Learning that a friend read over 200 books last year compelled me to reevaluate my reading habits. A voracious reader as a child, I had let various distractions take priority over my time, even though reading continued to bring me joy and satisfaction. I read maybe five books in 2014, and I found that unacceptable. So I set a goal: 30 books in 2015 and hopefully knock out a handful of those classics I never got around to. This decision has been very gratifying.
An asterisk indicates that I listened to an audio recording of the work. I recognize that listening is not the same as reading, but my goal was to absorb great literature in the place of podcasts and other brain candy. There are certain writers and works I have avoided reading for whatever reason, and listening to audiobooks is certainly preferable to a dramatization or not reading altogether.
The following are listed in the order in which I finished them.
1. *The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
After several years of knowing I should read Hemingway but not actually bringing myself to read Hemingway, I decided to just get it over with by listening to an audiobook version of this novel. I enjoyed the hell out of it and will happily consume my next Hemingway novel with my eyes.
2. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I began this book in the fall of the previous year and finished it in January. I wrote about it here.
tl;dr Too long. Don’t read.
3. Hamlet, Shakey
I reread this play as a follow-up to Infinite Jest. It is always striking to see just how many phrases and quotes that we take for granted are packed into this, and many other, Shakespeare plays. While reading this one I decided to read a Shakespeare play a month for good health.
4. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
I loved Bryson’s books on the English language (especially Made In America and The Mother Tongue), so I was really jazzed to get into this travelogue. Turns out, as inferred from his self-reported interpersonal interactions, he’s kind of a prick.
5. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-5, and Fahrenheit 451 make up the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate. I did not expect the war novel Catch-22 to be as funny, playful, and engaging as it is. I see what all the hype is about, and I dig it.
6. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
This novella had me crying by the second page. There is little to say about the classics that doesn’t sound trite and unoriginal. Every sentence of Of Mice and Men is necessary and gorgeous.
7. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The film captured the tone, rhythm, plot—everything but the English accents. I enjoy the ego boost of a music snob liking some of my favorite music; I shouldn’t.
8. Much Ado About Nothing, The Shakester
No modern movie rom-com comes close to the hijinks and goofiness in Shakespeare’s comedies. Reading this play helped me get a LearnedLeague answer, and much of Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More” comes from the final act.
9. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez wrote this novel after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s like, leave some literary genius for the rest of us, Gabe!
10. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
This book opened my eyes to the world when I first read it a few years ago. I reread it this year as a refresher and so I could more confidently defend the Harry Potter series as the great mythology of my generation.
11. A Kid’s Matinee, Joseph Britt
This compelling story of YA fiction is due to hit bookshelves any day. Buy a copy for your tween. It’ll grow hair on his knuckles.
12. Richard III, Shakeman
Gilmore Girls references this play more than any other, so after my TV binging I knew it was high time to read it. Holy smokes, this is a good one. My reading happily coincided with the reinterment of the King’s bones, so I could take a greater interest in the most interesting archaeological find of recent years.
13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
I am not familiar with the Disney movie, so I didn’t have any unreasonable expectations of happiness for this book. Nevertheless it is bleak. Exciting, beautiful, wonderful, but bleak.
14. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
This book makes me want to evangelize to the people: Read it! Absorb its lessons! Write your Congressperson! Also, it is nothing but traffic talk, so reading it has the effect on your nerves of sitting in traffic. Worth reading regardless.
15. What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland
I’ve been meaning to read this book since I bought it as a gift for someone who never read it 10+ years ago. It is best read as a companion to the pieces discussed, which is not how I read it.
16. Julius Caesar, The Shakinator
I had not remembered just how much action occurs after fall Caesar. Very exciting play where 87% of the characters have names beginning with “C.”
17. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende moves through several generations of families, with names and old mistakes repeated. The handful of Latin American or Spanish novels I have read share similar themes in the style of magical realism. Thinking about this further, I realized that I absolutely think about the Latin side of my family in terms of generations repeating patterns and the influences each makes on the next generation’s life. There must be something in the water.
18. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, Lars Brownworth
I read this history of the Byzantine Empire both to prepare for a LearnedLeague quiz (I got 8/12) and because I’ve always wanted to know more about it. Western centrism lets us ignore the fact that the Roman Empire lasted for another thousand years in the East, and it was a pretty interesting millennium.
