My Year in Reading: 2016

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Welcome to Year 4 of my Reflection on My Bookish Year!

arnimelizabethandhergermangardenarnimthepastorswifestrongpoisonI started doing this back in 2012 for a mixed bag of reasons (a lot of them having to do with just wanting to participate with the fabulous work the wider book community does on reflections like this!), but I’ve kept doing them because I’ve realized that I learn a lot about myself through this exercise. The books that I’ve loved/hated/thrown away upon the bonfire of forgetting that particular year tell me who I was and how I was feeling, or what I was trying to do or be over the course of the year. I’m able to put together patterns that reveal far more than I’d be willing to admit to myself otherwise. In a period of my life where I’m going through a lot of change, this feels like something to grab on to and pause to look behind, something that ensures that all the work of that change won’t go unnoticed.

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As a general rule, I wanted to be kinder to myself about my book needs this year. Stories flew about on “book therapists” this year and I kind of indulged that concept for myself as much as I possibly could. I am proud to say that for almost all of my books I read this year the words “should” or “have to” did not appear in my decisionmaking process to read them. I read what I felt this year, which makes my choices even more honestly revealing. I can tell I started just like I wanted to in my resolutions from last year- by continuing my trend getting back into science-fiction and fantasy and catching up on everything I missed while insanely busy the year before. I then continued to allow myself to read what I wanted by allowing myself to explore and love a genre that came back to me this year for the first time since Nancy Drew in the third grade: my love of mysteries, which popped up repeatedly throughout the year from early spring through fall. Longer, more dense histories and biographies were scattered more sparsely this year, since I was brave enough to admit a lack of interest in so many things ostensibly on my list- but they made a comeback in the fall when I was finally ready and eager for more- I’m currently on a streak of reading three biographies in a row. I went too far with my indulgence a couple of times and read things that I really should have known better than to even touch, because sometimes fun isn’t what book marketers insist on repeatedly telling me it is, and I need to remember the lessons I’ve learned there. Yes, fun in reading, but very carefully defined me fun, which for me still has to include certain standards and a lack of insane-making statements in order to be actually pleasurable. I closed out the year having re-learned that lesson, returning to literary fiction, histories, and a series of comfortable books about small places, another trend of reading that’s been surprisingly pleasing to me this year. Finally, I allowed myself to let go of my preconceptions about scare-quoted “self-help” and read several books about vulnerability, shame and the neuroscience of why our brains do things we would prefer they didn’t.

Actually, this year in general has been about healing for me. Starting to heal past wounds, starting to let go of things, to accept myself, and be increasingly honest, both with others and with myself. I felt like I spent this year starting a journey to discover what it is that interests me and why all over again, with that new self-awareness of my needs and priorities in tow. My reading has reflected that each step of the way, and moreover, has been a hugely necessary help in order for that work to continue. I was extraordinarily lucky to have a store of books on my to-read list, and even new books I’d never heard of before, pop up to guide me.

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One trend over the last few years that I’ve noticed is that I have been lucky enough to discover at least one new author a year who is transformative for me. In 2012 and 2013 I was in the grip of Tolstoy and Proust. In 2014 it was Amy Sackville, Siri Hustvedt and Gillian Flynn, sharp-edged women with things to say and stunning ways of saying it, who showed me the most about myself. In 2015 I had the wild good fortune to discover the double whammy of  Tana French and Elena Ferrante, whose wild imaginations, fierce minds and unflinching stares make me gasp and cry, and enabled me to deal with so much I couldn’t before. In 2016, I had the blind luck to find the almost-forgotten Elizabeth von Arnim when I picked up an 1899 copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden at a used book sale over the summer. She has since become a personal hero to me, and I intend to make my way through the entirety of her public-domain canon over the next couple of years. I want to knock on wood even noticing this really blessed trend I’ve had but I had to say something because I don’t that I would have been able to awake to the world in the way that I have without them. I feel like I see better, understand more about myself and am able to move forward because of the things they’ve pulled out of me from the inside that I didn’t even know I knew- and the things they taught me I definitely never knew. Even if 2017 doesn’t bring me the same luck in discovering my next beloved author, I’ll have more than enough literary heroes to carry me through.

So, how’d I do on 2015’s resolutions? Bless you, me of exactly one year ago, you were pretty kind to me this year…. and I still pretty much kinda failed.

  1. Read 40 books? Check!
  2. Read more sci-fi? Nope! I stayed pretty solidly in my fantasy homeland.
  3. Read more classics? Nope again! I read plenty of history, but that’s not quite the same thing.
  4. Authors in translation? A few, not as many as I likely should have. But still, check!
  5. Read poetry? I actually did this one this year! I read some Shelley here and there, and some Mary Oliver.
  6. Write a review once a week? Definite hard nope. I did okay with meeting this goal through about March and then it went steep downhill after that.

sebaldemigrantsCrazy-Rich-Asians_0mrfoxburialritesThis increases my impressions from last year that resolutions are mostly useless in a practical way, but sure, I’ll make some for 2017. If nothing else, they show a record of what I wanted right now, what goals seemed useful for me at this particular moment in time. I’d be interested to continue to record my changes, so here they are:

  1. Read at least 45 books. Let’s raise the low bar I’ve been easily clearing the last few years! Why not? I still maintain that quantity sucks as a general principle, but this seems like a more accurate reflection of what I read, whether I’m counting or not, and at least useful as a general reminder to switch from binge-watching to binge-reading as an escape mechanism. Tends to be at least slightly more healthy for me.
  2. Don’t read a SINGLE book that I feel like I “have” to read. Don’t sign up to review books I’m not into, don’t read classics that I promised myself years ago to pursue for the sake of it, don’t read books just because I’ve had them on my shelf for awhile, no no no. Read books because I want to.
  3. Abandon books sooner that I don’t like. I think it’s time to admit that I pretty much think I have a good handle on what a book’s going to be like after about fifty pages or so. Beyond that we’re just marking time- so why waste it?
  4. Continue to seek out books that heal me- but also books that challenge me. I think I don’t do this enough. Now that I have gathered strength this year I’m ready to take some steps outward and push myself again.
  5. Write more about my reading. I won’t hold myself to the once a week goal because clearly *that* didn’t work out, but I need to keep myself in practice with writing about my reading somewhat regularly. I always regret it when I take extended time away and how long it takes me to get back to where I was before. If I’m going to keep writing, I need to keep my hand in more frequently to produce writing I actually like.
  6. Read at least four books in at least one of these genres: sci-fi (why not, let’s try again!), current affairs and politics, authors in translation or poetry. Adding a new genre each year seems to be working out for me.

So there we go- non-time specific goals, vague enough for me to check them all off if I want to next year! I think I’ve set myself up for some great book success in 2017.

Thanks to all the books that got me through 2016. Happy Reading in 2017, all!