As December draws to a close, everyone (at least on social media) seems eager to remind us of how many books they read in 2013. But we're more interested in what we learned from them. To find out, Globe Books asked some of its favourite readers to tell us what they took from their year in reading. Here, Caroline Adderson, Pasha Malla, Shelagh Rogers, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Craig Taylor report back from the printed page
It's happening everywhere.
The other night, the candlelit carol service was nearly finished when the minister stood up in her Christmas sweater to address the crowd. She adopted a folksy tone while speaking of the various things we tend to worship these days – mainly sports figures and celebrities. We stood there, candles in hand, as the minister admitted she felt passionate – she almost worshipped – a certain television show.
"Breaking Bad," I guessed under my breath.
"Breaking Bad," she confided to the mic.
"Breakingbad, breakingbad," whispered the congregation. Which is to say that even in a place of breaking bread, we were all still speaking the language of box sets.
Most readers are already fluent. "Breakingbad?" someone will inevitably ask you at a New Year's party. "Breakingbad," you'll reply. "Gameofthrones Madmen?" they'll continue. "Breakingbad Gameofthrones Thewire," you'll confirm. Our appetite for long narratives has been fulfilled by box-set TV. Now, most people in conversation sound like members of a strange pre-natal support group. "How far are you along?" a concerned man once asked a friend. "Not far," she replied.
In these serials, the ghosts of the great Dickens novels live on. One of the most enjoyable sections in Clare Tomalin's astute biography of Thomas Hardy captures the relentless drive necessary to write a serial. She shows us Hardy, the time-torn man, bashing out novels at pace for Americans hungry for the next instalment, and foregoing descriptions of Dorset in order to maintain relentless, sometimes absurd, plotting.
Is box-set television changing the way writers are approaching novels? Probably not – writers are stubborn – but it certainly changed what I was looking for in novels in 2013. Instead of well-built, multi-strand narrative, often packed with astute dialogue, I fell in with the digressers, the detour artists, the strayers. What's great about box sets, people said, is that the show can go off on tangents. Maybe so, but not like these.
I read the first two instalments of a six-part series by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard entitled My Struggle, in which the author floods the book with details, floods it with the minutiae of life, so that readers are left living moment by moment alongside him. The pace, the digressions, the examination of his father's decline: Knausgaard finds a way to unravel the conventional novel. Instead of ending with a terrible mess, he pats the couch and we sit down next to him, ready to examine each individual thread. I wanted to move closer to his consciousness. The novels oblige; it's almost a game of dare: Can I describe this thought? he seems to be saying. Can I slow down this moment, can I slow it down again? Knausgaard sets aside a large part of the book to follow his protagonist, also named Karl Ove Knausgaard, as he scours his father's house, and I hope I won't belittle the section, its cumulative weight of regret and sadness, its slow burn, by saying that I've never been so enthralled by descriptions of cleaning.
My reading life in 2013 continued with more novels that seemed to unravel in my hands. The master of this technique is the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. His backlist will reward new readers, so be prepared to lose a month or two. This immersion is particularly interesting with Marias, whose novels and short stories interlock and reference one another. The characters reappear, and his chosen style, a swirling and smothering and loquacious stream (thanks to superb translations by Margaret Jull Costa) allows for epic digressions. Make a TV show from, for instance, Marias's trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, and it might feature a man sitting and smoking remembering another moment he was sitting and reading, remembering another moment he was sat speaking to a mysterious man, remembering another moment: the time he discovered a single drop of blood on a staircase, and then somewhere within these trapdoors of remembrance, Marias finds a way to weave in a profound examination of Franco's Spain. Maybe Jon Hamm could pull off such a scene.
To read Marias is to surrender expectations: his latest, The Infatuations, is a murder mystery, but the author is too concerned with what might have happened, or what could have happened, too concerned with love, sex, infatuation, to rush into the machinations of a whodunit. His trilogy – I can't offer anything better than this description – has been called a Le Carré novel as written by Proust. "I had opened myself up too much to evocations," his narrator confesses halfway through book two, "although without ever becoming bored…" It's true. For some reason it's never boring. I will, Marias seems to be saying, give you a long sentence, a multi-clause monster, so that you can disprove everything they say is happening to attention spans these days and enjoy one of the less-discussed formal pleasures of sticking with a sentence and following its contours right to the last stop, right to the end. They unspool and unspool.
After Marias, the next stop for me was Cesar Aira, an Argentine author who would probably last half a day in a reputable creative-writing program. Aira is the author of over 70 "novelitas" – short novels that move with surprising pace, probably because of Aira's professed love of forward motion. His entire oeuvre unspools. He doesn't look back, dislikes the act of rewriting, and if he becomes marooned in the middle of a novelita, he has been known to abruptly switch genres. The Literary Conference, translated by Katherine Silver, follows a translator named Cesar who has been hit hard by the economic downturn. He tries to attend a literary conference, but the whole effort is derailed eventually by an attack of giant silk worms, and perhaps even the words "giant silk worms" will consign this book to your unread pile, but I learned to trust in him as the story fell apart, unravelled in ways more entertaining than most well-made fiction, especially the realism of quiet epiphany. Aira is a literary trickster, a species rarely seen down in the thickets beneath the great, well-hewn giant novels of today by Donna Tartt and Eleanor Catton.
"I follow my whims," Aira said in an interview. "I follow the spontaneous decisions made in the moment. For serious deliberation and sensible decision-making there's real life, where I conduct myself like the most proper middle-class family man. Writing is my freedom, where I receive orders from no one, not even myself." Can you imagine him writing for television? Aira would be the worst on the team of, say, House of Cards staff writers. "The episode wasn't going so well," he would explain, "so I turned Kevin Spacey's character into a donkey."
Has HBO inadvertently given us a better novel? No, probably not. I'm hoping instead that the change comes from the viewer, from you and me. Those big stories, grand slices of narrative, played out across screens in 2013. Then, in the silence afterward, something looser, less structured seeped in when I started to read. This year was, for me, about books that didn't need to weakly imitate the experience. (I worry about books that have been bought by editors because reading them "felt like a box set.")
I was drawn to writers who didn't need to stuff a book with plot. There was space for digression, space for essayistic thought. It was there in Ali Smith's Artful, in Geoff Dyer's Zona – the book as a surprisingly resilient receptacle. You could even stick a bird in there. Here's Cesar Aira again: "If a little bird enters into the café where I'm writing – it did happen once – it also enters into what I'm writing. Since the next day something different will happen at the café, the plot continues to change accordingly. That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writable, than a linear plot." This year – and who knows what will happen next year – the sinuous thread was what I cared about too.
Craig Taylor is the editor of Five Dials, and the author of Londoners. He wrote the Globe Books 2013 summer series, Reading Canada.