Thanks to everyone who voted. The results are in and my 2019 Reading List is decided!
The first poll was to choose a book series for me to read in 2019. Perhaps predictably it came down to a bimodal choice between I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. What I also should have anticipated was the possibility of polls ending in a tie. In order to choose between the two options that ended with equal votes, I did the only thing I thought was fair – I asked my three-year-old to flip a coin. She did and it came up – Claudius!
The second poll, to choose a history book had a clear winner but also the first surprise of this process – Adrian Goldsworthy’s acclaimed biography of Caesar did not get a single vote! For most of the week, things were close between Beevor’s Stalingrad and Weir’s Eleanor, but Stalingrad pulled ahead at the end.
There was not much competition in classics week – Little Women a clear favourite with voters. Paradise Lost did not get a single vote. Do people see it as difficult, inaccessible or just not as interesting?
Science week produced the second surprise in the polls. The two books which I thought were the favourites, two books which have become classics of the genre – The Blind Watchmaker and The Blank Slate – struggled to get votes. Instead it was the later and less well-known books by Dawkins and Pinker that ran away with it, The Greatest Show on Earth winning in the end.
In modern classics week I was glad to see a return to a state where all four options got at least some votes. Of Mice and Men was the clear winner. Regardless of how I feel after reading it, such is Steinbeck’s acclaim that I think this will start me on a period of reading more of his work – at least The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden – since I have now finished with Thomas Hardy.
The Feminine Mystique was an early leader in the Religion/Philosophy poll but by the end it had been overtaken by AC Grayling’s biography of Descartes. Again, it was good to see all four options get votes.
The Contemporary Literature poll was the most conclusive of them all – an easy win for AS Byatt’s Possession. I thought it had a reputation for being slow and difficult but clearly some people must like it – or maybe just want to saddle me with it!
Making space for a book that tackles a contemporary issue is a new part of my annual list-making. I can’t simply wait until these books reach the top of my TBR pile as the issues are currently evolving and the books might become dated or even obsolete. This was one of the more popular polls in the whole project and each book attracted votes. The winner in the end was The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Making space for books that I have not made the effort to get a copy of and read – because my wife already has a copy – and therefore do not appear in my TBR pile, is another new effort in my annual list-making. This poll produced one of the clearest winners of the whole project – The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
The Indian Fiction poll inspired the most comments. Why isn’t Rohinton Mistry on the ballot? Because I’ve already read him! Not a lot of love for Rushdie out there but the poll did end with two clear winners and no need for tie-breaking – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil and The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh.
For much of the week, the final poll was looking like ending with a five-way tie! Then, a few more votes made it a four-way tie, before, fortunately, we had two winners – Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra and The Black Hole by Jan Dalley.
There are two more stats I would like to share before I get to the final list. The first is on the relative popularity of the polls. As you can see, we got off to a great start with a couple of early polls getting the most votes and then we plateaued somewhat from there with a bunch of regular friends and followers voting in most polls.
Before I began I had expected that fiction polls would be more popular and worried that non-fiction polls may not attract enough votes. In the end the difference in popularity between fiction and non-fiction polls was very small.
I said at the outset that if books of shorter length get chosen in the polls, and consequently the final list comes up a little short of being a challenging amount for me to read in a year, that I might pad my list with other books as long as they are not drawn from those unchosen in the polls. As it turns out, the poll results were a little light and in order to add some girth to the list I have had to add some more books.
The way this whole reading-list-by-poll thing came about was because I had planned to be reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy next year – with a bunch of other books I have lying around on the Tudors and the Reformation. But the delay in the publishing of the third novel of the trilogy has meant I’ve amended those plans somewhat. Instead I will probably spread out that reading over the next few years. In fact, as I write, I have almost finished Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I will continue on to read her biography of Henry VIII next year.
I did not have a poll on New Zealand fiction, though I do plan on making it a regular feature of my reading. Next year I will read Janet Frame’s The Carpathians.
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple was not a winner in the Indian Non-Fiction poll which was a shame because I am very keen to read it – maybe next year. But I do have another book I may have to read first – Saul David’s The Indian Mutiny. Dalrymple himself said that it was ‘scholarly, well researched, well paced, readable and comprehensive. A remarkable work by a huge new talent’.
I am also adding a short science book to my list – Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. It is about one of the most famous recent palaeontological finds – the fossil of Tiktaalik. Co-discovered by Shubin, the Tiktaalik was a fish that lived about 375 million year ago and displayed some attributes of tetrapods.
Lately I have also been feeling a growing urge to reread some of my past favourites or even some less-than-favourites that I may want to give another chance. There are only a handful of books I have read more than once. Some of them – like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Mistry’s A Fine Balance – I enjoyed a lot more on the second take. It feels a little wrong to reread books when there are so many I have yet to read. But there is also the question of whether I am really going to live my life having read books like Jane Eyre, Frankenstein or Nineteen Eighty Four only once.
So, I am going to add a book to reread next year and will probably start a habit of it. I read Catch-22 when I was 18 years old and it has been largely unchallenged as my favourite novel ever since. It will be great fun to read it again, especially since there is a new miniseries adaptation soon to be released.
I have only one real regret with this whole adventure of deciding my reading list by poll. I am someone who likes to read the classics but I have ended up with only one on my list – Little Women. I should have anticipated this problem and done something to include at least one more book. After all, there were no classic options on the Book Series, Wife’s Choice or Indian Fiction polls, so I was only going to end up with one on the final list. So, I have decided to add Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift. Having read both Voltaire’s Candide (which took inspiration from Gulliver) and Butler’s Erewhon (which drew comparisons with Gulliver) this year, the time is right for Gulliver.
So, the final list is:
I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves (1934)
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1998)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1869)
The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins (2009)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
Descartes by AC Grayling (2005)
Possession by AS Byatt (1990)
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (2012)
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (2004)
Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra (2007)
The Black Hole by Jan Dalley (2004)
Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir (2001)
The Carpathians by Janet Frame (1988)
The Indian Mutiny by Saul David (2002)
Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (2008)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Settling my annual reading list by poll has probably been the most fun thing I have done on my blog since I began. I am very happy with the results. I deliberately avoided showing any favouritism for any of the options, but since I avoided including books I am less eager to read I could not really lose with the choices made. Thanks again to all who voted. I am sure I will do this again some day, though not for a few years. If you know me, you know I am already plotting the poll options for next time!