The Year in Books, 2015 I: Graphic novels and an attempt to describe Sebald

I read more graphic novels than anything else this year. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki and Building Stories by Chris Ware are must-reads. Shigeru Mizuki’s is a manga about WWII, and it’s fast-paced, visceral, and glaringly anti-war. Soldiers are given a lot of dialogue that really pushes the hopelessness of their situation onto the reader. It was similar to reading Matterhorn by Karl marinates, which I also read this year. I read a few Sandman collections this year and loved them; especially The Doll’s House. Also, Paul Pope’s stylized future noir Heavy Liquid uses accessories and paraphernalia and how much they cost and what they do to characters in a great way. There’s a malaise: S on art: "They killed it replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation. People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to Look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it and just stitched it onto a screen. A Picture of a picture on a screen…" Rodan Estrella on drugs: "It’s hard enough to have to breath…I don’t need any new necessities. I don’t need any new vices. I can barely take care of myself but I want to live." Also I loved: Summer Blonde, Dockwood, and Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer which is as much imaginative as it is responsible; he tells about mid western suburbia and the sort of extreme of what such banality can produce. Stitches where realism like permafrost, the memories in this book are evoked and illustrated in the feeling of a cold, early morning or the first few weeks of starting a new job. Small is not tortured in the book, just a victim of choice. His family chooses to keep him in the dark about things, chooses to be hard on him, chooses to interact with one another in ways that affect him as well. I think readers who identify with David’s escape into culture— books, movies, artistic expression.

I read Thierry Paquot’s The Art of the Siesta  twice this year. It’s a tight, ambitious pamphlet containing a manifesto for the daydream. His prose is uplifting and dreamlike, wander from observations to philosophy and back again. To read it is to both ponder and relax with and rise up against capitalist temporalism. It concludes with a brilliant fade out: a Joe Brainard-like remembrance list of siestas of the past, those bad, good, and in between, memorable and non-. 

Pleasures of Reading, Alan Jacobs, Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance and How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton are the three best books I’ve read on reading. De Botton urges us to look for the beauty and elegance in everyday things and appreciate. Idolatry of art and books can change this for the worse. Jacobs focuses on how books may turn culture into a cancer, and how modern education turns teachers into gatekeepers who ruin books. Reading, however, truly is education, and must be done “at whim.” He goes into the paradox of how English teacher’s end up being gatekeepers and ruining books as well. Zaid’s book is now over a decade old and has proven prophetic. He writes about all the implications of more books being written than read. I agree that it is a dangerous scenario when we are no longer listening but all shouting at once, and in my opinion it is humbling to realize that we all don’t— and don’t need— to have something to say through writing.

So with all that said, I will simply write something I think needs to be said: you should read W.G. Sebald. The Emigrants, Austerlitz, and definitely The Rings of Saturn. His work may be best summed up in this passage from Austerlitz: “In the end all anyone could ever do was sum up the unknown factors in the ridiculous phrase, ‘The fortunes of battle stayed this way and that,’ or some similarly feeble and useless cliche” (p 101). It is indescribable, and Zaid’s argument holds true, that reading— not writing— is the best way to immerse and fall in love with his “sublime” prose. His writing is full with Proustian tea and madeleines— artifacts that send us moving into an immense past. With Sebald, we soar there, but often it is only a feeling of soaring because we are actually plunging into a sort of creeping despair that hangs over the century. So another correction: you immerse yourself in Sebald as opposed to read him.

Primarily, his books are overwhelmingly melancholy jaunts with time. Narrators are usually some variation of Sebald who recalls acquaintances in The Emigrants, goes for a walk in The Rings of Saturn, and converses with his friend in Austerlitz. The Proustian Symbols—postcards, shells, children’s Bibles, paintings, landscapes, Bluewinged Parrotlets, fire engines, rooms, and often too their miasmas, gossamer dust, ruts worn in floors, handrails, or broken stuff; railway station schedules, bedclothes, photographs, bug collections, bureaus, sports equipment, celestial maps, ledgers and charts—are described with such great accuracy they breath new life into the world and reopen their little corners of history. At times, there are little photographs to represent them. 

These corners seem so dark and unexplored that you begin to think that there are whole Earths happening everywhere at every moment (I will pause here to note that I have been slightly miffed that my word processor kept wanting to correct “Sebald” to “seabed” until now). Sebald allows for slight historical inaccuracies, but this is fiction which the author is using for what one might call Sebaldian Meditation. Wading into Sebaldian Meditation is like when you find out how absurdly funny Kafka actually is. You’ve been among it, and you suddenly realize. You’re invited to discover such points in the valley in Penal Colony or before the door and guard in Before the Law. But also, he shares a kind of academic approach to history as Feynman did with physics. Just because I know the name of the duck, Mallard, say, does not mean I know anything about it. In fact, you know nothing about a Mallard knowing that it is called a Mallard, really. Sebald paints lavish portraits of history, like that of the Jasenovac concentration camp or moths, inciting deep curiosity.

Among one of the many cataloged meetings with narrator and Jacques Austerlitz (who was taken from Germany to London by way of a kinder transport during WWII) you’ll find Sebaldian Meditation. The windows into history’s many blindspots offers the perfect, and elegant and very European, platform for the discussion of life, nature, time, and decay. If there is any reason for me to recommend him, it is that his books give the reader windows to appreciate (or, judging by his dour author photographs, that plead them to heed) the fruits of meditation, slowing down, and the dangers of overgeneralization and modernity. It gives a mirror for readers, too, readers who every once in a while looking into an immensity will see themselves in something—sometimes even a homing pigeon or, like, a hassock or something.