End of the year best of lists are, as we know, vaguely suspect. They are riddled with cronyism, laziness, neglect, partiality, bias, improvisation, ego, incompleteness, and general lassitude. It is literally impossible (that is, I defy you to prove scientifically it is possible) to survey (in short, read) every book of poetry, every poem, every magazine, published in the English-speaking world. However, what is the point in giving up?
A while back, a metaphor was introduced, that of the "Internet surfer" - it suggested a sort of skilled adroit yet reckless conquest (albeit very brief) of the unconquerable and impossibly vast - we surf the oceanic forces at our peril, but touchingly so, because humans can at times rise above nature's vast impervious strength. That is an artistry of the body and mind, but Internet and more broadly, magpie cultural surfing - that pick and mix mash-up hybridity that has become the default position of most artists these days (think of St Vincent, by many standards creator of album of the year, or Beck, or The War On Drugs, the other contenders - all are mash-ups).
In short, we cannot survey all, we must survey all - we must seek to rise above the ungovernable swells of content, and do our agile and effortful best - we must take on the playful role of surfer, the impossible athlete of ephemeral grace. Such lists, then, become not canonical interventions, not even helpful signposts, but acts, in their own right, of art. The art of being a cultured person. What was once called a reader. Readers have never been asked to read everything. One of the charms of being a reader is that one reads what one wants.
My ideal form of reading is in a place that no longer exists. It is to my mind the great Valhalla and Heaven of reading. It is in December, or early January. It is in Quebec, in the forest. In My grandmother's large wooden house. A fireplace roars with huge logs crackling. Outside, snow drifts halfway up the windows. The snow is about five feet or ten feet deep in places. Outside are wolves. It is possibly minus twenty outside. If you go outside you may well freeze to death. So you stay inside. It is 3 pm. You have a cup of cocoa. And you sit in a huge comfortable armchair by the fireplace, and you read. You read what you take down from her shelves. For Melita Hume is a collector of books. All sorts, history, criticism, anthologies, Russian, Chinese, French, German, English - and you are fourteen or twelve. But you can read Nabokov. You can read Twain. You can read poetry. You can read Bloom. You read Dickinson, Atwood. You read widely, as you wish, you are free, and safe, and yet to take the risks the reader takes.
So, two images - one is of being ensconced, the other of being a sort of flung conch. Both involve perfection of the moment. Joy is central. Reading without joy is a waste of time, and is not the aim of reading. What you read may be tragic, informative, funny, or maddening - but the reading must be a joyous act.
So what is my list of the year? It is a list of books piled by my bed, and piled by where I read. It is a list of books read, half-read, books I want to read. It is a wish list, a shopping list, a love list. Friends jostle with strangers, even possibly enemies. It is not a list of recommendations. It is a list of what I would dip into again, by the fireplace, in the blizzard. I do not list the books I wrote or have published this year, but all those, it goes without saying, should be here. I am adding 21. Memoirs, magazines, pamphlets, poetry by the dead and living - young and old. Litcrit. Rescued reputations. Eccentrics. Bestsellers. Humour. Sex. Bereavement. Mental illness.
You may have many more choices. Think of this as a desire of reading. A start, a foray, a jumble, an over-reaching. A relaxed Saturday. A snowfall. A bit of fire. A memory jolt. A mixed bag. Mixed nuts. Help-yourself. Just some of what might be said. A gentle reminder. I keep adding:
- POETRY MAGAZINE - ANY ISSUE 2014
- A POET'S GLOSSARY BY EDWARD HIRSCH
- TERROR BY TOBY MARTINEZ DE LAS RIVAS
- BLACK COUNTRY BY LIZ BERRY
- FABER NEW POETS 12 BY DECLAN RYAN
- JOHN GOODBY'S NEW COLLECTED BY DYLAN THOMAS
- DAVID WHEATLEY'S STUDY OF BRITISH POETRY
- ROSEMARY TONKS' POEMS FROM BLOODAXE
- THE SELECTED NICHOLAS MOORE FROM SHEARSMAN
- LYRIC SHAME BY GILLIAN WHITE
- PILGRIMAGE BY LUCKY PICK
- BASED ON A TRUE STORY BY ELIZABETH RENZETTI
- ANGER IS AN ENERGY BY JOHN LYDON
- H IS FOR HAWK BY HELEN MACDONALD
- THE LAND OF GOLD BY SEBASTIAN BARKER
- BLOOD WILL OUT BY WALTER KIRN
- SUSPENDED SENTENCES BY PATRICK MODIANO
- THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT BY HEATHER O'NEILL
- THE GHOST IN THE LOBBY BY KEVIN HIGGINS
- TUPELO'S ANTHOLOGY OF WORLD ANGLOPHONE POETRY
- BE THE FIRST TO LIKE IT: NEW SCOTTISH POETRY.
- SELECTED POEMS BY MARK FORD
- THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE BY JOHN BANVILLE
- THE SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY BY JEFF VANDERMEER
- THE DOG BY JOSEPH O'NEILL
- STATION ELEVEN BY EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL
- SALT'S BEST BRITISH POETRY 2014 EDITED BY MARK FORD, WITH JON STONE