19. Othello, Shakenbake
Will doesn’t hold back when it comes to the racial insults, though I’m sure those included are tame for the time and of course they are necessary to the disposition of the characters. This play beautifully imparts the universal emotions of love, jealousy, sadness, and anger; it breaks my heart.
20. Notes From a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoevsky
I snap up every Dostoevsky I come across translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the fabulous duo that is not afraid to deviate from long-accepted title translations. I was a little disappointed that this book really is a collection of notes, rather than a true narrative. It is, nonetheless, often gripping, poetic, and illuminating.
21. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Classics of a certain stature (especially the ones many people read in school) usually have their most distinctive scenes become common cultural knowledge. I know how Anna Karenina ends; I know Leo Bloom’s wife steps out. I was not expecting the final image of this book one bit. Also: what a fantastic novel.
22. Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, Adam Resnik
I had high hopes for this collection of humorous essays, but the author’s overwhelming cynicism and misanthropy did not entertain me.
23. We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ long and prolific career has touched many generations, and I’m proud to be part of the new wave that got into her through her Twitter account. #Millennial This story of a family unit that crumbled to pieces crumbled me to pieces.
24. The Martian, Andy Weir
The Martian bandwagon was definitely worth jumping on. This quick read has just enough science to be believable, but not so much that galoots like myself get bored or bogged down. The movie version is fun, but loses the sense of individual struggle that is the heart of the novel. The globe unites to bring him home, but he survived months of Mars’s desolation completely alone.
25. Twelfth Night, Slick Willy
I have observed that many men think homosexuality is very funny, especially when a guy is tricked into feelings for another man. This is exploited in cases where a man is attracted to a man he thinks is a woman (see: Some Like It Hot, White Chicks, Tootsie) and where a man is doesn’t understand why he is attracted to a woman he thinks is a man (see: Twelfth Night, She’s The Man).
26. Success Through Stillness, Russell Simmons
All meditation books are the same: 98% explaining why you should meditate, medical/health/happiness benefits of meditating, meditation success stories, etc; 2% how to meditate. (This is because meditation is very simple and can be done without the help of books NOTE TO SELF.) Simmons really wants you to know about all the drugs he’s done, women he’s chased, and money he’s earned, which is not the usual spiel of enlightened teachers. Of course, he can speak to an entirely difference audience, not just folks who are already crunching it up at yoga and sipping on home-brewed kombucha.
27. Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
I picked up this history of the Habsburg family after hearing their name peppered across centuries of history lessons. Winder’s approach to their story is delightful. I would have appreciated it more if I had a better working knowledge of European history—a a goal Danubia inspired me to pursue.
28. Dubliners, James Joyce
These stories are so simple but rich in character and emotion. As each story ends I’m sure something has transformed, but I can’t put my finger on what.
29. *The Iliad, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
It’s kind of hard to sympathize with Achilles and Agamemnon’s beef. They cannot stop whining about who gets to keep a sex slave for himself—not relatable. Clearly Achilles is in love with Patroclus, anyway.
30. Happy To Be Here, Garrison Keillor
Listening to A Prairie Home Companion with my family was a sweet part of my childhood. Reding the stories from Keillor’s prime felt like a cozy return.
31. Macbeth, The Bardman
To continue my series, So That’s What That Play Is About?, it does not take much at all to get Macbeth to murdering.
32. Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman
My brother gave me this almanac of fake trivia several years ago and started me on a path of wonder and joy that is John Hodgman. Hodgman is the kind of humorist I most admire, relate to, and aspire to be. Well-educated, but not pedantic; clever, but not mean; proper but not prudish.
33. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
Read on Judge John Hodgman’s orders, I devoured this book like nothing else this year. Graves breathes life, with all its dreams, failures, and murderous relatives, into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. I, Claudius was published in 1934, and every piece of historical fiction written in the last 80 years has only tried to match its greatness.
34. More Information Than You Require, John Hodgman
The second in Hodgman’s trilogy of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, we get to see his transformation from a former literary agent into a minor television personality. Also useful as a page-a-day calendar. Note: I was Hodgman-heavy during this part of the year in preparation for seeing him perform live. He’s the best.
35. *The Odyssey, Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse)
Contrary to the impression given by the dramatizations I’ve seen, the adventures of Odysseus take a small part of the total poem. I love the characterization of Penelope. It is lovely to see a foundational work of Western civilization portray women as strong, wise, and level-headed.
36. The Tempest, William Shakespeare
A wonderful play that I would very much like to see performed. Somewhere along the line I learned that the words “Caribbean,” “cannibal,” and “caliban” are all etymologically related, which is just interesting.
