2015 in Review

I almost decided not to do a Year in Review post this year. This New Year’s season is proving to be a complicated one, one in which the transition on a calendar seems fairly minor in comparison to more significant life transitions. And, for reasons I’ll get into later, I’m generally disinclined to make resolutions, but especially this year. But it is nice to have a record of where things are now and where I might like them to go, so I decided to go ahead and put something together. (The fact that I keep track of my reading year-round makes it a reasonably simple task.)

General Reflections

On the whole, I had a good reading year, although the average rating of books I read was a little bit down. I’ve been quick to give up on books I dislike, and although I’ve read a lot of books that won’t stick with me or that I actively disliked, I’ve enjoyed the conversation about them. Participating in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury was a highlight of the year, even though most of the books didn’t wow me. The conversation, however, did wow me, and this year has been a year where conversation about books has been almost as important to me as the book’s themselves.

When I think about giving up on reading the “hot” books of the season (which I don’t read heaps of anyway), I know I’d miss being part of the conversation. It’s why I’m unlikely to ever focus solely on backlist or classics. The conversation is there for those books. In fact, some of our most commented posts are for older books. But there’s something about being part of the larger cultural conversation that I enjoy. It was fun, for example, to rant about A Little Life long before it was cool to do so. I’m going to keep being choosy about the current books I read, but I’m not giving them up.

Books of the Year

So what books did wow me? These are the books that I rated at 4.5 or above on LibraryThing:

As We Are Now by May Sarton. A heart-wrenching story of how the elderly are treated, that also (perhaps) features an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see her own unreliability.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This multi-voiced tour de force was our shadow jury’s pick for the Booker Prize and, it turns out, the actual jury’s choice as well. A very worthy winner.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. Trollope is so reliable, and the attitudes toward marriage and women and the difficulties of making the right choice was insightful and entertaining.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This epic melodrama of two California families reminded me of why Steinbeck is great.

The Just City by Jo Walton. Building a city on the principles set forth in Plato’s Republic gets complicated when the citizens who come together from across time can’t agree on how to live by those principles. The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, takes the story in new and intriguing directions, and I’m looking forward to the finale, Necessity, in 2016.

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. This meditation on what it means to have faith in times of trial avoids giving facile answers and instead stares intently at the difficulty.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A tremendously moving story about how a family and community deal with sudden and unexpected tragedy.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The story on its own was nothing special, but the delightful voice of a young diarist whose words form half of the book made this a strong favorite.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I didn’t expect to love Waters’s debut as much as I did her later books, but it easily makes it into my top three of her books (along with Fingersmith and The Little Stranger)

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. This was my third choice to win the Man Booker (after Lila and Brief History). Sahota delves into the complex issues around immigration (legal and not), but it’s the story of a Sikh woman’s desire to be faithful to her beliefs that moved me.

Honorable mentions go to The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne-Jones, The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, Tenth of December by George Saunders, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Thorn by Intisar Khanani, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, and How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Stats and Goals

As I’ve been seeing others’ year-end and goal-setting posts, I’ve been giving some thought to my own reading goals and realizing that I’m just not a goal-setting person right now. The truth is, my priorities shift all the time, and a firm goal that seems doable right now might prove impossible next month or even next week. And I also wonder where it all ends—there’s a limit to what any of us can achieve (or at least to what I can achieve, perhaps I shouldn’t speak for you).

To take one example, I set a goal of 100 books in the Goodreads Challenge because it’s a round number and requires me to make an effort. I kept on pace for that goal for almost the entire year. And then in the last few weeks of the year, I got busy with some personal stuff, and I read two long books in quick succession. I could have set those books aside and read shorter books to reach the goal, but I didn’t want to. And I didn’t want to give up other activities to make more time to read (and I’m not sure I could have, anyway). It’s certainly possible for me to read more than I do. I waste a lot of time noodling around on the Internet, but I also don’t want to read to meet a goal. Still, I like having a number to shoot for because it helps me keep my priorities aligned. I just don’t consider it a failure not to reach the goal. And I don’t see a need to keep setting higher goals because at some point I will reach my reading capacity. There’s only so much time in anyone’s day.

