Friday, December 31, 2010

Books read in 2010

It's time for my fourth annual totally irrational and OCD-driven list of all the books I've read for the year.

There are a lot of rules to this goofy mind game I play with myself, but the short version is that I count only books that I complete cover to cover, that I allow myself to cheat slightly with long reference or technical books if I read most of them, that I don't allow myself to pad the list by choosing short books and, on the other hand, if a short book comes up in the natural course of my reading life, I do get to count it.

Those rules were particularly influential this year. The reference/technical book comes into play with all the traveling I did. I have several guidebooks on my list that I read about 70-90% of. Also I have the textbook I used in my teaching.

More influential is all the children's books I read as part of the research I'm doing for the book I'm writing. That pushed my numbers to a record high. I added a new rule along the way that I would only count what might be considered a novel for its age group. I counted James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter but not Where the Wild Things Are.

Take the 20 or so children's books on my list and convert that into about 5 adult novels I might have read, and the tally would be about the same as in previous years. So the list is skewed in a new way this year, but the list has always been skewey. In reality, I probably read a little bit more -- mostly because of the down time I had while traveling -- but since I'm counting books instead of pages, words or time, it's impossible to tell.

As always, there are dozens of books I started and didn't finish. If I gave myself a quarter credit for each of those, I'd be well over my goal of averaging 2 per week. (104). But those aren't the rules.

As it is, I came closer than ever. The tally this year is 96.

It sounds like a lot, but I'm hyper aware of how slow a reader I am and how much more ground I wish I was covering. I got another reminder of that this week. My wife -- who has much less reading time available to her but is a fast reader -- is on vacation this week and has knocked off four novels in the last few days while I read one. It makes me wanna holler.

Those 96 books include, as I said before, about 20 definite children's books, another 5 or so that I pitched as children's classics but that might be considered adult novels (Treasure Island), several books of theory and analysis about children's literature, a mix of nonfiction that satisfied some curiosity I had during the year (a history of Buddhism; a history of Paris), most of the Lonely Planet guides for Southeast Asia, all of Richard Price's novels for some reason, books related to research I was doing for the so-called "second novel" I was writing but that is now on hold and books based on movies I saw and became curious about (Winter's Bone; Atonement).

In the first half of the year, the list is a very strange miscellany of novels that I took with me overseas based on a complicated set of criteria plus the weird random books that came my way while I was over there. (The Pickwick Papers? I was really desperate for reading material there at the end.)

Well I won't list them all. Here are some highlights.

Favorite new books from the last year or two include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Both highly recommended. I also read another backlist title by Hilary Mantel that has stuck with me -- Beyond Black.

Favorites from the near past that are new to me include Mating by Norman Rush and Transmission by Hari Kunzru and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I re-read several old favorites with pleasure again, most of which I've written about on this blog before. Straight Man by Richard Russo gave me a new appreciation for the comic novel. My previous memory of it was of how funny it was, but now I remember it as much more than that.

Lastly, as always, the best part of reading is finally getting around to "classic" books that are new to me. I'll include The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow here for lack of a better place to shelve it. (Author deceased but the copyright not yet lapsed. I guess I could call it backlist, but not recent.) The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain still has me cracking up and amazed at his talent. Peter Pan might be my new favorite book. I was genuinely surprised at its thematic and emotional complexity, and I'm surprised it's not read more. I found The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad by confusing it with The Secret Sharer, to my good fortune.)

I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It doesn't make me excited and it doesn't make me angry. I certainly don't resent the attention it's getting. If you benchmark the favorable reviews it has gotten at 100, I guess I would give it a 95. I would say it's overrated, but not by so much that it's worth fighting over. One way I think about it is that I consider it to have a similar ambition and scope as The World According To Garp, which I read for the first time about 20 years ago and re-read for about the 6th time this year. I don't see myself re-reading Freedom and having it stick with me the same way.

I read a lot of dogs this year, too -- books whose praise I don't understand, books that seemed pretty good when I read them and now can't remember a single image from, books that I can't understand why were ever published. But I won't beat up on those in public. I will say that there are two major authors that over the years I have tried and tried and tried to get into but that I am now giving myself permission to at least hold in lower regard than the conventional wisdom and maybe to give up on entirely. They are Charles Dickens and Henry James. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it.

Not on the list is any complete book of poetry. That's a change from past years, though I did read some in doses smaller than a book. I read a ton of short stories this year, so my list got gypped more than usual on that point.

Well, that leaves about another 40 books that I haven't mentioned that just kind of came and went. Pretty good books that I enjoyed reading but that I don't see myself recommending, returning to, recommending against or arguing about. That's kind of how reading goes, I think. We're lucky to find two really really good books in a year. Jacob de Zoet and Wolf Hall. Go out and get them.

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