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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

Top Ten Best Reads of 2022

Of the 78 books I read this year, here are my favorites.

It’s always a tad bittersweet when the end of the year approaches and I undertake to compiling my top ten best reads of the past twelve months, not because the task of encapsulating the singular experience of reading any one of these ten books poses an enormous challenge–and it does, this year entailing perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced so far–but because in my attempt to do so I am forced to revisit that singular experience, to reminisce that first read, to remember and relive that unique and special enterprise which, like hearing a song, watching a film, or viewing a painting for the first time, is the closest thing to sublimity that I can imagine. Returning to such instances means I can get close, but not truly get to the “there” I once was, that “there” which has made an indelible imprint on my mind, my memory, and my understanding of literature, life, and the world at large.

The following list names my favorites of the year, and as I’ve written in the past, the ranking order of these titles matters little, as each one entailed a reading experience which remains singular and distinct in its own right. With that being said, cheers to 2022, my greatest reading year to date.

10. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

March Read

It was an assigned read for my Modern American Fiction class during my last semester of college back in the spring, a novel which became the subject of a fifteen-page final essay I wrote for the class, and a work which remains permanently singed into my mind, its various scenes, lines, even individual words still flying into a frenzy before my eyes, “farther and farther into the darkness.” Set in the American South shortly after WWII, O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel charts the godless escapades of one Hazel Motes, a young man marred by both the war and his family’s abandonment, who travels to the small town of Taulkinham, Tennessee in search of work but soon finds himself distressed by and obsessed with a blind religious preacher and his strange daughter, so much so that he sets out to establish his own Church Without Christ to combat his nemeses, an endeavor which, exacerbated by the interweaving narratives of other quirky characters, only sends Hazel spiraling towards madness, culminating in an unforgettably graphic and gruesome series of violent acts.

Isolation, fulfillment, death, redemption, and the inevitability of belief are among the themes that run rampant throughout the novel, inspiring an array of critical, philosophical, and even religious interpretations, the latter of which informed the essay I wrote where I analyzed the devolution of Hazel Motes through the ideas of twentieth-century French philosopher Simone Weil, whose writings about spirituality offer a strikingly insightful lens to O’Connor’s body of work. But beyond the critical insights to be found in the novel, the main reason I add this work to my top ten list is simply because of its singular, unique reading experience. Reading Wise Blood was bizarre in ways that words fail to describe, darkly comedic in ways which have neither reference nor comparison, and grotesque in ways that redefine the trademark aspect of Southern Gothic literature. But above all, what stays with me the most, even as I write this re-review nine months after reading the book, is the way in which certain words, phrases, and descriptions seem to acquire multiple meanings as the story progresses, cumulatively amassing nuances and connotations imparted by varied usages, so that by the final pages of the novel, the sentences are literally exploding with meaning. It was unlike anything I had ever read for this simple reason, and it’s truly a testament to O’Connor’s idiosyncratic craft at writing, her command of the English language, and her utterly perplexing imagination.

9. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

August Read

Seldom is a novel so revolting, so visceral, so shocking, so vile, so provocative that it forces the reader to contemplate all that he has ever read, learned, and known. If it’s possible to imagine the incarnation of evil in the form of a novel, Polish American author Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 debut The Painted Bird surely comes the closest. The book charts the peregrinations of a young boy, six years old at the start of the novel, who, abandoned by his parents, travels on foot across the war-torn regions of Europe ravaged by the Second World War in search of shelter, food, and work. Over his travels, he meets various individuals–farmers, millers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and their families among the many–some of whom, the more gracious, provide him shelter in exchange for menial labor. But most are not gracious; many abuse the boy, subject him to horrible violence, harassment, even torture, and yet that mercy which is death eludes him still, forcing him to continue in a journey paved with unspeakable brutality, not just the result of war but the mere iniquity of man. The result is a novel the equivalent of an anti-war film, captured through the eyes of a young boy, whose child-like innocence at once fuels that flickering glimmer of hope in his heart while blinding him to the inhumanity which solely and wholly defines his reality.

