Friday, January 3, 2020

My Year of Reading: Every Book I Read in 2019


Three slashes, like a prisoner scratching the number of days in his prison cell; in my case, however, I was liberated by the one-hundred-and-eleven books I read in 2019. Not all of them were great, or even good; but the vast majority of the classic and contemporary literature I read was enough to tip the scales on the side of brilliant rather than blasé.

And how do I know exactly how many books I read over the course of the past year? Like many diehard readers, I obsessively track everything in a book log which I have kept since 2005, noting author, title, the number of pages, and—lately—indicating if it’s a library book or an audiobook. I also log everything into my Library Thing account as a way of keeping my shelves sane and orderly (though, with the Great Book Purge of 2019, I no longer own the bulk of that list; nonetheless, I’m not deleting anything on my LT page, partly out of sentimental reasons).

For the statisticians in the group, here’s a breakdown, by the numbers, of my decade of reading (with links back to some previous by-the-numbers blog posts:

2010:  54
2011:  55
2012:  56
2013:  81
2014:  105
2015:  114
2016:  130
2017:  119
2018:  93
2019:  111

The longest book on my 2019 reading log clocked in at 1,144 pages (The Complete Poems of e. e. cummings); the shortest were two children’s books by Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight, Moon and Little Fur Family) at 30 pages each. I didn’t read as many classic books as I’d hoped: only two on the list (three short novels by Gustave Flaubert and one long novel by Anthony Trollope) were published prior to 1900. Most of my reading this year was released in the twenty-first century. As someone who is especially fond of older books, that surprised me somewhat. I hope to do more literary time traveling in 2020.

You can see the picks for my favorite books published in 2019 here, but that only represents a small slice of the whole pie of my reading year.

[A Personal Interlude with some Big Breaking News: Things got kuh-razy busy for my wife Jean and me, starting in mid-summer and continuing until this very minute. After living in Butte, Montana for eleven years, we decided this 4,000-square-foot Craftsman house was just too big for these empty-nesters, so we put it on the market. I’ll spare you the details of all the ups and downs we suffered while riding the real estate rollercoaster—and I eventually stopped sharing the blow-by-blow account on Facebook because things never turned out the way we’d hoped—but at last I can pull the sheet off the Big Reveal: at 11 a.m. yesterday in the Year of Our Lord 2020 we signed the documents (for the fifth offer on the house!) at the title company, thus ending our mostly-happy era of living on Argyle Street. That afternoon, we signed a lease on an apartment (considerably less than 4,000-square feet, yo!) in Helena, an hour north along the interstate. One U-Haul, two days, and many sore muscles later, we are settling in to our fresh new life in a fresh new city.  I’ll still keep my day job with the federal government since my boss has graciously allowed me to telecommute, so little will change in that regard. As for the three cats...? Well, I’m sure they’ll be stressed at first, but Jean and I are pretty sure they’ll love the new place on the fourth floor of the apartment building since it has plenty of windows where they can watch “Bird TV.”]

Back to the books and my year of reading: Until I sold the bulk of my 10,000-volume collection this year (which you can read about here), I was keeping steady pace in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, James Mustich’s excellent list of must-reads. Once I no longer had the physical books in my hands, I stopped posting “1,000 Books photos” to social media; and, regrettably, I halted on my journey through Mr. Mustich’s book. I plan (resolve!) to re-embark on that voyage in this new year, starting with the E section of the book. I hope to make 1,000 Books posts a regular feature of this blog in the coming days. You can see me reading the Jennifer Egan entry (A Visit From the Goon Squad) in the photo above; Goon Squad was the last of the 1,000 Books books I read this year. That photo, taken yesterday morning, is also the last time I’ll be sitting in that breakfast nook in the Argyle Street house, seated at the table my son-in-law built for us many years ago. I will miss that table, that lamp, that cushioned bench seat. I have spent so many happy reading hours there, drenched in lamplight and sunlight. I’ll miss it, but I look forward to finding a new reading space in the Helena apartment.

