A Year in Reading 2020.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year, and once again my contribution is the first in the series, a tradition which I am honored by and enjoy shamelessly. This year I discuss David Graeber’s Debt, Charles Portis’s Norwood, Yuri Trifonov and Vladimir Tendryakov, and the two Trevor Joyce collections I wrote about here. I could have added Tessa Hadley and George Eliot, both of whom I’ve been reading to my wife at night (we’re almost finished with Daniel Deronda), but the piece was long enough already, and neither author is in particular need of my publicity. Dum spiro, lego!


  1. Everything Charles Portis wrote is wonderful. I can think of no other American writer at the same time so good and so unknown.

    It’s hard to pick favorites. I think True Grit is the only well-known one because it was the most movie-ready one, but it’s great, and its narrator also stands apart from those of all the rest; but I have a special spot in my heart for Masters of Atlantis. It’s how I remember the 20th century.

  2. John Emerson says

    I too have Arkansas relatives. A drunken Iowa great uncle rehabbed via Jesus and migrated to the Ozarks (Turkey, Arkansas. Really.) to be a tent preacher. We are no longer in touch.

    But I should just say that an Arkansas author, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, is the acknowledged authority on Isaac Newton’s later career as an alchemist, Her books are fascinating, though a bit demanding.

  3. I’m reading True Grit now (“I remember once I rode a mean goat through a plum thicket on a dare”), and looking forward to Masters of Atlantis.

  4. But I should just say that an Arkansas author, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, is the acknowledged authority on Isaac Newton’s later career as an alchemist

    Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs is the most Arkie name ever. If only she’d been a Dodson!

  5. John Emerson says

    Must have been an amazing person. Her undergrad degree was from Hendrix college. She basically created her field — Newton’s alchemical writings had been virtually ignored, because they didn’t fit the narratives of scientific progress.

  6. Obit:

    In every sense Dobbs embodied the best aspects of scholarly life. Her friends and students will long remember her passion for learning, her capacity for critical thought, and her willingness to share her skills with students and colleagues. Having entered the historical profession after almost twenty years as a housewife and risen rapidly in the field, Dobbs maintained a level of delight and engagement in the pursuit of ideas, that, to some degree, surely reflected her surprise at having become an historian at all. As anyone who stopped by her office to borrow a book, engage in conversation, trade stamps, or share a cigarette can testify, she was a truly generous spirit.

    Despite all her successes as a scholar and teacher, Dobbs’s life transcended worldly achievement. She reached a state of unhurried grace worth more than any research publication or celebrated book. Dobbs always displayed the most admirable and attractive sense of calm direction and an intense interest in her material, in arguments with colleagues and with students. She seemed to have infinite patience and infinite wisdom, as well as humble respect for the finitude of human knowledge (both hers and that of others). Those at Davis who knew her cherished her grace and can still feel it shining on them just a little if they sit on Jo Dobbs’s smoking bench outside Voorhies Hall, near her office window.

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs is the most Arkie name ever.

    If a novelist gave that name to a character, let alone a character presented as a serious academic author, one would think it too over-the-top to be believable. I don’t think I’ve ever met an Arkie.

  8. “one would think it too over-the-top to be believable”
    Says the pot of the kettle.

  9. Ha!

  10. John Cowan says

    Indeed Ozark < aux Arcs, where Arcs is short for Fr. Arcansas < Algonquian Akansa, an exonym for the Quapaw ‘downstream people’. They spoke a Dhegiha Siouan language, a subgroup of MIssissippi Siouan; the other Dhegiha-speaking groups are the Omaha, the Ponca, the Osage, and the Kansa.

  11. Quapaw (OED):

    Etymology: < French Capaha (1670), Kapaha (1682), Kapa (1687), Kappa (1695), Ougapa (1722), originally applied only to one of the four Quapaw villages (< Quapaw okáxpa, perhaps ‘in the south’ < o- in, within + kaγa downstream, south + pa, of uncertain meaning), partly via Spanish Cafa, Capaha, Capha (all 1605).

  12. I wonder if there are any US states which never had European colonial presence other than English/American.

    Maybe Rhode Island.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Depends on what you mean by “colonial presence.” There are plenty of places out West where one or more scouting-type expeditions by the Spanish and/or French may have passed through the territory of (or sailed along the coastline of, in which case the Russians are also in play on the Pacific coast) a current state but left no traces and no attempt was ever made to establish a permanent settlement. I think Montana/Idaho/Wyoming did not have even that level of contact before Americans and/or Brits (potentially including ethnically-Quebecois fur traders post-1763) got there. Along the east coast, various non-English ships sailed and roughly mapped the entire coast (probably including an approximation of Rhode Island) but I don’t know if anyone pre-English had ever actually landed onshore in Maryland, much less tried to establish any sort of settlement there. Not sure if anyone non-English ever tried to establish a permanent settlement in Massachusetts or Connecticut – maybe a bit of Dutch presence a little bit east of the current New York state line that went beyond itinerant trading visits?

