A year with books: the best of 2011

The Good Book. Which, alas, I did not read this year.

2011 was a great year for me as reader. After spending the previous 5 years curbing my reading habit (and having it curbed) as the necessary consequence of postulancy and seminary life, as a fourth-year student I again had the time, independence, and energy to read again.

Here are my favorites from 2011, by category:

Sutra

  • The Diamond Sutra, sutra with commentary, translated by Red Pine

There’s a part of me that wants to protest assigning a “best-of” category to the sutras I read. I’ve never gotten why the Chinese were so keen to classify the sutras and assign hierarchies to the teachings; I mean, sure, they needed a way to understand and sort through the mass of sometimes conflicting teachings, everything from Agamas to The Lotus Sutra, but I still never did like the smug tones that accompany this style. It’s like, my iPhone is better than your Samsung Galaxy, nahh! My perspective is and always has been, But dude…you can make a phone call with both, right?

Despite this internal resistance to anything smacking of mine’s-better-than-yours, I found myself frequently comparing the two sutras I read this year, the Diamond Sutra and The Avatamsaka–titled The Flower Ornament Scripture by Thomas Cleary for his English translation. I’d like to sidestep all soteriological arguments for a moment and say that The Avatamsaka was a stunning spiritual journey. Many of the most vivid images I have ever encountered are in this sutra; some of the most beautiful literary passages I’ve ever read are here, too. It was moving, inspiring, and conceptually inconceivable–which is its point a lot of the time. It was everything a sutra can and should be.

But, whether it was because of Red Pine’s style as a translator, or because I’m more familiar with The Diamond Sutra after many years of recitation, or simply because it’s shorter and I rarely felt the same sense of being drowned in its ocean as I did with The Avatamsaka Sutra, or because I had a commentary to read with it that elucidated unseen meanings and made the text resonate and reverberate through my life and I didn’t have such with The Avatamsaka: for all these reasons, I kept returning to the The Diamond Sutra even while I was reading The Avatamsaka. I’ll add, in defense of The Avatamsaka Sutra, that I’m pretty sure re-reading the sutra and becoming intimate with it will change my perspective. And I’m not saying I didn’t respond deeply to the sutra on the first reading, either. In later years, it may be The Avatamsaka Sutra at the top of a list like this. Before folks get all sectarian on me, I just want to reiterate that I’m not evaluating the theories or methods of awakening expressed in either sutra…because dude, you can practice with both.

Buddhism

  • The Buddhist Unconscious: the Alaya-vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought, William S. Waldron

It took me a year to read this book. Waldon’s relatively slim volume–the next book on Yogacara I read was three times as long but took me 1/12th the time to read–was incredibly dense. For me, it was the intellectual equivalent of gnawing on rawhide. Dense, but far from boring. Waldon’s text was my first conscientious attempt to understand Yogacara, one of the major schools of Indian Mahayana and a heavy influence on China’s Cha’an tradition, and the year I spent slowly re-orienting my theoretical framework to the Yogacara model was probably one of the most difficult mental shifts I’ve ever attempted. That Waldron has managed to explain Yogacara in all of its complexity without losing the reader along the way is a major feat, and I finished the book as impressed with Waldron himself as with Yogacara. Additionally, by locating Yogacara’s major innovation, the alaya-vijnana or “storehouse consciousness,” within the larger framework of Indian Buddhist thought, Waldron clearly illustrates the successes and limitations of the various schools, including Yogacara, through their responses to each other’s theories. The Buddhist Unconscious was the one string that, when pulled, let me untangle the interwoven threads connecting late Indian Buddhist theory with the East Asian Buddhist schools.

  • Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih-Lun, Dan Lusthaus

The “next book on Yogacara” I read was Lusthaus’ tome. Without The Buddhist Unconscious, I wouldn’t have understood Buddhist Phenomenology. (So it’s a good thing I read them in the order I did, eh.) Lusthaus did me the important service of explaining why modern Buddhist scholars read so much Kant–I may be up on my Buddhist theorists living and dead, but I’m pretty much a dud when it comes to Western philosophy. He then expands some of the issues Waldron raised in his book by examining in detail the major areas of Buddhist theory (i.e., the five skandhas, pratitya-sammudpada, etc.) and how they were understood by the main schools of Buddhism in India around the time Yogacara emerged. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to grasp the context in which Yogacara, or any school, arose, and to understand the relationships, either complementary or oppositional, between various schools. Lusthaus provides a generous survey in this regard. But the book’s real value lay in Lusthaus’ concordance of Vasubandhu’s “Thirty Verses” in romanized Sanskrit, an English translation of the Sanskrit, Paramartha’s Chinese translation, and Hsuan-tsang’s Chinese translation (both with English translation), followed by an extensive discussion of Chinese Yogacara viz. the Ch’eng wei-shih-lun. Because I encountered Chinese Yogacara texts and terminology first and have had to work my way backward to the Sanksrit-based Indian tradition, being able to see how and where the Chinese struggled with Yogacara’s technical terms and arguments clarified many of the still-pervasive misunderstandings in the East Asian schools that use Yogacara as part of their theoretical foundation. Lusthaus is a thorough scholar and displays an amazing command of Yogacara in three languages, which (given the misunderstandings that are rampant because of either novel interpretations or lack of understanding on the part of translators) is a necessity; and we benefit from his subtlety and skill.

An additional thumbs-up to both Waldron and Lusthaus for managing to weave a subtle sense of humor into their writing. I actually chuckled while reading these books.

Non-fiction

  • Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Marable Manning

If you’ve read The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley, you’ve read–as it turns out–only one facet of a very complex man. To the amazement of some and the apprehension of others, I count Malcolm X as a role model. (One of my classmates raised her eyebrows in horror when I told her this; my explanation that I’d rarely seen someone so willing to put the brakes on everything he’d done and said and start over in sometimes wildly different and contradictory directions, and I admired and strove to emulate that commitment to an inner compass, failed to bring her eyebrows down.) Manning’s meticulously researched and unflinching biography of Malcolm X builds our perception of the man around the contradictions and conflicts that seemed inherent to Malcolm’s personality and historical place. On the one hand, as Manning himself openly admits, by the end of Malcolm’s life it was difficult to say exactly what, if anything, Malcolm believed in, other than himself. What was clear to Manning, who tragically passed away shortly before the publication of his biography, was that Malcolm X was, nonetheless, someone committed to change, and change for the better. That Malcolm’s vision of “change for the better” was at times controversial, at times conciliatory, at times unclear, is not the main thrust of Manning’s assessment of the man. As Manning wrote himself,

And finally, I am deeply grateful to the real Malcolm X, the man behind the myth, who courageously challenged and transformed himself, seeking to achieve a vision of a world without racism. Without erasing his mistakes and contradictions, Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured.

(“Acknowledgements and Research Notes,” p. 493)

  • An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer, Charles Prebish

Opinionated, eccentric, a deeply committed Buddhist and one of contemporary Buddhist Studies’ greatest pioneers, Charles Prebish’s autobiographical voice isn’t like his academic one. (I suppose it’s harder to swear in an academic paper…) His personality is as self-effacing as the title of his autobiography, which is to say, not at all. I loved this lively, on-the-ground view of American Buddhism as both practitioner and scholar. Being a scholar-practitioner (he originated the term), he’s in a position to show us both of those worlds, and Prebish’s not afraid to tell it like he sees it, including some sharp jabs at scholars I personally like and practices/beliefs I also partake of. (Regarding the latter, his fake “blessing strings” stunt with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s entourage at Naropa had me in stitches, even though I also wear a blessing-string on my wrist.) I respected Prebish’s unwillingness to pull any punches and, in an echo of what I find so compelling about Malcolm X, his unswerving commitment to his own vision, academic and personal. Prebish has stood at the center of the academic Buddhist world and participated in the unfolding of Buddhism in America for the past 40 years. You want to know what the view was like? Read his book.

Fiction

  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

I ordered this book on a whim. For the past four years, I’ve kept my fiction reading to a narrow corridor whose two walls are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. A peculiarly narrow pair of reading partners, but excellent ones nonetheless, and if I absolutely feel I must pick up a novel, they’re usually it. I can’t honestly say what compelled me to get Infinite Jest. I read a few reviews, took a look at the page count (1104, always a plus in my as-much-page-for-my-buck life), and wondered if it weren’t an modern American Ulysses. (I refused to finish Ulysses partly out of despair and partly on principle in college. Anyone who tries to make his novel impossible to understand is just a literary and intellectual bully. I freely admit that sour grapes play a part in my opinion of Joyce and Ulysess.)

