Somehow I read 66 books this year, not counting the 12 I abandoned. I don’t know when I manage this. I read a little bit in the early mornings when Edith and I are waiting for her nanny to arrive; I don’t always manage this but sometimes she plays independently and I sit on the floor of her playroom and read my book. Edith goes to bed at about 7pm and I go to bed about 9, so usually I spend at least an hour of that time reading. And on the weekends, I read during her nap — usually I fall asleep for 30 or 45 minutes and then when I wake up, depending on how much longer she sleeps, I have about that much time again to read. That’s it, really, but I guess it’s enough to really get through some volume.
This year, I didn’t absolutely love that many books I read. Maybe I didn’t happen to read many truly exceptional ones, or maybe I’m just getting more critical. I really loved:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Actually, I initially rated this one as very good, but now I think I loved it, because I have thought about this one quite a lot over the past year. It has stayed with me. This might be because I have a daughter who adores her nanny and whose nanny adores her and sometimes I think about how devastated I would be for both of them if that relationship was severed.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. I almost never truly love nonfiction books, so I’m extra impressed by those I do.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I’m late on this one, but boy does it live up to the hype. Single person representation!!! There’s so little of it, and this book gets so much right.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Books that I thought were really great, but didn’t quite adore:
Circe by Madeline Miller
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
This Is How by M.J. Hyland
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The writing in this is phenomenal. I can’t say I loved it, because I just do not care about a pack of animalistic men brutalizing everyone and everything they come across. But the writing brought me as close to caring about that as anything could, which is saying something.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Books that I enjoyed:
Agatha Christie (I finished up the Marples this year and started in on the Poirots): The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, A Caribbean Mystery, At Bertram’s Hotel, Sleeping Murder, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, The Thirteen Problems, Three Blind Mice and Other Problems, The Mystery of the Blue Train
Death In Venice by Thomas Mann, trans. Michael Henry Heim
Far to Go by Alison Pick. Incidentally this was by far the most painful book I read this year. I think of it often when trying not to think of it and every time I think about it, I have to jerk my thoughts away like I touched a hot stove. It really destroyed me.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
A Headful of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Also a tough one.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
World War Z by Max Brooks
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Three Men In a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Weather by Jenny Offill
Books I thought were pretty meh:
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
A Heritage and Its History by Ivy Compton-Burnett
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
Changing Places by David Lodge
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom
Agatha Christie: Nemesis, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, The Big Four
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr
The Great Mental Models vol. 1-3 by Shane Parrish
Books I thought were bad:
Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
Books I didn’t finish:
Don Quixote by Miguel D. Cervantes, trans. Edith Grossman. I know it’s foundational and all, but I got the gist.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
About the Author by John Colapinto
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald. I will probably revisit this some day, I just wasn’t in the mood.
The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I will probably finish this some day.
I am reading a book called The Philosophical Baby that’s about how our minds develop in early infancy, and I was reading along rather bored until I came to this extraordinary bit in a chapter about how our imaginations develop:
When children grow older, imaginary companions are usually replaced by a new kind of imaginary activity. “Paracosms” are imaginary societies rather than imaginary people. They are invented universes with distinctive languages, geography, and history. The Brontës invented several paracosms when they were children, as did the teenage murderers who inspired the movie Heavenly Creatures (one of them, in real life, grew up to be the novelist Anne Perry).
I’m sorry, what? You could not think of a better second example??? The parenthetical really puts it over the top. “Just as you’d expect from someone who bludgeoned their friend’s mother to death with a brick, she was indeed very creative!”
This isn’t so much a prompt as a question, but it enables me to reveal one of my many eccentricities: my reading list is a spreadsheet which currently includes well over 2000 rows. These rows are individual authors, many of which include more than one book. I started this spreadsheet when I worked at the law firm in Chicago, and I remember it was the old building (the firm moved while I was employed there), which means I’ve been maintaining this list since around 2003.
Sometime last year, I decided to start over, since with a baby my time is more limited, so I began a clarified spreadsheet of books I especially want to read.
It is now 583 rows and counting.
I have never understood people who are like “I need book recommendations!” Who doesn’t know what to read, who even are you? I will never need a book recommendation. Ever.
As far as which thing to read next, I went through a period when I lived in Albuquerque of compulsively buying cheap used copies of books that were on my list from Powell’s through the mail, so I have something like 500 unread books in my possession, and I just go through the stacks pretty much at random.
Then, last year when I had Edith, I had to switch to ebooks, so as I explained previously, I started sort of combing through the sale section and compulsively buying whatever books were super cheap. Currently I have 76 unread fiction books in my ebook “pile” and 41 unread nonfiction. And I’ve just been reading them basically in order of purchase.
To answer the explicit question, the “next” book in each pile is probably Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews and The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand.
My reading life changed quite a lot this year, round about March. Newborns will get in the way of your reading and no mistake. Given that I do not have as much time to read these days, I finally made a change I’ve been meaning to make for some time — now, if I’m not feeling a book, I abandon it. I’ve always been a completer, but life’s too short and I’m too busy to be compulsive about reading for no reason. If I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t have to choke it down like vegetables.
Also, once I had Edith, all my reading switched to ebooks, on my phone, so I could read them in the dark while she’s sleeping (which is where I do most of my reading now). I don’t know that this made much difference to the way I read or the type of things I read, but it’s a big enough change to seem significant. I think it’s harder to focus when reading on a device; it’s too easy to flip back over to email or Twitter or Slack. It’s not an immersive experience. So I maybe read less also for that reason.
I read at least part of 72 books this year. Of those, I abandoned 4, so I read 68 books in full.
The books I loved included:
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, trans. Gregory Rabassa
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Calypso by David Sedaris
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (yes, I’m aware she was canceled)
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
Ace by Angela Chen
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (my favorite of the year)
Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (second favorite of the year)
Luster by Raven Leilani
There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, trans. Polly Barton
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Plain Honest Men by Richard Beeman
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Several of the Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie, specifically:
Murder at the Vicarage
The Body In the Library
The Moving Finger
They Do It With Mirrors
A Pocketful of Rye
4:50 From Paddington
The following books were fairly enjoyable or interesting, or else just ok:
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Mirror Lake by Thomas Christopher Greene
Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, trans. Andrew R. McAndrew
Spooner by Pete Dexter
Holy Skirts by René Steinke
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Nice Try by Josh Gondelman
I’ll Be Gone In the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Lavery
Singled Out by Bella DePaulo
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Some Trick by Helen DeWitt
White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
How Should a Person Be? by Shelia Heti
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Night’s Master by Tanith Lee
Sync by Steven Strogatz
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Louisa the Poisoner by Tanith Lee
The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie (not as enjoyable as most Marples)
Several of the Jeeves novels by P.G. Wodehouse, specifically:
Thank You, Jeeves
The Code of the Woosters
The Inimitable Jeeves
Then there were those I did not enjoy:
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Fury by Salman Rushdie
Queen Takes King by Gigi Levangie Grazer
Doubles by Nic Brown
G by John Berger
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
And then the four I didn’t bother to finish:
Wrack & Ruin by Don Lee
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn
Cast a Bright Shadow by Tanith Lee
So overall, having a baby hasn’t completely put a damper on my reading, but it has obliterated my ability to think about, digest, and certainly to write about what I have read. For example, I would like to share some additional context for some of the books above — what I especially liked about a number of them, for example — but I’m fucking exhausted and I have to go to bed instead.
I read 70 books in 2020, not including a few books I read for work and one I abandoned part-way through (see below). Here’s the last batch, followed by a list of the ones I especially liked over the year (15). This was a typical year’s reading for me, as I’m an antisocial hermit and a big reader just in general, and so my lifestyle this year wasn’t really all that different than it is any other year (except that I didn’t travel or see family, and also I got pregnant).