2016 may have been a crummy year in a number of ways but it was pretty productive in terms of reading. I’m happily shocked that I was able to plow through over 100 books!
Nearly 30,000 pages were read-about half fiction and half non-fiction, whereas last year only 3 of the 35 books read were works of fiction. This was a significant shift in focus from reading about facts and events to one centering on stories of various kinds.
Overall I read more work by female authors than I dd in 2015 (20 vs. 15) but the percentage of female authors went way down (19% compared to 42%). I’m not sure how to account for this other than my somewhat new interest in classic fiction, which is dominated by men, at least among the titles that I was drawn to. In my defense, when it was my turn to choose a book in my Classics Only Book Club, I chose Flannery O’Connor’s shorts stories collection Everything that Rises Must Converge. I went on to read all of her other short stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find and The Complete Stories. So there is that. Though when I reported this to DW she said that I need to commit to read her favorite book, Jane Eyre, and at least one of Jane Austen’s many novels to at least begin to make up for the imbalance.
The other area of improvement, though it is modest, is in works written by and about people of color. In 2015 I had read three books that deal with the topic of race, but all were written by white authors. I do not think this means that they are insignificant or unimportant, but a person attempting to write about an experience that is not their own is going to be limited, to say the least. Also the 2015 books on this topic were either academic or were about a white person observing or dealing with racism (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchmen). This year I read both of Te-Nehisi Coates’ memoirs (Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle), Passing by Nella Larsen and, When Race Relgion and Sport Collide by Darron T. Smith, all of which provided insight to experiences, concerns, and fears of a world that I have not known. There are a handful of other non-white authors from my 2016 reading but none of those books were focused on race in any significant way.
I feel like reading books by people with different perspectives and experiences than mine is something that I need to continue to do more of.
Favorites and Let-Downs
I haven’t read much sci-fi really. I read Ender’s Game in junior high but outside of enjoying watching Star Wars and Star Trek, I haven’t really delved into the genre. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick this year and enjoyed both but the former is clearly superior and more enjoyable to read. Additionally, I read the classic graphic novel Watchmen. (I did not know what I would think about a graphic novel because I have never read a comic book before, not once. Watchmen has changed my view on graphic novels and comics in general.)
All of the above are dystopian views of alternate realities; future dying earth, alternate WWII history, and an alternate late 20th century timeline with self-made superheroes, respectively. They describe unpleasant worlds gone out of control. By placing the reader in a vastly different reality, they encourage the reader to ponder questions that they normally would not consider. What does it mean to be human? How can a person be good and bad and everything in between? What role does free-will, or the lack thereof, play in our worlds?
Sci-Fi is obviously different than literary fiction but the authors and specfic books have probed more philosophical questions, and generated greater affect in me than most of the classic works I’ve digested this year.
The test of time is usually a pretty good test I think. If a work is survives as a regular cultural reference after more than a few decades and possibly after more than a century or two have passed since its inital publication you can generally bet that it will be a good read, perhaps a bit of work to get through but it should provide its own reward for the effort. There are two of these ‘time tested’ books over which my Goodreads.com friends seem to gush various forms of adoration, Les Miserables and East of Eden. TW: Here I share a let-down.
Both of these books were good in my estimation and were certainly worth the read, I enjoyed reading them but they were a let-down. Both are epic tales of historical fiction, both are rather long (about 1200 pages for Hugo’s tome and 600 pages even for Steinbeck’s), and both have an author that feels compelled to interject themsleves into the story in order to literally tell you how to think and feel about various characters or situations. At first the authorial voice is just fine, then it is tolerable, but eventually my patience wears rather thin and it really gets old. These two authors clearly had strong feelings about life and felt a need to share a poetic version of history through fiction but good grief they lacked subtely and craft.
The symbolism in East of Eden is overt, and obvious. The characters in Les Miserables are generally one dimensional (a mere symbol for laziness, zeal, cyncism, or some other concept Hugo wanted to include). For a while I thought that both authors were after more of a philsophical statement, which could help account for the above flaws, but in the end I concluded that Hugo’s philosophy was anything but concrete or clear and Steinbecks lacked development.
What I’ve written above is a very terse critique of some very popular ‘classics.’ I could go on but I’d rather not. In summary I’d say that I really did enjoy reading both books but I can’t say that my reading of either volume lives up to the hype and adoration that seem to cloud around both Steinbeck’s and Hugo’s tomes.
I used to be a bonedifed podcast junky with all of my commute time (10+ hours/week), lunch time, and dinner dishes time taken up with This American Life, Freakonomics, Radiolab or some other podcast’s latest release. Now I am cured and only listen to the odd podcast episode every now and again. In reality I am less healthy than I have revealed because I have simply replaced one addiction for another: audiobooks. I have an audible subscription and also have access to a wide array titles available via Overdrive through my library account, and I am loving it. I set a goal to read 25 books in 2016 and I met that goal four times over (102 books in total). Audiobooks help account for at least a part of that increase in reading because about 1/3 of the books I read in 2016 were in audio format (32 audibooks and 4 lecture series).
Audiobooks do not always hit the spot though. Sometimes the narrator ruins a good book and sometimes books just don’t seem to lend themselves to that kind of format. Though there are some great ones out there, here are a few:
- Dracula – The Audible Edition. This version captures Bram Stoker’s written work quite well by having mutltple narrators read the book. Dracula is the quintessential epistolary novel (has no omniient narrator but rather is composed as a collection of diary excerpts and letters). The Audible Edition of Dracula has one narrator for each source (journal author) which helps convert the novel to audio format very well, and the performances were all very good on top of that.
- The Remains of the Day – Narrated by Simon Prebble. Is there anyone who doesn’t like the BBC Masterpeice Theater production Downton Abbey? No there isn’t. Simon Prebble narrates a story here, in Remains of the Day, that might as well be an audio extension of that series, but with Mr. Carson, or one of his butler peers, doing the telling. The propriety of class and of manners, the old English way of holding all emotion in, and the halting of meaningful and even urgent communication due to appearances and hierarchy are captured in Ishiguro’s prose and expressed superbly in Prebble’s reading. Simultaneouly infuriating and delightful.
- Helter Skelter – Read by Scott Brick. A really horrible awful event but also and endlessly fascinating one. Bugliosi chronicles his own investigation of the Manson murders over the course of nearly 700 pages in print and just under 27 hours of audio. Every bit of it is fascinating and disturbing. Brick has an intersting voice that is somehow deadpan and gripping at the same time. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to him read fiction (though I haven’t tried yet) but he really knocks it out of the park in the True Crime genre (he also narrates Capotes’s In Cold Blood).
Overall 2016 was pretty great to me in terms of reading. I covered a lot of great works and some more obscure ones. The one area where I do feel that I was lacking this last year was what I am doing right here, blogging and reviewing my reads. I have a pile of unfinished posts that I just ran out of gas on because I was so quick to move on to the next book. This year I’d like to slow things down, just a touch, so I can take the time to record my thoughts on the books in greater detail and analyze what I’ve just put in my brain. So rather than matching last year’s reading with a goal of 100 books for 2017 I’ve chopped the reading challenge down to 50 and here I’ll set the goal of putting out at least one 1000 word review each month. I think that sounds about right.