After Trump was elected, I made it a goal to spend more time reading books, as an escape from the ephemeral headlines that were zapping my brain and frying my soul. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 I read at a pace of a book a week.
This year I signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House, to write my own actual book! But when it came to reading books, I didn’t do much of what I intended.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Wow, No, Thank you, Samantha Irby
The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, Audre Lorde
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith
Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
Someone Who Will Love You In All You Damaged Glory, Raphael Bob Waksberg
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold?, C. Pam Zhang
Started but Didn’t Finish: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know, such a classic. I just got too distracted. The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. I am a great admirer of that late journalist, and he signed Stiles’ copy of it, but neither of us had gotten around to reading the book. I made it about halfway through but lost interest. The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which the poet/artist Maggie Smith cited as an inspiration for her work. I don’t know if it was the translation from French or the lack of a structure but I just could not get through it.
Picking ‘Em: I had been prioritizing works by women and people of color, but this year I just read anything I was reviewing for work, books my friends recommended, or art by artists I already like. For example, the end of Bojack Horseman swelled and broke my heart, so I had to read its creator’s short story collection. In the fall I reconnected with Matt Weiner, a hypersmart dude who wrote Mad Men, so a couple of the books at the end of my year were from his recommendations.
Books by Author Gender
Books by Classification
I still read on my Kindle, and got a second one this year because I misplace my Kindle so much. Recall from my previous years’ posts that I read the most on planes. This year I spent less time on planes than I have since I was maybe 18 years old. So that evaporated my dedicated book reading time. I still love it, though, and just need to be more disciplined about reading at home.
Now that 2019 is over, it’s time for my annual look back at my year in books. Man, there was so much great new fiction and nonfiction this year, and many titles remain on my “to read” list, which have rolled over to 2020. My favorites represent a mix of 2019-released books and modern classics. I struggled to prune it to ten, because I loved SO MUCH of what I read:
Book I Did NOT Like: The New Me, by Halle Butler, even though this was well-reviewed by critics. I think it was too nihilistic for me.
I didn’t have any new reading objectives this year. I tried to keep 52 books, stay committed to my book club and keep prioritizing works by women and people of color.
Picking ‘Em: Generally, I pick books by simply reading authors I already like, i.e. Roth, Jamison and Shteyngart. I also read books that publicists send me* that look different or interesting — this year, a poetry book on surveillance, Swedish lit and a lovely graphic novel by my friend Malaka. The bulk of my reading list represents recommendations from friends. It felt like a fiction-heavy year, but the data surprised me.
I spent a month in a sling and a lot of that month proned out after my shoulder injury, so that led to a burst in reading time. I also read a lot on planes, so when I was on planes more, I seemed to enjoy more reading.
I still read on my Kindle, to which I really need to attach a tracking device, because I turn places upside down looking for my Kindle WAAAAY too much. As a regular habit, I try to read a chapter or a unit (story, essay etc) in a collection of a book when I first wake up in the morning, instead of first checking my phone upon waking. I binge-read a lot on planes (when I’m not watching terrible movies), in cabs and while getting pedicures.
Credit to Nicole Zhu, a friend and fellow book-lover who inspired me to start the 52/52 challenge a few years ago. We finally hung out, in Atlanta in August, and spent hours talking about books we read! A dream. And big thanks to my perpetually grumpy-yet-weirdly-generous spouse, Matty, who made this post’s dynamic charts in Python this year, a first for him. The code behind this is available, so you can do this with YOUR reading data. too.
*This is a perk of being an NPR journalist/host. Free, new books get mailed to you all the time by publicists.
I committed to reading more books instead of periodicals in the haze following the 2016 election. It began as escapism and now, a couple years into it, I think it’s actually helped me grow as a thinker/feeler/human stumbling through life. As Matt Haig wrote, “The process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea.”
This year, I liked most everything I read, which included a heavy dose of contemporary fiction and more science fiction tales and genre romance than before. I continued to select non-white and/or non-male authors, which paid off. My book club kept things in balance with random nonfiction picks, like the Patagonia founder’s business book-slash-memoir, which really affected the way I think about consumption. Now I buy so much less crap!
I also got back to reading classics from giants — Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. I had to read them in school but appreciate them much more as a grown-up.
Here’s how this year’s book reading breaks down:
This year’s timeline shows I pretty evenly distributed my reading, though there was a big gap in which I read no non-fiction. Last year’s timeline was more interesting because I had a baby and that affected things.
I am deliberate in choosing more fiction than non-fiction, generally.
To chart “pages by month,” we used the page sum of all books finished in a month. (I don’t have a count of daily pages I’ve read, so this should really be called “Total-number-of-pages-in-a-book-by-month-finished.”) Note that June was when the Trump-Kim Singapore summit happened and my life was held together by duct tape and gum. It shows in the leisure reading completion.
