A Year in Reading: On Finishing 100 Books

I’ve been scared to write this post for weeks now. Ever since I realized I’d actually finish the project of 10-10-12 – reading 10 books in 10 categories in 12 months – I’ve worried about how to tie it all together, worried that I haven’t had profound enough insights, worried that I’d have to have a final word.

So what do I know for sure? I read 100 books and I wrote 95 posts and 37622 words. I read most often in the bathtub, but also on transit, in bed, on the couch, on the beach, while walking, while eating, before napping. I listened to audiobooks and ran. I read printbooks and ebooks, and no, I don’t have a preference. I abandoned a category – books set in Vietnam – so that I might read ‘books recommended’ as I realized that one of my chief pleasures is talking to people about the books they love, and why, and then reading those same books with their excitement in mind. I read while I separated from M. and so I read to escape the hell of daily life lived in shock and grief (no surprise then that I read the most in August and September). I read while I completed, defended and mourned the loss of, my PhD thesis. I read in the hospital waiting room with my dad’s heart beating in time to monitors and prayers.  I read while I finished, started, finished and started again.

Do I have favourites from the year? Sure. Before I began the project I’d have told anyone to read Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro, and that’s still true, but now I’d add David Mitchell to my list of favourite authors ever. I knew before that young adult fiction is a genre that excites and moves me, and that’s still true, but now I’m also converted to the cult of mystery novels (Louise Penny is already on my January list). I’m emotionally exhausted from a year of war novels – even though I read many that surprised, agitated and affected me – and so I plan to take a reprieve and read some fantasy (Game of Thrones is up next). I know now I don’t like non-human protagonists because too many of them are human (with the exception of ‘Tiger’). Every banned book I read reinforced my belief in the absurdity of disallowing words – that someone could be prevented from reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ or ‘Tropic of Cancer’ fills me with fury and frustration. Trusting readers with ideas is, I suppose, a risky faith that they are responsible enough to be challenged, that ideas emerge in contexts and that books demand evaluation for their merits and failings. And each young adult fiction book I read here was brilliant. Read all of them.

That this exercise was meant to stretch me beyond the novel and into non-fiction, short stories, poetry and plays has taught me that I love best the long form of the novel. I love watching characters evolve over mistakes, accidents and interventions. I love the richness of a setting well crafted and an unexpected (but not unbelievable) plot. I am a committed lover, a life-long partner, of the novel, but we’re calling it an open relationship, because I’ve come to admire, even like, the well-crafted and intentional short story collection (Munro, Coyote and Carter). I see merit in non-fiction that allows for a plot and emphasizes character (Paris 1919, Anatomy of a Moment, Bossypants), but I admit non-fiction is poorly represented in my final list. Graphic novels have demonstrated their appeal, but they are, for me, too slick and too showy, to be anything but a one-night stand. I have, for better or worse, given my heart to the novel. And I think now that that’s okay.

And what of the starting and the final list? A comparison of the two reveals about 50 books remained the same from January to December. I made changes according to library availability or according to momentary whim. I bought books (Love and Summer, A Gate at the Stairs) when buying a book and feeling the anticipation of a narrative escape kept me from crying at the bus stop, and so altered the list to allow for this consumptive balm. But most of the changes came from the thoughtful recommendations of friends – N. P. and E. – delivered unexpected pleasures. And in this I recognized the importance for me of reading in conversations. That I could read a book and talk to someone – or talk to you in these posts – made the reading more meaningful. To think not just about my connection to characters, or my connection to ideas, but to consciously think about how these sames passages have been read in years past (Madame Bovary, Fanny Hill), how they are read in other places, and by other eyes, made this a richer experience, and me a more accountable reader.

This theme of the “accountable reader,” or the “responsible reader” is something I argued for in my thesis, and argued for with conviction, but perhaps with less conviction than my argument claimed. Having now read books that demand readers attention (Zeiuton, Ministry of Special Cases, The Book Thief, Night, To the End of the Land) and demand a reconsideration of how I see myself in the world, I now understand responsibility to narrative to be more than an option, but instead a default and priority position. We ought all to always approach a narrative – whether poorly written and offensive (Not Without My Daughter, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace) or beautifully crafted and compelling (Gorazde, The Thousand Autumns) – prepared to be changed by what we read. That I read some terribly written books (The Lovely Bones, The Art of Racing in the Rain) complicates this position because these are books that demand nothing – they are trite, boring, and defensive of the status quo. So then I suggest that we be responsible readers in entertaining the possibility that even poorly written books might surprise and change us, but that we also *stop reading* those books that are a waste of imagination, that are interested only in following conventions, of narrating familiar stories in familiar ways. There isn’t enough time and there is too much beauty for these terrible and tired stories.

I’ve learned that I read for the beauty of writing. Of gasping sentences. And that I see a palpable difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing – and that this difference may have nothing to do with popularity, or genre, or publishing date, and everything to do with me, and when I’m reading it. I read to find out unfamiliar histories, unfamiliar positions in the world, unexpected decisions and outcomes. I read to find out how I fit in the world and how I might change, forgive myself, be better. I read to know that I am not alone – that there are characters who understand me, but also that there are other readers who share in these experiences, who too, want to explore “to be”. I read for the quiet and the stillness that it brings to the rest of my mind. That I think I can’t meditate properly causes me anxiety when I’m meditating. But I read with confidence, and so when I read I’m able, however briefly, to turn down the ferocious and frenzied dialogue of my too-self-conscious, too-selfish mind. I read for the quiet and the stillness of hearing and attending to someone else.

