in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Book ends

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“…feeling of humiliation is simply the feeling of being an object. Once this is grasped, it can become the basis of an aggressive lucidity thanks to which the critique of the organization of life can no longer be detached from the immediate inception of the project of living otherwise.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Each time I find myself falling into the kind of doubt brought about by being too much in my own head, luckily, last-minute spontaneity (is there any other kind than last minute, though?) propels me back into a world full of people and noise. With absolutely no plan I dashed away for all of 24 hours, door-to-door, even though I had only just come home, had only just done the long drive from the airport, had only just settled in to enjoy half of the Midsommar weekend before returning to work from a too-short vacation. Unsettled by a strange melancholy, though, when a sudden opportunity arose, I jumped at it, and off I flew off to a former stomping ground for an event that served as a kind of an end of endings.

But my god how tired I am now. Do I feel more settled? No. Perhaps, though, more determined. I can’t easily explain this. What kind of determination?

Between reading just about everything Naomi Klein ever wrote (these books make me so angry), I found my “quick-read break” in Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Not that it was a breezy book, but it was further evidence (all thoughtful memoirs seem to provide this) that humans are cruel; humans are resilient; human individuals are beset and defined by tremendous fear and doubt; human individuals do not love themselves much but may come to love themselves, piece by piece, against all odds, only through some miraculous maneuvering, experience and remarkable perseverance.

And it seems, at least in a world where we have too much time to luxuriate in the suffering of our own misery and self-reflection, these experiences and doubts are fundamentally universal. How many of us have gone into some kind of self-imposed exile, real or within our own bodies or minds? How many of us have self-medicated pain away in a thousand different ways? How many of us have indeed desperately wanted to curry favor with some other person, or god forbid, make them love us, losing or never knowing ourselves or our desires, by submitting to whatever they want – or even what we think they want?

I don’t know that this strange combination of need-to-hide but need-to-please ever completely leaves; it shifts and is not the primary driver of one’s behavior. It does not get one into as much trouble. Less patience and tolerance for the whims, fantasies and projections of others, yes. Pushing back and asserting boundaries, yes. Finding healthier management mechanisms, maybe. But complete immunity? I don’t think it exists. Is this process, though, what I mean by ‘determination’?

Photo by Matt Alaniz on Unsplash