I read 104 books this year! Not including 10 books that I started and gave up on. Goodreads tells me that’s 32,886 pages, which seems like an awful lot of pages. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I averaged a steady clip of 2 books per week, but I’m also starting to suspect that I’ve been approaching these reading challenges as an end in and of itself—that is, as a metric to be tracked and gamified, not for the pure enjoyment of reading. Growth mentalities are unsustainable everywhere, even in beloved hobbies. In 2020, I’d like to make a conscious effort to read fewer books more deeply, to re-read books that have shaped my thinking, and with any luck, to write more about them.
At any rate, here’s the customary roundup of stats and arbitrary callouts:
|At least one female author||75||72.12% (+)|
|At least one POC author||23||22.12% (-)|
|At least one Canadian author||13||12.5%|
|Sci-fi and fantasy||19||18.27%|
I didn’t set out to mostly read books by women, but I’m not upset that this is how things ended up. I’m pretty annoyed though that the rate of POC authors in my list is so low, which is something I’d like to remedy more consciously next year. I think part of the reason for this is because I fell down several rabbit holes of specific series (Dorothy L. Sayers, Tamora Pierce, Josephine Tey, Seanan McGuire, Martha Wells) written by white women that took up a solid quarter of my year, but that’s an explanation, not an excuse.
Favourite books of the year
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien This is one of the first books I read this year and whew, what a way to start the year. It’s a sprawling intergenerational story of the complexities of family, the meaning of revolution, and the endurance of the human spirit. More specifically, it ties together the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and its echoes in Tiananmen Square with the struggle to create a home as a first-generational immigrant and how little we really know our parents. Those things hit particularly home for me in my personal history for a variety of reasons, but really, I was hooked from the first line: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino I read this book late in the year but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s a book of essays by one of my favourite cultural critics, and it explores themes around identity formation, self-delusion, and meaning-making in the internet age in an incredibly nuanced, clarifying, and provocative way.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov Considering how little I’ve enjoyed any other piece of Russian literature I’ve read I was really surprised by how delightful I found this book of…satire? class commentary? magical realism? Anyway, someone gets beaten around the head with a ham, and that’s not a euphemism.
Lockwood & Company series by Jonathan Stroud I really didn’t like what little I’ve read of the Bartimaeus series so I was surprised by how compelling this YA horror series was. London is beset by ghosts that only children can see and combat, and we follow the adventures of the only ghosthunting agency in the country run by a ragtag crew of said children. There’s a conspiracy, but of course there is.
Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers I wasn’t super impressed with Whose Body when I read it last year, so I wasn’t expecting to come back to the Peter Wimsey series again.(There might be a theme emerging here, and the theme is that I’m a grouch?) But someone recommended book 12 in the series to me (Gaudy Night) which features the inimitable Harriet Vane, and I loved it so much I went back and read every novel I could find. Wimsey is kind of the platonic ideal of the gentleman sleuth, with a dash of noblesse oblige and class haughtiness but I…don’t mind? Plus, he gets put in his place a bunch by Harriet, and that’s just delightful.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik I have a mixed history with Naomi Novik, mostly because I loved the first Temeraire book and then gave up on the rest of the series in a fury with all of the racist nonsense in the second book, but then really loved Uprooted. This book has a very similar style and tone to Uprooted but isn’t actually in the same universe or series, which I think was the right choice. It’s a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in a context of Slavic folklore, with a dash of confronting antisemitism and triumphing through the power of…budgeting? Anyway, it was great, there were three really solid heroines, none of whom do dumb things for boys, and what more do you want?
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston This delightful queer romance is like a salve on the wounds left by the past 3-4 years of political turmoil. The son of the first female president of the United States falls in love with the crown prince of England. Hijinks ensue.
Circe by Madeline Miller This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone Blanca y Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore These three books don’t have much in common except that they are novel takes on classical fantasy tropes or stories and they are united by just absolutely beautiful prose. Literary beauty is not the thing I value the most in the books I read so when I notice it, I really notice it.
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch The least of what this book does is examine the ways in which the ubiquity of electronic communication and the resulting proliferation of informal writing has changed our language. The analysis is good-natured, humourous, and accessible, and there’s tons of great insight about the lifecycle of community formation and the cohorts on the internet, not to mention memes. At its best, however, it makes a compelling case for how the main purpose of language is to enable us to understand one another in more meaningful ways, and how the increasing arsenal of tools at our disposal only bring us ever more nuance. It’s a lovely love letter to the power of language evolution. (And I promise I’m not just saying that because Gretchen’s a good friend of mine.)
Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris This is a really great analysis of the economic context that the millennial generation came to age in, written by a millennial author who acknowledges that generational analysis is largely bullshit. I especially appreciated its insights around how the notion of investing in one’s education is a downloading of the risk of human capital from corporations to individuals, and how this commodification of learning starts as early as preschool.
Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas The thesis of this book is about how the wealthy and powerful use philanthropy both to shield themselves from criticism and to advance a vision of the world that appears socially liberal but which actually reinforces the status quo. That thesis by itself makes this book worth reading, but the piece that’s stayed with me is how meaningful intellectual pursuit gets diluted into fifteen minute soundbites, how that process is often an intentional defanging of valid criticism of power structures, and how the academics who set out to dismantle hegemonies get swallowed up by those same systems and lose their conviction that change is possible at all. Oh, and there’s also quite a bit of analysis about the Consulting Method exemplified by McKinsey et al that’s particularly salient given how much McKinsey’s been in the news recently for, uh, advancing genocide.
Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare This is a book about disability justice written by a disabled queer trans activist who has overcome incredible obstacles in his life to be where he is, and the overwhelming thing I remember from this book is just how poetic and gracious his writing is. It deals with the complicated concept of cure in disability justice, and challenged a lot of my thinking around what it means for society to be disabling. I look forward to re-reading it soon.
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg Sometimes when people tell you to read the source text, you should really read the source text. Nonviolent communication is a concept I was familiar with and thought I was good at practicing, but Rosenberg’s original text has much more nuance around the meaning of need in human relationships that was new to me, and that I found incredibly influential.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder This book is about the journeys of downwardly mobile elderly Americans whose dwindling economic options and destroyed retirement plans have left them no choice but to become nomads traveling the land in search of gig economy and Amazon warehouse jobs with ever deteriorating conditions. It’s profoundly depressing, as can be expected, but also weirdly hopeful in some ways, as people manage to find ways of persevering even in the face of what seem like overwhelming adversity. (However, I also feel very conflicted about the fact that people managing to find hope in despair can often be a barrier to the kind of collective action required to pull all of them out of those circumstances. Multitudes, etc.)
Boom Town by Sam Anderson This was the weirdest non-fiction book I’ve ever read and I loved every minute. I don’t care about Oklahoma, basketball, frontier culture, or the Flaming Lips, and yet ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.