My Year in Reading: Overview

In 2015, according to my mostly-accurate records, I read 107 books. Or “read,” since 41 of those were audiobooks. About 20% of my reading was by people of color, which was what I was aiming for.

I’d hoped to finish a few more books by the end of the year, but that’s not going to happen. What I’m reading right now: Longing by Mary Balogh (historical romance set in a Welsh industrial town and dealing with Chartism!); One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, by Åsne Seierstad (halfway in, I’d say Ian Buruma’s review and the questions he raises are spot on); and, on audio, the last of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, The Duke’s Children (they are giving him a hard time).

Here are some highlights of my reading year:

Favorites/Most Memorable (Read, not Published, in 2015)

Probably my favorite books this year were Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series, especially the books dealing with World War II and its aftermath: The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers, and Books Do Furnish a Room. But the effect of the series is definitely cumulative: no one of the novels on its own is as great as the whole. (See my Year in Listening post for more).

Aside from Powell, probably the most memorable literary/general fiction I read this year was Natasha Solomons’ Gallery of Vanished Husbands and Nell Zink’s MislaidBut I didn’t read anything else I got lost in the way I did Powell’s series. I think that may be me and my attention span rather than books, though. It was true of genre fiction as well–except when I was on vacation. Hmm.

I read some really good mysteries this year–this was the genre I read the most of. My favorite discovery was Naomi Hirahara’s Ellie Rush series (two so far), with its young, diverse cast of characters and well-drawn LA setting. I wouldn’t say they’re the deepest or best-written mysteries I read this year, but they felt freshest and I really want to know what happens to Ellie and her friends.

My favorite romances were Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace and Sarah Morgan’s Doukakis’s Apprentice, both TBR Challenge reads. I think the only 2015 romance I read was Laura K. Curtis’ romantic suspense Echoes, which I also really liked.

Another pair of memorable reads were novellas by new-to-me SFF authors Zen Cho and Aliette de Bodard. I have their debut novels in my TBR and plan to get to them early in the new year.

In non-fiction (close to 20% of my reading), I read and listened to several memoirs, an unusual choice for me, and the stand-out there was definitely Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, which I finished a few days ago. The Seierstad book I’m reading now made some major Best Of 2015 lists, and I can see why. My other stand-out non-fiction read was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, which argues that slavery was central to the development of American capitalism, not a footnote. (I have Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, which also made some Best of 2015 lists, on request at the library as a follow-up).

Fun With Challenges

I reflected on my goal of reading at least two books by people of color every month here.

This year for the first time I tried a couple of “public” reading challenges, rather than just setting personal goals.

You can see my spreadsheet for the Pop Sugar reading challenge  here. I didn’t plan my reading for this out in advance, but it did sometimes guide my choices. When I wasn’t sure what to read next, I looked at the categories and considered what I had that might fit. I got 38 out of the 51 categories, which isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ll try this again, because the categories aren’t really things I want to drive my reading, but if you like the idea, you can find their 2016 challenge here. Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge is similar. But I hate the name.

I also did the Romance-focused TBR Challenge hosted by SuperWendy, at least through October, after which I couldn’t keep up. I loved the community aspect of this one and it got me enjoying romance again, so I’ve signed up for next year, when I hope to make every month.

Group Reads

I started and ended 2015 reading a book with Twitter friends, and I loved these experiences, especially the discussion of Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross. I enjoy the shared reading experience–it reminds me of the best parts of my job–and the way it makes me think more about what I’m reading. I hope to do this more in 2016.

Goals for 2016 Reading

  1. Continue reading at least two books by authors of color each month (which should mean between 20 and 25% of my reading). I aim to make more of these books that challenge or stretch me–whatever, exactly, that means.
  2. Read more poetry. This goal was spurred by a) my dad telling me how important reading poetry is to him, and b) a friend wondering why reading challenges list a play but not poetry. One of my regrets about my student years is that I never had a really great teacher of poetry, particularly of its formal qualities. I don’t feel I “get” poetry–but reading more of it can only help. This year, I’ve enjoyed a couple of the New Yorker‘s poetry podcasts and have read some of the weekly poems in the New York Times Magazine. I plan to keep doing that, and to read at least one other poem a week, especially beyond the much-anthologized poets I have on my shelves–though they’re anthologized for a reason!
  3. Keep working on less distracted reading. I find it so hard, these days, to become really immersed in a book. (I think it’s easier for me with print, which is one reason I’ve been reading more library books). I miss looking up from the page wondering, for a moment, where I am. I think this will require making wireless-free time most days, and maybe even setting a timer to help me focus. Sad but true.

Happy New Year, everyone! May we all have great reading in 2016.

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22 Responses to My Year in Reading: Overview

  1. Teresa says:

    For poetry, I really enjoy the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day, which is available as a daily e-mail or rss–and I think they have an audio podcast version, too. They have a nice array of periods and styles and diversity among the poets they select. I don’t always read the daily poem, but having it show up in my RSS reader increases the chances that I’ll at least read one or two a week.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, that’s a great suggestion! I follow Rabih Alameddine on Twitter and he posts a poem every day. I need to click those links more often when he tweets them.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        My problem with Alameddine (tried following him for a bit) is that he tweets too much. Irony much, given how much I tweet. I’m going to try Poetry Foundation’s suggestion above.

  2. Sunita says:

    You and I had some overlap on our PopSugar challenge books, and we didn’t even coordinate. 😉 I really enjoyed that challenge, and although I am eyerolling some of the 2016 categories, I’m going to give it a try. I wrote about my 2015 reading over at Booklikes but I still have to write up (and finish thinking about) my 2016 plans. I read about the same percentage of POC authors as you, but I read far fewer books overall (58 total for the year). I’m going to do a general TBR challenge rather than the romance one, because it feels good to read books I’ve had for a while and keep meaning to read, but I don’t want to read a specific genre at a specific time. We often talk about how we could read from our TBR, but doing it has been more fun than I anticipated, and I like it best when it’s a bit serendipitous. Reading the Kestrel book with you guys, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell with Keishon, has made both experiences richer.

    Like you, I want to read more poetry. And I also want to read more general fiction, whether it’s “litfic” or not. I didn’t read as much gay fiction as I’d originally meant to in 2015, so I have a bunch of books from that list cued up. Maybe this will be my Year of Hollinghurst.

    Teresa, thank you for that link! I’m adding to to my RSS reader. I use the site to read poetry but I didn’t realize they had an audio option.

    The Baptist and Beckert books should probably go on my Work TBR. I’ve seen reviews and tweets about them, and I realized that there aren’t single books that talk about these issues, even though if you teach or research industrial capitalism, 19th and 20th century economic and political development, and related topics, you quickly learn the centrality of cotton and textile manufacturing’s role in early capitalist development.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      See, when I read your Booklikes post I found myself thinking “she beat me at the Pop Sugar challenge! Oh no!” And that is part of why I decided not to do it again. At the end of the year I started to feel bad about what I hadn’t read and try to rush though books and I don’t need more of that in my life. But it was mostly fun! I think it made me read a bit differently, and try some things I otherwise wouldn’t have (or get to some things that otherwise owl have kept languishing in my pile), but it also surprised me how easy it was to fill some categories I wouldn’t have thought I read (like book made into a TV show or movie). And it made me think about “diverse” reading in a broader way. Lots of kinds of diversity matter to me. I have ideas in my TBR for most of the categories I didn’t get to. (I did count some of my work reading–3 of the novels I taught, I think).

      Economics, like poetry, is a gap in my education, though of course even more so. I always feel guilty about how much work I did on industrial novels without reading more about the economic history behind them–and I always thought this was a fair critique of “New Historicist” literary criticism, though of course some people did it better than I did (it wasn’t really my approach, but I still wish I’d understood more about that world than fictional representations). So I really liked reading–or, actually, listening to–a few books that gave me some perspective on these issues.

      I like making plans, but I also feel the need to read more serendipitously this year. I think the problem is that I make so many plans, many more than I can actually carry out, or I turn to not to want to carry them out. And then I feel guilty. So maybe I need to have reading plans but be prepared to throw them to the winds with no regrets if serendipity takes me in another direction.

      • Sunita says:

        And when I saw how you did, my thought was “oh thank goodness, I’m not alone, Liz didn’t finish either!” To me it was binary, all 50 or not. I got to the point in the fall where I realized I wasn’t going to make it, because I was behind and I wasn’t willing to read books *just* to fill the boxes. I wound up having more than I expected, but still not all 50.

        On economics, most of us are under-informed because we are conditioned to think of economics as the subject of markets, supply/demand, etc, rather than systems of interactions and relationships that structure our individual and collective lives. And many economists are not good at explaining things in ways that are cross-disciplinary, or in highlighting the relevant work of non-economists in their own writings. And economic historians rarely get the kind of recognition theoretical and micro-economists do, so unless you’re in the field you don’t get exposed to the work. The public attention to Piketty’s book has been an important and welcome exception to this.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    My challenge in 2015 was to read more poetry, and I made some progress there. I enjoyed it so much that I’ll be doing it more this year. My “experience” ended in high school, so I’m self-conscious about talking about poetry. I feel like a bull in a china shop when I try to say why a poem works or doesn’t work for me. I have RSS’d Poetry Foundation now.

    I realized that I haven’t read plays in years, so this year, I’ve made a decision to read plays.

    It was fun reading Kestrel with you guys, and I look forward to the 2nd book in the series.

    Sunita, I read non-romance books for the TBR Challenge. Wendy was kind enough to expand the categories this year to accommodate non-romance readers.

    • Sunita says:

      I kicked myself for not reading any of the plays I’d meant to this year; it was a category in the challenge and I have plenty on my shelves. But I find plays to be similar to poems, or graphic novels for that matter; it’s a different form and I’m out of practice. I aim to work on that this year as well.

      I know you can read whatever you want in Wendy’s challenge, but I prefer going at my own pace and writing as much or as little as I want on a book. I’ve tried the challenge three different years, I think, and each year I felt the pressure to get a review out on a certain day. Even when I was reviewing a lot at DA that felt like an extra burden. I do enough reviewing and critiquing in my work life, which is one of the reasons I like Booklikes. I write informally and my posts are read by very few people, but I have the record to look back on if I want to.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        With all the reviewing you already do I can see how another review with a deadline is too much work especially for a leisure hobby. My fledgling reviewing skills felt a lot of pressure under the deadlines.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I agree about the challenge. I participated when Keishon ran it, and had a similar feeling about reviewing on deadline. It’s stressful enough to have to review ARCs within a week of the publication date; applying deadlines to books in the TBR pile created even more pressure.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, that was why I didn’t finish. Some months I just didn’t want to/couldn’t read something for it by the deadline. The “categories over a year” challenge like Pop Sugar, Book Riot, or Bustle, take that pressure off. But what I like about the TBR Challenge is everyone posting together and checking each other’s choices out, and I don’t have any other commitments in terms of reviewing/blogging, so I think I’ll try it again.

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    Oops, hit the “enter” button accidentally. I like your challenge to read books by two POC authors every month. I didn’t have a goal but tried to look for POC authors and/or characters, which is what I’ll continue to do. However, I like the idea of setting a conscious goal.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I find that if I don’t, it’s easier to let those books languish in the TBR and choose more familiar names/kinds of books. My goal is really to get to the point where more types of books/authors are in my “familiar/comfortable” repertoire of reading. I was reading a post about New Year’s Resolutions and healthy eating, and she said the goal is to be mindful of food for a while so that eventually you can be mindless about good habits. I don’t mean to compare books to that exactly (I mean, books by POC are not broccoli, although I like broccoli; well, analogies are always imperfect).

      Striking a balance between “who is the author” and “what’s in the book” is tricky, I think. I’m not interested in making cult figures of authors–I care about books. And I don’t think authors should have to disclose all the various ways they identify, but when readers want that to guide their choices, it puts pressure on authors to reveal, emphasize and perhaps even write to aspects of their identity. There’s no perfect way to approach the question of diverse reading. (I have been thinking about this a lot lately).

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Yes, you want ALL authors to write ALL books filled with ALL characters irrespective of the people’s race/creed/religion/sexual orientation/etc. I certainly don’t wish to pigeonhole authors into certain types of books, so I try to leave the diversity umbrella pretty wide open.

        I really like this: Be mindful of things for a while so that they become commonplace and you can be mindless of them and be confident that they’re happening regardless.

      • cleo says:

        “My goal is really to get to the point where more types of books/authors are in my “familiar/comfortable” repertoire of reading.”

        Yes. This is my goal too.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    i am looking forward to your poetry reviews, Liz.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I don’t know if I’m that fancy! But I probably will comment on some of them along the way!

      If the New York Times Magazine one is available online, they have been interesting choices, and Natasha Tretheway, who selects them, includes a short comment on them that I’ve found helpful.

  6. I have always loved poetry. I think the shorter form lends itself so well to our busy lives. My family occasionally will read out poems and/or song lyrics around the dining table. We also listen to poets on Youtube (Oz poets Steven Herricks and Luka Lesson are faves) and we love watching Slam Battles.

  7. cleo says:

    Late to the party as usual but I’m still going to comment. I really enjoy reading about what everyone read last year.

    I also read about 100 books (including novellas) by about 88 authors – 10% were POC authors and about 20% were queer authors (as best as I can tell). In 2014, I read approx 10% AOC and 10% queer authors, so at least I read more queer authors this year. I may try having monthly goals too – that seems like an easy way to pay attention to what I’m reading.

    The group reading things are about the only thing that tempts me to join Twitter – they sound like fun. I joined a book group this year and have enjoyed the group reading aspect – first time in probably 20 years since I’ve been part of one. It’s a queer genre fiction group and I’m enjoying it – it’s pushed me to read things I normally wouldn’t.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Latecomers are welcome to this party!

      I found a monthly numerical goal helped. Some months I didn’t make it (but those were months I read less overall, so in percentage terms I probably read as much by authors of color). Some months I read more. It was just a really easy way to check in around the middle of a month and say “Hey, if this is how I want to read, that needs to guide my next book choice or I won’t make it.”

      I used to do a summer book group with colleagues and I read all kinds of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I hated some of them (the books, not the colleagues), but I loved some too. It definitely broadened my horizons. I am not sure I’d have read any romance last year if not for group reads and the TBR Challenge. I’m trying to find my way back to it.

      • cleo says:

        I would occasionally figure out my percentages during the year, to encourage myself to meet my goals, but that was too complicated to do often – having an easy to remember goal seems easier.

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