2017 – A Year in Review

My Reading List for 2017 had only thirteen books on it but many of them were long – eight over 500 pages, three over 800 pages. By my standards it was going to be a challenge.

Unfortunately, I have not quite got there. As I write this I am not quite half of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch – the last book on the list. In my defence, I have not only read the other twelve but also read four additional books besides.

Three of those additional books I read when I was well-ahead of schedule and had the time to slip them in. It was deciding to read the fourth one, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that was really pushing things and broke the schedule’s back, especially coming late in the year when I still had two of the tougher reads –Middlemarch and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook – yet to read. So I will be beginning the new year a little behind schedule unfortunately.

It wasn’t just the length and difficulty of the books that held me back. This has been one of the most stressful years of my life. As well as being the stay-home parent to a two-year-old, I completed two courses of study. The exam stats for each suggest about 40% of my fellow students failed these courses. I’ve managed to do well but only by keeping to a punishing routine. I don’t think I will study next year, it will be even harder with a three-year old.

My 2018 List will be posted tomorrow and it will be as challenging as 2017’s so I am not sure how I will read it all, never mind writing reviews of them all, once my daughter ceases napping. Even if I don’t study, I will still be required to put in a certain number of hours of professional development, so there is that to consider as well. Plus, I have been reliably informed that I should expect another child to arrive sometime in the middle of next year (they take a while to assemble, you have to pre-order). If I can just find a little time during the day, only enough to read 10-12 pages, I should be ok, but I’m not sure I can do that.

 

If I had to pick my favourite books of the year, from amongst the fiction, I would have to go with The Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. As I said in my review of the third novel, Flood of Fire, I would recommend the trilogy strongly to almost anyone who likes reading – it has such broad appeal. I would also throw in one of the books I read in addition to my list – Staying On by Paul Scott – as among my favourites for the year. A very different tone from The Raj Quartet, it was very enjoyable. But my overall favourite for the year would be a non-fiction – Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

My least favourite book was probably The Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi; a tenth-century Persian epic poem. I feel a little bad for giving it a low rating. It is a little unfortunate since it is considered to be one of the world’s great literary achievements and one that is less well-known to Westerners, but I found this faithful translation just too repetitive and not interesting enough.

It is symptomatic of the usual internal battle I have between books I think will be entertaining, versus books I think will earn my respect, between the new and the classic, between what I want to read right now and books I have had lying around too long or otherwise feel an obligation to read. But of course you can never judge a book by anything until you have read it. How many books that you thought would be unputdownable turned out to be duds? How many you thought would be painful turned out to be enthralling.

 

It still irks me somewhat that views on this blog are still dominated by a few book review posts that are now very old and that new ones seem to have little impact. However, among the new posts this year there is a clear winner – my review of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. At the time of writing, it is easily the most viewed new post and seventh overall for the year. Of course, the fact that it was posted early in the year gives it considerable advantage against the arbitrary range of a calendar year. Fortunately, there are a few other reviews posted later that are matching The Mayor of Casterbridge for popularity by their own timelines.

It also irks me that there is a seasonal trend that seems to dominate the views on this blog which I suspect follows the northern-hemisphere school year – peaking around May and November and troughing around February and July. That trend continued in 2017 but it seems more erratic – most months are either well-above or below the trend line that followed 2016 very closely. I’m hoping this is an early sign that the trend is breaking up and not simply that its amplitude or some other variable is changing.

After July, the only month that had fewer views than the corresponding month last year, I began to wonder what I might do differently. One commenter suggested I should not necessarily do anything too different but I should stay focused on building up an ‘archive’ of reviews, which I felt was the right attitude to have. But is there any evidence that as I build this ‘archive’ – that is, as the new reviews I post become old reviews – that this is what drives a growth in views?

Well, I am not going to take you through all the calculations I did to find evidence for this, but the answer is no! It is true that views on this still-relatively-young blog are growing and the portion of those views that come from old posts is falling, but there is no correlation between the growth in views and the growth in an archive of reviews. Instead, the correlation between the amount of views and the time of year is very strong. Some months simply get more views than others and that seems to have the biggest say in how many views I get than anything I can see related to content. But who knows, maybe that will change.

2017 was also the year I finally got a Twitter account for this blog. I can’t say it has had much impact. I got about the same amount of referrals from Twitter as I did from Facebook, which is to say, not many. The amount I did get was mostly due to writer Amitav Ghosh retweeting my reviews of his novels. I have some plans for how to improve this blog’s Twitter profile but it takes time and effort, neither of which do I have much to spare.

Without giving away anything about tomorrow’s reveal of my 2018 Reading List, there is plenty to look forward to. There is the usual mix of the classic and the contemporary, the safe and the antagonistic, the exciting and the obligatory. And hopefully, despite preconceptions, plenty of pleasurable surprise.

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