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2017 Was a Year of Reading, or, What I Do To Escape Reality….

Last year, I made a resolution to try to read more. I did it because I really love reading, but I realized that I wasn’t doing so much of it outside of work. I wanted my New Years resolution not to be something that was a responsibility or a chore, but something that would increase the time I spent doing something that I liked. Something that would improve my quality of life and bring me some happiness. So: I resolved to read 52 books. One a week.

And, dear reader, I did it! This might be the first time that I can say I hands-down nailed a resolution and kept it going all year long. I read 20,300 pages in print, aside from papers read for work or things read online (which is a lot; after all, one of the reasons for this resolution was to spend less time staring at a screen, but I still have a lot of screen time!).

Here’s what I read, with some notes below about

  1. my favorites,
  2. how I chose them,
  3. who the authors were
  4. and why my resolution this year will be to read even more diverse authors.

(I also read an issue of Brick, the Canadian literary magazine, but this output is captured from Goodreads and I can’t find Brick on there.)

A Few Favorites (although nothing in here was bad):

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys: This book seemed life changing. I put it down and thought about the world differently. It is an inherently feminist book, and I also reveled in the different characters’ descriptions of nature. Why is this not required reading right after high school students read Jane Eyre!? I feel strongly about that, but I also think that if you had never even heard of Jane Eyre and picked up this book, it would be revelatory. Obviously, it stands on its own. I wanted to read the whole thing all over again, immediately. I think there was some aspect in which it was the right book at the right time, too, but I can’t exactly put my finger on how. (Link to buy at Powells)

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: A gem; there’s a reason Eugenides became a big-name author. (Link to buy at Powells)

Evicted, Matthew Desmond: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is so important to understanding how things work in America and the structural inequalities our population faces. It is also simply a dang good read, with compelling characters and stories amidst the facts and statistics. An amazing book. (Link to buy at Powells)

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: I know some people have issues with this book because they think it glorifies working too hard and some behaviors that are, well, not the best way to supervise students. However, I think it is clear that the author is writing about mental health issues that she suffered for a large chunk of the time covered in the book – certainly not saying that how she worked in the early part of her career is healthy, or that it is the way everyone should work. I also found it to be a great description of doing science, and the magical opportunities but also complete failures that you bounce around in from month to month. Plus the naturalistic and biological descriptions used as metaphors are so sparklingly beautifully written and crafted. I love this book. (Link to buy at Powells)

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears: Rarely have so many completely unreliable narrators combined to tell such a great story. All the political, historical, scientific, and religious details are fantastic, and for me it was an intriguing reminder that a few hundred years ago we considered philosophy, medicine, biology, and physics to basically all be part of the same field. Plus, it’s a great mystery! (Link to buy at Powells)

How To Be BothAli Smith: I didn’t know what to expect from this book, and I’m still not sure what it really even is, but every part of it is delightful and thought-provoking, with fascinating characters. Their inner thoughts and dialogue are so fresh and new. (Link to buy at Powells)

Best Gift From a Stranger:

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins: I did one of those pyramid-scheme type things, only with books. You receive an email with two names, move the names around and add yours, and send it on to friends. A few days or weeks later, you receive books in the mail as friends of your friends send you a book that they liked. It was great fun and I ended up reading several things I never would have otherwise. This was one of them, a classic and among the first great detective novels (and I love detective novels!), and it was one of the best things I read all year. The fact that I received it in this unusual way made it all the more fun. (Link to buy at Powells)

Most Frustrating Read: 

The Sport of KingsC. E. Morgan: 4/5 of this book was one of the best books I read all year, an absolutely incredible accomplishment of storytelling. I was amazed at every page. The next 9/10 was… less good. The 10th 10th was disappointing, I thought. (If you’ve read the book I’d be fascinated to know your reaction.) But I wouldn’t say that this disappointment makes it not worth picking up a copy. It’s still special, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next. (Link to buy at Powells)

Weirdest Read: 

Norma, Sofi Oksanen: If I tell you the plot of this book, you will not even believe that someone would come up with it, much less that it would have a fairly successful launch. I’ll just say that it’s set in Finland, it’s super strange, and involves both organized crime and some sort of genetic magic? I picked this novel up after reading the author’s piece on LitHub, “How Women Experience Beauty”. It’s a fast and fun read, if you’re up for something weird. (Link to buy at Amazon)

Only Thing I Was Reading for the Second Time:

Middlemarch, George Eliot: I rarely re-read books. But I got this for a friend who I then didn’t see for a while, so I decided to read it myself first before gifting it. It was just as good as I remembered. A favorite from the Classic English Novels canon. If you haven’t read it, do; if you start it and hate it, keep going. Both the book and Dorothea get more interesting. (Link to buy at Powells)

