In 2016, the world stubbornly refused to end. In light of this fact (something else that hasn’t gone away), I’m going to need something to read while waiting for the End of Days (re-scheduled for 20th January, apparently).
Last year my book-reading ceased, at least outside of holiday time, thanks in part to a joyful re-discovery of poetry when on the Tube (esp. Pound, Eliot and Plath). So to have read anything at all feels like an achievement, let alone finishing a book each week. Handfuls of dust all round!
Including research and excluding abortive reads, I averaged a book a week this year. Stripping out non-fiction leaves 45 titles (starred out of 5), which I’ve included at the end of this article.
So far, so good. But I have less to celebrate when it comes to quality. In recent years I have taken something of a box-ticking approach to great authors, reading the same author more than once only in exceptional cases. For instance, where a writer is possessed of a singular talent and has produced only several famous works, as in the cases of Orwell, Baldwin, Huxley, and Kafka. Alternatively, I may revisit authors of series if the first entry was sufficiently memorable; Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy falls into this category, and I have the second of Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series ready to go.
This year I have tried – in fact, only just begun – to read a more diverse range of authors. I have read authors from China, Egypt and Japan among other places, but nobody from, for instance, South America, the Antipodes, Russia, or Africa. Fewer than one in five of those books were written by women. I realise that there is always a risk of ‘diversity’ collapsing into tokenism, but I also think that the racial, ethnic and gender imbalance of my current reading – effectively chosen ‘blind’ – says it all. Without a conscious and deliberate effort, a more diverse authorship will remain a noble intention in 2017 (this might help).
Another confession: I have leaned towards shorter reads to hit my book-a-week average (hello, ‘Turn of the Screw’; goodbye, ‘The Bostonians’). In order to assess the harm caused by this unintended gamification, we need to look at the ‘opportunity cost’ by identifying only the more nutritious, substantive books which I overlooked and which I was also serious about finishing in the first place.
That leaves me with the following full-fat ‘must-reads’ by authors I’ve not read previously:
– ‘Conversation in the Cathedral’ by Mario Vargas Llosa – There are probably other South American writers, and writers on the same theme, that I could read first.
– ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories’ – This seems more like something to dip into from time to time, like pickled onions (and with as many layers).
– ‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu – I feel like I need to know I’m holding the ‘best’ translated version to start with.
In sum, while I want more toothsome tomes in 2017, I don’t regret that it’s been a pretty slim year.
Related to the issues of authorial background and book length are some other concerns I have with the general variety of my reading this year. For example, in contrast with previous years, I only read one book that was written before 1800 (on the credit side of this ledger, I have used literary prizes including the Man Booker to consume more ‘contemporary’ fiction). Certain genres were distinctly underrepresented in my reading: science-fiction (two); action/thriller (erm…); and horror (no more than three). Lastly, my non-fiction has been woefully specialised, consisting almost entirely of modern histories of Afghanistan (research for my novel).
I don’t particularly wish to add to the chorus of banshees wailing out 2016. So, on a brighter note, I have managed to: read a lot, including some worldview-changing writers; briefly review every book I read; resist the temptation to retreat, on the whole; and, crucially, to reflect on my reading enough to still be unsatisfied with the sum of these achievements.
Looking ahead, here are my reading resolutions for 2017:
1) To read several authors from each of the seven continents.
2) To read at least one non-fiction book (including biographies, science, history, philosophy, travel, and the arts) for every four works of fiction.
3) To read at least ten books written before 1800.
4) To read no more than one short book each month.
5) To read at least one book by a female author each month.
6) To read the finest that each of these genres of fiction have to offer.
Already, I am a little daunted by this list. I’m going to have to be a lot more organised about my reading this year, in terms of forward planning and having to adapt to external demands (e.g. my book club’s picks). However, if 2016 has taught me anything, it’s the powerlessness of empty chatter.
Also that Katherine Mansfield has more in common with pickled onions than you might think.
What I read in 2016:
‘The Incantations’ by Susan Barker *
‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy **
‘The Magician of Lublin’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer **
‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe **
‘Vintage Munro: Nobel Prize Edition’ by Alice Munro **
‘Molloy’ by Samuel Beckett **
‘The Turn of the Screw and other stories’ by Henry James **
‘Crash’ by J. G. Ballard ***
‘Snow Country’ by Yasunari Kawabata ***
‘Beware of Pity’ by Stefan Zweig ***
‘The Bloody Chamber and other stories’ by Angela Carter ***
‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami ***
‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami ***
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver ***
‘The Sea’ by John Banville ***
‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien ***
‘The Sell-out’ by Paul Beatty ***
‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay ***
‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh ***
‘The Man in the High Castle’ by Philip K. Dick ***
‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras ***
‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst ***
‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ***
‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino ***
‘The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe ***
‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories’ by Ernest Hemingway ***
‘Boule de Suif and other stories’ by Guy de Maupassant ***
‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell ****
‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin ****
‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin ****
‘Miramar’ by Naguib Mahfouz ****
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ by Truman Capote ****
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark ****
‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ by Jaroslav Hasek ****
‘The South’ by Colm Toibin ****
‘Flashman’ by George MacDonald Fraser ****
‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ by Chester Himes ****
‘Island’ by Aldous Huxley ****
‘Rabbit, Run’ by John Updike ****
‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates ****
‘The Call of Cthulhu and other stories’ by H. P. Lovecraft ****
‘Paris Spleen’ by Charles Baudelaire ****
‘La Pere Goriot’ by Honore de Balzac *****
‘Gormenghast’ by Mervyn Peake *****