Will I do the same project again? Yes and no. I’ve decided to read another list, but this list populated only by books recommended. I’ll read without a set number to reach – so as to prevent the inexcusable glossing that occurred with the time pressure of this list (I’m sorry to The Satanic Verses and to Infinite Jest). But I’ll read with the same intentions: to find out more about my world and me, to appreciate beauty, to find stillness, to connect in a web of words. So give me your recommendations, and allow that if I find it to be a terrible book, I’ll stop reading it. I’ll continue to post here because my stuttering memory needs this repository and my responsible readership needs this commentary. And thanks to all of you who have come with me this year – to M. who was there for book one and again for the last page of book 100, to J. who listened to reviews and shared her own, to N. P. and E. for their recommendations, and to all my readers who ‘liked’ posts – it meant a lot to know my words reached you.

And so we do it again, starting tomorrow. But for those who missed it, here for one final time, the (finished) list:

Wars of the 20th Century

Leviathan —> Scott Westerfeld

A Gate at the Stairs —> Lorrie Moore (9/11)

Paris 1919 → Margaret MacMillan

The Madman and the Butcher —> Tim Cook

What is Left the Daughter —> Howard Norman

Obasan —> Joy Kogawa

A Farewell to Arms → Ernest Hemingway

Night –> Elie Wiesel (WWII)

The Disappeared – Kim Echlin

To the End of the Land → David Grossman (Israel/Palestine)

Short

Missed Her → Ivan E. Coyote

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage → Alice Munro

Wax Boats → Sarah Roberts

Animal –> Alexandra Leggat

The Bloody Chamber —> Angela Carter

Mourning Diary → Roland Barthes

Portuguese Irregular Verbs—> Alexander McCall Smith

In the Skin of a Lion” —> Michael Ondaatje

Nothing Right —> Antonya Nelson

Among the Missing → Dan Chaon

Non-human protagonists

Library: An Unquiet History —> Matthew Battles

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland → Lewis Carroll

Animal Farm → George Orwell

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer → Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Loving Dead –> Amelia Beamer

Jonathan Linginston Seagull —> Richard Bach

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival → Johan Vaillant

The White Bone: Barbara Gowdy

The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia → George Albee

The Art of Racing in the Rain → Garth Stein

Books set in Vietnam and Books Recommended or Discovered

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

The Quiet American → Graham Greene

The Night Circus —> Erin Morgenstern

The Anatomy of a Moment —> Javier Cercas

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet —> David Mitchell

The Accidental —> Ali Smith

Two Cakes Fit for a King: Folktales from Vietnam —> Nguyen Nguyet Cam

Love and Summer —> Trevor William

BossyPants —> Tina Fey

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace —> Thuy Tram

Books with Illustrations

Berlin: City of Stones → Jason Lutes

Two Generals —> Scott Chantler

Tricked → Alex Robinson

Safe Area: Goradzde —> Joe Sacco

Jimmy Corrigan → Chris Ware

A Series of Unfortunate Events —> Lemony Snicket

Empire State —> Jason Shiga

Un Lun Dun —> China Mieville

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian —> Sherman Alexie

The Unwritten —> Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Banned Books

The Diviners: Margaret Laurence

Lady Chatterly’s Lover → D.H. Lawrence

Madame Bovary → Gustave Flaubert

Not Without My Daughter → Betty Mahmoody

The Satanic Verses → Salman Rushdie

Tropic of Cancer –> Henry Miller

Fanny Hill —> John Cleland

Of Mice and Men —> John Steinbeck

The Awakening —> Kate Chopin

American Psycho → Bret Easton Ellis

Young Adult Fiction

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret → Judy Blume

Twilight → Stephanie Meyer

The Book Thief → Markus Zusak

Artemis Fowl → Eoin Colfer

Jacob I Have Loved → Katherine Paterson

The Thief —> Megan Whalen Turner

How I Live Now → Meg Rosoff

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate —> Jacqueline Kelly

Be More Chill –> Ned Vizzini

Going Bovine → Libba Bray

Spies/Detectives

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie —> Alan Bradley

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 3 → Arthur Conan Doyle

The Big Sleep –> Raymond Chandler

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold → John le Carre

City of Glass → Paul Auster

And Then There Were None → Agatha Christie

The Sunday Philosophy Club —> Alexander McCall Smith

Coppermine —> Keith Leckie

The Lost Highway —> David Adams Richards

Still Life —> Louise Penny

First Novels

The Cement Garden → Ian McEwen

The Girl with Glass Feet → Ali Shaw

Everything is Illuminated → Jonathan Safran Foer

Knots and Crosses → Ian Rankin

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True —> Brigid Pasulka

Moth Smoke —> Mohsin Hamid

Sense and Sensibility → Jane Austen

The Name of The Rose → Umberto Eco

Player Piano → Kurt Vonnegut

Preservation —> Katrine Raymond

Best-sellers 2000s

Zeitoun → Dave Eggers

Angels and Demons –> Dan Brown

Freedom → Jonathan Franzen

The God Delusion → Richard Dawkins

The Amulet of Samarkaud – The Bartimaeus Trilogy —> Jonathan Stroud

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything —> Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference → Malcolm Gladwell

The Ministry of Special Cases → Nathan Englander

The Kite Runner → Khaled Hosseni

The Lovely Bones → Alice Sebold

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1 Comment

Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Erin's Favourite Books, Popular Posts

One response to “A Year in Reading: On Finishing 100 Books

  1. Pingback: The Conscious-Unconscious Biases in My Reading Habits | Literary Vice

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