My life became a cultural wasteland after my daughter was born. No more books, no more movies — only television provided a last, desperate bastion of artistic connection, consumed in small doses through a semi-conscious daze. I felt bad about not reading; as a librarian with two English literature degrees, books had been fixtures in my life.
And then, suddenly, I was a reader again. For almost 18 months, I had been stuck rereading the first chapter of Canada by Richard Ford, until one day, I moved on to chapter two. And then chapter three. Before I knew it, the book was over, and I started a new one. And then another one. Reading was a connection to my job and to the world, and a conscious rebuilding of my scrambled inner life. In 2014, I read 49 books and felt great about it. In 2015, I'd read 50 for sure.
But once I started, I couldn't stop. I passed 50 books in early May; in August, I reached 100. As of this writing, I've read 164 books, and I have a stack more to get through before the ball drops. (Here's my spreadsheet if you want to take a look at what I read.)
I'd spent a year prostrated before an altar of literature, and in doing so I learned a few things.
1) Don't finish every book you start
Ignore the Atlantic. Finishing every book you start is not just annoying — it's counter-productive. There will never ever be enough time to read every worthwhile book. Even spending almost every spare second reading, there were titles I returned to the library, spines woefully uncracked. Other times, I cursed myself for wasting energy on an unworthy title, hate-reading the last 200 pages of The Rosie Effect because I'd liked The Rosie Project and wanted to make sure that everything turned out okay.
I suspect that people who argue for finishing every book assume that otherwise readers will bail out in droves from difficult literature, finding refuge in the more fast-paced, accessible novels. But that wasn't true for me: As much as it challenged my emotional limits, I never once thought of abandoning A Little Life, for example. Out of my 164-book total, I left only five unfinished. The few books I quit weren't necessarily bad books, nor were they especially difficult. They just weren't for me. I adore Marilynne Robinson's novels, but the essays in The Givenness of Things were far too specialized and outside my area of interest. I tried working through them slowly, while lustily eying flashier covers on my unread pile. Eventually, I gave in, became engrossed in something else, and recognized that I wouldn't be going back.
Reading is amazing; it shouldn't be a chore, and when it became one, I stopped doing it. The few times this year that I felt my reading stall came after spending too long with a book that failed to move me. It's important to recognize that not every book will be a page-turner from the start, but my benefit of the doubt rarely lasts more than 100 pages.
2) Publishing is still dominated by white people
I started documenting my reading in late 2014, after reading Amanda Nelson's article about her reading spreadsheet on Book Riot. In addition to recording the title, author, and page length of each book, I also track the authors' gender, nationality, and whether or not they identify as a person of color. I believe that increasing the diversity of the authors I read requires a conscious effort; it won't just happen on its own. All groups deserve equal representation in literature, and if readers demand books from writers of color, editors will have no choice but to supply them. There's also a more personal reason to read a wide range of books: Deliberately seeking out new literary voices expands my perspective and pushes me out of my comfort zone. Ultimately, I hear more stories, and my life is richer for it.
The sad truth is that while I managed to read authors representing more than 25 countries this year, only about a quarter of the books were by writers of color (and that's including four big question marks by Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan series, whose true identity remains unknown).
Reading is amazing; it shouldn't be a chore, and when it became one, I stopped doing it
Race isn't the only current imbalance in English-language publishing; gender is also an issue. As a librarian, I've noticed that women generally accept book recommendations regardless of the author's gender, but many men are reluctant to read female authors. I am not exempt from institutional sexism in my book choices. While I naturally gravitate to female authors (two-thirds of the books I read this year were by women), an inventory of the books I own showed a majority of male authors on my shelves. Though my spreadsheet skews female, my purchasing dollars tell a different story.
Other biases remained in my blind spot until very recently. A month ago, a friend asked me to recommend a novel featuring trans characters, and I drew a blank. I hadn't yet read N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, which features a trans woman as a minor but mysterious character who I suspect will become more important as the Broken Earth series develops.
3) Fiction teaches more than just empathy
Recent studies have shown what any reader could have been easily guessed: Reading fiction — especially literary fiction — makes people more empathetic. According to a 2014 Carnegie Mellon study, reading fiction activates the same regions of the brain as real-life experience. A 2013 study found that people scored higher on tests of empathy and social intelligence after reading literary fiction. I've found this to be true in my own experience — reading really does help me to see where other people are coming from. But it's not the only benefit of reading — my reading marathon this year helped me see that I also learn cultural and sociological lessons from reading novels.
Before this year, I had no knowledge of Nigerian history or politics, but both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun and Chinelo Okparanta's excellent debut, Under the Udala Trees, chronicled the Igbo experience during the Biafran War. Okparanta's novel was unflinching in its depiction of her home country's persecution of LGBT citizens.
Adichie's Americanah, which was possibly my favorite read of 2015, focused on the contrast between Nigerian and American lifestyles, but what really fascinated me was the intense description of black American hair rituals.
I marveled at the amazing amount of World War II fighter plane research that made up Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins. Soon afterward, Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend reminded me that the postwar years on the losing side were quite different from what I had been used to reading in British, American, and Canadian novels.
In theory, I could have read any of these things in a history book. But in reality, I wouldn't have. I find straight history dry (though Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692 is proving an excellent exception to that rule). Furthermore, I submit that some things are better learned through characters and stories than presented as facts.
4) If you want a sure bet, read a translation
Last year, the BBC reported that translations comprise just 2 to 3 percent of English publishing, compared with 27 percent in France and up to 70 percent in Slovenia.
In my readings this year, I noticed the flip side of the 2 to 3 percent statistic, which is this: Books translated into English are almost guaranteed to be excellent.
With only one exception, I adored the books I read in translation this year, including three different series from Italy, Norway, and China. (The book I hated: Coelho's The Alchemist, which, if you haven't read it, odds are you've been implored to read it by several of your friends and loved ones. Many count it among their favorite books; I found it to be an extended string of platitudes.)
I've already mentioned Ferrante's Neapolitan series, which reached its conclusion this year with The Story of the Lost Child. The passion of Ferrante's prose is barely constrained by a lolling, poetic elegance, and the central duo were two of the most complex characters I read this year, if not ever.
From Norway, I was immediately drawn into Hans Olav Lahlum's K2 and Patricia mystery series. Lahlum, a historian, structures his books as homages to great mystery writers set in post-WWII Norway. The first book in the series, The Human Flies, is both a clever locked-room murder and a near-flawless Agatha Christie impression.
Finally, Cixin Liu's controversial Hugo winner The Three-Body Problem, and its sequel, The Dark Forest, raised the bar for my conception of imaginative sci-fi. Reading The Three-Body Problem, I needed frequent breaks to research topics ranging from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Lawson planetary motion. Both books were well worth the effort; my most anticipated read of the coming year is the series-concluding Death's End.
5) You don't need to read 160 books to keep up with the literary conversation
A big part of why I wanted to read so many books this year was to keep up with the conversation around books. I wanted to recognize the books on the Best of 2015 lists. I wanted my opinion to have weight. I started evangelizing for my favorite books, writing reviews for the library blog, actively contributing to Twitter debates. I became a librarian because talking about books is one of the only things I like as much as reading them. I had forgotten that, but this year reminded me.
Keeping up with literary conversation only requires reading a few books and, preferably, feeling something about them. While many books will end up on the Best of 2015 lists, there were, in my opinion five that dominated the conversation this year: A Little Life, Between the World and Me, Ferrante's Neapolitan series, Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, and Jonathan Franzen's Purity. The talk surrounding both Go Set a Watchman and Purity was less about the books than about issues surrounding their respective authors.
Go Set a Watchman was an infuriating, mediocre book, its main interest lying in its relation to To Kill a Mockingbird and the ethical question of whether it should have been published at all (it shouldn't). I didn't read Purity, mostly because Franzen's embarrassingly clueless interviews about adopting war orphans are far more entertaining than his novels. I read The Corrections years ago, and part of Freedom. They weren't bad, but Franzen's is an authorial voice I feel like I've heard too many times. I brought Purity home from the library, but with multiple due dates looming, I chose Zen Cho's refreshing debut Sorcerer to the Crown instead, with no regrets.
If there is the makings of a classic in 2015, I believe it lies with one or all of the other three: Yanagihara, Coates, and Ferrante. Yanagihara's A Little Life wrecked everyone who read it. I agree that it was the best book of the year, but I suspect it may be too bleak to have staying power. Between the World and Me has a better chance. In addition to being beautifully written, its historical value to the current state of race relations and connection to the Black Lives Matter movement both bolsters its significance and imbues enough controversy to give it lasting interest.
If there is one 2015 author whose work I hope endures, you may have already guessed that I'm casting my lot with Ferrante. While Story of the Lost Child, as the capper to a series, cannot fully stand own, the quiet ascendency of My Brilliant Friend to the Book Your Friends Are Reading signals an endurance march rather than a sprint. I'll spend 2016 reading the rest of Ferrante's oeuvre.
Now that the year is almost over, I recognize a lot more of the books dominating critics' lists. It does feel good to see other people gushing over the books I love. It's also occasionally confusing, wondering what so many others saw in Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies that left them raving but kept me lukewarm. Mostly I'm still drawn to the books I missed, still excited to add to my to-read list.
6) Reading is not a competition
I've talked a lot about the various benefits of reading: learning about other cultures, promoting diversity, staying connected to broader conversations about literature. But when I focused too much on numerical goals, I started to resent my books and lose sight of the main reason I read — because it makes me happy.
At the end of every book I loved, I felt transformed. I wanted to tell everyone about it, if not read it again right away. The other books, the ones I didn't care about, I read because I thought they would make me better in some way — more well-read, perhaps, or even more interesting. But reading books I wasn't invested in just made me bored and disengaged; I would have been better off doing something else.
I became a librarian because talking about books is one of the only things I like as much as reading them
With the end of the year in sight and my list surpassing 150 books, my obsession began to wane. I picked up Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus, a well-reviewed novel with an intriguing premise. I read two pages and didn't feel a spark. A few months earlier, I would have pressed on and possibly really enjoyed it, but for now, I put it down. I let it go.
I won't read 160 books in 2016. If I have a goal, it's to read under 100 — to make sure that every book matters not to the world but to me.
Amy McLay Paterson is a librarian and a writer from Halifax, Canada. She tweets about books, libraries, feminism, and pop culture @shalihavmydwarf.
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