Isn’t a bit weird that we do end-of-year reading highlights? By “we” I of course mean me, but also I’m not the only one who does this. Is this the turn from 2022 to 2023? Is this the middle of 5753? Is this also the 1036th day of March 2020?1I got this numbering from a mastodon user, all credit to Steve Haroz https://scicomm.xyz/@sharoz/109609742747120240 All these things are true, time is a construct, I think I’ve said all this in other years, too, so I guess time is also a circle or something.
It’s been a pretty good reading year for me. I read slowly (so slowly) and just barely hit my goal of 50 books for the year. I don’t usually set a goal for myself, but BookWyrm prompts you to, and I thought an actual goal would help me remember that I do love reading books more than I love watching tv or staring into space, and so more of my evenings have been occupied with reading than the year before.2A shout-out to BookWyrm and Mouse Reeve here: BookWyrm is a federated, non-commercial, open-source social space for book tracking. Think GoodReads but without Jeff Bezos tracking your every move and with the ability for folks on Mastodon to follow you, if you and they want. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and love it. If you’re a Bookish Book Club member, we’ve started up our own instance at bookishbook.club and we’d welcome you to join us. In fact, I’m kind of begging you to join us. It’s a really nice platform for chatting about and sharing books, and it’s more fun when you’re doing it with friends. If you’re not in BBClub, you can learn more about it at that link, and if you want to join, just send me or one of the other conveners a message. And if you’re not interested in the club, but are interested in BookWyrm, bookwyrm.social is open and you can follow me from there, and I can follow you, and we can be book buds: @firstname.lastname@example.org (https://bookishbook.club/user/sarah). And I’m glad about that.
I read my usual combination of dross and gold. I also discovered the joys of listening to a book while falling asleep. It takes the right sort of book—one that doesn’t revolve around plot twists or one that you’ve read before and it’s okay to drift in and out of. The biggest problem is finding a good reader in my library’s offerings. I loved listening to Northanger Abbey, but the reader has a very scratchy voice that at bedtime is just not a good fit. I’m listening now to Maria Dhavani Headley’s new translation of Beowulf, and the reader (J. D. Jackson) is great but also, the drama of the poem is not conducive to sleep or to missing the details. On the plus side, I don’t know that I would have sat down and read it, and being able to listen is in many many ways the perfect way to meet the poem.
These are a handful of unputdownable books from this year that continue to talk to me long after I finished reading them:
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland was a slow read for me because I kept stopping to absorb it. I loved it. I hadn’t read any McCullers when I read Shapland’s book, and that didn’t stop me from following Shapland’s use of her to make sense of her own life. If you’re interested in closeted queerness, in archives, in how we see and don’t see the past, you might also love this book. For me, the biggest thing was that it crystalized something I’d been struggling with this year: Why are we devoting precious resources to all these old books and old documents that are my professional life? When the world is burning, when people are fleeing wars, when there’s a witch hunt going on demonizing trans and queer people, how can we justify pouring more carbon-burning energy into studying old books? But when I was at the low point of struggling with this question, I happened to read this book, and it helped shift my thinking away from my training as a literary scholar and book history (the important thing is the book!) to a view that centers people. People, like Shapland, find themselves in old books and documents, and what is of value is not only learning new things about books/history, but learning about who we are today. For some of you this might seem obvious, but it goes against all the training I had to center the past and value what we learn about these textual objects. But making this shift has helped me rediscover the joys and potentials of putting people together with books, and I am infinitely grateful for that realization.
After Shapland, I of course had to read some Carson McCullers, and I went with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. That really was a slow read. I interspersed so many other, easier, books while reading this one. It took a lot out of me. It’s filled with so much loneliness! There’s so much love and light and squandered life and searching for your people and yourself in it—I just loved it and I’m glad I read it. My description probably doesn’t make you want to read it, but if you haven’t already, it’s well worth trying it.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory made me think differently about time and about trees. I don’t know how to put that into words, but putting human lives and our short-term thinking alongside the long long lives of trees made me question all sorts of priorities. I’m so tired of valuing tiny human needs over planetary ones. I don’t mean important human needs like love and shelter and autonomy, but tiny ones like more more more stuff and where’s my profit and what’s the easiest way to get from point A to point B? What would it mean instead if we thought not only in terms of generations of people, but in generations of trees?
Honorée Fannone Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W. E. B. DuBois is as amazing as all the reviews led me to believe it would be, but also even more so. I hadn’t expected it to be so much about historiography, and I loved it for that. I’ve been thinking a lot recently—thanks to so much good writing on the topic—about the potential traumas of doing and facilitating historical research. And the accounts in Love Songs of what it feels like not to be trusted to read the records of your own past, and the pain of reading those records, and the difficulty of getting dominant voices to listen to the multitude of ways that histories are told instead of focusing solely on those written records that were selected to be preserved . . . . All of that is to say, this book is powerful.
I think the book that might stay with me the longest is Lauren Groff’s Matrix. I hadn’t particularly been drawn by the reviews that I’d read of it, but I was so wrong. The book is incandescent. Yes, medieval nuns might not be your thing. But this isn’t really a book about Marie and her abbey. It’s a book about how women make a place for themselves in the world when they are told they have no place in it, about the strength of love and community in all of its messiness. I was so sad when it was done. I was absolutely not ready to leave Marie. I am fully expecting to return to this book again and again.
I read other things this year that I loved—more Arkady Martine, more Becky Chambers, more Tamsyn Muir. Kate Beaton’s Ducks is a work of art. Cat Sebastian is always fun, but her recent Kitt Webb and Marian Hayes combo are not only good queer romances, they’re also deeply satisfying in their radical anti-nobility beliefs. Oh, and I reread Persuasion and remembered how much I love it. It’s the best Jane Austen, and I’m not just saying that because I’m old and second chances are everything.
That’s it. That was my year in reading, or at least, my perception of it now, from the end of it. At some point it’d be a fun exercise to try to think through the last five years or so of reading just from memory, to see which books really have stuck with me. I might have misjudged a lot of my immediate reactions. But that’s the beauty of books, I think. We read them in one moment, and then they continue to stay with us and shift shape for years to come, whether we reread them or not. They are the best time-travelers, and I am grateful each time I encounter a book for the writers who share them with us.
- 1I got this numbering from a mastodon user, all credit to Steve Haroz https://scicomm.xyz/@sharoz/109609742747120240
- 2A shout-out to BookWyrm and Mouse Reeve here: BookWyrm is a federated, non-commercial, open-source social space for book tracking. Think GoodReads but without Jeff Bezos tracking your every move and with the ability for folks on Mastodon to follow you, if you and they want. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and love it. If you’re a Bookish Book Club member, we’ve started up our own instance at bookishbook.club and we’d welcome you to join us. In fact, I’m kind of begging you to join us. It’s a really nice platform for chatting about and sharing books, and it’s more fun when you’re doing it with friends. If you’re not in BBClub, you can learn more about it at that link, and if you want to join, just send me or one of the other conveners a message. And if you’re not interested in the club, but are interested in BookWyrm, bookwyrm.social is open and you can follow me from there, and I can follow you, and we can be book buds: @email@example.com (https://bookishbook.club/user/sarah).