I’m not sure how to talk about my reading this year. My downwards trend continued—58 books in 2019, down from 72 in 2018 and 102 in 2017. I don’t love reading any less, but I am having a hard time figuring out what to read—as far as I can recollect, there are 19 books that I thought I would read or abandoned part-way through. And those are surely as much of my year in reading as the ones I did read through. How do we know what we want to read? How do we pick out what our moods are and read in sympathy with those moods (sad books for sad days) or decide to read against those moods (fluffy books for difficult days)? I read both ways according to some emotional process that I let wash over me without understanding. Sometimes I misunderstand and think I want fluff when instead I am longing for something hard to wrestle with.
I also stopped recording my reading in list form while reading and instead used my instagram account with the hashtag #cursorybookreviews along with just the briefest of comments.1I keep my account locked, so I’m not linking to it, but the full list of what I read this year is public. When I started thinking about what I read this year, I discovered that, true to form, I could hardly remember what was this year and what wasn’t. But my ability to remember plots and other details was even shakier this year without a list. I tried to remember what stood out without referring to records and just couldn’t. Ali Smith, Madeline ffitch, Sandra Newman.
That’s okay. I don’t need to remember everything I read. I don’t need to have everything I read be important or moving or revealing. Sometimes I just read to pass the time. I’m a big believer in reading whatever and however you want. There is joy and value in reading, regardless of what you’re reading. It shouldn’t be a vitamin that you take out of obligation to be healthier or more morally upstanding. It should be everything from the desserts you reward yourself with to savory treats to substantive fiber and calories that give you the energy and health to get through the day. What book is your perfect cocktail that you sink into? Which book is the steak that you ingest slowly and deliberately? Where’s the book that is the cotton candy that evaporates the moment you touch it leaving you sweet and sticky and mystified that it disappeared so soon?
There are definitely books I read this year that have stayed with me, even without having to consult a list. Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is astonishing—a meditation on past and present, healing and harming, volition and loss. (Plus I loved the Elizabethan London and characters that make up one of the plot strands, which is pretty rare for me.) I’m looking forward to rereading it and seeing how it shifts now that I’ve been through its trajectory once. Don’t read it if you’re looking for a happy ending. Do read it if you love gorgeous language and complex lives.
I discovered Madeline Miller, first Circe and then The Song of Achilles. They are definitely not a series but they are two sides of a problem—how does fate define you and how do you live when you think you have no choice? I really liked Circe, but I fell in love with The Song of Achilles. I also could barely read it, especially as it progresses. You know what’s coming, Achilles and Patroclus know what’s coming, and no one can stop it. I had to put it down to breathe and then pick it up again because I couldn’t resist it. I wept through the end while I was on an airplane and I want to recommend it to everyone.
I had a similar experience with Madeline ffitch’s Stay and Fight. “Yes! Full of fury and love” was what I wrote for #cursorybookreviews, and it’s still the best way I have of describing it. There are so many bad choices being made by all of the characters, bad choices because they have no other choices or because they’re desperately trying to find their way out of world that tells them they can’t be. I loved it even as I was screaming at it.
I read some delicious lighter stuff this year, too. Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series is fun (and serious too; romances aren’t simple fluff). Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series are great mysteries, especially if you like National Parks. It’s a good thing we (still, despite that fucker-in-charge) have so many parks, because I don’t want this series to ever end; there are 19 so far, and I’ve only read the first four. Sara Gran’s Claire de Witt series is not exactly light and not exactly a mystery series. They are fabulous and mysterious and full of epistemological wrestling.
It’s only now, looking back to see what stuck with me, that I realize how much I was and am thinking about endings. The mysteries that solve things tidily, even as the lead characters can’t solve their own lives. The novels about fate and resistance and change. These are themes that are written about so often—how do we make and change our lives?—so it obviously says something more about me and my moment than it does about the current state of books.
2019 been an exhausting year for me. It wasn’t as rough as 2018, but it’s been a year that took me through separation and divorce and disruption and discovery. January was miserable, April shifted into better terrain, and August starting bringing joy. I don’t know what will be coming next and yet I am not afraid of who I will be.
There are no tidy endings in my life. Everything is messy and everything is great. At the same time, the world is a disaster and we are descending into a man-made hell of ecological nightmares and white supremacy. I still look for the helpers and I find them. Sometimes the books I read help me do that, and sometimes they make room for me to rest and breathe. I hope you all have books that help you span the breadth of what we need to do in our collective lives.
- 1I keep my account locked, so I’m not linking to it, but the full list of what I read this year is public.