The Best Books of 2003
"The Devil's Dictionary," Lorrie Moore, "Saturday Night Live," "Anna Karenina," and more.
11:00 PM, Dec 30, 2003 • By TWS STAFF
I hate to sound like I'm gloating, like I'm some kind of big shot, but I can practically guarantee that my "best book I've read this year" is better than your "best book I've read this year." That's because my best book may be the best book ever written--or best novel, anyway. I admit this only reluctantly. A semi-bookish man of my (rapidly advancing) age is supposed to have read "Anna Karenina" by now. I hadn't, but when I picked it up a while back and finally waded in, I was dazzled by it for the same reasons people have been dazzled by it for 140 years. Like a few other much-hyped Wonders of the World--the Grand Canyon, Wrigley Field--this one really is as good as they say. And the best part is, I haven't finished reading it yet, and probably won't for several more months, which means that my "best book I've read this year" for next year is already in the bag.
I spent much of this year on a stationary bicycle, training to run a marathon. The main goal was to save wear-and-tear on my creaky knees; a pleasant secondary outcome was that I read more books than in any 12 months since high school. And if I learned anything from wading through dreck such as "The Da Vinci Code" and Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods," it's this: The ratio of good books to all books published is disturbingly similar to that of good TV shows to all shows aired on television.
One of the bright spots was Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's "Live From New York." An oral history of "Saturday Night Live," "Live From New York" is full of brilliant, telling details about the TV industry, the comedy business, and the culture of the '70s. It paints unflattering pictures of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo (surprise!) and casts, in as the main heel, Chevy Chase.
Writer John Landis recounts a satisfying vignette from the show's second season, when Chase and Bill Murray got into a fistfight on the set. As the two men are being pulled apart, Murray points his finger at Chase and bellows, "Medium talent!" Even Oscar Wilde would have to tip his cap.
--Jonathan V. Last
This was a year of great baseball books, and I'm thinking of "Moneyball" and "Teammates" in particular. But the best book I read in 2003 wasn't new. It was about a charismatic American, an icon, a larger-than-life figure who still ranks as America's greatest athlete. "Babe Ruth" by Robert Creamer was published 20 years ago, and I don't know why I just got around to reading it. A wonderful book, biography at its best.
One regular reviewer, when asked if he has finished reading the book about which he has written so eloquently, will often reply, "Well, I've read in it." "The Devil's Dictionary" is the perfect book for reading in. I read in it at breakfast, forcing myself to savor it one cereal bowl at a time. I loved it from the start, but Ambrose Bierce won my heart at the letter L, when he defines "literally, adv" as "figuratively" and, a bit later, "loquacity, n" as "a disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk." "Leisure, n" is summed up as "lucid intervals in a disordered life." Pick up a copy of "The Devil's Dictionary" in your first "lucid interval" of 2004.
At the bookstore, I sometimes peruse the staff recommendations, for sociological reasons, curious what kind of person would choose to work in hell. But never in my memory had I taken the proffered advice, unable was I to imagine a bookstore clerk whose standards approached my own. Until one day in August. I noticed a short story collection, not even a new one, being hailed and praised from the accompanying handwritten index card. Now the only two reasons I could imagine a short story collection being recommended was that it contained precious artsy crap or that it was written by Big Famous Undeniable Authors like J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Saul Bellow, et cetera.
This was neither, apparently just the early work of a well-established writer whose stuff I hadn't noticed before. I read the first story.
What joy, what friggin' ecstasy I experienced, here in this annoying Barnes & Noble with its dry air, faux-cozy market-tested, interior design, and aisles upon aisles of bad writing. I was in the kingdom of the bestseller and had found a quiet, clever, but joyous writer who wrote with profound care.
The volume was called "Self-Help," an ironic title, and the author was Lorrie Moore. Using a second-person deadpan, the narrator describes her own actions, sometimes as a series of recommendations the reader might follow. In the first story "How to be an Other Woman," it works like this: