2021 was tough. And I don’t mean the prolonged lock down and home schooling. I mean reading a lot of long, slow, books! Plenty have had it worse of course. No one knows what the new year will have in store, but I do know what I will be reading.
First, some thoughts on 2021.
My 2021 Reading List was challenging with a lot of very long books on it and I was not confident I would get through it all. The first half of this year was certainly dominated by those books which proved long, slow, sometimes difficult, sometimes interesting, but, if I’m honest, often boring.
These included Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cromwell, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, the ancient Persian epic Samak the Ayyar and, most disappointingly given how long I waited to read it, Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. I liked the Cromwell Trilogy but did not love it; I found it more interesting than entertaining or engaging and, given how long the novels are, it is a lot to get through without those forces pulling you along.
By the year’s mid-point I felt in a bit of a funk reading wise and looked for a way out. Some of my way out I planned with a book that was short and light – Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking – and by rereading an old favourite, Remarque’s short but excellent All Quiet on the Western Front. Some of my way out was unexpected. Steinbeck’s East of Eden was an absolute treasure; spare on over-description and forced deeper meaning, heavy on characterisation and plot, just good pure storytelling.
After that, I read Mansfield Park which is certainly a very different book to the Austen’s I am more familiar with. It lacks some of the humour of her other novels and features a quite meek and submissive main character, but does not lack depth in themes and issues to dive into.
Then it was back into the long novels with one of the longest ever published – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth which, at the time of writing, I have just finished reading.
Unfortunately, the non-fiction I read this year was not much more exciting. I read Paul Cartledge’s book on The Spartans but did not enjoy it as much as his book on Alexander the Great. I finally got around the reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, though, I knew even before I read it that I was reading it as much to say that I’ve read it as for other reasons. Readable it is, and immensely important in history but for modern readers it is mostly a read for that historical interest than scientific interest, for which there are plenty of modern books to address the topic. I also read a collection of Thomas Paine’s writings. I had expected these to be provocative, to have me pacing the room, heart pumping, full of ‘give me liberty or give me death’ idealism. But it wasn’t really like that. The most interesting piece, and most relevant to modern readers, was also his most controversial – The Age of Reason – written while he was in a French jail.
I had said when I posted my 2021 Reading List that it was going to be challenging to complete and I may not get through all of it. That proved to be true and I did not get to The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. This was a shame because my impression is that recent takes on the book seem to be more positive than when the book first came out. Also, since it was a Booker Prize shortlister in 2009, the same year Wolf Hall won, it would have been interesting to read them together. I’m sure I will get around to it in the next year or two. It is a little annoying to push on without it – it feels like my backlog/TBR pile now has its own backlog!
I probably could have found time to read The Children’s Book this year but I was also fed more offers to read books prepublication than usual and I took a couple up. One was for Roz Morris’ Ever Rest, the other for the newly-available in English Persian epic, Samak the Ayyar. Another offer, for The Painting by Alison Booth, I could not squeeze in, but my wife took it up and wrote the review posted here.
So, onto my 2022 List.
Every year I try to read a book series, but in 2022, I’m going for two! That’s because one of them is rather short. I’ll be reading Nobel Prize winner Chinua Achebe’s Africa Trilogy – Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease. But the longest book in the trilogy is less than 250 pages. So, I am also going to read The Passage Trilogy – The Passage, The Twelve, The City of Mirrors – by Justin Cronin. It’s been a long time since I’ve dipped into something that might be called popular fiction or genre fiction. It used to be that after reading long, difficult, old books, I would need a break with something lighter. That has not been the case for a long time, but after some of the books I read in 2021, I am yearning for a break. I wonder how I will find it; they may be light, but they are not short.
The ‘classic’ I am going to read next year will be The Aeneid by Virgil. A long time ago I set myself the goal of reading my way through some of the world’s ancient epics and story collections but I never got much further than reading Homer, The Arabian Nights and The Shahnameh (and now Samak the Ayyar). And the Indian Hindu epics are so huge I’m not sure I will ever get around to them. I can’t say it’s been the most engrossing reading I’ve done, but hopefully The Aeneid will be interesting and somewhat entertaining.
The ‘modern classic’ I’m going to read will be Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It is a long book and my experience with postmodernist literature is a little hit-and-miss. Speaking of which, my ‘contemporary literature’ book for next year will be Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which, as I understand, also has postmodernist aspects to it.
Another ‘contemporary literature’ book I will read is the Booker Prize Winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Officially, I don’t have a New Zealand category when designing my list, but I try to squeeze one in. It’s nice to be able to hit two categories with one book.
The book I will be reading from my wife’s contribution to our home library will be Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. It’s the only one of Austen’s six major novels that I have not read and will probably end my interest in reading more of her writing. Though, I suppose I will one day reread Pride and Prejudice and Emma, that is probably a long time away, and my Austen reading for the time being will be done.
For ‘Indian’ fiction I will be squeezing in two – Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai and Shame by Salman Rushdie. Both novels are Booker Prize Shortlisters, as was Cloud Atlas mentioned above. It will be the second Desai novel I have read after The Village by the Sea. I have also read her daughter’s Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss. Rushdie has been a little up and down for me. Shame is shorter than most of his novels. I am trying to keep my expectations low, maybe I will be surprised.
And for a book to reread, I have chosen Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Not quite a favourite, but one I’ve previously enjoyed and marked down as worthy of another go to see if it might become a favourite.
That does it for fiction. My history/biography book for the year will be The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the bestselling account of TE Lawrence’s First World War exploits leading the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks.
My science book for the year will be Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission by Bernard Jaffe. So much of popular science writing is on biology, physics, medicine, etc. Very little is to be found on my scientific first love, chemistry, despite the incredible work being done, much of which will have an enormous impact on our lives and already does. While this is an old book, with an historical outlook and won’t have anything to say about recent developments, I’m hoping this book will fill a gap in my nonfiction reading.
The book on philosophy/religion I will read in 2022 is Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett. I’ve read his Consciousness Explained, I’m expecting this book to be very different; easier to read perhaps but no less insightful.
I’m going to tackle two books of ‘Indian’ nonfiction. The first is Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld. When I bought it, a long time ago now, the most popular biography of Gandhi was probably still the one by Louis Fischer – an enjoyable, adoring, but flawed book. A good alternative was not easy to find and Lelyveld’s was one of the few modern takes. Now, of course, we can read the epic two-part effort by Ramachandra Guha that will probably stand as THE Gandhi biography for a generation if not longer. But that does not mean I am going to ditch Lelyveld’s comparatively much briefer effort. I am hoping for something more critical than Fischer’s book and more credible because of that.
The other ‘Indian’ nonfiction book I am planning to read is The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. As I understand his book makes the case that India’s long tradition of sceptical argument is a key aspect to understanding India. Should be a stimulating read.
Finally, I am going to knock off two non-fiction books that don’t fit into the neat genres I usually apply in my annual lists. The first is Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved. I am a long fan of The Simpsons, though I have not kept up with recent seasons, and Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson is one of my favourite non-fiction books. I’m not expecting to like this as much, but it may be light fun for a fan like me. To make things more confusing, there seems to be two books called “Simpsons Confidential” – the one I am going to read by John Ortved. The other is by Mike Reiss and Matthew Klickstein.
The other is not-easy-to-categorise non-fiction on my list is Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. This is an issue that has probably evolved a lot in recent years, or at least superficially feels like it has accelerated. This book was published before Instagram was even founded or Keeping Up With the Kardashians first aired. Yet, I think the book may still prove insightful in its analysis of the issue.
The full list looks like this:
The Passage, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe
The Aeneid by Virgil
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Shame by Salman Rushdie
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence
Crucibles by Bernard Jaffe
Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett
Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld
The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen
Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved
Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
So that’s my 2022 Reading List! Not a lot of new books on there. