I’m now in my second year of prioritizing reading as an adult, and I don’t know how I let all those years before slip past. I used to have four or five TV shows in regular rotation, but I have spent the last three months just slowly rewatching Mad Men because TV isn’t as important to me. I recently (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) got a library card, so my reading is no longer hampered by costs (as if that stopped me before) and has expanded to serendipitous selections, rather than premeditated purchases. Once again I can justifiably define myself as a bookworm, and I’m happy to be back.
Of the 44 books I read this year, only one was an audiobook. I am also making my way through a One Year Bible, which gives a daily reading from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs (hence the misplaced Gospel). I won’t count these as whole “books,” so they get their own numbering system because I want to keep up with my thoughts on them.
1. 100 Best-Loved Poems, Philip Smith, editor
I use my phone as my alarm clock, so I literally wake up with my phone in my hand. This has resulted in the negative habit of looking at Twitter first thing in the morning. What a terrible start to the day! I wanted to change this at the same time that I realized that I rarely read poetry. I claim to enjoy poetry, and I read a lot of books, but I rarely sit down to a book of poetry. My plan to kill two birds with one stone was to read a poem every day as soon as I wake up. Certainly, I don’t always remember what I read, but I like starting my day with some nourishing brain food instead of bad jokes and worse news. This collection hits all the high points of the Western canon; easy on the sleepy eyes.
2. Ulysses, James Joyce
Much of my 2015 reading led up to Ulysses, and all the preparation was worth it. It is as good as [the people who have actually read it] say it is.
3. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
Wise Blood is like a nightmare that feels real and sticks in your gut even after you wake up. The characters in this novel struggle with seemingly every level of human consciousness: spiritual, faux spiritual, anti-spiritual, faux anti-spiritual, man reduced to artifact, man as animal, thinking man, impaired man, and certainly others. Even though I don’t quite speak the language, the message is powerful.
4. The 158-Pound Marriage, John Irving
This novel of intertwined wrestlers and relationships shines a light on the instability of a polyamorous lifestyle. Expecting the emotions of several individuals to line up without conflict is a pipe dream. You can tell that Irving is bursting at the seams with stories to tell. His novels are stories within stories about stories on top of stories.
5. Henry V, Billy S
While reading Henry V, the mood of the play felt heavy and solemn. I read somewhere that a high-profile mock trial found the titular King guilty of war crimes, which further colored my feelings toward the play. Then I saw a production of Henry V that framed it as essentially a comedy. I was impressed by the humor the actors brought out in both the goofy bit parts, and also the more serious schemers. I’m sure that other troupes could perform the play as a tragic piece. Ah! The majesty of The Theatre!
6. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth
Everything I know about the Nordic nations (which remains very little) I learned from this book. Booth takes the reader country by country (i.e., Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland) and discusses each nation’s history and culture–what they do well and what they do poorly. He also explores how they see themselves and each other, and how they fit into the present day. Booth is an informed outsider with a lovely sense of humor, so he makes ignorant Americans like myself feel right at home.
7. The Victim, Saul Bellow
The Victim feels like more than a novel. It feels like a play. Or like reading someone’s dream journal, specifically an entry describing a nightmare he had after reading The Trial.
8. The Comedy of Errors, Swan of Avon
The Comedy of Errors is another Shakespeare play I had the good fortune to see performed live soon after reading. There is no question this one is a comedy, and the actors certainly brought out more humor than I could deduce from the writing (which is flawless itself, obviously).
9. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I am very impressed by Robinson’s thoughtful, literary writing. In an age where religion often comes with hostile connotations, Gilead is a lovely example of the complexities and beauties of living with Christianity at the center of your world. I look forward to reading Robinson’s previous lauded novel, Housekeeping.
10. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
The Moviegoer is about two people who face death and then have to learn how to face life. Personally, I did not pick up on what I needed to understand while reading it. This novel is one I can imagine angsty teens relating to, but after reading about it I am more aware of what I missed out on.
11. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
On my to-read list for a long time, The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredible read. The Handmaid’s Tale fits into the rich adult literary tradition of 1984 and the later The Road with a focus on the experience of women–a point of view found more often in the Young Adult dystopian novels that are so common these days.
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
This was one of those that I enjoyed in high school, but couldn’t justify claiming to have read it since I didn’t remember a thing about it. The mixing and matching of names is hard to keep up with, so I used my index card bookmark to make a family tree (my habit for all Victorian and Dostoevsky novels). I read the same copy from all those years ago, and late in the game I found the bookmark I had used then–I have not changed.
