Year in review: 2017

Well. So much for the whole “write more about books in 2017” resolution!

That said, looking back at my 2017-in-preview post, I can say I was…sort of, kind of on-point this year. I mean, not completely. But sort of! I’ll take it!

While I definitely did not make any conscious dents in contemporary literature—which I did not plan to do—nor did I do much to improve my focus—and, in fact, fell dangerously close to losing any sense of it entirely—I did manage to land my book count at 42 for the year, bouncing past 40 for the first time in many years.

That’s fun.

Reading is fun.

I did focus on the TBR pile for a while, knocking off a number of fat books, some recently acquired, some that had been lingering for a while, despite my best intentions. The pile was definitely smaller, by the end of the year. Which is cool. I mean, yeah, spoiler alert, I’m not repeating that exercise this year, and between Christmas gifts and post-Christmas sales, I’ve already undone some of that quote-unquote “hard” “work.” Which I am so totally cool with because it means I’m totally smart and attractive. Except maybe I made up the part about being attractive. Who’s to say when there’s all these books to read!

There were a few “I’m all done with you, but thanks for playing” moments along the way. I forgave myself—for once and for all (until the next time I try)—for not being able to get into Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I like Dickens. I’ve read a number of long Dickens books, but for some reason, every time I pick that one up, I get about a hundred pages into it and, just drift off into the ether. It’s happened at least three times now I think. I did power through Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, despite not actually enjoying it all that much, and The Gold-Bug Variations by Richard Powers, which I sort of liked, I guess, though I wanted to like it more than I did. (College-age Darby would have loved the hell out of it, I think.) I’ve liked other Powers books much more than this one, though, so I think it might have just been bad timing.

There were other books in that first half of the year I did enjoy plenty! The Nix by Nathan Hill! A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara! The Night Watch by Sarah Waters! I’d like to single out More Curious by Sean Wilsey, an absolutely fantastic book of creative essays. Give it love. And money. The essay on skateboarding made me wish I’d taken up skateboarding, back before I got old and developed fear.

I also knocked a William Vollmann off the pile, which almost always feels like a Herculean task. I can now say The Royal Family is among the most readable, purely enjoyable Vollmann I’ve ever read. I mean, as enjoyable as as story about prostitutes and drugs and death and weird, dark shit can be.I broke this one up over the course of the year, reading about 200 pages every three months or so; I enjoyed the story but it was not a world I needed to sink into for 800 straight pages. Even if it still felt like escapist literature, compared to, you know, the reality we live in today. Good times! I can also safely say I’m probably full up on Vollmann for a while. At least until he publishes something else. Or I get conked over the head and wake up midway through a binge-read of Argall. Who knows!

There was pulpy fun to be had along the way. I finished Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn series, plowing through all 1300+ pages of The Naked God during nap breaks over a long vacation week. It wasn’t even close to being the most well-written thing I’ve ever read, and it would be hard to recommend it to anyone who is not now or does not remember being once a thirteen year old boy. (It’s not exactly…feminist.) But it was enjoyable, if occasionally cringe-inducing, and it scratched an itch for an oversized space-opera with a well-defined ending, and it did a surprisingly good job of wrapping up nearly 4000 pages worth of plot in basically the last few pages. A bit later I read The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. Dark. I look forward to reading the sequel, someday.

So the first half of the year was a successful attempt at shrinking the TBR pile, but then things got a bit weird turning toward late summer. I think I was fried on my long-books TBR pile so I gave up trying to eliminate it, turning away from it so I could get some shorter books in my life. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze and Amatka by Karin Tidbeck were both great fun. I couldn’t wait to pick up Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, because I love me some Swedish crime, and some Other Press, and some Swedish crime from Other Press. I do hope they get to publish more books in the series!

