The Year in Reading

The Year in Reading

1st Jan 2020

As I have mentioned, I fell back in love with reading this year after an upsettingly long dry spell. Although it feels shameful to admit, I don't think it's uncommon -- especially when the season of raising children hits -- but these fallow stretches can happen for a variety of reasons. It took a very long time for me to let go of hang-ups from academia and to get to a point in home and business life that I felt I had the space for it again. But returning to it this year has been life-giving.  I finished the year having read 24 books—two not pictured—and parts of others that I didn’t finish. Next year’s goal is to average three titles a month, but I’m less hung up on numbers than I am on the daily practice. I feel like a window was thrown wide open in my life this year, and I know for a fact it came from regular reading and all the inspiration it offered.

Notes on some favorites, in no particular order:

  • Although I only pulled Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs off the shelf because it had been gathering dust so long, it was one of my favorite books of the year. The ways in which the personal computer and smartphone have reshaped our human existence is hard to overstate (as I type this on a MacBook and you may well read this on an iPhone), and as I read, I felt shocked by how unquestioningly I had accepted these inventions without understanding more fully how they came into being. It was wildly informative and also an expertly-written portrait of one of the most exceptional visionaries of our time. I wrote more about that title here.
  • I took an online business coaching program this year called B-School, led by a woman named Marie Forleo. She also happened to come out with a book this year -- Everything is Figureoutable -- and I deeply appreciated both experiences. Her book is of the self-help ilk, and while I am generally a (too?) skeptical reader of self-help, I was admittedly moved by this book. Forleo's primary mission is to help people pursue big, ambitious dreams and goals that, for whatever reason, so many of us tend to shut down or put indefinitely on the back burner. Fear, finances, bad timing -- we have lots of familiar excuses for setting our biggest dreams and goals aside, but she offers so many of her own personal anecdotes as well as stories from her coaching practice that remind readers how vital our dreams are, how precious our time is, and how necessary it is for us to go after what we most want. Messages like this sound lovely but can often fizzle out without pragmatic assistance; consequently, what is so powerful about Forleo's book in my mind are the exercises she walks you through at the end of every chapter to help you articulate your biggest dreams and goals, to prioritize them and choose one to work on first, and then to break it down into manageable, scheduled actions so that little by little, you can start to envision getting there. Her approach helped me move past some major paralysis I had been struggling with on a couple of different fronts, and I can see now looking back that her mantra that "everything is figureoutable" has helped to mobilize me to learn through action rather than analysis, where I often get stuck. Highly recommend to anyone dreaming of a different life or circumstances and not knowing how to get there.
  • I reached out to a friend of mine from grad school who I only speak to sporadically these days simply to get his address for a holiday card. It fortuitously spurred a few texts back and forth, mainly about what we were reading. He very thoughtfully ended up sending me the two novels at the tippy top of the stack, and Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill knocked my socks off. It was primarily psychological and astonishingly poetic. And it performed an emotional gutting with such precision and mastery that I was grateful for the experience. I will be keeping this in my forever library and can't wait to reread simply to absorb the language again. Very Woolfian in some respects, and since Woolf is one of my all-time literary heroes, this one was a home run for me.
  • Sloane Crosley's Look Alive Out There is a delightful essay collection. A few essays focus on some of the idiosyncrasies of living in New York City, which is something I have long fantasized of doing, so those were a fascinating and amusing anthropological peek into a way of life rather foreign to the one I live in a single family home in a small town in the midwest. There are some other adult topics that are much more poignant and layered than I expected them to be, and although (or because?) the overall tone is somewhat sardonic, the last essay about freezing her eggs moved me to tears. 
  • Not pictured, a sleeper hit! Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright was -- and I mean this sincerely -- a hilarious book about plagues. When a fellow book club member chose this title, and I realized it was about plagues, I dragged my feet and could not have been less interested. And then, once I started reading, I couldn't stop. What makes this book so surprising is Wright's ability to take a horrendously grotesque subject and inject it with wry yet sympathetic reactions that critique leaders who had to deal with these plagues in different times and places. And to carry forward the lessons that would be useful were we to find ourselves in a similar situation. Months after reading this, I regularly think about a moment from the book that never fails to make me laugh. After quoting a fourth-century historian who describes how Marcus Aurelius sold royal possessions in the Forum of Trajan in order to subsidize Roman war efforts in the wake of what was believed to be a devastating smallpox outbreak, Wright observes, "I can't quite believe a ruler financed a war by having a crazy yard sale, but ancient Rome is surprising in many ways." I don't know why this makes me giggle so much, but it did, as did her take on everything else she presents. 

I'm singling out a few titles here simply by way of recommendation, but there really was not a bad one in the bunch. Since part of the new approach that has made reading more satisfying for me is allowing myself to move on if I don't love a book I'm reading, the positive consequence is that I love every book I finish. They were all great, and I'm happy to talk more about any of the ones I didn't dive into if you're curious.

What about you? Do you have any recommendations to share from your year? If so, I'd love to hear them! I've got an ever-growing stack of books for 2020 on my side table already, but if you're a bibliophile like me (which, if you've read this far, is obviously true), then you know that there's never not room for another.