My 2010 began with Coco Chanel. I had been hired to write an essay about Chanel and her sort-of memoir, “The Allure of Chanel,” her life story told to poet Paul Morand, and as I always do when I’m nervous, I overdid it. I read “The Allure,” I read “Chanel and Her World,” I watched films about her life, and I read books about Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s. From a short chapter in “Allure” about her friendship with Diaghilev, I went on a Ballets Russes spree that I am still not out of, having read Sjeng Scheijen’s biography, “Diaghilev: A Life,” and a German book about costume designer Leon Bakst that I have slowly struggled my way through.
It’s funny how one book leads to another, how reading a small book of Chanel formed the rest of my year of reading. Not to mention the coincidences and synchronicities. At an art museum bookshop after seeing a Bauhaus exhibit, I opened a book about Russian designers to a random page and was transfixed by the Bakst St. Sebastian staring back at me. I had no idea who he was, but I picked up his name in the Chanel book, and then later in John E. Bowlt’s “Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900 to 1920: Art, Life and Culture in Russia’s Silver Age.”
There are books from 2010 that I are entirely tied up in my mind with where I was reading them: Hélène Cixous’s “Stigmata” in a Viennese bathtub, Geert Mak’s “In Europe” in my friend’s New York spare bedroom, Lewis Hyde’s “Trickster Makes This World” on a train between Odessa and Berlin, and William Everdell’s “The First Modern” on the Berlin S-bahn, when, only a few pages in, I had that rush of “This book is amazing.” That realization crystallized something about that day on the train: I remember where exactly I was standing, the fact that I was on the S1 somewhere between Oranienburger Straße and Friedrichstraße.
Unlike some others, I wasn’t really surprised or shocked to read that Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley did not think much of the year’s fiction. He picked only two novels for his top 10 list. I think that probably he needs to change the fiction he reads, but he also had a point. In a year dominated by either cynical dystopias or suburban melodramas, the big name novels in 2010 were disappointing. The fiction of 2010 that did move me tended to come from small publishers like the New York Review of Books (Mavis Gallant’s “The Cost of Living” and Stephen Benatar’s “Wish Her Safe at Home”), Melville House (Lore Segal’s “Lucinella”), Soft Skull (Jillian Weise’s “The Colony”) and Canongate (Dubravka Ugresic’s “Baba Yaga Laid an Egg”). But I read far more nonfiction than fiction in 2010, and was in general more moved by what I read. The year had some stunning works, like Edmund de Waal’s memoir of his family’s life in pre-war Paris and Vienna, “The Hare with Amber Eyes”; Virginie Desplaines’s ferocious work of feminist theory, “King Kong Theory”; and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s playful and fascinating study of guilt by association in Weimar era Germany, “The Silences of Hammerstein.”
Then, of course, there were the disappointments, the books that held promise but I left unfinished, the dozens discarded after only a few pages. My to-be-read pile (more like “entire corner of my office”) is still filled with nearly a hundred books I just never got around to. There were new books I passed over in order to go through a Henry James phase, reading “Washington Square” and “Portrait of a Lady” back to back, and I’ve been picking up and putting down “The Golden Bowl” so frequently, it’s just a matter of time before I chuck whatever promising new memoirist the publicist swears will be the next big thing to spend time in Henry’s company once more. And then there is the book I never really stop reading, and haven’t since I bought it five years ago, a selection of essays by William James. There are a few essays I still haven’t read — I am oddly saving them for later — and some I practically have memorized by now.
2011 is looking like a year with a lot of international flights and long train trips. I’m already sorting which books might want to go to London, which books might want to go to Bamberg, which books might want to go to Cordoba. I have a stack of books from the New York Review of Books to help me through the winter, and still a handful of sci-fi to read for an award I’m judging. But no matter what my plans now, it’s likely there’ll be something, the “Allure of Chanel” of 2011, that hijacks any reading plans I may have had and veers my reading list into unexpected directions. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what book that might be.
Plus: Gillian Reagan talks with The New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus about compiling the 10 Best Books of 2010, on Thirteen.org’s Bookish blog.