Reading The Painted Bird, I think, marked a turning point in the course of my reading life. To this day, to all days since I’ve read it, and to all days that lie ahead likely for the rest of my life, there are scenes which remain indelibly etched into my memory, scenes so despicable, so violent, so wrenching that I cannot erase and forget them. And yet, perhaps in a testament to my own personal penchant for the macabre, revealing as that might be, such a reading experience is one I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. For me, finding a novel like The Painted Bird, one that contains the undeniable power that it does, the ability to affect a reader in ways which last forever, whether for good or bad, is an incredible rarity. But the novel’s visceral memorability is simply one aspect of many that base the reason why I include it in this list, the greatest aspect being its structure and the subtextual web of intrigue buried within it. Hiding within the structure of the twenty episodic chapters is an entangled series of events, scenes, relations, and details which parallel and contrast another instance which comes ten chapters later. For instance, chapter eleven contains an event which mirrors yet slightly strays away from an event that occurs in the first chapter, chapter twelve with chapter two, chapter thirteen with three, and so on and so forth. This interlinking system of “parallel-contrasts” braids the picaresque plot of the novel into a narrative tapestry whose fabric is colored by a depraved, yet bewildering imagination. If the novel was brutal simply for the sake of being brutal, it would not have a place on this list; it is because there is unfathomable depth in The Painted Bird, depth belied by a surface which wrenches and disgusts and moves and churns the reader, entailing an experience that is truly incomparable.

8. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

March Read

The opening of the novel–two short paragraphs, terse, direct, and teeming with imagery–contains a certain strength, a certain power, prone to seize, provoke, and enrapture with ease. Author Zadie Smith describes it in her famous essay on the book: “It was an aphorism, yet it had pinned me to the ground, unable to deny its strength.” And just as Smith had “inhaled” Hurston’s most famous work, so had I, completely enthralled, defenseless against a force the likes of which I had never known. First published in 1937 and now considered a seminal work of the Harlem Renaissance, the novel, set in southern Florida during the early twentieth century, follows Janie Crawford, a young, mixed-race woman, whose fledging efforts towards a life of love, happiness, and agency entail a tumultuous journey across distance and time, one punctuated with as many moments of triumph and joy as of heartache and grief. After her grandmother marries her off to a farmer, Janie meets Jody Starks, a confident man who rescues her from discontent and brings her Eatonville where, through his diplomatic and developmental efforts, he quickly makes a name for himself and is soon elected town mayor. Over the next two decades, just as Janie adjusts to married life and forges friendship with townsfolk, she also begins to see the snags and shortcomings of her new life. Despair starts to supplant the hope she once clung to; that is, until she meets a young man named Tea Cake, and suddenly a new chance at livelihood springs into view, one which inevitably clashes with a disastrous fate.

It was another assigned reading for my Modern American Fiction class, though it had longed topped my to-read list, especially given its renown across the annals of American literature. And it more than lived up to its reputation: it is at once an emotional tale of one woman’s search for happiness amid innumerable obstacles, most of which inflicted by the social, political, and cultural climate of the time, as well as a prosaic symphony, whose leitmotifs take the form of images, descriptions, and phrases through which weave intersecting themes of gender, race, violence, sex, love, and liberation–a duality that alone merits the novel’s inclusion on this list. However, as is often the case, what captivated me most were the form and structure of the narration and Hurston’s prose itself. The novel, narrated from Janie’s point of view and told through a series of flashbacks, is written almost entirely in regional dialect, a stylistic decision which not only elevates the reading experience by strengthening the veracity of the narrative, enhancing the aesthetic aspect of the text, and thrusting the reader into the geographic, social, and culture realm carved from Hurston’s imagination, but one which I had only encountered a handful of times in the past. Nineteenth century writers like Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sarah Orne Jewett come to mind, and so does William Faulkner, but all of these writers employ regional dialect in ways which vary widely from Hurston. It’s an adjustment at first but one easily traversed and well worth the effort because in the end, for me, it’s what helped make the novel truly what it was and what I still consider it to be: a masterpiece. For those interested in reading more about the novel, I suggest Zadie Smith’s fantastic essay, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” which opens her 2009 collection of essays Change My Mind. Smith’s words on the novel, brimming with an intellect and eloquence I can only envy, far surpass anything I could write about the novel, and her perspective of it, at once sweeping and specific, offers an entryway into the narrative aspects which have defined its long-lasting legacy and captivated readers for the better part of a century.

7. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

March Read

In his preface to the novel, T.S. Eliot provides what I think is an apt summation of the artistry of Barnes’s famous 1936 work: “What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” The words ‘horror’ and ‘doom’ harken an especially poignant dimension. With early-twentieth-century Paris as its backdrop, Nightwood depicts a web of entangled relationships across a cast of eccentric characters, one of whom is Felix Volkbein, a man of Italian-Jewish descent whose dwellings on history pique the interest of Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a mysterious, mercurial man prone to the many metaphysical musing. The doctor introduces Felix to the beautiful and aloof Robin Vote with whom he quickly falls in love. The two marry and have a child before Robin, prone to bouts of anxiety and nocturnal wanderings, meets circus performer Nora Flood who, like Felix, too falls in love with Robin. They begin an affair which ebbs and flows across the span of two years, awash with caprice and a growing acrimony that, in the end, pushes Robin into nightly peregrinations again, signifying the end. Nora, heartbroken, seeks the advice of Dr. O’Connor, especially after she discovers that Robin has not only taken up with another woman named Jenny but has moved to America with her. The end of the novel sees Robin’s return to Paris and a reunion whose ambiguity is nothing short of revelatory.

It’s a slow burn. It lingers long after the final words have been read, drifting sullenly in the air of the everyday, certain words and descriptions, ideas and themes, seeping from the recesses of the reader’s mind to paint their perception of the world in a hue at once beautiful, melancholic, and anxious. Days, weeks, months after finishing the novel–it was another required read for my Modern American Fiction course–certain words, details, lines, and scenes began to flow forth again, like the resurgence of a dream. It was as if the passage of time awakened, enlivened, elucidated my experience with the novel, added an outline to its amorphous content and order to its interweaving threads. Barnes belongs to that rare breed of writers whose words require but a mere glance to know who wrote them. However, it is not just Barnes’s intoxicatingly exquisite prose that renders the greatness of her novel, a prose which, as I originally wrote, is “metaphorical to the point of impenetrability, a blend of baroque ornamentation with an avant-garde twist of free indirect style and artistic allusion,”; but it is the transgressive traits found at the core of the novel’s very structure which cements its place on this list. Barnes at once challenges and deconstructs the prevailing narratological notion that plot and characterization are the sole pillars which drive a narrative, shattering the binarism of the plot-driven or character-driven novel to put forth a radical “melancholy-driven” novel. Such an enterprise doubtless prompted William S. Burroughs to proclaim the novel “one of the greatest books of the twentieth century,” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a novel which inflicts confusion and anxiety unto the reader to portray the confusion and anxiety inherent in the text; whose characters all sit atop my list of those fictional creations I’d want to meet most in real life; and the prose of which remains outside of anything I had encountered both before and have yet since reading it. It’s a rare work and one which will surely offer something new with each and every subsequent read.

6. The Notebook Trilogy: The Notebook (1986), The Proof (1988), The Third Lie (1991)

by Ágota Kristóf

June Read

Though unintentional, I suppose it’s become a tradition of sorts that a trilogy finds a spot on my end-of-the-year list; Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy was part of 2020’s, Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy last year, and now Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf’s masterful Notebook Trilogy. This trilogy (I’ve also seen it titled The Twins Trilogy) charts the escapades of two twin boys, Lucas and Claus, as they come of age in an undisclosed European village amid the violence, confusion, and absurdity of the Second World War. In the first installment, the boys, living under the roof of their abusive and domineering grandmother who forces them to work to exhaustion daily, teach themselves skills which span from reading and writing to fighting and pain endurance. The boys interact with various villagers, other children and adults alike, each encounter charged with a sense of the macabre. As teenagers, the twins decide to separate; Claus flees the country, and the second volume focuses solely on Lucas from adolescence into adulthood. After Lucas takes in a young woman named Yasmine and her baby Mathias, he finally has the family he was once deprived, but other issues, problems, and temptations inevitably creep up, threatening to unravel their home. But as the final volume reveals, it’s not their home which is upended but the veracity of all the information which has come before. As I write in my original review, “the truths and untruths which lie at the abyss of the tumultuous journey of two brothers float up from the depths and into the light.”

The Grove Press English-translated edition combines the three novels into one volume which spans nearly five hundred pages, making it the longest book I’ve read in the shortest amount of time. I still remember sitting on the front porch, reading the first words as the afternoon sun brightened the clouds floating across the sky. And I remember sitting in the same chair as night fell, the clouds having long drifted away as the street-side lampposts switched on one by one, still caught in the thrall inspired by its opening. Two hundred pages seems a lot for one sitting, but the book moves quickly, as most chapters, episodic in form, run fairly short. Kristóf’s prose is scant, direct, unadulterated, filtered through the eyes of the twin protagonists–the first volume is composed of a series of diary entries written by the two boys. The emotional barrenness of the prose exudes the cold indifference of a war-torn world, which, as I noted in my first review, calls to mind Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, a comparison I still stand by. But though the trilogy and the novel fall in the anti-war vein, Kristóf’s trilogy escapes the walls of convention that still restrain Kosinski’s novel, and by the third volume, breaks into the territory of the metafictional, the de-centered, the postmodern. Certainty evades the trilogy, allowing for multiple interpretations and fomenting a thousand questions without answers. The very form of the novel is as disquieting as its content, and for that reason it makes this list.

5. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

November Read

I read three different Faulkner novels this year: As I Lay Dying (a reread), The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom! Each was a uniquely sublime and gratifying experience within itself, and each further established the fact that William Faulkner is and forever will remain not only one of my favorite writers but also one of the greatest writers, ever. Though it was difficult to choose, especially over The Sound and the Fury, a novel whose depths I know I have yet to truly plumb, and though As I Lay Dying will always be dear to me, it is this novel, Faulkner’s ninth, Absalom, Absalom! published in 1936, that I choose to include in this list. The novel is the saga of Thomas Sutpen, a man of impoverished background who, in the antebellum South, undertakes to establish a familial empire and nearly achieves it before the scarred-over wounds of his past are reopened, this time ushering forth a downfall of epic and deadly proportions. Sutpen’s tale is narrated by several characters, including Quentin Compson and his father, and each section slowly chisels away at the greater picture of Sutpen’s life and endeavor. At the end of the novel stands both a grand mosaic of the man Thomas Sutpen, resplendent with the faults, flaws, and intricacies which pave the trajectory of his devolution, as well as newly formed portraits of the other various characters, as the process of their narration has unveiled the conundrums, biases, and idiosyncrasies unique to their individual perspectives.

Some novels contain a greatness the limits of which, if they exist, are simply undiscoverable; whose offerings are endless, and each singular gleaning grants the reader a glimpse of a bounty beyond words. These are the novels which scholars dedicate decades of their careers, some even their lives, to reading and studying, knowing that the well of the novel will never run dry. Absalom, Absalom! is such a novel, one whose complexities abound and depths bear no end. I’m still currently taking the Rosenbach class about the novel, taught by a Faulkner expert who, with each meeting, manages to unravel and unfurl the buried secrets which lurk in abundance just below the surface of the text. It's impossible to overstate simply how intricate this novel is–each page of each chapter reveals information which reveals something new about Sutpen’s devastating devolution, or more often, changes something which had already been revealed, in turn changing the reader’s mental image of the content of both Sutpen and the characters narrating his tale. The narration of Sutpen’s story, fragmented and non-chronological, progresses cumulatively and incrementally, so as to convey the dynamic nature of understanding history which is also cumulative and incremental. New information changes information of the past, and at the heart of historiography is this nature of the accumulation of data, contexts, perspectives–all which comprise the infinitely growing body of historical knowledge. Faulkner’s novel not only reflects that idea; it is that idea. This is why it’s such an incredible feat of vision and execution–to think how a single person was able to think up such a story in the first place, but then also think up the way how to tell it so that it reflects the issues in understanding, achieving objectivity, and invoking empathy, while simultaneously harkening the universality of such conflicts, themes, and stories imbedded within the text–all of it is too much for me to bear. The more I ponder it, the more it wracks my brain. It’s no surprise then that I consider this novel to be the most difficult one I’ve ever read, but to me, that only ensures the need to read, reread, and study this profound piece of literature for the years to come.

4. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness of the West by Cormac McCarthy

June Read

There’s a reason why its reputation remains as relentless as it is; a reason why so many readers declare it McCarthy’s magnum opus; a reason why many consider it a forerunner for the Great American Novel; a reason why renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has called it, “a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood,” and referred to author Cormac McCarthy as “the worthy disciple of Melville and of Faulkner.” Set in the sagebrush plains and dusty desert town streets at the Texas/Mexico border during the 1850’s, a time when violence was rampant and men dealt in blood, this 1985 novel charts the escapades of The Kid, a young teenager who, after a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in the throes of the Glanton Gang, a marauding band of bloodthirsty freebooters on a state-sanctioned quest to murder and scalp as many Native Americans as they can. Judge Holden is one of the marauders, a towering monster of a man whose degree of devious intelligence mirrors that of his depravity and unrelenting evil. Thrust into the desert terrain, the dangerous unknown, the story of the traveling men is one of survival, savagery, and sinister violence, punctuated with no shortage of treachery, deception, and suffering in the weeks, months, years to come.

