by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
March 30, 2010
I was very surprised when Rosecrans Baldwin invited me to participate in this Tournament of Books. People haven’t often associated me with reading, even though I think reading is really cool. I learned to read several years ago, when I was younger, and it soon became second nature for me. Ever since I read my first book, I’ve felt very accomplished.
Complicated books that I couldn’t understand always seemed like the best choice for accumulating more feelings of pride, and to this day, I most enjoy reading books that push me to the very limits of comprehensionor better yet, past any understanding at all. If I can’t even comprehend that I don’t understand what I’m reading, I at least enjoy the sensation of drowning in confusion. It reminds me of that nightmare where you suddenly find yourself sitting in an advanced graduate class, halfway through the semester, with no idea what’s going on. I’ve not yet gone to college, so this nightmare remains only a fantasy.
Reading Wolf Hall and The Book of Night Women definitely gave me a taste of that terror, and pushed me into a strange and surreal space of advanced comprehension and otherworldly confusionthey’re more intense than any novels I’ve read in years (the last intense novel I read was Diary of a Drug Fiend). For starters, Wolf Hall is a large book. It begins with two obscure dramatic quotes, a table of contents, and a five-page cast of characters so intimidating in its depth that I actually couldn’t believe this many people existed back in the 1500s. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, there was a huge family tree, taking up a full two pages. I braced myself for the reading. The Book of Night Women featured a colloquially detailed and passionately hermetic version of the English language that was as much musical as it was emotive.
Right away, I could tell both these books were clearly the undertaking of persons more refined than I. And I liked that feeling. It was humbling in a good waylike the sense of comfort that these people can take care of you, like a mom or a dad. Hilary Mantel is a new mother for me. The world she created in Wolf Hall is as lavish and harsh as every dream or nightmare I’ve ever had and she can protect me from it, punish and reward me with it. Wolf Hall is a life-changing and unforgettable reading experience. I’m 100 percent sure it’s made me at least 0.10 percent smarter.
The Book of Night Women took me into versions of humanity that I’ll never fully know, but can now carefully imagine. I can’t really choose one book over the other based on the stories or writingboth are superbbut I do like the cover, cast of characters, and family tree of Wolf Hall more than the presentation of The Book of Night Women. So, for the sake of supporting intricate book production, I’m choosing Wolf Hall as my top book.
If either author is offended by this method of judgment, I assure them it’s only because they’re both so good as writers, I had to resort to more amorphous critical protocols.
Andrew W.K. is a musician, motivational speaker, and party maker. Known connections to this year’s contenders: None.