And then things started to get dark. I was reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I absolutely loved—fantastic fantasy/fairy-tale style tale, awesome use of magic, a complex portrait of a young lady coming into her powers, sexy bits—but I was reading it, like, practically a couple lines per sitting, a page or two at a time. It did not have the attention from me it deserved. It felt like my mind was dying. And then I went on and read Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, which I think was supposed to be my jam, but mostly I just felt jammed up.

I decided, or realized, that I was burned out on fiction. Maybe too much fiction was making me feel kind of dumb, and going “lighter” in my choices wasn’t helping. I also blame the world, which kind of sucked all the fun out of the room. And so I went on to reboot my brain with a rock-block of non-fiction, sort of steering into the reality-crash skid. This, oddly, was probably one of the smartest reading decisions I’ve made in a long time. Cumulatively, I think these books got me out of my head, made me feel semi-intelligent again, and reignited my hunger for the written word. Reading is cool again!

Of note from this block, I found Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann eye-opening. Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates made Puritans way more interesting than I ever might have expected. And Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall felt like a tidily terrifying summary of how the entire world is on a knife’s edge of descending into global chaos at a moment’s notice, and however awful things might feel, they could certainly actually still be worse. I really loved this one; but I want people smarter than me who I trust to read this book and confirm or correct my reaction to it, and to suggest the books I should follow it up with, to help me flesh out my admitted ignorance of global affairs.

Memoirs are a good way to remind you that Your Life Is Not The Only Kind Of Life That There Is. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was enchanting, and a well-timed choice. Even more extreme was The Cook Up, by D. Watkins. I can’t lie: it felt like fiction, it felt almost unbelievable in its depiction of a reality that I’ll never come close to experiencing. It felt…humbling? That might not be the right word, but.

And, hey, don’t worry, fiction and I have not broken up, but, in fact, we’re probably better than ever. I even got back on that Proust shit and finished off Within a Budding Grove. I flip pretty frequently between finding Proust awesome and finding Proust maddening but my general thought is I enjoyed this book more than Swann’s Way. Is that weird? That might be weird. I don’t know.

I also got some more short story collections into the mix, dipping into them between other books, finishing off two along the way—my first full Margaret Atwood book, Stone Mattress, and the highly enjoyable Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. What’s more, I even read more poetry this year! Specifically, I read one book of poetry: Saint Friend, by Carl Adamshick. I liked quite a bit of it. “I should do this more often,” I thought, making no concrete plans to actually do this more often.

And so yeah. 2017. I had an okay year! I read a lot of books, I spent a lot of time in the car with my kid, I managed to not fall down flat on my face at my day job, I biked my first metric century, I don’t think I annoyed anybody too much, and I survived the political hellscape that is America. Onward!

Year in preview: 2017

Things I don’t typically do:

  • Keep up very well with contemporary literature. As in like published-right-now literature. Maybe once upon a time I dabbled closer to that, when I was actively pursuing book reviewing as a thing I was trying to do. So, so long ago. But really not so much anymore. Theoretically, I’d like to, more than I do, so I can feel like I’m more a part of more conversations, but I don’t. Partially because I don’t
  • Read nearly as many books as I’d like to. It feels like once upon a time I closed in on that book-a-week pace over the course of an entire year, but that might also be rose-colored rear-view mirrors. I hit 35 books in 2016, 37 the year before that, which does put me stratospherically above many people, based on flimsy stats I’ve half scanned or invented, but it’s not nearly enough, obviously. I attribute this in part to the fact that I don’t
  • Focus terribly well. I don’t sit well for long periods of time, eyes on the page, pages turning almost invisibly, like flowing water. Pointless social media trolling hurts me a bit, a stupid number of professional- and/or hobbyist-level interests also suck up time, but I’m also just generally a bit restless, likely as not to seek out distraction when the task doesn’t require me to have my hands on it. Great for my rockstar coder lifestyle, less good for, like, just, thinking, and stuff.

I have absolutely no plans to solve the above problems.

I mean, if they’re indeed problems. Though I do suspect an increased focus on my inability to focus would be a generally beneficial one, at the least.

That said, these “shortcomings” do rattle around in my head as I think ahead toward what I loosely plan to attempt to do this coming year.

Typically I don’t make specific plans for the year ahead, and I wouldn’t say I’m setting a script in motion this year either, but it does feel like a good year to put a little structure around my reading list. My TBR pile isn’t insane—a few years back, I think, I forget when, I did a concerted effort to focus all my efforts on working the pile down, either via reading or dumping, and I think the residual effect of that effort still lingers in the size and shape of the pile today. At least in so far as it it not absolutely ungainly, still.

I don’t plan on going quite so hard-core this year, because, I mean, buying books and being gifted books is a pleasure, and I’ve also made better use of the local library over the last few years, which is also a pleasure, and, well, pleasure is nice. And I suspect pleasure, done right, could be made great use of in the coming years. Ahem. But I have grown conscious of a sub-set of books in the pile marked by no other commonality than that they’re all kind of longer and feel slightly more ambitious than other books and are often easily passed over in favor of not-as-long and maybe not-so-ambitious books when I’m looking for my next book to read. And I think it might feel good to put a little effort into focusing on those titles for a while and feeling like I’m putting in some good progress on actually reading all the things I really do think I do want to read. Or at least finding a few more titles I can maybe forgive myself of, allowing them to move on to other pastures, while new challenges slip in to take their place.

So there’s about 14.5 inches of 2017 I’d like to get through, right there. It could be an interesting list. There’s a Nabokov in there and another Vollmann, a Dickens, the second volume of Proust. Other things. I expect that part of the pile (which I’ve formally made a well-defined part of the pile) to shift and slide a bit as the year progresses. But hopefully it won’t grow too dusty.

As for other plans for the year, it’s a bit nebulous, really. Not really plans, so much as things I’ll probably think about as the year goes on:

  • I grew conscious of the fact that in 2016 my efforts to diversify the genders of the authors I read fell apart, which is baffling but also sort of not. So I need to do something about that. Because, jeez. C’mon.
  • I’d like to get some poetry into the mix, but, and this might sound dumb, I sort of don’t know…how, I guess. It’s a kind of reading that doesn’t seem to mesh well with how I read these days. That’s something I’d like to figure out.
  • I read more non-fiction in 2016 than I have in ages, and I’d like to keep that going. I’d like to work in more essays, as well. This probably won’t make for a huge percentage of what I read, but I’d like it to continue to feel less like a statistical glitch, more like something with some intent behind it.
  • And then there’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, which I’m probably not going to devote four months to reading cover-to-cover, but which I’d like to get a plan in place to make some honest headway on. I started it in 2016 and I dig it but I realized when I picked it back up later in the year that I was going to have to plan my reading of it a bit better if I was going to make more coherent sense of it. I’m not quite sure what that entails but I think it involves more marginal notes and shorter gaps between sessions with it. We’ll see.
  • And, really, I think I do want to allot some time to re-read a notable book or two, because there’s so many books I say I think I’d like to consider re-reading, but it’s so hard to do. But maybe just identifying even one to spend some time with again would be enough. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Gravity’s Rainbow. Or Perdido Street Station. Or A Visit from the Goon Squad. Or The American Girl. Or you, Summer of Dostoevsky 2006 Project II: The ReDostoevskying. Or…

Which, well, there’s what 2017 may or may not look like.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also the bit about wanting to write about books again. Like, here, on this blog, at least. Because—and I mean this with all the love I can muster right now for the entirety of the contemporary human condition as it chills in the long cold shadow of human history—tweet storms, as a method of complex interpersonal communication, can go ahead and fuck right off. And, if I can, in my own tiny, insignificant, likely unnoticed way, breathe a tiny bit of life into this blog this year and contribute some small amount of noise to the legitimate signal? I’d like to think that’s worth something.

And, well, I think I miss the way we used to be.