I read it over the course of a few days, truly unable to put it down, completely intoxicated by McCarthy’s prose and winding narrative journey which takes the reader to gates of hell and back. There’s honestly no other book I can think of that comes close to this one, McCarthy’s certain magnum opus; a book whose form, content, thematic exploration, and prevailing significance are singular in every respect, unique to this novel alone. It is McCarthy’s fifth novel, which is important regarding the trajectory of his earlier works–there’s a palpable stylistic evolution, a progression of his mastery which culminates in Blood Meridian. In my opinion, this novel marks a specific milestone in his oeuvre, as well as the recent history of contemporary American literature. At once a part of the Western and anti-Western traditions, the novel is an exemplum of McCarthy’s early signature prose style–a blend of terse and grandiloquent, straightforward and meandering, descriptive in a kind of precision unparalleled among his contemporaries; a form which embodies a neo-Biblical resonance that reflects the violence and solemnity, starkness and rigidity, barrenness and frigidity of the novel’s content. The relationship between the form and content is bewildering and beautiful in ways I cannot articulate; a relation that, along with McCarthy’s vast characterization and exploration of themes such as violence, morality, belief, evil, and fate, continues to spur conversations and debates among readers, lifelong fans, and scholars alike. It’s a novel that took my breath away with damn near every page, and one which I look forward to revisiting over and over again in the future.

3. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

February Read

The death of the American author Nathanael West, today known primarily for his two masterful works Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, and The Day of the Locust, published six years later, occurred on the day after the death of his friend and widely known, contemporary writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s an uncanny occurrence for a writer whose relationship with Fitzgerald may too be described as uncanny, as each writer seemed to approach similar subjects in his work, though from two very different and darkly distinct sides. And West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, I have seen described as a sort of “anti-Great Gatsby.” The short book follows the eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts, a newspaper columnist who provides advice to the lowly and sad denizens of New York City that write in asking for help with their various issues, most of which border on the grotesque. Reading all these sad letters and trying to come up with helpful answers begins to push Miss Lonelyhearts into a depression which seems to grow worse by the day. And it’s certainly not helped by his indomitable boss, a man named Shrike–outspoken, confident to the point of boorishness, and whose penchant for the philosophical tends to invade his myriad ramblings. To fill his growing emotional and mental void, Miss Lonelyhearts looks toward religion, sex, and substances for help. But what he inevitably discovers is that the numbness at the core of his being cannot be tamed, regardless of distraction, philosophy, or creed–a sentiment imposed and subsequently echoed by Shrike’s bleak sophistry, which foreshadows (or foments) an ending to the short novel of cataclysmic proportions.

It’s a novel that demands to be read in one sitting, as was the case when I first picked it up per assignment for, again, my spring semester Modern American Fiction class. And even now, as I write this, I can think of no other novel whose form to content ratio is as stark and confounding as Miss Lonelyhearts. No word is misplaced, no sentence extraneous, no scene superfluous, no bit of dialogue redundant; each piece to this short novel is perfectly carved and perfectly assembled. And the result is a masterpiece of short fiction. The novel occupies that solitary no-man’s land between two polar opposites: an argument for the necessity for religious and moral rectitude in a society well in the grips of cultural decadence, and the wondrously farcical, sublimely bleak parody of such an insistence. This novel explodes the distinctions between sincerity and satire, and does so through the use of unmitigated violence, grotesque predicaments, and the scourge of the faithless, at once a liberating and devilish force. About it, Harold Bloom, who also wrote the introduction of the novel, remarks, “There is a desperate tonality throughout the novel, a savagery almost hysterical in its intensity.” From the greatest events to the most innocuous, from the most evident of thematic allusions to the smallest of subtleties, savagery abounds, even by the very sentence. Take this one for example: “It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt”–what should be an innocuous contemplation of an early summer’s day, blades of grass dancing the wind lightly coated with dust from the street, is somehow violated to the extreme, polluted with a poisonous air that aborts any and all beauty that could have adorned such a scene, turning it into despair. And the pronouncement of that despair begins on the first page, carries through the text, accumulating, growing with a sense of disquiet, before all tension and pressure is released by the end, in a denouement as violently revelatory as it is puzzling. It’s truly one of the finest novels of the early twentieth century and one that everyone should read, especially in one sitting.

