Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Year in Reading

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”
--Gustave Flaubert

Bookworm sighting
Years ago, I’d read somewhere that Art Garfunkel kept a record of every book he’d read since the 1960s, a list now going on nearly forty-five years. Though I thought that was a grand idea, it didn’t spur my own compilation lists until just recently. How to explain the lull in executing what seems like a very interesting snapshot of one’s reading habits in a given time? Is there an air of pretentiousness in broadcasting one’s bookishness, especially as the modern individual is expected to lead a kinetic existence? The act of reading, especially the slow perusal of books composed out of pulp, is lately regarded as a luxury. Bibliophilia is a casualty of our contemporary zeitgeist, in which timeliness, rather than timelessness, matters most.  
            But the truth is people have been saying for years, “Reading! Who has the time anymore?” Well, that depends on priorities. This dude might be a product of Southern California and all its guaranteed sunshine, but I never took to surfing. Or rollerblading. Or golf. I haven’t followed professional or collegiate sports since High School, which is about the same time I gave up on video games forever. I haven’t owned a television set for twelve years. When I have any free time, I read. It is one of the things I do well and I do take some pride in being “well-read.”
            A bookworm is not much different from a foodie: an element of snobbery persists in both passions.  They have a high regard for a certain quality of product and thus can be a somewhat disappointed when others don’t share the same levels of expectation. They know what they like— their palates are so developed in well-earned prejudices that when something doesn’t feel right, they know right away what is wrong and why it’s not worth their attention. We do not have so much a democratic society as we do a leisure one, which is where democratic choice is most self-evident. To play with a tired aphorism for our purposes: you are what you read. 
            And like many who truly love the practice of certain rituals, I worry about the future of reading. It’s not so much the proliferation of e-Books (I am yet to read one but this might change that once I pick up an iPad2 later next year) as it is the pattern of publishing houses being picked up by media conglomerates more concerned with profits than prose. I am not one of those literacy enthusiasts who believe the act of reading warrants praise. What matters more is what you read. Publishing has gone the route of the Hollywood blockbuster, hyping certain phenomenons (50 Shades of Grey), B-grade genre superstars (James Patterson), faux-spirituality (anything by Paulo Coelho), self-help books (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and ghostwritten memoirs (Sarah Palin), at the expense of Midlist literature, both today’s and yesteryear’s. I can understand that reading Harry Potter gives someone a sense of fitting in with popular culture. But many of these readers, who might only get through a few books a year (if that) see reading as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.
It’s arguable that mass literacy should have led us to a social utopia—nearly everything beautiful, hopeful, and poetic in life has been imagined and transcribed by geniuses, artists, and prophets. Yet we are still mired in political, economic, and social mediocrity.  You can blame the pedagogues or you can blame the politicians but really, we must take some blame for watching the Kardashian sisters rather than reading The Brothers Karamazov. 
Though counterintuitive by today's championing of utilitarianism, it does a person well to challenge himself with books that have no ostensible impact on his life. There are no useless facts; rather, from reading develops the accumulation of human interestingness. This is an intangible quality, not always there but which flourishes in the right company.

The author giving his eyes a rest from Dostoyevsky (circa 2006)
The following list is what I read this year. It reads chronologically. Some notes and observations follow below.

  1. Greasy Lake by TC Boyle
  2. Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas
  3. After Dark by Haruki Murakami
  4. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera
  5. Collapse by Jared Diamond
  6. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
  7. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  8. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  9. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  10. Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys by Will Self
  11. Dreaming War by Gore Vidal
  12. Of Human Bondage by Somersest Maugham
  13. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipul
  14. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  15. Mary by Vladimir Nabhokov
  16. Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
  17. What Uncle Sam Really Wants by Noam Chomsky
  18. Secrets, Lies & Democracy by Noam Chomsky
  19. The Science of the Everyday by Jay Ingam
  20. Mating by Norman Rush
  21. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  22. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  23. Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami
  24. We the Animals by Justin Torres
  25. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Lawrence Bergreen
  26. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  27. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
  28. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerborn
  29. Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty by Dennis McDougal
  30. River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
  31. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  32. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David R. Goldfield
  33. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
  34. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose
  35. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
  36. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
  37. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
  38. Dispatches by Michael Herr
  39. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  40. The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong
  41. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  42. Whites by Norman Rush