In another example, I have lots of different types of books I want to read—older books, books by diverse authors, books in translation. But I don’t always have the brain space to focus on every single one of those goals. This year, I was more deliberate about reading books by nonwhite authors, but I didn’t think as much about translated books—and my stats reflect that. (Yes, I know there are books that fit both of those categories, but I didn’t feel an inclination to read many of those this year.) In 2016, I’m going to try to apply some of my strategies for reading nonwhite authors to reading translated books—namely, when someone I trust suggests a translated work, I’ll be quicker to put it on my library list so that I’ll be more likely to read it sooner. But I also acknowledge that “perfect” stats (whatever those are) may never be possible. I don’t, for example, want to give up reading white male authors just to make room for nonwhite women. But at some point, it’s what I would have to do to “improve.”

So if I’m not trying to improve my stats or set a goal, why bother tracking or sharing them?

My yoga practice offers a valuable perspective here. At the yoga studio I go to, the teachers talk less about goals and more about mindful attention. Some goals may not be possible for everyone, but we can each note, with respectful curiosity, where we are now. So does this mean we don’t try to improve? Not necessarily. When I started doing yoga regularly, there was one common move, stepping forward out of downward-facing dog, that just seemed impossible for me. It’s a tough move for a lot of people, and the proportions between my upper and lower body, as well as my stomach, made it seem entirely inaccessible. After struggling and getting annoyed, I learned to modify by putting one knee down and stepping the other foot forward. This is perfectly fine, and I figured that’s the way I’ll keep doing it. I had other things that were more important to focus on, like keeping my back straight in down dog. A few weeks ago, we spent a lot of time in class on this particular move, and I learned that arching the back a bit can make it more accessible. The following week, I was attentive to that and got my foot far enough forward that I could grab it and pull it the rest of the way. That’s still not complete success—and I may never get there, and I may often continue to modify by lowering my knee a lot of the time—but paying attention to this area where I needed to improve helped me see a way to do it when I was feeling capable.

So, for me, that’s what stats are about. Seeing where I am so that, when I have the opportunity to shift a bit, I can do so, but not beating myself up or considering it a failure when I don’t. It’s a way of paying attention.

Books Read in 2015:  94 (82 in 2015).

Review Copies: 16 (17%), 8 of which were e-galleys. A big increase from last year’s 6 (7%). This was partly due to getting publisher copies as part of the Booker Shadow Jury. Although some of these books were terrific, I’m thinking about giving up on review copies entirely. Although I don’t feel pressure about them at all, I’m annoyed by some of the conversation I see (always from bloggers!) about bloggers’ role being to promote good books. I’m here to talk about them, not promote them! It just makes me want to be fully separate from the industry. (But then I browse Netgalley when I’m bored, and it’s all over.)

TBR Books from before Jan 1, 2015: 27. Down from 35 last year! What can I say? I love the library. Booker jury. And I did read (or try and abandon) all books I’ve had over 5 years, so I met my main TBR goal.

Books Acquired in 2014: 39. This keeps going down. Last year it was 58, and 85 the year before that. And I read 14 and attempted but abandoned 5 of these during the year, leaving only 20 for the TBR pile. (Un)Fortunately (?), I’ll probably have easy access to a pretty good used bookstore very soon, which could make it a challenge to keep this number low.

Library Books Read: 39 (41%). Up from 30% percent last year.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 84 fiction, 10 nonfiction (89% fiction, compared to 78% last year). Huh. I thought I was reading more nonfiction.

New to Me Authors: 49 (57%, compared to 59% in 2014).

Male vs. Female: 57 female, 37 male (61% female, compared to 68% female in 2014). Continuing to make zero effort here. Seems to be working out fine.

Pre 1900 Books: 6 (6%, compared to 5% in 2014). I’d like to increase this, but I’m not dwelling on it. I just need to remember my e-reader and all the books on it.

20th Century Books: 28 (30%, compared to 39% in 2014).