2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

September Read

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a novel spanning nearly 600 pages, which took me a little over a week to read, not only finds its way onto this list but into the second place slot. Perhaps it’s even more unsurprising that that second place slot goes to Jonathan Franzen, a writer whose prominence has pervaded literary circles for over two decades, and his famous novel The Corrections which launched such prevailing renown in the first place. The novel follows an American family, the Lamberts, and their efforts planning one last Christmas together. Living in the fictional Midwestern town of St Jude are the retired parents: Enid, the melodramatic mother, busy in both body and mind, and overly obsessed with her children; and Alfred, a former railroad engineer suffering from worsening Parkinson’s disease. Their three adult children are Gary, a banker living just outside Philly with his wife and three boys (the only child to have a spouse and children); Chip, a failing scriptwriter and blacklisted academic, wasting time and money in NYC; and the youngest, Denise, a prolific chef who heads her own wildly successful restaurant in Philly, but who soon gets entangled in a tumultuous love affair with her restaurant’s investor/owner and his wife. Each character’s narrative winds from the present into the past, spanning the latter part of the twentieth century to include events involving a dangerous senior cruise, the manufacturing of a dystopian pharmaceutical drug, and a wild Lithuanian financial scheme. The result is a far-reaching, in-depth, hilarious, heartbreaking, and endlessly entertaining portrait of an American family for whom the word ‘dysfunctional’ barely scratches the surface.

As corny as it might sound, I will always remember 2022 as the year that I first read Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections consumed me–each page gripped me in its unrelenting sway, catapulting me through waves of immaculate description, impeccable characterization, moments of hilarity, memorable scenes, exquisite lines of dialogue, and symphonic sentences which turn and twist and curve down a well of infinite detail, meandering (as I wrote in my first review) in a “Knausgaardian way, except that each word, every sentence, is specifically meaningful, tailored, always adding to a larger narrative, like microscopic pieces in a massive mosaic.” It’s a book to swim in and never tire. On a macro scale, subtextual themes weave below the surface, forming a tapestry of interpretation at the heart of which reside subjects like the social psychology of family; the nature of love and hate; aging and grappling with disease; desperation, loneliness, despondency; morality, science, and fate. On a micro level, recurring ideas, words, phrases, and images abound in glorious excess. Most salient is the “corrections” overture, which punctuates the progression of the novel at various instances, overtly pronouncing characters’ thought processes and tying the grander threads of the “social novel” into a neat bow. But my favorite Easter eggs are the ones more subtle, more innocuous, and aesthetically more beautiful. One such leitmotif is the imagery of hands, often the tenor of numerous metaphors which transform to pertain to the changing characters. About the image critic James Wood has written, “It is precisely what the novel form exists for, how it justifies its difference as a genre…This is the language of the novel–the language of the implicit, the suggestive, the formal, the figurative, the musical.” It’s an intricate yet accessible, satirical yet elegant, outrageous yet profound novel, which I will surely always remember as both a masterful achievement and sublime work of art. I plan to read a lot more Franzen in the coming year, and I truly cannot wait.

1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

April Read

American writer Ralph Ellison’s 1952 debut novel Invisible Man takes the number one slot of my Top Ten Best Reads of 2022 list, and the surety that it is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read and liable to remain as such for the remainder of my life, is incontestable and unwavering. Set right after the turn of the twentieth century, the novel follows the Invisible Man, our nameless narrator-protagonist, a young black man, who slowly discovers, as I described in my original review, “the divisions of race, class, and gender; the invisible structures of power which define a person’s place in the world; and the impositions which limit one’s agency in a country where freedom is supposed to be woven into the fabric of its nation.” It begins in the Deep South where our narrator-protagonist is a student at university, but after a strange series of events involving a school trustee, a bar, and psychiatric patients, he is expelled and forced to relocate to Harlem, New York City. At first excited about what seems like a second chance, our narrator is immediately beset with even more, even wilder challenges–flagrant injustices, deceit and deception, street-preaching fanatics, perilous jobs, inhumane hospital treatments, and inevitable impoverishment are few among the many that follow. But soon he discovers an underground activist group called The Brotherhood headed by Brother Jack who entices our narrator to join. Enamored with the group’s philosophies for social reform, our narrator begins to find his vocation–to use his voice to enact change, for justice, in the world. He makes speeches, organizes events, and becomes more ingrained in the group. But as the group grows, and their influence in the community expands, our narrator begins to catch a glimpse of the internal politics at the heart of the organization–a web of corruption no worse than that of the world which they strive to change. As the veil before his eyes begins to fall; as tragic event after tragic event ensues; as tensions rise internally and externally, threatening to destroy all the progress he has made thus far, our narrator-protagonist must grapple with a reality that obliterates the picture-perfect American Dream which not only permeates but defines the Land of the Free.