  14. Western Massachusetts and all of Maine and Vermont were heavily contested in a century of war with France (and French-allied Indians).

    Almost all of Connecticut used to be Dutch, including even its capital Hartford (Fort Hoop).

    You may be right about Maryland.

    So, it’s only two states then – Rhode Island and Maryland.

    I think United States bought Montana from France as part of the Louisiana purchase.

    Idaho and Wyoming had French Canadian presence which post-dates 1763. So they were technically British at the time.

    Anyway, when your map is filled with names like Cœur d’Alène, Nez Perce, Gros Ventre and so on, it’s hard to argue against non-English European presence there.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    There are parts of the Louisiana Purchase over which France had claimed some sort of theoretical sovereignty but never actually visited in person, probably including parts of current Montana. Likewise, you can find maps in history books purporting to show the outer theoretical boundaries of New Spain that include areas that no Spaniard ever actually visited before the Spanish claim passed to someone else.

    I myself grew up within the onetime actually-visited boundaries of Nya Sverige, which didn’t last long in that form but at least was the organic predecessor of what came later, left behind some toponyms etc., as opposed to some other early ventures elsewhere in the not-yet-U.S. that left no traces other than in old journals/maps etc. The Swedish settlers were neither massacred nor expelled but fairly rapidly “disappeared” via assimilation-by-intermarriage into more numerous groups of later arrivals. I grew up with a few kids whose surnames suggested descent from some of the early English arrivals in the area, mostly Quakers who post-dated the first Swedes by 50 years or more, but not with anyone I knew to have an ancestral connection with the Swedes.

  16. John Emerson says

    Parts of the Louisiana- Texas-New Mexico area went from Spain to France to Spain to Mexico to Texas to the US to the Confederacy to the US over the co it use of a century or so, but it was never under anyone’s form control and was ruled by th Comanches more than anyone else.

    The Comanches were outside invaders too. Their early mastery of cavalry warfare made them dominant over the Hopis, Zunis, Navajo, et all.

  17. About non-Arkansas names, a pretext for an update. I think I’ve mentioned

    — self-destructively bad-tempered Oxford phonologist on whom George Bernard Shaw modeled his Henry Higgins: Henry Sweet;

    — cousin-once-removed of Emily Dickinson who managed to just lose his mother’s large file of the poet’s unpublished manuscripts: Wallace Keep;

    — popular 20th-century novelist who was also a brain surgeon: Frank G. Slaughter.

    And now I add: author of the first self-help book, titled, wait for it, Self-Help: Samuel Smiles.

  18. John Emerson says

    And there were French speaking families in Old Mines Arkansas well into the XX c.

  19. What about Washington and Oregon? Spanish explorers checked out the coast, and French trappers worked in the interior, but there was not any semblance of non-British European political control.

  20. Oregon Country (which included both states) was a much disputed region – visited by various Europeans a lot and claimed at various times by Britain, Russia, Spain and the United States.

    Scottish and French Canadian fur trappers, promyshleniki of the Russian-American Company, the Spanish, the Americans, the whole lot.

    Spain and Britain nearly went to war over it and later Britain and United States too.

    It is thought that Russian claims to the region by imperial Ukase of 1821 were one of the reasons for proclamation of the Monroe doctrine. But crisis was averted when Russia backed down next year.

  21. The official Father of Oregon was half French-Canadian, born Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin, although he was born after 1763 and Anglicized his name to John long before he went west.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    “one would think it too over-the-top to be believable”
    Says the pot of the kettle.

    Not a particularly black pot in my case. If you think my name is over the top you cannot be familiar with Admiral The Honourable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, or Roualeyn Robert Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce, 9th Baron Thurlow, or William John Arthur Charles James Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland. My name would be regarded as positively humdrum in some circles.

  23. and his wife, Ernle Elizabeth Louisa Maria Grosvenor Burton, later Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax

    I suppose after marriage she became Lady Ernle Elizabeth Louisa Maria Grosvenor Burton Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    ‘Who was your father, friend?’ He answers: ‘Jove.’
    ‘His father?’ ‘Saturn.’ ‘And his father?’ ‘Chaos.’
    ‘And his?’ Thus Alexander loses honour:
    Ten fathers is the least that a man should prove.

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