37. The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
The most exciting part of this book happens before the narrative begins. The rest is paperback-poor dialog, unsympathetic characters, and unnecessary action. Maybe the TV series is better.
38. Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
The telepathic gorilla is something I never quite got over, but I appreciate the message. I was genuinely surprised by some of the positions advocated. The message does not follow the save-the-world party line, which was interesting and provoking.
39. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
What Birdman did with unbroken continuity in film. Mrs. Dalloway did first. Like Dostoevsky, Woolf is one of the few authors who can capture the erratic, insecure, fluid nature of human thought. Perhaps that is revealing of my personal stream of consciousness, but I see great truth in her characters’ inner monologues. (For reference, I think Hal’s “stream of consciousness” toward the end of Infinite Jest is god-awful.)
40. Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
There is an interesting contrast between post-Office Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy and superstar Why Not Me? Mindy. Both Mindys make me laugh hysterically, but I’m afraid Mindy’s officially gone Hollywood. To be fair, she covered much of her pre-star life in the first book, so this one had to present the world as she lives it. Please keep writing, Mindy. I love you.
41. As You Like It, Big Boy Bill
The titles of Shakespeare’s comedies are often so vague it’s infuriating. Lots of silly name-changing and gender-bending in this one, but very enjoyable.
42. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth
I am so grateful to the friend that recommended The Etymologicon to me. One of the great blessings of my life is to be a native speaker of English, and this book brings out dozens of the wonderful, colorful, meaningful relationships and associations shared by English words and phrases. Truly a delight.
43. The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies
The final installment in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus seems to have more plot lines and characters than necessary. Nevertheless, the novel wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, with a full measure of Davies’ unfailing wisdom and mirth.
44. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The second of the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate, I am alarmed by how similar this dystopian America is to present America. The dream of constant entertainment is more feasible than ever, and the dumbing down of art is rampant. I can also see how an angsty teenage boy could focus his identity on this novel.
45. King Lear, The Pride of Stratford
Lear and his selfish daughters break my heart. Also, how dare Gloucester name his sons Edgar and Edmund? As if I didn’t already need a family tree cheat sheet.
46. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
While Atlas Shrugged is certainly political, The Fountainhead is about the strength of the individual to honor the abilities and desires and truth within, instead of acting and thinking at the pleasure of other people. At its core, The Fountainhead echoes the often misinterpreted exhortation of Joseph Campbell to Follow Your Bliss.
47. The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923, J.C. Beckett
Published in 1966, you better know your English history before going in because there will be no stopping to explain. This book focuses in painstaking detail on over three hundred years of Irish parliaments and political leaders. I learned a great deal about the politics of Ireland (which of course involves religious issues), but I will need to look elsewhere for its cultural history.
48. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (twice), James Joyce
There are only two books I have ever restarted the day I finished them: this and Notes from Underground. What they have in common: nontraditional structure that is only visible in hindsight, layers of meaning and symbolism that reward additional readings, very short.
49. *Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
After starting and stopping this behemoth a couple of times on paper, the audiobook helped me power through the more technical digressions without giving up entirely. I really do love Melville’s writing, and I am always pleasantly surprised by his humor. Writers like Melville make me proud to be an American.
50. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Coming in just before the deadline, I completed the Should Have Read In High School Word Plus Number Triumvirate with great success. Horrifying, darkly humorous, and educational in a variety of areas, Slaughterhouse-Five was more similar to Catch-22 than I actually expected. Where Heller communicated the incommunicable realities of war as absurdities, Vonnegut treats them as science fiction. Each effectively convey the psychological effects of war in ways gritty military tales and histories can fall short.
51. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
A tale perfectly told. Wharton’s prose conveys the desperation and despair of the poor who cannot afford to live out their dreams.
52. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This December, I was much more worried about the ending of this novel being spoiled than learning the twists of Star Wars. That The Awakening was published in 1899 is incredible; that Chopin could barely publish afterwards and that the novel was “rediscovered” in the 1960s is very believable. Between this one and Ethan Frome, I’ve learned that being heartsick in the late 19th century had one particularly drastic solution.
The five that I most enjoyed and am most likely to read again are Catch-22, The Etymologicon, Richard III, I, Claudius, and Mrs. Dalloway.
Reading more and watching less enriched my 2015. Only seven of the works on this list were written by women, and that is a bias I intend to work on in the coming year(s). My to-read list is long and ever-growing. On to the next one!