We spent a lot of time at home this year. Even before the pandemic began, I was working exclusively at home. I realize what a privilege that is during a time when so many jobs have disappeared, and I’m grateful for it. When America gave in to Covid-19, it subtracted bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, museums, concerts, plays, and movie theaters from my life. I’ve always relied on reading to carry me through hard times, and this year has been no different in that respect.
“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Despite all the disasters competing for my attention, I recall reading 29 books this year. Fewer than last year, but this hasn’t been a “normal” year, has it. (Yes, the period is intentional.)
I chose some titles and authors because they somehow seemed related to what I’m writing. It’s a good idea to do a survey of existing literature before trying to create something new within a genre. I’m writing a certain flavor of science fiction, and in an effort not to be too derivative, I wanted to read, or re-read books similar to what I’m working on.
Other books I’ve read simply because they’re fun, and I needed an escape from the plague, politics, and the everyday world outside. From the time I was a young boy, reading fiction has been a healing, fortifying activity. As a kid, I was accused more than once of reading too much for my own good. (What the hell does that even mean?) I lived on a sort of haphazard farm, and books gave me something to look forward to when the chores were over, and I could run away for a couple hours into the orange grove or the tree house. Looking forward to getting back into a story helped me through the day.
I won’t tell you about every book I read this year, and this isn’t a 100% complete list, but here’s a snapshot of 29 books I recorded having read, and roughly when I read them. It’s not exact–because who cares–and I’ve omitted the comments column because that’s just for me. I keep a spreadsheet for my To-Be-Read list, and another to record a few things about books I read. Some are memorable, and some aren’t. Some I mark to read again, and some I abandon before finishing. I don’t usually do negative book reviews, which is why I haven’t included the “comments” column here, but as you can see, I didn’t care for everything I picked up, and didn’t finish some of the books I started. That’s unusual for me–I always try to stick it out at least halfway through a book, but…life is too short to read something I’m simply not interested in. One book on this list–I won’t say which–I literally threw across the room in disgust. It happens.
This year’s reading was heavy on science fiction, and because I had an Audible subscription, I listened to almost a third of the 29 titles in question as audiobooks on my morning runs. I run for around an hour every other day, and having someone narrate a story in my ears makes the time fly by. Some people seem to think listening to a book isn’t reading a book. I disagree. I do agree that it’s a different experience, but many of the books I listen to I end up buying in paper form to read again, and if I love them, to add to my permanent library. I read a lot of genre fiction. There are folks who might say I could better spend my time reading “real literature,” but I enjoy genre fiction. It’s ok. Read whatever you like, and damn the naysayers. The same goes for writing. If you write, there will be torpedoes. Damn them too.
Let’s narrow it down. Here are ten books I liked, in the order I read or listened to them.
The Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. I picked this one up because so many reviews described it as a great example of world building. That it is. I won’t read it again, but I enjoyed it. Onward.
The Odyssey, by Homer. I bought this as an audiobook because it’s an epic poem that existed and was passed on by word-of-mouth for thousands of years. It was meant to be listened to. (If only I spoke ancient Greek!) I chose the Fagles translation, narrated by Ian McClellan, and it was fantastic in every respect. I had read it before twice, and I’ll listen to this version again and again, probably while running, or falling asleep to the sound of Sir Ian’s voice.
The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie. This is a seriously gritty fantasy trilogy that I thoroughly enjoyed, also as a series of audiobooks. Imagine the epic scope of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings combined with the no-holds-barred mayhem of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s character-driven, action-oriented, bloody, and straightforward. Pure fun–perhaps not for the squeamish.
The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. A series of asteroid impacts devastates the Northern Hemisphere. Set in the UK, a man and his friends must travel as fast as they can, on foot because the highways are impassable for vehicles, from Scotland to England to catch a refugee ship before it departs for safer latitudes with their families aboard. That’s oversimplified, but if you like apocalyptic stories, and if you’ve ever personally made the transition from “running is torture” to “I can’t wait to run tomorrow,” this is one not to miss. Genuinely likable characters made me feel real emotions, and isn’t that one characteristic of true art?
On Writing, by Stephen King. This book is a permanent resident of my bookshelf, and this was my third reading of it. If you write anything, and even if you simply love reading, this book is extremely worthwhile for its insight into what a lifelong novelist’s life is like, and who King is in particular. King fans, don’t miss it.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. This is a worthy introduction to Zen Buddhism, and to the essence of Zazen, or simply sitting–in other words, meditation. Zen need not come into conflict with any other belief system, and this tiny book can be a comfort as well as a guide to getting to know oneself better, to developing self-discipline, and to learning to be less negatively affected by external troubles.
Dune, by Frank Herbert. I first read this great novel at age 13, and though it amazed and absorbed me, I didn’t have the frame of reference to fully understand it. Reading again in my 50s, after years of military service in the Middle East, was a very different experience. I’m looking forward to the next movie version coming out next year, and I hope someone finally does the novel justice on the screen, if that’s possible.
Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright. As re-readable as Tolkien. A masterclass in world building. Fascinating characters and a fully realized fictional continent and culture. It’s a satisfying look back at what American culture was at the dawn of the 20th Century, with all the Victorian sensibilities challenged by the free and sensible Islandian culture the protagonist adapts to and comes to love. An excellent novel set within an anthropologist’s dream of a flawed utopia.
The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. Craft book. A big-time editor with a generation of experience shows us how he identifies novels that “work” and will sell, and how he helps their authors make them the best they can be. If you, like me, struggle a bit with structure in putting your novel together, this book could improve your mental state and quality of life. There’s also a related podcast.
Las Manos del Día/The Hands of Day, by Pablo Neruda. This bilingual book of poems centers around Neruda’s recognition that there are so very many things he never did, never learned to do, during his lifetime, and his awe and appreciation for those people who make the things (such as brooms and chairs and fishing nets) we mindlessly use in our everyday lives. Like all of Neruda’s work, these poems are achingly beautiful. Spanish on the left page, English on the right.
The last book I finished this year will be George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. “In which four Russians [Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev] give a master class on writing, reading, and life.” This is a study of a few of the great Russian short stories of the late 19th Century. Saunders digs into why these stories work so well and what went into making such masterpieces of fiction seem, on the surface, to be so simple. Spoiler: they aren’t simple at all. The book offers some useful exercises in the back to help writers condense and streamline stories without losing meaning. Stephen King writes at the beginning of On Writing, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” Saunders’ book is not one of those.
That’s all I have for you tonight, Dear Readers. Thanks for spending this time with me. As always, I’d love to hear from you. What have you been reading?