21st Century Books: 60 (64%), with 29 (31%) coming from 2015 (compared to 54% from the 21st century and 15% from the current year in 2014). This move toward the new is mostly the Booker effect and the pleasure I’ve taken in current conversation, as noted above. I’m enjoying it for now, but that may change.

Translations: 3 books/3% (compared to 10% in 2014). Just stopped paying attention. It’s hard to diversify on multiple fronts.

Books by Authors of Color: 21 books/22% (compared to 18% in 2014). This is where I focused my diversification, and I’m happy with the results.

US vs. UK Authors:  43 US/33 UK (compared to 35 US/30 UK in 2014.)

Non-US/UK Authors:  18 books/19% (compared to 23% in 2013). Just not a focus this year.

My 2015 Reading Map
Make yours @ BigHugeLabs.com
Make yours @ BigHugeLabs.com

I read books by authors from 16 nations, just like in 2014. After the US and UK, Canada got the most “visits” with 7. But I keep neglecting Latin America.

2015-12-31 18.29.17So there we are. My main goal for 2016 is most just to keep doing what makes me happy in my reading, following my interests, while paying some attention to diversity. I’m also going to do my best to read or discard the 21 books I acquired back in 2011. We’ll see how it goes!

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24 Responses to 2015 in Review

  1. Stefanie says:

    A good reading year! I like your goals and I like your reason for keeping stats. Also, good work on the yoga!

    Happy New Year!

    • Teresa says:

      I almost decided to give up tracking stats altogether, but I do think it’s a form of mindful observation, and I’ve benefited a lot from that this year. Yoga (and finding a studio that teaches it well) has really changed how I see a lot of things.

  2. Rebecca H. says:

    I hope your new year begins well, complexities and all. I understand that life events make new year’s celebrations not quite as important. Your reading year sounds great; I agree that the Booker conversation was a highlight of the year. I’m so glad I could participate in it with you!

    • Teresa says:

      The good news is that it’s all happy transitions now—although that doesn’t keep change from feeling stressful and distracting.

      I do hope we can Booker together again. It was such fun!

  3. lailaarch says:

    I like how you look at your Goodreads challenge numbers, and goal-setting… your mindful perspective from your yoga practice is a great way to view all goals! I’m with you on not continually setting your number higher… there is a top capacity for us all somewhere! I enjoy your blog posts so much. Congratulations on a great reading year and Happy New Year!

    • Teresa says:

      The top capacity issue is something I’ve been thinking about for all kinds of goals. So many of the goals I’d like to set involve doing more—more books, more exercise, even more movies. But unless I can figure out a way to make time expand, that ends up being a recipe for failure.

  4. Alex says:

    I have tried to be very flexible in setting goals for this year because I know that the moment I see something reviewed which takes my fancy I will move it to the top of the library list regardless of whether or not it fits into any goals I happen to have set myself. A lot of my reading is dictated by commitments to teaching and reading groups anyway. I need some leeway.

    • Teresa says:

      I find it valuable to leave room to follow my mood in my reading. My reading is much more enjoyable if I choose what I feel like reading, rather than what I’m supposed to read.

  5. Lisa says:

    Happy New Year! I always enjoy your end-of-the-year posts, and this one has given me a lot to consider. I don’t set reading goals in terms of numbers, because they make me anxious about reading, which is one of the usual ways I cope with anxiety. I hadn’t put it into words, but I think I’d share your goal of “just to keep doing what makes me happy in my reading, following my interests, while paying some attention to diversity.” My other main goal is to keep reducing the TBR stacks.

    I’m glad that the transitions are generally happy ones, but as you say, even those are stressful. The year I had an unplanned move, my pastor kept preaching on the sometimes hidden benefits of change, which I tried to keep in mind. I wish you peace in the process!

    • Teresa says:

      Good point about anxiety. Keeping reading anxiety-free is so important to me. A few commitments don’t bother me, but I have to give myself permission to abandon them.

      My day-to-day life has been pretty stable for almost 10 years now, so I’ve been itching for a change, but that doesn’t keep change from being scary! I think adapting was easier, when I was younger and moving and changing jobs often.