It is impossible to truly express the strength, the power, and the beauty that this one novel harbors, and that such strength, power, and beauty expands to encompass a certain universality–at the heart of which resides an incredible argument for humanity–thrusts the novel into the crowning achievement that it is. Upon publication, it entered the American canon almost immediately, as its many readers, from laymen to scholars alike, were united in their consensus that what they beheld was a work of great importance. Part of the achievement of Ellison’s lonely novel is the sheer scope of his creation: the breadth of detail–the characters, plot, the content, and overall imagination of the narrative; the form itself–Ellison’s remarkable prose which ranges from subtle to stark, lyrical to sparing, quiet to proclamatory, and the novel’s structure comprised of long, episodic chapters which ebb and flow and reverberate across one another in a sort of picaresque fashion; and the thematic relevance of the underlying ideas which weave into a grand design beneath the text and in which the inquisitive reader will discover wells upon wells of critique, interpretation, and wisdom. But an even greater part of the novel’s achievement–if such a claim is possible–lies in its ability to impel the reader, as he reads it, to learn how to read it; the very act of reading Invisible Man is the process of learning how to read Invisible Man. Such literary propensity is a testament to the novel’s timelessness: why must a reader learn how to read the novel as he reads it? because the world in which the reader reads the novel, the shifting terrain of culture, politics, progression or regression, filters through the novel, impacting every aspect of its narrative: Ras the Destroyer, contended by scholars to have been modeled off activist and orator Marcus Garvey, takes the form of numerous demagogic figures today, persons whose single aim is riling the masses into action through persuasion, coercion, and violence; the Brotherhood, an organization thought to reflect the Communist Party of the ‘30’s, today calls to mind multiple political factions on both the right and the left whose surface level preaching and doctrinaire utopianism belie a wealth of corruption, corporate interest, and greed; and even the smaller details of the novel such as the early mixing of white and black paint symbolizing multiculturalism, presciently signal certain inevitabilities, while professing the beauty, utility, and benefit in them against their perceived detriment. The novel is no mere mirror to American life, but a shapeshifting conduit to the evolving realities that define America–the people, the culture, the history, the problems, everything. And I can think of no other novel which accomplishes such a feat greater and more elegantly than Ellison’s masterwork. This is a novel which will never dwindle in its legacy: an absolute monument of American letters.

After Words

For me, 2022 was undoubtedly the year for American literature. Eight out of the ten authors comprising this list are American (nine if you include Jerzy Kosiński, who moved from Poland to the States when he was twenty-four). And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the Modern American Fiction course I took during the spring, my final semester of college. I owe an immeasurable amount of gratitude to that class and to my professor, who introduced me to some of the greatest works I’ve ever read. Half of these titles listed came from that one class, and the other titles on the curriculum–which included Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and short stories by Anderson, Fitzgerald, Welty, Himes, and more–remain prominently etched into my mind, along with the incredible lectures and in-depth discussions which only illuminated those great works. I’m not sure to whom it’s a testament more: to the authors of these works whose legacies are renowned and never-ending, or to my professor, without whom I doubt I would have had such impactful experiences with these works. I’m leaning towards the latter. Also, never have I had more honorable mentions in a single year: each of these titles deserves a re-review and essay all its own–same with the rereads, which may or may not inspire something in the new year. But regardless of future writings, I think it’s safe to say that 2022 was certainly one for the books.

Honorable Mentions:

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Lime Works by Thomas Bernhard

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Couples by John Updike

The Years by Annie Erneaux

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham


As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

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