How I Chose What To Read

As the year progressed, I kept track of what I read, when I finished it, etc. I got this idea from a blog post I read somewhere but… I can no longer remember where. The spreadsheet I used was adapted from Nicole Zhu. So I can say:

  • 13 books were received as gifts from various people (mostly my parents, but also friends), plus The Moonstone  which was received in the book exchange (most of the other book exchange books I had read the previous year).
  • One book (The Haywire Heart) was sent to me by a publisher asking for a review.
  • A few I chose because they were classics (East of Eden) or at least, classics for a particular crowd  (The Selling of the President, Wide Sargasso Sea, Desert Solitaire), which I had never read.
  • Some I picked up off my parents’ bookshelf when I was home (The Painted Drum, East of Eden, Cod).
  • Others were recommended to be by friends (Burmese Days, Where the Rivers Flow North, Outlander, Solar Bones).
  • One I picked up from a bookshelf at Powells which highlighted their selection of women authors in translation (Adua).
  • Some I picked because I loved previous works from the authors (The Unconsoled, The Buried Giant, The Dispossessed).
  • And most of the rest I chose because they were award winners, I had read reviews of them, or they were parts of various lists that I saw.

I read a lot of books that were either gifts or recommended to me by friends. They were mostly excellent. I found Thank You For Being Late a bit long – there were sections that I found really interesting and inspiring, and long sections which seemed tedious. Solar Bones I did not find as magical as some other people did, but, again, there were entire sections which were amazing – and as a feat of writing it is stylistically a marvel. If you can’t think of what to read, definitely ask friends for recommendations. You’ll get out of your rut and find some amazing stuff.

Of the work-related books, four were chosen myself and three were chosen for me, either as part of our research group’s book club or because one was a “gift” of my boss (probably a signal I should read it…).

Who Wrote These Books? 

In my spreadsheet, I kept track of some basic data about the books and authors I was reading. I was going to make some nice R ggplot graphics of this data, but I’m just way too tired. So I’ll describe the data verbally instead.

Of the seven work-related books, all the authors were white men. Sigh.

Leaving out those as well as the two literary journal issues (which featured writing by men and women, and of various nationalities), I read three short-story collections, 29 novels, and 13 nonfiction books.

29 books were published since the year 2000, with BY FAR the biggest year being 2016 (11 books). I’m ready new writing, for the most part. The earliest books were The Moonstone (1868) and Middlemarch (1871), with a big jump until Burmese Days (1934) and then East of Eden (1952).

25 books were by men, and 19 by women. The disparity really comes on the nonfiction side: with novels and short stories combined, 16 books were by men and 15 by women. For nonfiction, nine books were by men and four by women.

11 books were by non-white authors – and interestingly, it was 5 by men (20% of the total number of male authors) and 6 by women (32% of the female authors).

28 authors were American, of which at least two were born outside the country (Viet Thanh Nguyen in Vietnam and Yaa Gyasi in Ghana). 7 authors were British, of which at least two were born out of the country (Jean Rhys in Dominica and Kazuo Ishiguro in Japan). The other authors are one each from Finland, India, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, North Korea, and South Korea, and Ideaga Scebo is Somali-Italian. Most of the works take place completely or partly in the country of the author’s origin.

4 books were translations: Adua (from Italian), Norma (from Finnish), The Vegetarian (from Korean), and The Accusationhow the translation process helped verify that it is an authentic North Korean work (from Korean, and you should read about ).

Next Thoughts…

I found this year of reading so rewarding! A few close friends almost made fun of me for how voraciously I was reading, but I learned so much, and learned to think about things in a different way, even if sometimes only temporarily. I also fairly frequently read on the bus or tram to work, which is a big improvement over reading about politics on Twitter and getting mad. I read a lot of fiction, and I read a fair amount of work that is set somewhere else, maybe in the future or the past, and some that involves magic. I do read some nonfiction to learn, but a huge aspect of my current love of reading is to be transported somewhere away from work and my daily life. And I think that spending more time in these other universes imagined by some fantastic writers has, indeed, improved my outlook on things and my balance.

More generally, this resolution reminded me how important it is to make space for things you love to do. Maybe that isn’t reading for you, but think of something that is and that you find yourself not doing as often as you used to or as you’d like to. Try to make a habit to carve out a little bit of space for it. We spend a lot of time doing things that just make us tired and frustrated and aren’t helping us out (hi, Twitter…). Eliminating those habits completely is not a realistic goal. But trying to replace them some portion of that time with a different thing that makes you happy is both realistic and more likely to succeed than simply resolving to NOT do something.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort to read a better balance of male and female authors, and more books that aren’t by Americans. Although that’s hard, because there are so many good books by Americans. I’d also like to read more translated work. We’ll see how that goes.

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