Looking back over the list below, I note a number of good books I read for the first time, based on Mustich’s 1,000 Books recommendations, among them: Watership Down, Fun Home, The Outermost House, How Buildings Learn (perhaps the most delightfully-surprising one on the list because I didn’t expect to love a book about architecture as much as I did), The Worst Journey in the World, and Rebecca.

Were there disappointments along the way? Of course. No big, eclectic list like this could be all-perfect all-the-time. The ones that let me down included the following: Flaubert’s Parrot (just meh-kay for me), The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (probably knee-slapping funny when it was published in 1950, but not so much today), and My Family and Other Animals (maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time, but I found it less endearing and more tedious to get through).

I made it through a good chunk of my unread Stephen King shelf this year, prompted by the downsizing of the collection which brought these previously-unread early books of his bubbling to the surface. I read all the ones published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym (save for The Running Man, which I’ll get to soon in 2020), as well as the collection of short stories The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I also, regrettably, read Cycle of the Werewolf. It was terrible and I should have shot my copy with a silver bullet to put it out of our collective misery.

I also read a few really good books about dying, starting with Cory Taylor’s beautiful, intimate account of her last days on earth. Near the end of the year, I picked up Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal which gives good insight into how we treat the elderly and the dying. And, finally, I want to make special note of a book—a chapbook, really—which none of you have heard of: The Comfort Pathway by O. Alan Weltzien, which describes the final days of his mother and how the family gathered in her hospital room handles their individual and collective grief. I strongly urge you, in the loudest and most insistent of voices, to get a copy of The Comfort Pathway. It’s very short—less than 40 pages—but it will stay with you forever. As Weltzien writes in the opening pages: “I’ve always believed, and often taught, that when we try and write about the dead whom we loved, they come back in some ways and leave lasting traces. They don’t stay as far away.”

Other random highlights of the reading year:
*  Mary & Lou & Rhoda & Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong took me back to the nights I sat in front of the TV in the 1970s watching Mary Tyler Moore and the WJM-TV crew;
*  several of Alan Bradley’s Falvia de Luce mysteries put an infectious smile on my face as I drove the highways and byways of Montana listening to the audiobooks narrated by Jayne Entwistle;
*  I finally got around to reading one of Ann Patchett’s novels, State of Wonder, and boy was I blown away by her storytelling prowess;
*  ditto with Elizabeth Gilbert (City of Girls);
*  a dreamy week spent on the crew of Wim Wenders’ short film about Edward Hopper, shot here in Butte, led me to explore more books about the American artist (Wenders’ film was for a museum installation of Hopper’s works opening this month in Switzerland);
*  I did a deep dive into the works of Adam Braver and re-confirmed my opinion that he is simply one of our greatest contemporary writers who doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves; if you have never read one of his novels, I highly recommend you start with Misfit or November 22, 1963;
*  I don’t normally read self-help books, but You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero filled me with superpowers and helped give me confidence for this life-changing move to Helena;
*  and, finally, I ventured back into the works of Virginia Woolf and found she wasn’t as dreadful as I’d thought during my grad school days.

And now on to the list, which I’ve arranged in alphabetical by author’s last name, rather than in chronological reading order:

Adams, Richard: Watership Down
Alexievich, Svetlana: Voices From Chernobyl
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin: Mary & Lou & Rhoda & Ted
Atwood, Margaret: Cat’s Eye
Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid’s Tale
Baldwin, James: Notes of a Native Son
Barnes, Julian: Flaubert’s Parrot
Barnes, Kate: Where the Deer Were
Barrett, William E.: Lilies of the Field
Bashaw, Molly: The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It
Bechdel, Alison: Fun Home
Beckerman, Ilene: Love, Loss and What I Wore
Beston, Henry: The Outermost House
Blake, Sarah: The Guest Book
Bradley, Alan: A Red Herring Without Mustard
Bradley, Alan: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Bradley, Alan: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
Bradley, Ryan W.: The Memory of Planets
Brand, Stewart: How Buildings Learn
Braver, Adam: Crows Over the Wheatfield
Braver, Adam: Divine Sarah
Braver, Adam: November 22, 1963
Braver, Adam: The Disappeared
Braver, Adam: What the Women Do
Brown, Margaret Wise: Goodnight Moon
Brown, Margaret Wise: Little Fur Family
Brunhoff, Jean de: Babar and His Children
Burns, Charles: Sugar Skull
Carey, John: Eyewitness to History
Carr, J. L.: A Month in the Country
Chast, Roz: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Chauvet, Jean-Marie: Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave
Cherry-Garrard, Aspley: The Worst Journey in the World
Christie, Agatha: Ordeal by Innocence
Christie, Agatha: Thirteen at Dinner
Clarke, Brock: Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
Collins, Billy: Sailing Alone Around the Room
cummings, e. e.: Complete Poems
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Cuppy, Will: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
Dahl, Roald: Matilda
Delaney, Edward J.: The Big Impossible
Denby, David: Great Books
Desai, Anita: Clear Light of Day
Du Maurier, Daphne: Rebecca
Du Maurier, Daphne: The Apple Tree
Durrell, Gerald: My Family and Other Animals
Egan, Jennifer: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Farres, Ernest: Edward Hopper
Fish, Kathy: Wild Life: Collected Works
Flaubert, Gustave: Three Short Works
Fox, Wendy J.: If the Ice Had Held
French, Tana: The Witch Elm
Gaskell, Elizabeth: The Old Nurse’s Story
Gawande, Atul: Being Mortal
Gilbert, Elizabeth: City of Girls
Hall, Donald, editor: New Poets of England and America
Healy, Luke: How to Survive in the North
Hernandez, Gilbert: The Troublemakers
Hughes, Anita: Christmas in Vermont
Hughes, Dorothy B.: In a Lonely Place
Jason: Low Moon
Jason: What I Did
Kaminsky, Ilya: Deaf Republic
King, Stephen: Cycle of the Werewolf
King, Stephen: Rage
King, Stephen: Roadwork
King, Stephen: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
King, Stephen: The Long Walk
Klinger, Leslie S. and Lisa Morton, editors: Ghost Stories
Kusnetz, Ilyse: Angel Bones
MacLeod, Charlotte: Rest You Merry
Maizes, R. L.: We Love Anderson Cooper
Malden, R. H.: The Sundial
McCullough, David: The Pioneers
McMahon, Tyler: Kilometer 99
Michener, James: Hawaii
Nicolson, Nigel: Virginia Woolf
O’Brien, Tim: Dad’s Maybe Book
Obama, Barack: Dreams From My Father
Obama, Michelle: Becoming
Obreht, Tea: Inland
Olivas, Daniel: Crossing the Border
Oliver, Mary: Felicity
Olsen, Tillie: Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works
Olson, Justin: Earth to Charlie
Patchett, Ann: State of Wonder
Ray, Shann: Sweetclover
Reid, Taylor Jenkins: Daisy Jones and the Six
Rowland, Russell: Cold Country
Seth: Clyde Fans
Shapiro, Dani: Devotion
Shapiro, Dani: Inheritance
Sincero, Jen: You Are a Badass
Singleton, George: Staff Picks
Spawforth, Tony: Versailles: A Biography of a Palace
Strand, Mark: Hopper
Taylor, Cory: Dying
Taylor, Patrick: An Irish Country Christmas
Telgemeier, Raina: Guts
Tesdell, Diana Secker, editor: Christmas Stories
Trollope, Anthony: The Small House at Allington
Urza, Gabriel: The White Death: An Illusion
Weltzien, O. Alan: The Comfort Pathway
Wharton, Edith: The Age of Innocence
Wilder, Thornton: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Williams, Diane: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams
Woolf, Virginia: Jacob’s Room
Woolf, Virginia: Mrs. Dalloway
Zalkow, Yuvi: A Brilliant Novel in the Works
Zindell, Deborah T.: National Parks History of the WPA Poster Art

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