What I read in January: More than I thought I could.

January 2016 books

I read eight books in January, totaling a little over 4,000 pages. No one is more surprised than I am, believe me. That’s very likely more than I read for the entirety of last year, not that I was keeping track. I used to read a lot as a kid, probably right up until I left home for college. But ever since then, I’ve avoided it a little. Not that I haven’t read at all – I did read for school, and I would pick up a book here or there that caught my fancy. But not like this. Not like I used to.

I think part of it was that I felt like I had so much to learn that I couldn’t get from a book. Properly directing my attention, which has always been prodigious, is an ongoing struggle for me. I paid endless attention to books, as a child. I could read for unbroken hours, a whole day even. I used to finish my schoolwork as flawlessly and quickly as I could with the express purpose of getting back to the book I’d hidden in my desk without hearing reproach from my teachers. It was hard for them to complain, since I did so well in school, probably in no small part due to my endless and avid reading. But I did miss out on the things you learn outside of books: how to be a friend. How to make new friends. Social rules. Small talk. How to make a joke. How to take a joke. When to break the rules. Who I am outside of a book. What I could make and do. I had decided, at some point during my then-brief and intensely focused life, that those things didn’t matter. How that came to be is another story, perhaps. But of course they do matter, as I know now, and I was forced to spend most of my late teens and early twenties learning them, making up for lost time. So I turned my attention to them and away from reading.

Finally, this fall, after struggling for the past two years with the stunted attention span that comes from the sleep deprivation and constant multitasking required by new parenthood, I decided it was time to come back. I decided I would stop scanning Facebook at night before bed and instead pick up a book. I would read books on airplanes instead of magazines. I would get my attention span back on track, dammit. And I would start with a fantasy book recommended by my cousin: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I knew I could get into that.

My decision kicked off a month of mindless, voracious consumption. Doesn’t sound very romantic or intellectual, does it? It wasn’t. I immensely enjoyed the time I spent this month reading. But it was all done very much in the spirit of binge-watching every existing episode of Battlestar Galactica. I finished The Name of the Wind and its follow up, The Wise Man’s Fear, about a musician-warrior named Kvothe, in quick succession, and was dismayed to find that the third book of the trilogy hasn’t been published yet. I found the second book of the series orders of magnitude better than the first, and I felt it provided depth that enriched what I’d read in the first book, although I did enjoy both. (As a result, I might have unrealistic expectations of the third.) I turned to historical fiction with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which managed to be a book about both the development of the theory of evolution as well as spiritual growth. It was a very good read. I picked up Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, a book I’ve been meaning to read about the infamous eco-anarchist’s first season in Arches National Park as a park ranger. I was simultaneously captivated and appalled by this book, which about a quarter of the way through I naturally began to read in the voice of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. I am quite sure I have another post coming about that one. (Update: Here is that review.) I wanted more nature stories after that, so I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. I love Bill Bryson – he’s funny and smart and always puts in the legwork whenever there is relevant history or science to be mined for interestingness – but this book was not my favorite of his. So I returned to fantasy with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City. These were YA books, come to find out, and very quick reads. I enjoyed them very much for what they were. I think there is one more out there, but I had some dragon-themed 19th century alternate history to catch up on, so I switched to Victory of Eagles, the fifth in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik featuring a very fun twist on the Battle of Waterloo, and finished it up yesterday.

I stacked up the books and surveyed them. This, I suppose, is what I read when I’m grabbing any interesting-looking paperback within reach – mostly fantasy, with a touch of history and a sprinkling of wilderness-related narrative nonfiction. Coward that I am, I avoided setting a Goodreads annual reading goal until I’d finished this month and set my goal to put me well ahead of the curve for my goal (50 books this year). With my son due at the end of April, however, I will never keep up this pace. I’ll end up falling asleep in books again come May, with newsprint letters impressed on my cheek and forehead where I fall, losing track of my place and which book I’m reading, anyway, and where I’ve left the damn thing. I’ll be lucky to get through one or two per month, then. But for now, heavy and round as I am and cold and windy as it is outside, there’s not much better for me to do, to be quite honest.

I didn’t consciously plan out my reading list or set any expectations. So far, the pool of authorship is rather lacking in diversity – all American, all white, mostly men. I managed only two books of eight by women. I don’t regret any of the reading I did, to be clear – it was all time well spent, and I think if you have an interest in the genres in question, you may enjoy these. But I do want to be more intentional about my choices in the future, both in topic and in authorship, because I strongly value getting as many perspectives as possible, from people who are as different from me as possible. I think we all need more of that.

I learned that I’m not interested in giving books stars or ratings. I have tried, in the past, but it just frustrates me. I don’t think the value you get from a book can be quantified so neatly. Desert Solitaire probably drove that point home more than any other book this month, for me. I both loved it and hated it. I argued out loud, rolled my eyes, laughed in amusement and horror, underlined both profoundly insightful and unbelievably delusional paragraphs, and sympathized with the author even as I was irritated with him. There is no way to assign a number from one to five to that feeling. I could give it each of those ratings, and more besides. In every case, it feels presumptuous, reductive, and disrespectful to authors, whose work we readers summarily rank and dismiss as though their books were particularly troublesome brands of pens on Amazon. I didn’t like that he killed that poor rabbit: one star. I, too, hate civilization: five stars. It generally has very little thought or engagement with the content of the book and more often than not misses the point entirely. Imagine contemporaries ranking classical paintings! Why is the nose on the side of his face? This Picasso guy is a hack. One star. That nude lady is hot, thanks, Rubens! Five stars.

Overall, this month was encouraging. I was gratified to see how my attention span had recovered – with a newborn, infant, or toddler, it can feel very much as though it might never come back – and very heartened to realize how much time I was able to find to read (although it admittedly does not say much good about how I was managing it previously). I’m on a bit of a roll with Temeraire, so I’ll probably start there. I’ve decided to make these “What I Read” updates monthly and regular. I’ll let you know in March how February goes.


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