Without any further ado, here are the two best books I read in 2010:
The Way of the World, by Nicolas Bouvier (NYRB, $16.95)
The Way of the World is a new old book, having been originally published in French in 1963 and in English by the redoubtable NYRB in October 2009. (The Marlboro Press published it in the mid-90s, now out-of-print.) I read the book in January while living in the middle of Illinois, a heartless month in a cold place. Like all great travel narratives, it filled me with the urge to escape. I wrote about the book then and don't think I can do any better now:
Nicolas Bouvier’s beautifully rendered recollection of a trip he and a friend, the artist Thierry Vernat, took from Geneva to the Khyber Pass is a testament to the kind of admirable travel that leaves one breathless. The Way of the World records a trip I can never take (history renders certain things impossible), but like all memorable literature it pulls the reader along, it stirs up the depths we do our best to ignore in order to survive the office, regular meals, the slight pleasures of daily living...
...Ultimately, it may be that the most remarkable aspect of the book is not its vivid recollections of the pleasures and sorrows of the road, but Bouvier's insouciance when faced with the tribulations of travel. This attitude is best typified at the end of the book, as the traveler realizes his destination:
"That day, I really believed that I had grasped something and that henceforth my life would be changed. But insights cannot be held forever. Like water, the world ripples across you and for a while you take on its colors. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself…"My other favorite book this year is a collection of Eliot Weinberger's essays, An Elemental Thing (New Directions, $16.95). Before even finishing this collection, I'd ordered the rest of Weinberger's books and promptly devoured them as well. Here's my shelf-talker:
Eliot Weinberger, a college drop-out turned translator (of Paz, Borges, Bei Dao, among others) writes essays unlike anything you've read. These pieces--erudite, wide-ranging, poetic--are of universal scope, touching upon topics as diverse (and cohesive) as the varieties of Chinese wind, a history of the rhinoceros in Europe, the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, vortexes, and a reverie on the stars that is one of the most beautiful things I've read. Weinberger's vast learning is matched by an equally encompassing sense of wonder, and his ability to draw the exotic closer, while still permitting it an air of mystery, is a thing to marvel at.