These subgenres are sort of arbitrary, they are just what the Goodreads crowd classifies the books as, following the fiction or non-fiction categorization.
On Choosing Books
I still continually quiz people for recommendations but settled on a few people I really trust for recs, based on what they recommended before, or what they themselves have written. For example, last year I liked Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friendsso much that when she wrote a positive review of An American Marriage, I made it a priority. Ditto the author Celeste Ng, who alerted me to Rich and Pretty.
I also trust Japan analyst Tobias Harris, who reads prolifically about subjects besides Japan. When he was in Seoul earlier this year, I asked him to tell me the best new books of 2017 he read and he chose Exit West and Pachinko, which became two of the best books I read in 2018.
1 Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
2 Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew Bose
3 Deception, Philip Roth
4 Chemistry, Weike Wang
5 Outline, Rachel Cusk
6 Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
7 The Boat, Nam Le
8 Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
9 Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
10 Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
11 Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
12 Sam the Cat, Matthew Klam
13 Goodbye Vitamin, Rachel Khoung
14 Hunger, Roxane Gay
15 Emergency Contact, Mary H.K. Choi
16 Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro
17 The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer
18 The Paper Menagerie (And Other Stories), Ken Liu
19 You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld
20 The Man of My Dreams, Curtis Sittenfeld
21 Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
22 How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee
23 Tin Man, Sarah Winman
24 Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed
25 Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard
26 An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
27 My Last Love Story, Falguni Kothari
28 Pachinko, Min Jun Lee
29 Three Body Problem, Cixin Lou
30 Exit West, Moshin Hamid
31 How to Fix A Broken Heart, Guy Winch
32 How Toddlers Thrive, Tovah Klein
33 The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong
34 The Hike, Drew Magary
35 Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
36 Rich and Pretty, Rumaan Alam
37 Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
38 The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
39 I Want To Show You More, Jamie Quattro
40 Forget Having It All, Amy Westervelt
41 The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly
42 Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday
43 Farsighted, Steve Johnson
44 Norwegian Wood, Haruki Marukami
45 Severance, Ling Ma
46 Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
47 The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
48 The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
49 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
50 New People, Danzy Senna
51 Us vs Them, Ian Bremmer
52 The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang
53 Crudo, A Novel, Olivia Laing
54 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari
“This is such a nerdy post I do,” I said. “You don’t actually DO any of it,” spouse Stiles clapped back, since he does all the data clean-up/analysis/visualizing for me. (Thanks, dude.)
It turns out we can read 200 books a year in the amount of time we spend on social media, but this would require me ending my Twitter addiction and I have given up enough vices in my life, thank you very much.
I suppose it was fortuitous that the year I decided to read 52 books was also a year the news was an epic dumpster fire. I needed the escape from reading news alerts.
But reading MORE than I already do was tricky, when a huge chunk of my job is simply reading, writing, and then reading out loud. But Friend Nicole Zhu, who inspired me to do this challenge, made a convincing case:
“Even for people who already read 109312 tweets and articles every day, reading books builds a different set of habits and has its own set of rewards. You learn so much more without the distraction of notifications or the temptation to Pocket or bookmark something to read later.”
Hated: Hausfrau. I HAAAAAATED this book. So annoying that it indirectly made me annoyed with Switzerland.
Breakdown of What I Read:
Before my data journalist spouse Stiles would dataviz my reading for me, he asked me to list some hypotheses that the visualizations would either prove or disprove.
My hypotheses: I read a lot of women authors, mostly fiction, many memoirs and I feel like I read a lot more in the first months of the year than the final months. Here’s what the data show…
Damn, I was surprised to see how many books I polished off before or in the same month Baby Luna was born. Being unable to drink and not staying out late in the lead up to Luna really gave me a lot of extra reading time. After I got back to my usual shenanigans, my book reading really slowed down.
How I Read ‘Em
I read the same way I work, which is in intervals. (Sometimes I will work my ass off for a week and never sleep and party every night and then fly home, lose my voice, become practically catatonic and move no farther than to the fridge and back.) So when I read books I’ll often read in bursts of intensity, devouring a few in a few days and then take a month to finish the next one.
I watched a lot less television (but managed to make time for Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies and am glad for it).
I read in transit and in “in between” moments. I read on planes a lot. I read at bus stops and on the bus. In the back of cabs. In waiting rooms, restaurants while waiting on friends, at home as procrastination from work.
I switched my habit of reading periodicals before bed (namely, New York Magazine from back to front because the Approval Matrix is on the back page) to reading books before bed, instead.
Will try to read a lot this year but I don’t anticipate fitting in 52. Leave a comment here (or elsewhere) if you have recommendations!