13. A Concise History of Germany, Mary Fulbrook
I read this book to prepare to read Simon Winder’s Germania (which I have on hand but have not begun). It is remarkable to realize that the united nation-state of “Germany” as we know it was only created in 1871, and the “Germany” my generation grew up with has only existed since 1989, having been expanded and contracted and divided and united many times in the interim. Germany is at once an ancient land, and a nation technically younger than the United States. “Concise” is the right word for this history–all facts, no fuss.
14. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
I have heard this novel described as a “Holocaust book,” and I would like to make that description a little clearer. Everything Is Illuminated does not deal with concentration camps, but it does involve an anti-Jewish pogrom. Despite the heavy subject matter, this book is written in a light, humorous hand. Foer combines the absurdist energy of Catch-22 with the magical generational narrative of One Hundred Years of Solitude and creates a beautiful, engaging novel I am grateful to have read.
15. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
The first half of Dorian seems to confirm every stereotype about Oscar Wilde. The characters are pretentious to the point of exhaustion; I found myself questioning whether I even wanted to finish it. The second half, however, is some of the most thrilling storytelling I’ve ever read, and I couldn’t finish it quickly enough. At that point, I realized (doofus that I am) that Wilde knows exactly what he is doing. Gray and company’s highfalutin speech and behavior are creating a world that Wilde goes on to utterly destroy. I love it when a Classic holds up.
16. The Master Classics: Poems I, Doubleday, Page & Company c.1927
My next morning poetry collection was this tiny hardback volume, purchased secondhand and without much identifying publication information. The world of poetry changed dramatically in the last century, and these old collections are beautiful little time capsules of the world that came before. The reader gets to read poems that might have otherwise been removed to make space for Robert Frost (who, of course, deserves the space he takes up).
17. Ulysses, James Joyce
I read it twice, so I get to count it twice. Sue me.
18. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stuart Gilbert
As discussed here, I alternated between this book and the corresponding episode of Ulysses. Gilbert discusses plenty of symbols and meanings that I had not been aware of, but I was also aware of meanings he does not discuss. Ulysses is a novel that requires multiple additional books to cover every possible interpretation and meaning (and there are probably still many uncovered). For every reading of Ulysses, I can look forward to the help of a different Joycean scholar.
19. Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates
After reading this fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life, I feel like I know her. It is difficult to see her image used in commercials and movies and elsewhere without feeling a deep sadness for her and the difficult life she lived. Blonde was the first book I’d read in months that had me desperate to keep reading.
20. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me truly changed the way I perceive and understand many events, institutions, and relationships. Coates describes the world as I have never had to experience it. He wrote this book as a letter to his son, but the lessons therein are meaningful for any of us willing to listen.
21. God Knows, Joseph Heller
In God Knows, the Biblical King David retells the story of his own life, speaking as an old man looking back on his deeds and accomplishments and considering the world he is about to leave behind. Heller delightfully brings David out of his historical setting; David talks like a man of the 1960s, and freely quotes Jesus and Shakespeare, as well as poets and politicians. My knowledge of the Old Testament is limited, and I know I would get so much more out of God Knows (and all of Western literature) if I were more familiar with the Bible. It was this book that convinced me to pick up a One Year Bible and start reading.
22. How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster
Even though it is the subject about which I am the most passionate, I have never formally studied literature. I love to read about novels after I complete them and have scholars tell me the symbols, themes, and other facets that I didn’t pick up on. Slowly but surely I am educating myself on how to identify the elements of the craft for myself. I had never given much thought to the novel as a distinct, and relatively new, branch of literature.
23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Foster’s How To book left me itching to ingest some classic novels, and Huck Finn is as Great American Novel as they get. Often while reading I was struck by how modern Twain’s sense of humor is, how unlike the humor of his English contemporaries. Then I would remind myself that Twain pretty much invented American humor; he isn’t just like David Letterman–he caused David Letterman.
24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K.Rowling
I took the release of Cursed Child as an opportunity to reread the Harry Potter series beginning to end, which I’d never actually done at one time. Reading Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time in over a decade, it hit me: This book was written for children. The series quickly advances in complexity and reading level, but Sorcerer’s Stone is definitely for young readers (as it should be).
25. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K.Rowling
Many years ago, my neighbor recommended and lent the first few Harry Potter books to me. I read Chamber of Secrets first because she told me it was the better book. I’ve long wondered how I was able to enjoy it, since I lacked knowledge of setting and events from the first book. Reading it now, I see that the story and characters are fully reset. Everything that occurs or is explained in Sorcerer’s Stone is retold in Chamber of Secrets as needed. The first few Harry Potter books stand alone and can be consumed in any order, like a multi-camera sitcom. The final, more serious Harry Potter books require understanding and knowledge of the entire series and must be consumed consecutively, like a single-camera drama.
26. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K.Rowling
The Harry Potter series can be classified within several different categories of fiction: Young Adult, fantasy, adventure, coming of age, and British fiction all at once. At the heart of each novel is a category not immediately associated with the Harry Potter name: Mystery. Amid the adventures and lessons learned are unknowns pondered and clues dropped until the denouement when a mystery is solved (usually: who is Voldemort hiding behind this year?). Like Agatha Christie, Rowling shows the reader all the cards, but she never tips her hand. Christie will reveal a character has changed her name and is living among those she is plotting to harm. In Prisoner of Azkaban Rowling reveals that Scabbers, a quiet presence in the first three books, is more than just a pet rat.
27. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K.Rowling
Goblet of Fire (the best Harry Potter book) is a masterpiece of mystery. The intricate plot weaves countless clues into multiple mysteries, ending in a spectacular resolution. I’ve always thought Goblet of Fire, and specifically the death of Cedric Diggory, carries the series across the boundary from children’s stories into serious fiction.
28. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle (Audiobook)
This was perhaps the fourth time I have listened to this book, as read by the author. I revisit it from time to time when I become particularly anxious or discontented. Before The Power of Now I literally did not understand the meaning of “peace” or “enlightenment.” It is not hyperbole to say that the teachings of Jesus only began to have meaning for me after learning from Tolle.
29. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K.Rowling
Order of the Phoenix is the least good Harry Potter book. I understand that Harry is dreaming of a real family, but he is never around Sirius enough to be so attached to him. Also, he is awfully whiny this year.
B1. Genesis, King James Version
Pretty much everything I have ever heard of from the Old Testament (except Moses) happened in Genesis, evidently. It is not a new piece of business, but I must point out here: There are two (2) creation myths right at the top.
- Eve made from Adam’s rib.
- Adam and Eve made from mud.
Literal readings of the Bible are in conflict with the Bible.
30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K.Rowling
Half-Blood Prince is incredible. So much of what you wished would happen in the first five books finally happens: Harry is good at Potions; Snape teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts; Harry and Dumbledore hang out all the time. And then the ending, of course. There is a circle of hell reserved for anyone who spoiled this ending for another reader.
31. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K.Rowling
Deathly Hallows is about seven books in and of itself, and they are all great. Each escapade and battle and explanation (wrapping up series-long mysteries) is satisfying and worthy of the Harry Potter finale. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Harry Potter is the mythical hero of my generation, and I couldn’t be more proud to have grown up with him.
32. Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
Lin-Manuel Miranda says that he read this biography and could not believe a musical had not already been written about Hamilton’s extraordinary life. He is not exaggerating. From birth to death and at every age in between, Hamilton led a life of adventure, tragedy, and accomplishment worthy of wonder. There are several wild biographical details that are not represented in the musical–Hamilton was simply too much.
33. Watchmen, Alan Moore
I had never read a graphic novel before, but I am usually willing to read The Best writing of any genre. Watchmen lives up to the hype. After reading it I better appreciate what a graphic novel is capable of–what it can do that a written novel or film can’t do.
34. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
I enjoy Bryson’s writing because we share a fascination with origin stories. Not like Batman’s origin story, but like the origin of a particular English phrase or the origin of an idiosyncratic ritual. In Short History, Bryson writes the origin story of science itself–of concepts, facts, and fields of study that we citizens of the 21st century take for granted. Bryson covers everything from the age of the earth to the size of the universe; how life began and how extinction events will wipe it out. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a trivia player’s dream, and like a dream I forgot each fact as it passed through my brain.
35. The Adolescent (aka The Raw Youth), Fyodor Dostoevsky
If Dostoevsky’s titular narrator were living in 21st century America instead of 19th century Russia, he’d fit right in with all the other 19 year old guys with half-baked philosophies and father issues. The first half of The Adolescent is mostly set up–there are many characters and tangled relationships–but the second half is meaty, funny, and worth working for.
36. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
This year’s superstar pop fiction. I appreciate that there are no real heroes and no loose ends. A satisfying little thriller.
37. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Beautiful and terribly sad. My heart breaks for the little girl, and also for her parents who were once little children, too.
B2. Exodus, KJV
Moses murdered a guy and had to skip town! That didn’t get much airtime in my early religious education. Also, at one point I was reading and (out loud) said “Oh!” because I realized I was reading the Ten Commandments. My edition of the Bible doesn’t come with a lot of fanfare.
