If nothing else, 2020 will go down on record as the year I surpassed my Goodreads goal.
Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…”
So begins T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. For Prufrock, it was evenings. But for me, and the rest of us who were privileged enough to be safe and secure during these past few chaotic months, that probably describes our mornings. Struggling to get out of bed, in that semi-catatonic state between sleepfulness and wake. We certainly didn’t go anywhere, at least not farther than the fridge. Eliot’s more famous work The Waste Land circulated among poetry communities earlier this year, specifically the line “April is the cruellest month”, which seemed all too apt at the initial height of the pandemic.
If there was one glimmering light amidst all the darkness of 2020, it was the worldwide literary resurgence. I know plenty of once-avid readers who never had the opportunity to sit down with a book because of the pressures of work, school, and other commitments, but who reverted back to voracious bibliophiles during lockdown. I’m a little spoiled, if you can call it that, being an English major. It means staying on top of my reading isn’t optional, and it ensured I made up for lack of travel by venturing into some great books. Here are four of my most themely highlights …
1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
While many resorted to reading as an escape route from the dreariness of reality this year, I figured it would be more useful to confront it with some timeless wisdom. To quote Meditations, “There is nothing more for us to learn that our predecessors have not, and there is nothing our successors have less to learn than we already know.”
If there’s one quintessential text Classicists and Silicon Valley Bros both keep on a well-dusted spot in their personal libraries, it’s this seminal philosophical work. Roughly 2,000 years later, it still delivers some pretty good advice. Even while a plague was coursing through the Roman Empire, the Stoic ruler Marcus Aurelius knew how to ‘keep calm and carry on’ (although he didn’t have the foresight to trademark that axiom).
In many ways, he was the ancient progenitor of the modern self-help guru. Whether it’s how to handle anxiety and uncertainty, or struggling to live in the present, Aurelius has a jewel to drop for virtually every pressing existential question you can conjure. As a bonus, Book XI summarizes the philosophical school of Stoicism in his eleven easy-to-digest “rules for life”. Spoiler alert: The list most certainly doesn’t tell you to “clean your damn room”, although given the prolonged state of quarantine, that’s a tip you may find best to heed.
2. The Answer is … by Alex Trebek (2020)
On a more sombre note, 2020 was a year we all dealt with major losses –of family members, friends, and those you felt like both. Such was the case with beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s passing away after a long battle with cancer, at age 80, in November. A few months before his death, the game show icon released a memoir. In staying with the Jeopardy! phrasing format, each chapter is titled in the form of a a question, like “What is Music Hop” (one of the first shows he hosted) or “Who is Ken Jennings (the all-time Jeopardy! champ).
Trebek forgoes the pretentiousness of other ‘weightier’ autobiographies, instead structuring the book in a series of succinct, amusing, and poignant vignettes – from his upbringing in Sudbury, to studying at the University of Ottawa, his tenure as a CBC host, and eventually moving to Hollywood to begin his most famous media occupation. He touches upon the major beats of his life with a flippancy that turns to heartbreak when read in retrospect of his tragic loss.
For all of us who spent our high school days slamming buzzers in Reach for the Top trivia tournaments, or tuning in every weekday night to watch this arbiter of facts and knowledge, at a time when such things seem more tenuous than we’d like, this book is a must-read. The question to the answer, “This proud Canadian game show host will be sorely missed,” is a no-brainer: “Who is Alex Trebek?”
3. Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (2015) or The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction (2020)
Among the more productive activities I partook in this summer was subscribing to the online celebrity teaching service Masterclass. One of the instructors happened to be famed modern fantasy author Neil Gaiman. To accompany his insightful lessons, I explored one of his more recent works – a short story collection titled Trigger Warning.
It’s a term we’re all familiar with, but Gaiman heightens the definition within his typical generic conventions. He provides a fair disclaimer to any potential readers in the introduction. If one chooses to step into his fantastical worlds, they would visit, among other landmarks, a house with an unexpected source of haunting (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”), and a household alien encounter (“Orange”). Notice any connection? “Uncanny” doesn’t even begin to describe the resemblance to real-world circumstances here.
Gaiman plays with the passage of time through the collection’s other inclusion, “A Calendar of Tales”, which presents a series of themely stories, corresponding to all twelve months of the year. The tone alters in a verisimilar fashion as the stories progress. “March Tale” is fittingly tempestuous, while the Winter months are distinctly more depressing – “December Tale” is a real downer. But on the plus side, it cycles right back to “January Tale”. As Marlon James wrote in the foreword to a recently-published compendium of the author’s work, “Thanks to Neil Gaiman, spiders now stop me dead in my tracks.” In an already unsettling year, it’s hard to disagree with this sentiment.
4. Beverly by Nick Drnaso (2016)
Even when school resumed in September, many of us still found ourselves confined to our homes, taking virtual classes in our childhood bedrooms. Nick Drnaso captures the angst of these seeming havens of comfort with chilling prescience, and I would’ve never discovered that if not for ENG235 (otherwise known as The Graphic Novel ‘bird-course’ for engineering students).
Drnaso made history in 2018 with his other notable work Sabrina, the only book of its kind to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize. The graphic novelist proved his ability to speak to our generational zeitgeist like no other, as he demonstrated equally well with Beverly a few years prior. The book is structured in several independent yet interconnected narratives, all set in a benign Illinois suburb. From a disturbed young boy’s coming-of-age, to a neighbourhood horror story involving the spread of gossip and misinformation, Drnaso extracts rich and relatable conflict from this familiar setting.
His minimalist art style mirrors that of Chris Ware, the cartoonist and author of Jimmy Corrigian (for those of you who took ENG140). The segmented, symmetrical layout of the panels in Beverly resemble the orderly conformity of the suburbs. It makes this book a deceptively easy entry-point for newcomers to the medium, while evincing the unique malaise of a place that – for many students who were unable to return to campus this year – encapsulated 2020.
Vikram Nijhawan is a third-year undergraduate student at Trinity College, studying English, History, and Classics.