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Book

45 notable book lovers share their best reads of 2012 Add to ...

Bruce McCall’s most recent book is 50 Things To Do With a Book (Now That Reading is Dead).

ADAM GOPNIK

Two books haunted me this year, as unlike each other as is humanly possible, but related by – well are they related? First, was Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, published a couple of years ago but percolating to the surface of the world, or at least to my own attention, just now. Circumstances had me travelling back and forth to a collaborator’s studio on a train this year, and I found these letters to be the most perfect of companions. Bishop is straitened, melancholy, modest and enormously observant of the world; Lowell is funny, dissolute, by turns grandiose and depressive, and hugely observant of himself. (If you want to see the exchange as a perfect romance of male and female, if one carried out at the highest level of poetic invention, you have every reason to do so.) It’s a love story related in letters, and has the added fillip of having changed meaning over time: Lowell’s major-ness is taken for granted by both of them, and only in retrospect does Bishop seem the more perfect poet.

The other, utterly unlike book, was Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe. A dry-seeming study of why it was exactly that New York City, 30 years ago a circle in a modern inferno, became as safe as suburban Ottawa, the books posits a hugely important and widely applicable theory of urban life. What the New York City police did was not to alter anything big, but to apply a thousand small sanities to the pursuit of crime. They harassed drug dealers, broke up drug markets, lit dark corners of the subway and, yes, frisked and searched young kids who seemed likely muggers. They built small barriers against crime and these turned out to construct an unclimbable wall against it. The moral is that very small ameliorative changes can have disproportionate effects on the quality of urban life. Discouraging crime is essentially as effective as destroying it. This is a central liberal belief – that building a better sewer is as valuable as building a better man – and it is nice to see it reaffirmed. Any thing in common among these two books? Perhaps the encouraging thought that very small human efforts, in poetry or policing, could have very loud echoes in the world.

Adam Gopnik is a Canadian writer living in New York. His most recent book is The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

First published in 1818, very possibly the most famous debut novel in English, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The New Prometheus has never been out of print. Far fewer people have read this somewhat difficult and didactic novel than know, or think that they know, who “Frankenstein” was; long ago, the grotesque figure of Dr.Frankenstein’s Monster became detached from its literary context, as from its creator. Highly recommended is The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, who seem to know, between them, all that there is to know about Frankenstein, including his myriad cinematic metamorphoses over the decades.

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of many books, most recently the novel Mudwoman.

A.L. KENNEDY

I would completely and thoroughly recommend Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, by Greg Palast. It’s a passionate, funny, honest and – in every sense – revealing work. It’s a truly world-changing book about how things really work: Why Greece is really broke, why Africa stays in purgatory, why we all need to wake up and smell something which is much less palatable than coffee.

A.L. Kennedy’s most recent novel is The Blue Book.

RAJ PATEL

If you’re reading this, the chances are that we didn’t fall off the edge of the Mayan calendar into the screaming abyss. The apocalypse isn’t now. For many on the left and the right, though, it can’t come soon enough. After The End – whether brought about by climate change or immigration or civilizational collapse – the catastrophists will inherit the Earth, or what’s left of it.

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