This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 1, 2001 — Booklovers may look back at 2000 as the year the book business went through an epochal change driven not by generational turnover, but by suicidal impulses.

The year opened, for example, with a hugely successful first book — "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers' story about how he raised his little brother after their parents' death (a claim supposedly contested by Eggers' older sister, who says she did most of the work while Eggers partied). Eggers quickly became a dominant force in the publishing industry, where no one seemed to notice that he'd larded the can't–lose orphan formula with lots of cheerfully virulent anti–intellectualism — bragging that he was so ill–read he was ignorant of the fact that George Eliot was a woman, for example.

Meanwhile, publishers invested as never before in e–books, despite the fact that readers have consistently refused to buy them — despite, even, the failure of a Stephen King e–book (which King abandoned, leaving his most dedicated readers hanging in cyberspace).

This year also saw the most lavish book advances ever, with G.E. chairman Jack Welch getting $7 million, and Hillary Clinton $8 million. Such books never make a profit, and are one reason behind outrageously high list prices. So why do publisher pay so much? Prestige and "buzz," they say.

Finally, while publishers spent their remaining shekels promoting first–time authors they hoped would become the next Dave Eggers, there was, concurrently, a kind of institutionalization of ageism by the National Book Awards, whose youngish fiction judges including A.M. Homes, Breena Clark, and David Guterson snubbed Philip Roth, John Updike, and Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow, whose novels, most critics agreed, were amongst their best ever.

All of which masked the fact that 2000 was one of the most exciting years in literature in a long time. Here, without further ado, are my ten favorite books of the year, listed, by the way, in alphabetical order by author, not in order of preference — they're all great.

"The Verificationist" by Donald Antrim (Knopf, $21) . . . A gathering of psycho–therapists at a pancake house makes for our leading avant–garde novelist's funniest book yet, with the added kick of being told in a way that's refreshingly unprecedented.

"Ravelstein" by Saul Bellow (Viking, $24.95) . . . Bellow's densely yet beautifully crafted novel is a brave and deeply moving testament to friendship outliving death.

"Different Hours" by Stephen Dunn (Norton, $22) . . . Dunn's poems impart an illuminating grace to the simplest aspects of daily life, with an economy that makes for concise, piercing wisdom.

"Seeing Mary Plain" by Frances Kiernan (Norton, $35) . . . More than just a biography, this first book is an innovative mix of narration and oral history that makes for an absorbing immersion into the life of pioneering writer Mary McCarthy.

"New Addresses" by Kenneth Koch (Knopf, $23) . . . Koch's wacky take on apostrophe — poems that directly address objects or concepts — has him talking to World War II, Sleep, and his Heart, and stretching notions of poetic form and language.

"Dream Birds" by Rob Nixon (Picador, $23) . . . In the year's most offbeat non–fiction book, and in wonderful, luminous prose, South African Nixon traces his life–long fascination with ostriches and details their history as a way to tell his own.

"Yes" by Yoko Ono (Abrams, $60 hardcover, $45 paperback) . . . Restoring Ono to her rightful place as an important conceptual artist, this is an exhaustive overview of her powerful work, and reminds us of the more inspiring, poetic possibilities of abstract art.

"The Human Stain," by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin $26) . . . A harrowing consideration of the cultural war raging through modern America, and how it affects individuals. One of those deeply affecting epics that will leave you feeling you see things differently.

"The Business of Books" by Andre Schiffrin (Verso, $23) . . . Publisher Andre Schiffrin's dissection of American publishing offers frightening insight into how conglomeration is affecting intellectual life — and inspiring insight into how things can be changed.

"The Hill Bachelors" by William Trevor (Viking, $22.95) . . . In a year of lauded story collections, old master Trevor quietly wrote the most consistently well–crafted, unflinching, and moving of them all. The form at its best.

It was, in short, a year worth celebrating, thanks especially to some old masters. Let's hope the industry's suicidal impulses abate next year, so they get another chance. Happy New Year.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.