Forty-two books might sound like an awful lot but it averages out to a book read every 8.5 days, which doesn’t sound too rushed. Twenty-seven of the books were fiction, three of which were story collections. I am on a quixotic quest to read The Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century (I’ve read about sixty-five of them) and this year read seven (and, no, American Psycho was not on the list— a side note, all three books I abandoned reading after fifty pages of frustration were from the said collection, including Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Henry Green’s Loving). Two of the books were loans from friends, five from the library. The rest I own.
My favorite reading experiences in fiction were Chandler’s Marlowe shamus noir, Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era, Rush’s Mating, Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Fox’s Desperate Characters, and Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.  Through Haruki’s Murakami’s After Dark, Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, and Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, I suffered various moments of mediocrity, boredom and very bad prose. Torres’s We the Animals was so precious and niched (gay Puerto Rican-American) it felt nearly like a satire of calculated and maudlin MFA writing (too many young writers are trying to be Toni Morrison but there is some ethereal quality to Morrison that cannot be apprehended, only imitated).  Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Greene’s A Quiet American were the only rereads.
I have a thing for historical accounts of the lives and adventures of explorers. It was a pleasure then to read in depth on Cortes and Montezuma, Lewis & Clark, Ferdinand Magellan, and Teddy Roosevelt’s charting of Brazil's mysterious Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). But the best nonfiction I read was David Goldfield’s America Aflame, a fifty-year history of America before, during, and after the Civil War. The sweep, the prose, the presentation lent a well-known history some newfound urgency. Equally pleasurable was Dennis McDougal’s Privileged Son, a biography of the Chandler dynasty, the familial empire that controlled the Los Angeles Times for more than a hundred years and whose story is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles itself.
            The first book to read in the coming year will be JG Ballard’s High Rise…


  1. I've been keeping a list of what I read since 1999, first in a notebook, then in a text file, then in a spreadsheet, then in (with review for each book, in french though) and now there: as I do not have the will any longer to review all that I read... Nice list man, nice list. And as Flaubert said, yes, read in order to live.
    Hope all is well,

    1. A,

      Since 1999? I'm envious, man. I've read hundreds of books in the past decade and enough of them have made enough impact that I could probably designate enough of them to this year and that but I'd leave out many. The list would be incomplete.

      Wish I had the time, energy, and commitment to write a small review for each. Only a few each year end up on the operating table with myself really peering at the innards.



  2. I write quite a lot of book reviews for academic journals, but I'd like to write more about the books I read for pleasure. I aimed at a book a week last year, and almost hit it….. but the blog I set up to review each one lies dormant. I like your post-mortem metaphor though, as I have a far greater understanding of those I review professionally, simply by writing about them.

    Of your list, I've read a few…. Koestler, Ellis, Greene are favourites. I don't read as much fiction as I did as a teenager. Maybe because I don't have enough time, and I think that non-fiction is much easier to pick up and put down. I still enjoy short stories, because I can get through one in the bath of an evening.

    Are you the kind of person who reads one book at a time, or do you have a dozen books on the go at anyone time? Every time I pick up a book in my house, a ticket stub falls out…...

    1. Darren,

      Wow. That you could read nearly 52 books in a year with a career and two kids is commendable. You should be quite pleased with what you've managed to read.

      Regarding my reading habits, I try to stay *monogamous* with my books, otherwise I'm liable to lose the thread of the narrative and thus an emotional or intellectual engagement with the work. I very rarely abandon books beyond fifty pages. Once I make it past there I really try to finish what I've started.

      Same with me regarding found ephemera squeezed enlisted as bookmarks. I like that they signify the experience of the reading itself, bringing the action itself into memory, which, strangely, aids my recall of elements of the book itself.

  3. Hi, sean - thanks. Cool to read another reader's list; might try to list them in 2014, resolutions packed this year.
    Right on with We the Animals, after such a brilliant few pages to start -- cheers....

  4. Sean Lotman,

    You must live in a universe different than mine. One without wispy trees offering year-round sublime colors, or bars which proffer tasty cocktail drinks while playing poetry-rich music, or women whose lips beg to be kissed and smiled at, or food which begs to be delicately devoured, or rain-soaked parks of imperial stature good for running and biking and strolling or getting shit on by birds as audacious as they are beautiful and far away. Yeah, there's none of that where you are, wherever you choose to be. I can see why you read so much. I just can't see logistically how...

    1. Thanks, Santiago. Here's how you do it:

      No iPhone, no facebook, no television.

      80% of downtime, maybe, ends up with me with a book in my hands. To be honest, I'm not writing as much as I should be, thus more time to read. More inputting these days. Once that's properly computed, hopefully the outputting will begin again...

  5. Sean, really nice idea to do this kind of thing. I wonder what I've been reading this year...

    Actually, since getting a Kindle last year, it's become a bit easier to track what I've been reading. Also I've started tracking new vocabulary and quotes as I come across them because I can now save excerpts to a text file in the device.

    Do you use a Kindle? If not, I'd really recommend it - especially if you have a nomadic lifestyle! Although, I still love an old book as well!

    All the best for a new year in reading!

  6. Thanks, Nick. Yeah, I'm considering a Kindle, as it would lighten my load while traveling as well as give me access to book difficult to find in small bookshops.

    But it's hard to switch over. I really like the tangibility of physical books...

  7. Yeah, I think it's always tough switching. I was a die-hard physical book fan. Then I got given a Kindle from my parents and have spent ever since eating my words. I love leaving the house without worrying about which book to take now. If you're interested, I wrote a treatise on the Kindle last year: