Another year is coming to an end. Normally I wrap things up here with a summary of my year of reading and a Reading List for the coming year as separate posts, but I just haven’t had the time to do both this year.
Lack of time is an appropriate theme for this year. Followers may note I posted nothing in August to October inclusive. I was warned at the beginning of the year that with my wife returning to work after maternity leave, our oldest child not yet school-age, our youngest not yet one year old and with me at home with both while still doing my post-grad study, that this year would mostly consist of childcare, housework and study with little time to indulge hobbies. I brushed it off, but the prophecy proved correct!
So, I am way behind in writing and posting reviews of the books I have read here. But I have set myself a challenging schedule for writing them up. Even if I can meet my schedule I probably won’t be able to write up reviews for all of the books I read this year.
Briefly then, I was able to read all of the books on my 2019 Reading List plus a few more besides.
Among fiction, my favourites of the year would probably have to be Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Not counting Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which I have read before and is my all-time favourite book. I also liked the I, Claudius sequel Claudius the God. Others I liked were Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. So much so that I will be making time to read more Renault and Steinbeck in the coming years.
The fiction I liked least were Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Among Non-Fiction my favourites of the year were two books not on my original 2019 Reading List – Andre Agassi’s biography Open and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Most of the non-fiction I read this year was very good. Even if it was not always entertaining it was at least interesting and enlightening. There was one exception, which was probably my least favourite book of all this year – Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction.
Anyway, let’s move on to the 2020 List. Followers may recall that my 2019 Reading List was decided by online poll. To decide my 2020 Reading List I drew from the books that didn’t get chosen last year. After all, the polls covered the categories I like to cover each year and the unchosen books still need to be read!
I will again be making an exception for my goal of reading a ‘book series’ each year. Just as in 2019, when the ‘series’ was just two books, it will again be two books in 2020 – JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. My copy of The Lord of the Rings is a large illustrated hardcover. I am not sure where or how I will comfortably sit and read it!
For ‘classic literature’ I’ve put two classics on my List, since they are both short books – The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Some stories that were among my favourites, when I read them as abridged versions as a child, have been less than enjoyable when I read the original versions as an adult. I’m thinking specifically of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I hope the same does not happen with Treasure Island.
My ‘modern classic’ for the year will be The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I know nothing about it other than it is very highly regarded and that I have a preconception, picked up from somewhere, that it is going to be a very difficult read.
For ‘contemporary lit’ I will be reading A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif which was longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize.
I will finally read Charlotte’s Web by EB White which will be my ‘Wife’s Choice’ book next year.
For ‘Indian Fiction’ I am reading two Booker Prize winners; 2006 winner The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai and 1975 winner Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Moving into the non-fiction categories, the history book I will be reading is Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. This will be the third consecutive year that I will read a book by Weir who is quickly becoming one of my most-read non-fiction writers.
The science book I will read this year will be How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I have just finished the excellent The Blank Slate and am expecting more of the same excellence.
The book that I will be reading for my loosely-defined philosophy category will be The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
I had a category for ‘contemporary issues’ in my poll. In part because some of the books I’ve had lying around may be losing relevance which each day that passes. Case in point, the book I will be reading this year will be What Are You Optimistic About? A book of responses to edge.org’s Annual Question. What Are You Optimistic About? Was their 2007 question. It will be interesting to see how well this optimism panned out. I wonder how many contributors still feel optimistic about the issue they shared.
For Indian non-fiction I will be finally reading a William Dalrymple. I have a few of his books but haven’t yet got around to reading any. My first is going to be his The Last Mughal which will follow up nicely having read and enjoyed Saul David’s The Indian Mutiny this year.
I will also be reading The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani. I have high expectations. It sounds very exacting but concise and my appetite has been whetted by reading Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra.
That wraps up the categories that made up the polls my 2019 List was based on. But there are a few more that I’ve added to my list-making. I have begun making an effort to read some New Zealand fiction. It seemed a great idea this year when I read The Carpathians by Janet Frame. It is difficult to think of a book whose cultural themes (some of them anyway) I understood from experience better than the ones at play in that book. In 2020 I will be reading Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning The Bone People.
Of Mice and Men was the winner of my modern classic poll to make it on my 2019 Reading List. It was my first experience of Steinbeck and I think I will keep going with The Grapes of Wrath in 2020 and probably another novel in 2021.
Because I am so far behind in writing reviews, followers of this blog will not be aware that I am in fact in the middle of a side project of reading about the times, events and people around the English Reformation. For example I’ve read Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Henry VIII King and Court and have just finished reading the Robert Bolt play A Man for All Seasons. My interest in the English Reformation is mainly prep work before I take on Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, the third part of which is expected to be published next year.
In further preparation, I will read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation next year. MacCulloch also wrote a biography on Cromwell published last year and I will no doubt read that too!
You often hear people say that ‘life is too short to read bad books’. An understandable sentiment but one I don’t adhere to in practice. I am a stubborn reader and will persist to give books and authors and chance to redeem a poor beginning with a good ending. And, since I mostly read classics, literary award contenders and non-fiction with good credentials, I don’t cross paths with ‘bad’ books too often. Instead, I prefer to think that life is too short to read your favourites only once.
This year I began to conscientiously reread some of my old favourites beginning with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I also plan to reread some books I found middling but perhaps deserve a second look. The plan for next year is to reread Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities but as I write this I am having second thoughts. It has been a long time since I read it but is it really one of my favourites? It is my favourite Dickens but I have only read two others. It is on my list for now but I will see how I feel when I come to read it. Maybe I will pass it over for something that I feel more deserving for this category. Or maybe I’ll use the opportunity to experience a Dickens I have not yet read – David Copperfield perhaps?
And that’s the list! Long, but not too long in terms of page numbers so it should be manageable. I would hope that some of these may prove easier to read and I can squeeze a few more books on top. Whether I can still write reviews is another matter. On one hand, next year may be easier with my daughter starting school and my son starting part-time day care. On the other, I will still be studying and, as part of that, may have to find a job!
The full list (for now) is:
The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien (first published 1937)
The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien (1954-55)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (2008)
Charlotte’s Web by EB White (1952)
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2006)
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)
Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (1999)
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker (1997)
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)
What Are You Optimistic About? by Various (2007)
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple (2006)
The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani (1997)
The Bone People by Keri Hulme (1983)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)