  6. I think I am shifting a little bit more in the direction of reading current books, because yeah, I’ve found that I really do like being part of the conversation. There are still a lot of big-name books that I haven’t read and don’t care about reading, but when I’m interested, I like being able to have the conversation with other book bloggers.

    Happy New Year, lady! I hope you read everything wonderful in 2016!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I agree that I’m not going to read a big book just because it’s big. I’d have to be interested in it on its own merits or be doing something like the Booker Shadow Jury. But delaying books I’m interested in until I’ve read the books that have been on my list longer means missing out of the conversation as its happening.

      And Happy New Year and much Good Reading to you, too!

  7. Denise says:

    I don’t do stats or goals for reading, it’s just too variable. I read and loved Moriarty in about 2 hours, but Seven Killings took me almost a month. I was pleasantly surprised to see it mentioned here – it seems to have passed by most of the blogs I follow.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Brief History is just so long and complex that a lot of people didn’t want to tackle it or lost the will to finish it. I started and abandoned it once before I took it up again when I had a week off work. But just about everyone I know who did read it, loved (or at least strongly admired) it.

      • Denise says:

        I am in the “strongly admired” camp :-) It was very memorable. I am just about to post on it, it will be my next one. I found myself greatly helped by a timely “crib sheet” that appeared in the LRB.

  8. It looks like you had another great reading year! Our Booker conversations were a favorite for me too, and I do hope that we all do decide to do it again. Whatever new things await you, I wish you all the best and a very happy new reading year!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m already wondering if there are books I can expect to see on the list so I can read them ahead of time and be prepared. I don’t think I could have finished if I hadn’t read two of the books ahead of time!

  9. I like what you say here about using stats as a way of paying attention. I think I learned from last year that I need to pay more attention to reading nonfiction this year. Adding Marlon James’ book to my TBR pile too. :)

    • Teresa says:

      Do save the James for when you have a lot of brain space for it. I don’t think I would have appreciated it nearly so much if I hadn’t read it during a staycation when I wasn’t doing anything requiring much thought.

  10. Pingback: The Week in Review: January 3rd, 2016 | The Literary Omnivore

  11. Christy says:

    I really liked how you connected yoga with your reflection on the past year in reading. I didn’t reach my Goodreads “goal” this past year, and I may not this year, but I do like it as a deliberate reminder that reading is something I’m always glad I make time for, and to maybe curtail some of the distracting things that aren’t as meaningful to me in the long run. That mindful attention, as you say. Thanks for your thought-provoking post. And for the recommendation of the May Sarton book – I keep meaning to read something by her. One of these days!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s exactly why I like having the goal and even the little note that tells me if I’m behind–it’s a tangible reminder to make time. I find value in that, but only if I go into it knowing that missing the goal is not in any way a failure.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Happy new year, and hope your reading goals contribute to your reading happiness, which is the whole point, right? I have longterm goals to read more broadly geographically around the US and the world, and this year I’d like to be more conscious about reading more books by women and people of color. For me, I like using goals because they tend to save me when I’m in a reading rut.

    And you are not alone in feeling irritated about bloggers talking about book promotion. I’m not a publicity department. I started blogging to talk about books I’m reading, some of which happen to be new releases. What I quickly found is that what I enjoy most about blogging is the conversation and the recommendations. I’ve had much more luck in my reading life once I started finding trusted recommenders in the blogosphere, etc. I tend to trust readers more if they read in lots of time periods instead of just reviewing new stuff. And I trust readers more if they do more than simply say, “Look at my bookmail” or “Look at my bookhaul.” I need to know what’s appealing about a certain book. Obviously this has been bothering me for awhile. Thanks for reading my venting.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the things I like about keeping diversity in mind is that it can help me choose when I’m weighing several books. If I have three library books due this week and time to read just one, I might prioritize the one by a black author.

      And feel free to rant away! I know that blogs have a promotional effect, which is well and good, but, to me, that’s a side effect of having the kind of conversation we all enjoy so much. It’s not the purpose of the conversation. Almost all the blogs I read regularly have a nice mix of old and new and hardly any book-haul type posts. If someone does post about a book haul, it’s usually either loot from a book shop or a particularly exciting piece of book mail.

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