Reading an era

Henry David Thoreau quote - Library Way - NY City
Image by ktylerconk via Flickr

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”

~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Yesterday, I was reading a blog post from Annalemma that came through my RSS feed, and the author, Chris, was discussing his year in books. Chris had set a goal earlier in the year to read 120 books, or 10 books every month. That ambitious (and maybe insane?) goal went fantastically unmet, but with very good reason: unless we live on a bottomless trust fund and have no day job or even paying hobbies to speak of, and have no real interests outside of books whatsoever, and have purchased ourselves a pair of cybernetic eyeballs, it just isn’t possible to read 10 books a month. Okay, that’s only 2.5 books in a week, which sounds doable; and yes, I have friends who manage this sort of reading load on top of their day jobs. (Seriously.) But Chris’s day job IS reading, and reading books for a large part of the time, and he still managed only 55 books this year. Granted, that’s on top of all the short fiction submissions he reads for Annalemma, and on top of all the magazines and newspapers he no doubt reads, and all the e-mails and business correspondence and…. Well, I’ve gone on like this before. So frankly, I think 55 books is a heroic number.

Of course, I’m saying that because I’ve just counted my own book list for this past year, and so far I’m at 65, not counting the book I’ve just started and plan to finish before the month is up. So maybe I just want to feel heroic, too.

A small gang of my friends from back in Wisconsin got me started on this, actually. They had the idea to have a book club without having a book club: They would read all the books they could manage, whatever books they wanted, and then once a month they’d post their lists on Facebook and if anyone felt like commenting, a discussion would ensue. No meetings, no arguments over what to read or when, no pressure at all. Okay, some pressure: to keep things interesting, they called the game a “contest” and assigned points to the books based on page count (because let’s face it, saying you read 100 slim chapbooks in a year isn’t really as impressive as saying you read, well, anything by Tolstoy). Also, magazines and single-issue comic books don’t count, though of course graphic novels do.

At the beginning of the year, we all set a year-end goal, like bidding on tricks in Hearts. I low-balled my point goal at a mere 100 pts, because the most common point score for any book, according to our rules, is 2 pts, and because I’m a slow reader (I prefer to say that I savor the words…), I figured 50 books would be a stretch for me.  Plus, I don’t like losing.

But here we are at the end of the year and I’ve racked up 149 points so far.* And that’s on top of the few dozen issues of the New Yorker and the handful of Shambhala Suns I caught up on this summer, the literary journals I’ve read, and all the writing I’ve done this year, including the Writer’s Notebook every week, the travel journals I’ve kept, and something like 140,000 words of fiction.** So, win for me!

Here’s the list as it looks right now (where possible, I’ve linked to the actual edition I read; newer editions might be available):

Ali Alsaloom, Ask Ali: A Guide to Abu Dhabi (Ali’s book isn’t available for purchase online yet, but you can find them in bookstores all over the UAE; here, the title links to the review page in Goodreads)

Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee, Absolute Superman:  For Tomorrow

Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons

Andrew Bender, Lonely Planet: Amsterdam ***

Andrew Burke, et al, Lonely Planet: Thailand’s Islands & Beaches

Anton Chekhov, Early Short Stories: 1883-1888

John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever

Rob Chestney and Alex Sanchez, Star Wars: The Old Republic: Threat of Peace

Douglas Davies, Brief History of Death

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly

DK Eyewitness Travel:  Top 10 Bangkok

Daphne du Maurier, The Birds and Other Stories

Dungtrin, Vipassana 101, trans. Anaya Ruangma, ed. Kongsak Tanphaichitr

P. D. Eastman, Sam and the Firefly

Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art

Garth Ennis, Glenn Fabry, and Steve Dillon, Preacher (I actually read these serially, as single issues; the title here links to Volume 1 of the collected series)

M.C. Escher, Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite

Eyewitness Travel: The Netherlands

Beth Ann Fennelly, Unmentionables

Alan Dean Foster, Terminator Salvation

Alexander Freed and Dave Ross, Star Wars: The Old Republic: Blood of the Empire

Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

—, Neverwhere

—, The Sandman: Endless Nights

Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, Stardust: Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie

Maha Gargash, The Sandfish: A Novel from Dubai

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Ernest Hemingway, The Torrents of Spring

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories

Lyndon W. Joslin, Count Dracula Goes to the Movies: Stoker’s Novel Adapted, 1922-1995

Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D

Lati Rinpoche and Jeffrey Hopkins, Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth

Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold, Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna (this is the hardcover edition from Amazon; ours is the softcover we bought at the Leopold)

Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex

Pamela Logan, Tibetan Rescue: The Extraordinary Quest to Save the Sacred Art Treasures of Tibet

Joseph Maddrey, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue:  The Evolution of the American Horror Film

Scott McCloud, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels

Frank Miller, 300

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, The Watchmen

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

—, The Love of a Good Woman

—, The Progress of Love

—, Vintage Munro

Greta Nagel, The Tao of Teaching: The Ageless Wisdom of Taoism and the Art of Teaching

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity

Steve Noyes, Ghost Country

Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM

Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby ****

Colin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani, and Bill Young (eds), Death and Bereavement Across Cultures

Michel Peissel, Tibetan Pilgrimage: Architecture of the Sacred Land

Trina Robbins, The Great Women Cartoonists

Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

Anna C. Salter, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders

Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums

Marcus Sedgwick, My Swordhand Is Singing

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

Shams of Tabirz, Rumi’s Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

Osamu Tezuka, Buddha: Deer Park

James Turner,  Nil:  A Land Beyond Belief

Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man (as with Preacher, I read these serially, as single issues; the title here links to Volume 1 of the collected series)

Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

—, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas

Kentaro Yabuki, Black Cat (Vol. 1)

Looking back over the list, it’s interesting to see what I’ve been into this year. I’ve read several guide books (5), of course, because my wife and I traveled a bit this year. And I’ve read my share of novels (10, so far), but I’ve also dived back into reading short fiction heavily (9 books). I’ve read a lot of Alice Munro (4 books) and Neil Gaiman (4 books), which is an odd mix. I’ve also balanced my heavy “academic” reading (Cheever, Chekhov, Hemingway, Jackson) with some truly frivolous tripe (that Terminator novel).

One of the things that kind of surprised me was the sheer volume of graphic fiction I’ve read this year. I’ve read fully 16 graphic novels, and two of those — Preacher and Y: The Last Man — are utterly epic in size as well as scope, each spanning something like 10 volumes and around 1,500 pages. Each! That’s huge.

I’m also pleased to see I’m keeping up on my religious reading (8 books), a favorite subject of mine. My nonfiction feels okay to me, too (9 books), including two memoirs and two books on the craft of writing. But I’m shocked at how little poetry I’ve read this year! Only two books! Okay, one of them is by Beth Ann Fennelly, probably my favorite poet writing today (and a hell of a cool woman!), but still. I will definitely be hitting the poetry harder next year.

There’s also a wealth of fiction I’ve missed out on this year because I live overseas and having books shipped here is a bit of a hassle and I have to wait till I’m in the States to get books not widely or not yet available over here. So Lori Ann Bloomfield, Darin Bradley, Tom Franklin, Susannah Morgan: I’m getting to you this coming summer, if not sooner!  I promise.

* A friend of mine playing the game has managed a suspicious 280 points so far. I don’t know what her actual book count is, but at 2 pts a book, she has to be in the ballpark of Annalemma-Chris’s 120-book goal. And she’s a full-time university professor with an ungodly grading load and an academic agenda that has her reading and writing I don’t know how many articles each year. Where she finds the time to read 280 points-worth of books is beyond me.

** You know, it occurs to me that I probably should be counting the stuff I write. I mean, I had to read it, too, yes? Okay, a lot of that is unpublished, but I did manage to place a handful of stories this year, and I wrote and printed a small travel/family history book for my grandfather as a 90th-birthday present. Maybe I should just tack on a few more points for that….

*** Not sure why, but Amazon is showing our edition of Lonely Planet: Amsterdam — same year, same cover — as having been written by Jeremy Gray, even though our book clearly names Andrew Bender as the author. Weird.

**** Check it out: my copy of Lullaby is autographed! I’ve never met Palahniuk; my wife just picked this up for me from a library book sale. But there’s his signature, squiggled on the title page. Awesome.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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