The first column of a new year should come with an attendant ritual, should it not? We’ll have to improvise.
I can report that on New Year’s Eve a couple of weeks ago, Wendy and I went upstairs to bed long before the appointed hour. (Our daughter Katy was in Sioux Falls visiting a friend.) We got under the warm covers, sharing a hot water bottle, and read for a while in our respective books before turning off the light. Later, we were awakened briefly by sporadic fireworks, nothing much really. My only regret is that, retiring early, we missed the New Year’s Eve ritual we invariably share each year: at midnight, we listen to the Reverend Charlie Jackson singing “Wrapped Up Tangled Up in Jesus.” How could we have forgotten that? We’re getting old.
I do occasionally hear from readers of this column. Some of you have sent books you’ve written that you’d like me to review. (One such appeared in my 2022 “Year of Reading” extravaganza.) I am always keeping an eye out for interesting books, and blessedly there are more of them than I can keep up with, not to mention the vast number that don’t happen to be my cup of tea.
On New Year’s Day of 2023, I tried to remember my first memories of the holiday. I landed on 1953, when I was four and a half years old. (I turned five in June of that year.) My mother had just divorced my father, and my younger brother and I were living with our mom and grandma. We watched the Rose Parade on a tiny TV. I remember being fascinated by the holiday, not merely by the festivities but more powerfully by the notion that a “new year” was beginning, a concept I’d already encountered but hadn’t fully appreciated until then.
Several years later, our mom ordered a set of the World Book Encyclopedia for us. This was a major purchase (money was very tight), but it was a very good investment. Rick and I spent countless hours stretched out on the living room floor, poring over these volumes. And each year we received a supplement, reviewing major events and reporting on various sectors: the year in business, for instance, in sports, in the arts, in books (unsurprisingly one of my favorite features). These supplements were ambrosial to me; they reinforced the idea that each year had a mysterious identity, compounded of a dizzying array of seemingly disconnected happenings. Of course at the time I couldn’t have articulated that, but I felt it (ecstatically) in my bones.
One of my Books of the Year for 2022, Eleanor Parker’s Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year, emphasizes the extent to which the liturgical calendar, the agricultural calendar, and other reckonings were in play at the same time. So too for me “in my time.” There were the seasons of the major sports—baseball above all, but the others too. There were the “seasons” of television (how thrilled we were when a great new series debuted—Perry Mason, for instance, which the four of us faithfully watched together). Rick and I eagerly read the special annual issue of TV Guide that provided an overview of the new “season” that would commence each fall. And of course there was the school year, followed by “summer vacation,” lasting longer then than is typical now. And even in the almost fanatically non-liturgical Baptist churches we attended there were glimmers of “the church year,” which became much more prominent for Rick and me when my mother decided (I was halfway through 4th grade, and Rick halfway through 1st) to take us out of the public school we’d been attending and enroll us in a Missouri Synod Lutheran School. At that time there weren’t so many “Christian schools.” At St. Paul’s, the church calendar was woven into the texture of things.
Many years later, another “calendar” became central to my life and has remained so ever since: the calendar of publishing, spring books and fall books—announced in ravishing catalogues from university presses and other publishers, large and medium and small, highlighted in enormous special issues of Publishers Weekly, and so on. Close to me as I type just now are printouts from the digital spring 2023 lists of several publishers—not in their entirety, of course, but the titles that interest me most. How I pine for the physical catalogues of yore! At my elbow are bound galleys of some especially tasty titles from the forthcoming “season.” On the backs of unopened envelopes (“junk mail” converted to a purpose) I have scrawled titles to be checked out. I’m sure I’ll be adding to those lists today.
And some of those titles, I’m sure, will be the subject of forthcoming columns here. All best reading wishes for you in 2023.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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