) and yet powerfully evocative. So when I found myself, years later, working on the Lit Annual (as we called it in the office), it was in a way a fulfillment of that dream.
I pulled the two-volume 1990 set from the stacks (in this case, the word “stacks” is to be taken literally) to see what books were covered therein: essays by Richard Ellmann, who had died in 1987; Accident, a Chernobyl novel by the East German writer Christa Wolf; a collection of stories by Yukio Mishima; Peter Handke’s novella The Afternoon of a Writer; Susan Sontag on AIDS and Its Metaphors; David Hackett Fischer’s fascinating Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (in my mind’s eye, I’m seeing the striking dust jacket of the book); Joyce Carol Oates’s novel American Appetites—and that doesn’t even get us through the As. Later on there are volumes of poetry by Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Robinson Jeffers, Peter Dale Scott, Les Murray, Denise Levertov, Rita Dove, Paul Celan, Adrienne Rich, and more; biographies, memoirs, letters, histories, books on “current affairs,” science (included in both of those categories was Bill McKibben’s pathbreaking The End of Nature), and still more. (And yes, I took time to read the three reviews I’d contributed for that year, on biographies of Kafka and Simone Weil and on the third volume in that massive five-volume series from Harvard University Press, A History of Private Life.)
The effect of this visit to 1990 was at once exhilarating and a bit melancholy. I wondered what a comparable two-volume set on “Books of 2019” would include (of course, a lot would depend on who was doing the list), and what we might learn from a comparison. But that’s a project for another time. At the moment, I’m still a bit dizzy from time-travel.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.