Wherever you are reading this from, you do not need me to tell you that 2020 will not be forgotten quickly by those who have lived through it. Nothing makes the ending of one year and the beginning of a new year seem more abstract than the fact that pre-pandemic normalcy does not seem to be in any hurry to return in 2021. My usual aspirational enthusiasm for New Year’s is certainly a little subdued this year. While I hope whoever is reading this has been spared the worst, the nature of events means no one has been completely unaffected. For myself and my family, we have shared an experience this year so familiar to be almost universal – lockdown, isolation, working from home, home-schooling, child-minding, even, unfortunately, death and the inability to attend a funeral.
It may sound a little insensitive to turn from that to talking about books but that is what I am here for and, in some unlikely ways, it is part of the story of the year. When making plans and setting goals seemed futile, reading was one of the few things I was able to get done this year. I don’t think I am alone in that. It’s understandable. Reading allows diversion, escapism, empathy, perspective or, at the very least, soaks up time. Once the pandemic really set in, the number of visitors to this blog really took off. I wonder if other book bloggers had the same experience. It may be just a coincidence, or maybe there was a rush of people looking for ideas of what to read. I’ve seen statistics that show that sales of large books, the kind many people feel apprehensive about, say they mean to read them one day, but keep putting off – Middlemarch by George Eliot, War and Peace by Tolstoy, for example – have been higher this year.
Perhaps in part because other plans did not eventuate this year, I managed to read everything on my 2020 Reading List without too much difficulty and read some additional books as well.
My favourite book of the year was probably The King Must Die by Mary Renault – a retelling of the myth of Theseus, for all the reasons I give in my enthusiastic review. I also quite enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. Despite warnings that it is very dull with long slow periods, I felt that the story kept
moving, the writing is very easy to read and I could keep turning pages very rapidly. It probably helped that I am already fairly familiar with the film adaptations, something I usually avoid with books I plan on reading, so I knew I’d be rewarded if I persisted.
There weren’t any books I thoroughly disliked but a couple were difficult to enjoy. The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker Prize in 2006, explores with some important relevant themes but was not very engrossing. Betty, the new novel by Tiffany McDaniel, includes some harrowing portrayals of racism, sexual abuse, animal cruelty and more. It is powerful but disturbing and can be difficult to ‘enjoy’.
Among non-fiction, The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani was a standout – concise, powerful, well-argued and thought-provoking.
So, on to the 2021 List!
My Reading Lists follow a certain formula that has evolved over the years with small changes. For 2021 though, following the method of the past, drawing on the books at the top of my TBR pile, would mean having a lot of very long books on my List. So much so that I did not feel confident of actually finishing the draft version of my full List. So, I’ve had to cull a couple of genres to make it manageable.
First up, my Book Series for the year will be Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. While other readers have read and raved about the first two books in the series – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – since they were first published, I have waited patiently for the series to be finished so I can read them all together. In the meantime, I’ve also been reading other books to prepare – Alison Weir’s biography of Henry VIII, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation – and there is still one more book I want to read before I tackle the series (below). With the concluding novel, The Mirror and the Light, now published, 2021 will be my year for reading Cromwell.
My Classic for the year will be Milton’s Paradise Lost. I have an Oxford University Press edition that includes original illustrations by Michael Burghers and an Introduction by Philip Pullman, but it does not have explanatory notes as an Oxford World’s Classics or Penguin Classics edition would have. I hope I will be able to understand this 17th century poem without them.
My Modern Classic for the year will be Soul Mountain by Nobel Prize Laurette Gao Xingjian. Although, I just noticed it was first published as recently as 1990! So, I may be stretching the definition of ‘Modern Classic’ a little. But I will also be reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck this year. It will be the last Steinbeck I am planning to read but, who knows, given that I have enjoyed him, I may give others like The Pearl, or Tortilla Flat, a go one day.
I was planning on reading The Children’s Book by AS Byatt as my ‘Contemporary Literature’ book for the year, but it is a long book, I’ve run out of room for it and I have plenty of contemporary lit on my List with the Cromwell Trilogy and others, so it is being left out. If I get ahead of schedule in my reading this year, I will try to pick it up. I have also culled my usual plan to read a ‘New Zealand’ book each year.
My Indian Fiction book for the year is a monster – the nearly 1,500 page A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume and it is one I remember seeing frequently listed as a favourite as chosen by customers in the days when you would see such lists displayed in book chain stores. I only recently became aware of the 2020 BBC adaptation. I think I’ll have to try and watch that this year too.
My project of rereading past favourites or other books I think deserve a second chance continues with All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a favourite of mine, but it has been more than 15 years since I read it. Will it still hold up?
And my ‘Wife’s Choice’ book for 2021 will be Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
Moving on to non-fiction, I have a couple of history books on the List. I will be reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cromwell alongside Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I will also read Paul Cartledge’s book on the Spartans. I’ve read and enjoyed his biography of Alexander and I hope this will be just as good.
My science book for the List is another monster – I’m finally going to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Though, I cannot help but feel that I am reading it because I feel I ought to and not because I have an overwhelming desire to. There are a lot of good books on evolution and I have read some of them so I wonder if I am going to be rewarded for the effort. I also worry that the 19th century language, which I don’t mind and rather enjoy when reading fiction, might be an impediment when reading and trying to comprehend non-fiction. I have heard enough people say, over the years, that despite any apprehensions it is still worth reading and is enjoyable, so I am going to give it a go.
My ‘philosophy’ book of the year will be The Thomas Paine Reader – a collection of Thomas Paine’s writings including Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. I’m anticipating it to be provocative and I will have to force myself to read slower and not get too distracted by my own thoughts.
In other non-fiction, I will be reading Everyday Drinking, a collection of Kingsley Amis’ musings on alcohol; Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan by MJ Akbar and Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta.
The full list:
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
- Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
- Paradise Lost by John Milton
- Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
- Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch
- Spartans by Paul Cartledge
- On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
- The Thomas Paine Reader by Thomas Paine
- Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis
- Tinderbox by MJ Akbar
- Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
Overall, I think it’s a good but challenging list. It contains much that will I think I will learn from and slowly appreciate but it might be light on reading that is easily enjoyable. A challenging list for a challenging year.