Booklist 2015, and the power of my students’ writing

This is long delayed, but finally, I’m sharing my annual reading list. Not that it’s anything spectacular; continuing a trend, 2015 was an even lighter reading year than 2014 was — even when I count collected runs of comics issues as “books,” I’m down from 60 books to 42. This was partly because I set aside all reading in November to focus on drafting a new novel, and partly because my teaching load in the fall was extra heavy, and partly because preparing for and attending Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer took a lot of my attention.

But I think it’s also because I’m beginning to let go of the race for higher numbers and re-embracing my usual, slow, savor-the-words approach to reading. And I’m not alone in that. See this editorial in The Guardian this past summer, for example; or this blog post at HuffPo from a couple months ago; or this piece in the Chicago Tribune from just last month.

Quality, as they say, can trump quantity, which in my case isn’t so much about the quality of the books — though I loved the books I read last year — as it is about the quality of my reading experience. I prefer to take my time, to chew on the words, to — when the moment calls for it — to set down the book and stare at the ceiling and think about the passage, the sentence, the line, the phrase I’ve just read.

So I’m okay with fewer books this past year, even if it means taking longer to get through my ever-towering to-read stack.

And now, here’s the whole, short list of books I read last year, followed (as usual) by a sort of break-down:

  • Alexis Orgera, Dust Jacket
  • Alexis Orgera, How Like Foreign Objects
  • Bartee Haile, Murder Most Texan
  • Beth Swain, Silenced
  • Carson Ellis, Home
  • Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
  • Christian Kiefer, The Animals
  • Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart, Fight Club 2 #1-8
  • Daniel E. Sutherland (ed), Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front
  • Ellen Urbani, Landfall
  • Gay Degani, Rattle of Want
  • George P. Garrett and Paul Ruffin (eds), That’s What I Like (About the South), and Other New Southern Stories for the Nineties
  • Grant Faulkner, Fissures
  • Gwen Beatty, Kill Us On the Way Home
  • Ian V. Hogg, Weapons of the Civil War
  • Jane Austen, Emma
  • Jane Austen, Sanditon
  • Jason Aaron and Chris Sprouse, Thors #1-4
  • Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman, Thor #4-8
  • Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman, Mighty Thor #1-3
  • Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez, Spider-Gwen #1-5
  • Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez, Radioactive Spider-Gwen #0-4
  • Jenny Drai, The New Sorrow Is Less Than the Old Sorrow
  • Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Extraordinary Machine
  • Laura Garrison, Skeleton Keys
  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children
  • Linda Medley, Castle Waiting, Vol. II
  • Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
  • Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, The Secret Service
  • Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell, Prez #1-6
  • Matt Love, Of Walking in Rain
  • Michael Gerhard Martin, Easiest If I Had a Gun
  • O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away
  • Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop, Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle
  • Richard McGuire, Here
  • Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha
  • Sally K. Lehmann (ed), Bear the Pall: Stories and Poems about the Loss of a Parent
  • Scott McCloud, The Sculptor
  • Shawnte Orion, The Existentialist Cookbook
  • Steven E. Woodworth and Kenneth J. Winkle, Atlas of the Civil War
  • Tim Gautreaux, The Clearing
  • William C. Davis and Ray Bonds, Illustrated Directory of the Civil War

Of these, seven are nonfiction (as usual, mostly research for my own fiction, though there is a Buddhist text in there); only one book was creative nonfiction — a memoir. Unless you count Lynda Barry’s Syllabus (which I used in one of my writing classes) as nonfiction and/or memoir, but I include that with the graphic novels and comic book series, of which I read thirteen.

Only fourteen were fiction: five collections and nine novels. But two of those were books I read before the general public got them: Ellen Urbani’s novel Landfall and Gay Degani’s collection Rattle of Want. I got those in advance because I was asked to blurb them, which was a wonderful honor. I did the same for the multi-genre anthology I read this year, the Sally Lehman-edited anthology of loss and love, Bear the Pall.

Five were poetry collections, which I love reading and need to read more of. One was a children’s book, Carson Ellis’s charming Home.

And, as every year, I’ve also read hundred and hundreds of pages of student writing, almost all of it essays, and my students still manage to floor me with their words. Maybe some of that is down to my assignments, or to my instruction, but I know a lot of it is just about the circumstances and the dedication of these beginning writers, and I feel so fortunate that I get to read such informative, sometimes inspiring student work. Young scholars finding their way in the intellectual world, retirees embarking on a late-life second career, drug addicts looking for a chance to redefine themselves, health-care workers and aspiring police officers writing about how they want to serve their communities, military veterans exploring the sacrifices they’ve made in service of their country, parents raging against the injustices of a world blind to autism, young adults bravely combatting learning disabilities or mental disorders . . . .

These are things I can’t assign in any classroom; these are lives, spilled onto the page and shared with such trepidation, with such hope. I have read some damn fine words this past year — Matt Love’s beautiful mediation on rain, Christian Kiefer’s emotional but brutal rumination on nature and human nature, Lidia Yuknavitch’s gut-twisting manifesto on art and violence, Ellen Urbani’s thoughtful dramatizing of a national nightmare — but the work my students produce was — and remains — among the best work I’ve ever read. And I’d trade that for 100 books every year.

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