Stephen Sparks’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks). Stephen owns Point Reyes Books in Northern California.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Wynn Bullock, The Pilings, 1958

I am a professional bookseller and an amateur reader. It is perhaps in reaction to my professional obligations and a pervasive (and growing) ickiness about being a cog in the publishing industry’s all-consuming marketing machine that, for several years running, I stubbornly compiled a list of books I hadn’t read in the previous year, instead of those I had. I haven’t gotten to Proust or returned to Bleak House; I had no intention of reading that splashy soon-to-be-optioned debut.

My amateur status (or ambition) hasn’t, perhaps, kept up with reality: my reading life has over the past decade been increasingly determined by obligation. Books sent by editors, writers, publicists, awards committees, and others in the industry accumulate quickly, fast outpacing my—or I would guess, anyone’s—ability to keep up. And so, I am forced to skim and scan and dip and peruse. [Ed. – Must admit, this does seem dispiriting.]

So, for the most part, I don’t care much for professional reading, not because it can often feel aimless—after all, as an amateur, I delight in chance encounters, coincidences, and unexpected threads. I don’t like it because it isn’t conducive to the depth of experience that characterizes true reading. Not to mention that a diet consisting almost exclusively of contemporary work diminishes a sense of what literature can do.

Below, then, are a handful of books I read because I wanted to, or in the case of the last two, because it was demanded of me by someone whose imperatives are impossible to ignore. [Ed. – Ooh, suspense!]

One of the best experiences I had reading in 2021 was the evening I picked up Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Listen, My Friend; This is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, published by the Song Cave. This glorious and hypnotically captivating unspooling of thought is too tightly controlled to be considered stream-of-consciousness and too sui generis to be pinned down into any other form. This book-length monologue, prayer, love letter, prose poem, confession, riveted me. It’s compelling, vulnerable, and brimming with life.

I have a list of sixteen books I jotted down while reading Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (Bellevue Literary Press), a marvelously generative study of human and cosmic consciousness. A flip, Kripal argues, is often the result of an anomalous experience that reveals to us the inextricable mutuality of matter and mind. In his theory, matter is imbued with mind and we are all but manifestations of a deeper universal consciousness. Though this may sound a little woo-woo (have I owned a bookstore in Marin County for too long?) [Ed. – Nope, it sounds a little woo-woo], the underpinning of Kripal’s arguments are nothing if not Spinozan and lead to a rousing defense of the humanities.

Though her book was published after Kripal’s and therefore not among the sixteen books on my list, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn’s God, Human, Animal, Machine (Doubleday) is concerned with the same questions: what is consciousness and what is its value? Braiding memoir and philosophical meditation on the nature of the self, intelligence, and design, O’Gieblyn doesn’t engage in polemics, but essentially lands in the same place as Kripal: there are currently few satisfying theories of consciousness. As any good novelist knows, a fundamental mystery lies at the heart of awareness.

The novel I read in 2021 that best grappled with this mystery won’t be published for another few months: Irene Solà’s When I Sing, the Mountains Dance, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Graywolf Press). The novel plumbs the deep interconnectedness of a remote village with the natural world high in the Pyrenees. In it, Solà gives voice to black chanterelles, lightning, and ghosts as well as human beings in an invigorating attempt to reinhabit a mode of being that feels as vitally urgent as it does archetypally timeless. [Ed. – Attention, readers, attention! If Nicie Panetta is in the room, please come to the front desk to collect your book.]

HOLY SHIT

Finally, since I spent many enjoyable hours reading picture books to our toddler this year, I’d like to mention a few that seem to me exemplary of the genre: Jon Klassen’s The Rock from the Sky (Candlewick), a deadpan and bleakly funny story that several reviewers aptly refer to as Beckettian; and Phoebe Wahl’s collection of seasonal tales, Little Witch Hazel (Tundra Books), much warmer than Klassen, and brimming with magic, wonder, and gentle humor. It’s led our toddler to knock on trees asking if anyone is home. [Ed. – Heart brims over!] If only more books had such consequences.

7 thoughts on “Stephen Sparks’s Year in Reading, 2021

  1. When all this is over, you will find me approaching the counter of Pt. Reyes Books with the Solà (and more, I am sure) in my hands! Thank you, Stephen, for this piece and for all you do for readers.

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