I thought it would be nice to write a year-end column in which my family summed up our year in books, but my initial efforts didn’t go so well. When I asked my husband and kids to tell me what books they liked best this year, I received blank stares.
Part of the problem was that, with my typical sense of impeccable maternal timing, I’d asked the question at breakfast. Eva, five minutes awake, was staring into her waffles as if she’d never seen them before. Mara was reading the Wednesday Food section and thinking about her Latin test. Sam was in his usual early morning state of insufficient caffeination.
The other problem, as I quickly realized, was that I’d miscalculated my family’s temporal relationship to reading. As December 31 draws near, we get the year’s Best Songs and Best Albums, Top 10 World Cup Soccer Goals and Top 10 Mutual Funds, Best Apps and Best Dressed, and a host of Best, Top 10, and 10 Best Books of all varieties. It’s like the entire world becomes a David Letterman episode.
But the constant reading and rereading habits of my family don’t exactly lend themselves to the annual recap. If you read all the time, it’s hard to draw the line between what you read in 2010 and 2009. If you reread all the time, like my daughters, it’s even harder. And if you’re a chef who hardly has time to read your wife’s text messages, let alone books, well, the exercise is pretty much pointless.
So that leaves me. Luckily — and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it was my idea — I am the perfect candidate for a year-end review. I keep a list of books I read (I even keep a list of books I’ve given up on — how compulsive is that?!). I have computer folders full of accurately-dated book reviews and column drafts. I read book reviews, book blogs, even book tweets. So I can happily tell you that this year I was dazzled by Lyndall Gordon’s Emily Dickinson biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, and Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids. Anthropology of an American Girl spoke to me like it read my mind, and A Visit from the Goon Squad was my favorite novel.
But if you read my column regularly or follow me on Facebook, you may know all that. What you may not know is that, even though I didn’t like it nearly as much as any of those books, I spent a good chunk of the year obsessed with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In this I was not alone. For about six weeks at the end of the summer, it seemed like the entire world shared my obsession, what with Time Magazine covers, unnecessarily superlative reviews (“the novel of the century”? already?), Twitter wars (hashtag #franzenfreude), and Oprah picks.
But amidst this critical frenzy, I felt oddly alone. While everyone else was putting Freedom on a 21st-century cultural pedestal, I was having a profoundly 19th-century reading experience, though I suspect this is exactly what Franzen wanted.
By writing a family saga that also takes on Major Social, Political, and Philosophical Issues — contemporary parenting, strip mining, declining songbird and increasing human populations, the Iraq war, Halliburton (in facsimile), and, oh yeah, the nature and value of freedom — Franzen is clearly modeling himself on the great 19th-century novelists: Thackeray, Dickens, and Eliot; Flaubert, Zola, and Tolstoy. Indeed, the book explicitly valorizes the 19th-century novel when its heroine, Patty Berglund, reads War and Peace in dire emotional straits and is consoled. So I must confess that I felt a little silly, or perhaps pre-programmed, as I not only page-turned through Freedom in a single weekend, but garnered girlishly romantic readerly insight into my own life.
While other people pontificated on the literary and political implications of Franzen’s vision, I was most struck by the novel’s old-fashioned romantic dynamic: the heroine who must choose between the good man and the bad man. You know what I mean: Jane Eyre, Rochester, and St. John Rivers; Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy, and Wickham; Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes; Bridget Jones, Mark Darcy, and Daniel Cleaver. The dynamic works in different ways: sometimes the men turn out to be mislabeled (see: Darcy and Wickham), sometimes a good woman’s love transforms a bad man (see: Rochester), and sometimes the woman isn’t good enough for either of them (see: Scarlett). I won’t say how things turn out in Freedom, but Patty Berglund’s torn desires for her doting environmentalist husband Walter, and his rakish punk rocker best friend Richard is classic, to the point that Franzen actually refers to the two as Mr. Good and Mr. Bad.
And me? I have spent my life in thrall to this dynamic, evaluating decades of boys and men as sexy but dangerous, nice but boring, good for me, bad for me, every which way — though in classic chicken/egg fashion, it’s hard to say whether the books I read shaped my desires or my desires determined the books I read. Reading Freedom, however, I suddenly realized how I’ve successfully worked it out. I married a man who is both: mysterious guitar player and hard-working provider, Keith and Mick, if you will, though I’m certainly no Anita Pallenberg (and it’s surely no coincidence that the next book I read will be the hardcover copy of Keith Richards’ Life that he gave me for Hannukah).
Hugging my insights to my chest, I felt alone in my old-fashioned readerly investment, until I realized that I was really just another victim of Franzen’s devastating aim at the hearts and minds of liberal 30/40/50-something middle-class white people who bemoan the state of the world, think they’re still cool because of the music on their iPods, and get all excited when they recognize the 21st-century cultural reference points (Ian MacKaye! Bright Eyes! Atonement!) larded through this thoroughly 19th-century novel. Indeed, I’d venture to suggest that the popularity of Freedom rests in large part on the way it enables this demographic to have its self-consciously ironic culture and eat its traditional narrative, too.
So is Freedom a brief and seductively reactionary moment that allows us to embrace the romantic conventions we should know enough by now to repudiate, or a re-embrace of traditional story-telling that gives us what we really want and need? These are the kinds of questions about which the Franzen demographic waxes intellectual, and I’d probably cop out and just say “yes,” but a younger generation may provide a simpler response. As literary pundits contemplate the end of the book as we know it, the popularity of Twilight (Bella, Edward, Jacob) has inspired a resurgence of interest in Wuthering Heights (Cathy, Edgar Linton, Heathcliff), and my own daughter hailed Jane Eyre as her reading accomplishment of the year. To see if this interest holds up, however, we’ll have to wait for The Year in Books 2020, 2030, and 2040.