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.)
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.
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.
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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.
So 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!