Infinite Jest was funny and it was not pretentious. It was smart but never condescending. I laughed hard and often; but the novel also left me with the sadness that comes from looking unflinchingly at something. In this case, Foster Wallace’s “something” is modern America in all its arrogance, consumption, emotional hunger, ennui, and obsessions. Infinite Jest wasn’t self-conscious, and made me think without ever feeling like a “thinking” novel. I didn’t seem like Foster Wallace was ever trying to say something, even though, by the time I finished the book, it was clear that he had a very strong view of the state of American society and intended to communicate that. Some passages were difficult to read; violence, both emotional and physical, is a strong presence in Infinite Jest, as is drug abuse. If you can’t watch Requiem for a Dream, you may not be able to read some parts of Infinite Jest comfortably, either.

Again, I read some other very fine novels this year, even a few that are outside the Austen-Dickens corridor. Infinite Jest is among the best of the year, however, for the way it continued to resonant with me, less like a definitive statement on something and more like a question tossed out, one neither easily answered nor quickly forgotten. Above all other considerations, it was this quality of the novel that puts it at the top of the list for 2011.

  • The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

A friend sent me the first book in this trilogy for my birthday. She said she thought I’d like it, and oh boy, did I ever. I stayed up until 11 pm, with a flashlight under my covers, to finish The Hunger Games the same day it arrived. It was like I was 12 years old again! It was great! I love it when a book compels me to stay up way past my bedtime in defiance of parental (and in this case, monastic) authority. There’s been a lot of discussion of The Hunger Games‘ message about girls, relationships, America, dystopia, etc. etc. I’m going to leave aside all meta-discussion and say that it was just plain old action-packed young-adult sci-fi goodness, with a girl as the main character. The deciding factor was that I couldn’t put this book down.

Poetry

This year, to my sadness, I didn’t read a single complete volume of poetry. This wasn’t on purpose, but was the consequence of choosing to give most of my attention and energy to both sutra and Buddhist theory. Those books were often long and difficult, and I read slowly and deliberately, to digest the content. This requires time, and I gave it gladly; but it meant I cut back on poetry.

Fortunately, I have an internet connection and there are poets who publish electronically. My most consistent reading was the on-going series of what I might call “call-and-response” poems between Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, hosted at Dave’s Via Negativa. The Morning Porch Poems’ series archives by season are here: Winter 2010-11, Spring 2011, Summer 2011, Autumn 2011, Winter 2011-12.

Also deserving of recognition for their role in keeping poetry in my life even when I couldn’t get to books are qarrtsiluni online literary magazine, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Dale Favier. quarrtsiluni, as a literary mag, is sort-of “no duh” territory for publishing great poetry, but Rachel and Dale do so as a regular part of their lives, and reading their blogs has brought and kept poetry in my life. Thank you.

And…

By the numbers

I read: 48 books total
18 were sutra, Buddhist studies, or popular Buddhism (hello, Brad Warner)
10 were non-fiction
20 were fiction

…but if I’d kept precise track of page-count, the greatest bulk would disproportionately be on the non-fiction and sutra etc. side.

I kept a commonplace book and record of individual books’ start and finish date (see picture) and will do so again this year.

What have you read this past year?

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3 comments on “A year with books: the best of 2011

  1. Terry Pratchett: The Unadulterated Cat
    My greatest intellectual achievement of the year.

  2. What a wonderful post this is. I like your approach both to mobile phones and to sutras. 🙂

    And thank you for the kind words about my blog as a place in which poetry can be found!

    You’ve made me want to reread Infinite Jest. I read it years ago, when I was working at a bookstore; I read quickly, and I was enticed to pick up this book because it was so huge I figured it would occupy me for a good while. I remember it being witty, thought-provoking, and sad.

  3. […] with the camera, then visual responses would be part of the responses. The point is to build off the momentum I built up in 2011 as a reader and also make sure my reading is responsive, a deliberate, attentive, and creative […]

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