B3. Matthew, KJV
This Gospel gets right to the point. It cuts through a lot of Jesus’s childhood and we quickly find ourselves in the Beatitudes. A note here: I had not realized that at least some lines of the Beatitudes are directly quoting Psalms. It makes sense that Jesus would be using existing Jewish holy texts to get his message across, I just didn’t know it. It was like when I read the Tao te Ching and came across the Beatles song “The Inner Light.”
38. The Joke, Milan Kundera
Like his well-known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera frames The Joke around the political and social upheavals of mid-20th century Czechoslovakia. This setting is at once familiar (e.g., ‘60s cultural revolution) and foreign (e.g., Moravian folk festival), so that it can feel like a fantasy novel. None of the characters are without blame or blemish, or are particularly likeable, but that is not why The Joke is worth reading. Kundera’s effortless reflections on people and society stopped me in my tracks. He may be writing in another language about a faraway land, but he exposes universal truths of timeless quality. His writing reminds me why I read.
39. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
I had my eye on this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for many months, but upon reading it I was ultimately disappointed. The Goldfinch starts off with a bang, but most of its hundreds of pages are drawn out and boring. This review expresses a lot of my feelings about this novel. In addition to the tedium, I found the lack of consequences–personal, physical, or legal–suffered by the main character to be unbelievable. By any metric, he should have been in turn expelled, debilitated, sued, arrested, and rejected by his friends and society. Instead, this morally bankrupt narrator is free to offer his banal and contradictory philosophy as the “moral of the story.” No thank you.
40. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster
How to Read Literature Like a Professor provides an excellent foundation to do-it-yourself literary criticism. Foster gives straightforward explanations with plenty of illustrative examples. He leaves the dense theory to other books, at one point saying outright, “I like to keep things fairly simple. I’m no fan of the latest French theory or of jargon of any stripe.” Right up my alley.
B4. Leviticus, KJV
I spent Leviticus thinking, “Hey! That’s where that rule comes from!” Seeing the lengthy list of sins and abominations brings into stark relief just how much folks who “adhere to” the Bible pick and choose.
41. A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie does not waste a single word. Every action, every line of dialogue, every off-hand detail is a purposeful thread in her tapestry. To finish the book and see the all the mysterious pieces resolve into focus is incredibly satisfying. Did you know Christie is the best-selling author of all time? Even though every single TV show seems to feature a knock-off Poirot or Holmes, they cannot match the suspense and resolution of the genius at work.
42. Jack of Spades, Joyce Carol Oates
This thriller is narrated by an established mystery author as the dark side of his psyche, which pseudonymously writes less-reputable noir fiction, takes over his thoughts and actions. Jack of Spades moves swiftly from a natural inner monologue into an unsettling insanity.
43. The Variety of Poetry: An Anthology, Edward A. Bloom, et al.
Another poetry collection, read one morning at a time.
44. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
Perhaps I am predisposed to her way of thinking, but by page three I had bought in 100% to the KonMari method. One notion I’d never heard before Kondo was striking to me: We receive instruction on how to cook, clean, buy, and organize, but when it comes to decluttering and discarding our possessions, we are all self-taught. I am naturally sentimental and genetically predisposed to hoarding, so I value Kondo’s guidance and the chance to develop my discarding intuition.
B5. Mark, KJV
The Pharisees feel threatened by Jesus and are looking for any reason to kill him. Because he violated the laws of the Old Testament, he must die. I can’t imagine anyone using Mosaic Law as a reason to ostracize and punish a peaceful citizen today….
I reached all my reading goals this year. Instead of an overall number of books, I specifically wanted to read at least 12 books written by women. I read 19 (including seven Harry Potter books :P) by 12 different women. Reading Ulysses was another major goal for me. I was pleased to not only accomplish that goal but also truly enjoy the novel.
The following are my top five books on the year:
- Everything Is Illuminated
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- Alexander Hamilton
Next year I want to up my percentage of books by female authors to at least 45%. I also intend to read more works by authors who aren’t white. I recognize a lack of minority voices in the culture and history I consume, and I am working on remedying that disparity.
2015 was for Infinite Jest, 2016 was for Ulysses, and 2017, in my effort to become The Biggest Literary Snob In The World, will be for Finnegan’s Wake. As is my policy, if the book can be read by literate English speakers, I won’t be convinced I can’t read it. Joyce has become one of my favorite authors, and I won’t feel complete if I don’t take the time to wade through the Wake.
Until next year, Happy Reading!