books won’t save you

In the wake of what has been for many in my circles a devastating election repudiating all sorts of values we hold dear—diversity, inclusion, equity, feminism, respect, coherent sentences—there have been a lot of statements along the lines of “if people read more books, this wouldn’t happen!” This is obviously such bunk I can hardly be bothered to deal with it. There’s nothing inherently good about reading; the act of reading books doesn’t make you a better person.

Shouldn’t that be obvious? It’s not reading that saves you, but the doors that reading can open and your willingness to walk through them. If you only read books that reinforce what you already believe, you won’t learn anything new. If you only read books to pass the time between being awake and being asleep, you won’t engage with new ideas. If you only read because you think you’re supposed to, if you’re only reading to better yourself, you’re missing the entire world of ideas and emotions and beliefs that reading can open.

I read a lot of books this year, topping 100 novels, which is more than I’ve read in recent years. Part of this is a continuing rediscovery of my love of reading, part of this is being part of a community of readers. There was also a long stretch where I was struggling with migraines and couldn’t work at my computer or iPad but could read on my Kindle. I read a lot of different kinds of books, and certainly some random stuff, but I also had some deliberate strategies for finding things to read.

I made a conscious decision this year to read books written by women, in large part because the depiction of women in many mysteries and thrillers written by men just piss me off. ((For me, a big exception to this rule is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, which I’m slowly working through in order and have neared my pace to a crawl because I’m coming up to the moment where I’m caught up with what’s been written. It can be sad when you have to wait for a new book instead of having the comfort that there’s already one waiting for you when you’re ready for it.)) I also made a conscious decision, part way through the year, to read more books written by black authors. Race so often drops out of white-authored novels, or even worse, comes up in horrifying stereotypes. But we—I—live in a world in which only some people are white and many people are not. Why would I want to read novels that don’t represent the fullness of all lives? ((If you’re curious, of the 102 books I read in 2016, 72 were books by women and 31 by men; 20 books were by authors who are not white, and 3 by white authors featuring protagonists of color, which is not the same thing, but these 3 were books that engaged with race in ways that I thought were sincere and felt real. Let’s not talk about Lionel Shriver (who isn’t on my list this year); instead, read Underground AirlinesSteeplejack, and There But For The as examples of how a white author’s willingness to understand other cultures can pay off in rich explorations.))

So what stood out for me this year? Octavia Butler, for starts. I’d never read any of her books, so dove into the Xenogenesis series and was floored. They creeped me out in the best way, making me think about what it meant to be human and how much sexual desires control social ties. I’m now part-way through the Patternist books and am having the same combination of fascination and discomfort. Like isn’t the right word for my relationship to these books, but that’s why I keep reading them.

I loved Wolf Hall without reservation. I’d resisted reading Hilary Mantel’s books for years, even as my spouse and friends raved and they racked up awards. I think I just didn’t want to read about Thomas Cromwell, thankyouverymuch. But I was wrong and I’m so glad I read this book. I didn’t love Bring Up The Bodies as much, in part because what I loved about Wolf Hall was the meandering mixture of present and past; the drive of the plot in Bodies got in the way of that. Even after I finished reading them I continued to wander around in Mantel’s world. ((Funny/not-funny story: last year, when my husband was in the hospital after an accident and being monitored for a brain injury, the nurse routinely asked him every hour if he knew where he was and when it was and who I was. He always knew what year it was and who I was. But he could rarely figure out where he was, and one time he answered that he was in Wolf Hall. I am super grateful he didn’t think I was Anne Boleyn, and that he’s now fully recovered.))

I stumbled across Ali Smith’s There But For The and was amazed by it. I knew and loved her How To Be Both, but now that I’ve read another of her books, I’m delighted to have an author I can savor and that there are some older books I haven’t yet read and new books to come. The themes of Ali Smith’s book—race and London and white liberalism and growing up and making community—are also those of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (albeit in a less fabulist version). As with all of Zadie Smith’s books, this one was beautifully crafted and made me think about them long after I’d stopped reading.

Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is everything all the accolades say it is. I also reread his The Intuitionist this year and still think it’s my favorite of his. Both made me think about the history and present of how slavery and segregation have shaped our country and the powerful efforts of blacks to write their own identity and to create a better future. But—and this is unfair that they both came out the same year and they get addressed alongside each other—what really made me think about how our present world is shaped by our not-yet-past-history of slavery was Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines. If you’re tempted to think of the institution of slavery as having ended, read this. His imagining of modern slavery is a depiction of the big-scale economics of cheap labor and bypassing civil rights that is our world today.

And Tana French! Two of the books that I read this year that continue to haunt me are hers: The Secret Place and The Trespasser. Both of them are so intimately and deeply about girlhood and womanhood and the ways in which we make secret places for ourselves and we find ourselves trespassers in the larger male-dominated culture. Trespasser, in particular, with its depiction of Antoinette Conway’s difficulties in making her way in a male murder squad made me think again about Hillary Clinton and how being judged constantly can warp your own sense of self. (Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels cover the same territory in a very different way; they fall into the categories both of things I came late to and books I don’t particularly like but can’t stop thinking about.)

Almost all of these books I’ve mentioned here address the same problem: How hard it is to be yourself in a world that doesn’t automatically make room for you.

Books did save me this year. They made a space for me to enter into and imagine conversations and debates and find emotions and comforts that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope you read that way, too. Read for comfort, read for community, read for learning about yourself and other people and discovery and empathy and ideas that make you uncomfortable.

Here’s my full annotated list of what I read this past year; there’s a lot there that I loved that I didn’t mention in this quick take, and there are some books I hated, too. (Never be afraid to stop reading books you don’t like; you don’t owe them anything and life is too short.)

I hope you read some good books in 2016, that you will read more books in 2017, and that you will do everything you need to that helps you live in our world and that makes this a better place.