My best discoveries of the year: The poetry of Tishani Doshi; Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Strout (whom I’d read before but not fully appreciated until this year); also, the classic nature writing of Edwin Way Teale.
The authors I read the most by this year: Margaret Atwood and Janet Frame (each: 2 whole books plus parts of 2 more), followed by Doris Lessing (2 whole books plus part of 1 more), followed by Miriam Darlington, Paul Gallico, Penelope Lively, Rachel Mann and Ben Smith (each: 2 books).
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: John Englehardt, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt, Gail Simmons and Lara Williams.
My proudest reading achievement: A 613-page novel in verse (Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly) + 2 more books of over 600 pages (East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese).
Best book club selection: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay was our first nonfiction book and received our highest score ever.
Some best first lines encountered this year:
- “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?” (Love Story by Erich Segal)
- “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” (Away by Jane Urquhart)
- “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” (from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff)
The downright strangest book I read this year: Lanny by Max Porter
The 2019 books everybody else loved (or so it seems), but I didn’t: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Underland by Robert Macfarlane, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The year’s major disappointments: Cape May by Chip Cheek, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, ed. Anna Hope et al., Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The worst book I read this year: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Some statistics on my 2019 reading:
(As usual, fiction and nonfiction are neck and neck. I read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Male author: 39.4%
Female author: 58.9%
Nonbinary author (the first time this category has been applicable for me): 0.85%
Multiple genders (anthologies): 0.85%
(I’ve said this the past three years: I find it interesting that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading; I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 89.7%
(My e-book reading has been declining year on year, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling; also, increasingly, I find that I just prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Work in translation: 7.2%
(Lower than I’d like, but better than last year’s 4.8%.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 36.8%
- Public library: 21.3%
- Secondhand purchase: 13.8%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 9.2%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 7.8%
- Gifts: 4.3%
- University library: 2.9%
- New purchase (usually at a bargain price): 2.9%
- Church theological library: 0.8%
- Borrowed: 0.2%
(Review copies accounted for over a third of my reading; I’m going to scale way back on this next year. My library reading was similar to last year’s; my e-book reading decreased in general; I read more books that I either bought new or got for free.)
Number of unread print books in the house: 440
(Last thing I knew the figure was more like 300, so this is rather alarming. I blame the free mall bookshop, where I volunteer every Friday. Most weeks I end up bringing home at least a few books, but it’s often a whole stack. Surely you understand. Free books! No strings attached!)
If you’re like me and author Tom Mole, the first thing you do in any new acquaintance’s house is to scrutinize their bookshelves, whether openly or surreptitiously. You can learn all kinds of surprising things about what someone is interested in, and holds dear, from the books on display. (And if they don’t have any books around, should you really be friends?)
Mole runs the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor of English Literature and Book History. His specialist discipline and this book’s subtitle – “Why They Mean More than Words” – are clues that here he’s concerned with books more as physical and cultural objects than as containers of knowledge and stories:
“reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.”
From the papyrus scroll to the early codex, from a leather-bound first edition to a mass-market paperback, and from the Kindle to the smartphone reading app, Mole asks how what we think of as a “book” has changed and what our different ways of accessing and possessing books say about us. He examines the book as a basis of personal identity and relationships with other people. His learned and digressive history of the book contains many pleasing pieces of trivia about authors, libraries and bookshops, making it a perfect gift for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the three “interludes,” in which he explores three paintings that feature books.
There are a lot of talking points here for book lovers. Here are a few:
- Are you a true collector, or merely an “accumulator” of books? (Mole is the latter, as am I. “I have a few modest antiquarian volumes, but most of my books are paperbacks … I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and I suspect the books on my shelves reassure me that I really have learned something along the way.”)
- In Anne Fadiman’s scheme, are you a “courtly” or a “carnal” reader? The former keeps a book pristine, while the latter has no qualms about cracking spines or dog-earing pages. (I’m a courtly reader, with the exception that I correct all errors in pencil.)
- Is a book a commercial product or a creative artifact? (“This is why authors quite often cross out the printed version of their name when they sign. Their action negates the book’s existence as a product of industry or commerce and reclaims it as the product of their own artistic effort.”)
- How is the experience of reading an e-book, or listening to an audiobook, different from reading a print book? (There is evidence that we remember less when we read on a screen, because we don’t have the physical cues of a book in our hand, plus “most people could in theory fit a lifetime’s reading on a single e-reader.”)
I would particularly recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Alberto Manguel’s various books on libraries, and Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From.
A personal note: I was delighted to come across a mention of one of the visiting professors on my Master’s course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, Matthew Rubery. In the autumn term of 2005, he taught one of my seminars, “The Reading Revolution in the Victorian Period,” which had a Book History slant and included topics like serial publication, anonymity and the rise of the media. A few years ago Rubery published an academic study of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which Mole draws on for his discussion.
Two more favorite passages:
“when I’m reading, I’m not just spending time with a book, but investing time in cultivating a more learned version of myself.”
“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”
The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday 19th September. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
Almost halfway through the year: how am I doing on the reading goals I set for myself? So-so. I’m mostly managing one doorstopper and one classic per month, though sometimes I’ve had to fudge it a little with modern classics or a skim read. I’ve read precisely 0 travel classics, biographies, or re-reads, so those aims are a fail thus far. As to literature in translation, I’m doing better: it’s made up 8.1% of my reading, nearly double my 2018 percentage. And it looks like I’m on track to meet or exceed my Goodreads target.
(Exactly equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction books! What are the odds?!)
Male author: 41.3%
Female author: 56.7%
Non-binary author: 2%
(This is the first year when I’ve consciously read work by non-binary authors – three of them.)
Print books: 90.7%
(I seem to be moving further and further away from e-books now that they no longer make up the bulk of my paid reviewing.)
I always find it interesting to look back at where my books come from. Here are the statistics for the year so far, in both real numbers and percentages (not including books I’m currently reading, DNFs or books I only skimmed):
- Free print or e-copy from the publisher or author: 65 (43%)
- Public library: 31 (21%)
- Secondhand purchase: 21 (14%)
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 12 (8%)
- Gifts: 9 (6%)
- Free, e.g. from Book Thing of Baltimore, local swap shop or free mall bookshop: 5 (3.5%)
- University library: 4 (2.5%)
- New book purchase: 2 (1.5%)
- Borrowed: 1 (0.5%)
How are you doing on any reading goals you set for yourself?
Where do you get most of your books from?
My most prolific year yet! (I’m sure I said the same last year, but really, this is a number I will most likely never top and shouldn’t attempt to.) People sometimes joke to me, “why not shoot for a book a day?!” but that’s not how I do things. Instead of reading one book from start to finish, I almost always have 10 to 20 books on the go at a time, and I tend to start and finish books in batches – I’m addicted to starting new books, but also to finishing them.
(I think this is the first time nonfiction has surpassed fiction! They’re awfully close, though. I read a bit less poetry this year than last.)
Male author: 38.1%
Female author: 61.9%
(Roughly the same thing has happened the last two years, which I find interesting because I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 84.3%
(In 2016 I read one-third e-books; in 2017 it was one-quarter. For some reason I seem to find e-books less and less appealing. They are awfully useful for traveling. However, I’ve been cutting back on the reviewing gigs that rely on me reading only e-books.)
Works in translation: 4.8%
(Ouch – my reading in translation almost halved compared to last year. I’m going to have to make a point of reading more translated work next year.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 28.7%
- Public library: 20.8%
- Secondhand purchase: 20.6%
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 14.9%
- Gifts: 5%
- Free (giveaways, GET Free Bookshop, Book Thing of Baltimore, etc.): 3.8%
- University library: 3.2%
- New purchase (usually at a bargain): 1.5%
- Kindle purchase: 0.9%
- Borrowed: 0.6%
Some interesting additional statistics courtesy of Goodreads:
How did 2018 turn out for you reading-wise?
Happy New Year!
I find it interesting to look back at where my books come from, and how this changes from year to year. So far this year, it seems like I’m reading fewer e-books and more from various libraries. I’m also doing a bit better about reading the secondhand books I already own, but – like last year – the largest proportion of my reading is still review copies of new books.
Here are the statistics for the year so far, in both real numbers and percentages (not including the books I’m currently reading, DNFs and books I only skimmed BUT including picture books, which I don’t count towards my yearly total):
- Free print or e-copy from the publisher or author: 45 (28%)
- Public library: 42 (26%)
- Secondhand purchase: 29 (18%)
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 27 (17%)
- University library: 8 (5%)
- Gifts: 5 (3%)
- Twitter giveaway win: 3 (2%)
- New (bargain) book purchase: 1 (0.5%)
- Kindle purchase: 1 (0.5%)
Where do you get most of your books from?
This challenge Laura (Reading in Bed) posted the other day is just too fun for me to pass up, plus it allows me to get a jump on my 2017 statistics. The idea is to look at the last 30 books you’ve read and note where you got hold of each one – whether from the publisher, the library, new or secondhand at a bookshop, etc. If you wish, you can also look at the whole year’s books and work out percentages. Leave a comment to let me know what you figure out about your own books’ provenance.
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, Naoki Higashida: Public library
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work, Miranda K. Pennington: E-book from Edelweiss
The Great Profundo and Other Stories, Bernard MacLaverty: Secondhand copy from Book-Cycle, Exeter
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris: Free from the Book Thing of Baltimore
Finding Myself in Britain: Our Search for Faith, Home and True Identity, Amy Boucher Pye: Christmas gift from my Amazon wish list last year
No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine, Rachel Pearson: PDF from publisher
At Seventy: A Journal, May Sarton: Secondhand copy from Wonder Book and Video
A Wood of One’s Own, Ruth Pavey: Free from publisher
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold: University library
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Vol. II, M.R. James: Free from publisher
This Little Art, Kate Briggs: Free from publisher
Reputations, Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Gift from a Goodreads friend
The Rector’s Daughter, F.M. Mayor: Secondhand copy from a charity shop
An English Guide to Birdwatching, Nicholas Royle: Gift from a Goodreads friend
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnovich: E-book from Edelweiss
Unruly Creatures: Stories, Jennifer Caloyeras: PDF from author
One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness, Mike Medaglia: Free from publisher
A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives, Lisa Congdon: PDF from publisher
Dreadful Wind and Rain: A Lyrical Fairy Tale, Diane Gilliam: Won in Twitter giveaway
As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths: Free from publisher
Devil’s Day, Andrew Michael Hurley: E-book from NetGalley
Interlibrary Loan Sharks and Seedy Roms: Cartoons from Libraryland, Benita L. Epstein: University library
Skating at the Vertical: Stories, Jan English Leary: E-book from NetGalley
Master Georgie, Beryl Bainbridge: Free from work staff room years ago
The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin: Free proof copy for Bookbag review
Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, Susan Hill: Free from publisher
Slade House, David Mitchell: Public library
The Lauras, Sara Taylor: Free for Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel reading
Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman: Birthday gift from my Amazon wish list
A Field Guide to the North American Family, Garth Risk Hallberg: Free from publisher
And the statistics for 2017 so far:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 30.11% (Wow – how lucky am I?!)
- Downloaded from NetGalley or Edelweiss: 22.3%
- Public library: 18.22%
- Secondhand purchase: 15.24%
- Free (other) = from giveaways or Book Thing of Baltimore: 6.69%
- Gifts: 6.32%
- University library: 1.12%
As an inveterate book sniffer and hoarder of musty paperbacks, I was always skeptical about e-readers—that is, until I got my first one three years ago. A birthday present from my husband, my Nook soon became an essential tool in my working life. A year and a bit later, I was sent a Kindle on “permanent loan” through one of my reviewing gigs, and it has quickly become one of my most prized possessions. I know some of my blog readers don’t read e-books at all, and I can sympathize with certain of your feelings. But here are five reasons I love my e-readers, followed by why they will never replace print books for me.
- A portable library. I often have between 250 and 300 books on my Kindle. Hundreds of books right at my fingertips, all in a slim 4 x 6 ″ rectangle! If I’m ever stuck somewhere due to delayed or broken-down transport, I’ll never be without ample choices of reading material. E-readers are perfect for cutting down on luggage when traveling (I had to cull 14 books from my suitcase on my last trip to America to stay under the weight limit) and are my usual choice for reading in the car. The Nook’s built-in light is especially useful on nighttime drives. As much as I love my print library, moving house frequently—as we have done over the past decade—always reminds you just how much weight and space books represent.
- Digital review copies. Being willing and able to read PDF and ePUB books is the only thing that has allowed me to work for lots of American companies, which is where the reviewing money seems to be. I can also request advance access to books through NetGalley and Edelweiss, particularly titles not yet published in the UK; and any Kindle downloads do not expire. When traveling I have occasionally found it useful to put other kinds of documents on my Kindle as PDFs, too, like maps and confirmation e-mails. Since I’ve never had a smartphone, this is a kind of compromise between all print and all online.
- Searching and fact-checking. My e-readers’ search function has been invaluable when writing reviews. Often I’ll need to check facts like a character’s last name, the exact city in California, when someone makes their first appearance, or how often a particular word or phrase appears. For instance, I felt that a certain quotation was overused in a memoir, so did a search for it and, indeed, found 12 occurrences!
- Moving between books. I generally have 3 or 4 Kindle books of different genres on the go at any one time, and it couldn’t be easier to move between them with a few finger taps. I’ll often switch books after every couple of chapters, or when I reach a milestone percentage.
- Perfect for certain situations. An e-reader is less obtrusive for reading in public, especially now that etiquette doesn’t seem to preclude phone and tablet use in company. It’s also easier to get one out when you’re going just a few stops on a crowded subway system. I turn to my Kindle for reading over solitary meals/snacks or any other activity that requires my hands, like using a hairdryer. When I think about the lengths I once went to in my former life as a library assistant to read print books—holding pages open with a precariously balanced apple or the edge of a plate during meal breaks; hiding books under the service desk for surreptitious reading at a quiet moment—I think how silly I was not to get an e-reader sooner!
Yet there are definitely things I don’t like about using an e-reader:
- E-books don’t feel like “real” books; I treat them as temporary and disposable and don’t do any nostalgic rebrowsing.
- Battery life can be an issue, though not as often as you might think. (During a period of average use my Kindle probably lasts two weeks, and you can charge it either via a USB cable or at a wall plug.)
- My Nook has a pretty small capacity.
- There are no page numbers on Kindle, just percentages and numerical locations.
- (A pathetic admission) I still haven’t figured out how to highlight passages on my e-readers!
- Because I’m fine with e-copies I don’t get free print books out of most of my review gigs.
- I can’t easily browse the covers/blurbs/first few pages of books to remind myself what they are and decide what I’m in the mood for—as a result, there are dozens of books on my Kindle whose titles I barely recognize.
- I sometimes wonder whether my concentration on and retention of words read on a screen are inevitably lower.
I still love books as physical objects: beautiful covers, delicious smells, the heft of them in your hand and the chance to flick through pages. I like having big stacks of them around as visible signs of progress made and challenges still to come. Arranging and rearranging my library on bookshelves is a periodic treat. So although my e-readers are extremely useful tools, using them is not an unadulterated joy; they will only ever supplement paper books for me, not replace them. I think it’s telling that when given a choice between print and electronic formats—like if I come across an available public library copy of a book I know I have on my Kindle—I’ll choose the print book every time.
How do you feel about e-readers?
You can never have too many books. But it’s entirely possible to have too many on the go at one time, or too many on the physical to-read pile (as opposed to the virtual to-read list; mine currently numbers in the thousands over at Goodreads). I was prompted to think about this at the end of 2014, when I went around our flat and counted all my owned but unread books that I still wanted to read. At that point I counted 155.
One of my reading goals for 2015 was born: I would attempt to read more of the books I actually own – at least enough to keep pace with my secondhand book buying habit. So yesterday afternoon, expecting to be heartened by my progress, I did a recount. Result? 180.
WHAT?! The number went up! Gah!
It must be that all-paperbacks-for-£1 shopping spree we did at the bookshop in Henley-on-Thames…and then I brought some books back in my suitcase on our last trip to America…plus a few more review copies have arrived.
There are books all over the flat: in the spare room, on the bedroom bookcase, on the bedside tables, on the hallway bookcase, on a big four-shelf case in the lounge, on desk shelves, even in an overflow area on the shelving unit of board games, jigsaw puzzles, CDs and DVDs.
And that’s not counting the dozens of approved e-books awaiting download on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and the others already on my Nook and Kindle e-readers. It’s nigh on impossible to say no to free books, after all.
Okay, so I’ve established that I have a book hoarding obsession that extends into both the print and electronic realms. (It’s no surprise I worked for a website called Bookkaholic for two years, is it?) But is this really such a problem? It’s somehow comforting to know that I’ll never run out of reading material.
A related concern, though, is this: Am I reading too many books at once? I have 13 on the go at the moment (8 print and 5 electronic). Especially since I got my Nook, I find that I’ve developed a kind of ADHD when it comes to books. It’s so easy to click from one book to another that I sometimes don’t stick with one for more than a chapter at a time. Sometimes, if I’m in a rut, I’ll read the first few pages of 10 or more books before I manage to settle on one.
Up until college, I was the kind of person who faithfully read just one book at a time. Since then, though, I’ve become convinced of the merit of having two or more on the go at a time: at least one novel and at least one work of nonfiction, maybe with some poetry thrown in. If you have nonfiction from very different genres – for instance, a spiritual autobiography and a nature book; or a travel book and a foodie memoir – you could read multiple nonfiction books at the same time.
The benefits are multiple.
- If you’re bored with one book, spend time with another one. You can always go back.
- Sometimes a pairing is fortuitous – what you’re learning in one book will have bearing on another, or the same historical figure will turn up in both.
- The psychological burden of having a tall stack of books staring you down may encourage you to read more.
Yet there are disadvantages.
- With novels and short story collections, you may get characters and storylines mixed up if you have too many in your head at once.
- You’ll make progress in all the books more slowly.
- If you get gripped by one, you might abandon the others temporarily.
How many books do you read at once?
What do you think is an ideal number?
How do you manage your (physical or virtual) to-read shelf?