As I write this on December 20, I have read 134 books since January 1. Some have been short (Ann Patchett’s Getaway Car). Others have been epic (1Q84). In any case, I read a lot in 2017. I haven’t added up my time log totals, but if each book took 4 hours to read, that would be 536 hours devoted to books alone. The first year I tracked I read for 327 hours, which includes magazines and newspapers, so this category is definitely growing.
Some of this growth is the result of changed circumstances. My youngest child is now 2. As I found in I Know How She Does It, women with babies have significantly less leisure time than women with older children. My little guy can now be reliably distracted with television, and he’s usually (usually!) not up in the middle of the night anymore. So I have the time and energy to read. A lot!
Well, sort of a lot… because if you think about it, 536 hours isn’t that much. Divided by 365 days, that’s just a bit under 1.5 hours/daily. According to the American Time Use Survey, the average American watches 2.73 hours/day of TV as a primary activity. Even employed parents with children under age 6 average 1.66 hours/day of TV. Reading 134 books meant I needed to choose to make reading my primary leisure time activity.
A few tweaks in my life helped with this habit. First, I put the Kindle app on my phone. If you have yet to do this, please do! It’s a free e-reading app, and you can download books instantly from Amazon onto the reader. If you are like me, you almost always have your phone with you. So, for instance, if traffic is light and you get to swim practice 10 minutes before pick-up, you could quickly download a book and start reading. Or read one you’ve already downloaded. Having the Kindle app on my phone turned what would have been headline scrolling time or social media time into book reading time. Given that one survey found the average social media consumer spends close to 2 hours daily on such sites, this is a lot of available time!
I also got better about figuring out what I should read next. Often, choosing to read is about having a good book to read. I’ll admit that I am currently bogged down in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day (has anyone made it through?) and so I sensed that I was not turning to my Kindle app when I could have. I made a quick decision at karate the other day to download Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling, a book of micro-memoirs that Anne Bogel (Modern Mrs. Darcy) had recommended on the Best of Both Worlds podcast. I read through it in an evening. Voila, another book on the list. I get a lot of recommendations from Modern Mrs. Darcy/What Should I Read Next? and from write-ups in O magazine and the Wall Street Journal. People send me a fair number of non-fiction titles. I will read through other works by writers I like. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to work through Night and Day, though I may abandon that project.
Another tweak: I stopped being cheap. Not true – I’m still cheap. A big topic of my conversation yesterday was the difference in prices between wrapping paper at Wal-mart and Target.* BUT I decided that books would not be the primary category in which I manifested this tendency. Almost all ebooks and paperbacks are less than $15, which is less than one might pay for 2 morning coffees plus 2 lunches. As I almost never buy these items out, I think I still come out ahead. Plus, many classics in the public domain are free in the ebook version, or sell for 99 cents. There’s also the library, which I used too.
I also structurally built reading into my life. At least a few nights per week, I do aim to use the time after putting my kids to bed to read. I can generally get in at least an hour that way. I also tend to use time at karate or gymnastics for reading, which adds another 1-2 hours per week. And when I’m up with the 2-year-old in the morning, I read while he watches TV. I often read while on planes or trains, and then that’s how I spend my time when I’m in hotel rooms. Since I’ve traveled a fair amount this year, it’s not been hard to hit 10-ish hours weekly.
And possibly one of the biggest nudges, given my personality: I tracked my books. I made a simple list of books read, and I have relished seeing the list grow.
Now…on to the books! Lots of people are doing top 10/top 20/top 100 lists for the year, but I read a lot of books that didn’t come out in 2017. I have a bias toward classics. I like to read different things when I’m in different moods, and I’ll add that I really enjoyed many books by friends that I read this year, but many of those are about solving certain problems in one’s life. They are helpful and insightful, but getting at something different from, say, The Great Gatsby. Here is a short list of 14 books I read this year that I found most memorable.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy — This book’s reputation for being difficult stems solely from its length (just shy of 1500 pages in a lot of paperback editions). In reality, the story zips along, the characters are sharply drawn, the descriptions are vivid, and the philosophy gives it just enough space to feel big. The last 100 pages aren’t any fun, but by then you’re in, so don’t worry about that. Tolstoy was even smart enough to make his chapters short, so you feel like you’re making progress! I read this in October, and I feel like the descriptions of hunts in the Russian countryside, and then the French retreat from Moscow, will be forever linked to October in my mind. Even small details have stayed with me: Natasha sings beautifully, but isn’t classically trained. She breathes at the wrong times. As I find myself trying to breathe at the right times in choir practice, that image comes back to me.
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset — Another doorstopper, but a surprisingly readable one. I read this in August while at the beach, and I think the Jersey shore will be linked with KL in my mind, just like W&P with October. This tale of a woman in medieval Norway won the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1920s. Undset keeps the pace moving, and makes the reader really care about strong-willed Kristin, her bad boy husband Erlend, and their seven sons. You feel the cold, and the choppy waters of Norwegian fjords, and seem to be living in a world that was advanced in many ways, even though death was always just an infected wound away.
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin — I promise, the last of the really long books on this list! I read a number of Civil War books this year (Grant’s memoirs, Battle Cry of Freedom, Cotton Kingdom for a look at the antebellum south) but this one stuck with me longest. By focusing on how Abraham Lincoln incorporated his Republican rivals into his cabinet, Goodwin creates a fresh portrait of a man many people think they already know. While this book is over 700 pages, it doesn’t feel like it.
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. It’s hard to say if this is the “best” Berry book. It is the one I read first — about a man’s life in the fading town of Port William, Kentucky. Hannah Coulter was pretty good too. But in any case, I learned that I loved Berry’s nostalgic descriptions of small town life, and his interlocking cast of characters. Reading this also taught me about what kind of tone and pacing I like in my more recent fiction, which is how I wound up reading several other writers (Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf, Wallace Stegner, etc.)
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I read Housekeeping first, and then picked up Gilead, so in this case, I know I’m not falling prey to the “first book I read by an author” syndrome. I really believe this one is her best. Reverend Ames writes a series of letters to the son he had late in life about his life in a small town, and how you never really know what anyone else is going through. Lush, poignant, just in general a good read.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Warton. I’ve read this multiple times, but Edith Wharton’s best work never fails to move me. Late 19th century New York society is richly described, and Newland Archer is one of the more intriguing, if tragic characters in American literature. He cannot have what he wants while being what he wants, and he follows that decision all the way to the unexpected ending.
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf this year (The Voyage Out, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary), but I keep coming back to my favorite work of hers. The Ramsay family vacations on the Isle of Sky twice, separated by a great many years. With luminous prose that centers on people’s interior lives, Woolf writes about the human condition, and that most profound aspect of it: the possibility for change.
Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather. I also read a lot of Willa Cather this year (My Antonia, O Pioneers!, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, One of Ours, Shadow on the Rock). While Song of the Lark may not be her most crowd-pleasing book, I loved this tale of a young musician who rises from an obscure small town to the heights of operatic glory, partly by realizing when she’s moved beyond what any given teacher can do for her. It rings true to what one hears of highly ambitious musicians, athletes, etc. I read big chunks of this while I was staying overnight at the Philadelphia zoo in March with my then-9-year-old, and now March and the zoo are linked with this book in my mind!
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay. The mysterious disappearance of several young students at an Australian boarding school for girls triggers a series of strange and tragic events. This quick-paced tale is so bizarre it sticks with you for a long time.
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. A larger than life couple befriends an academic and his wife when they’re young and poor and hopeful. Life doesn’t turn out the way anyone expects, but as everyone keeps coming back to a family compound in Vermont, memories of shared experiences keep everyone together. Lyrical, and hopeful — it took me a while to get into this, but once I did, I was there.
Sourdough, by Robin Sloan. This one actually came out in 2017! Lois, a young software engineer, is working at a robotics start-up when she suddenly becomes the owner of a sourdough starter bequeathed by brothers who need to leave the country quickly. She becomes quite the baker, and this is no ordinary sourdough. Quirky, satirical, just generally fun to read.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. The writer’s poignant memoir of her husband’s sudden death is moving in its detachment. This book had the added lure for me of describing New York during his last days, which happened to be days that have profound memories for me (e.g. a 2003 snowstorm on the birthday that Didion and I share). I picked up several other of Didion’s titles after this, but this one had a wisdom that wasn’t quite as apparent in the others.
Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro. Another writer memoir sharing the details of life with her husband — what happens to a war correspondent when he is folded into suburban family life? Short and poignant, with plenty of meditations on time (always a plus for me).
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. I don’t know so much that I liked this book. There are a great many issues with it: a not-too-likable narrator who returns from 2 years abroad with no interest in seeing his children, the complete absence of a central character in the first half of the book from the second, etc. Nonetheless, it’s stayed with me for reasons I can’t quite explain. There is something about this portrayal of England between the world wars, as the old version of the world was falling away and people were trying to figure out the new one. I may have been more attuned to the psychological situation of people in the UK sliding into World War II as I read this right after Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which also captured this darkening sense (here we go again…)
Not a comprehensive list by any means, but there we go!
*Wal-mart wins hands down. Also, they had a better toy selection than Target. I normally shop at Target because it’s slightly closer but I may rethink this, especially since my employee interactions at Wal-mart were more pleasant.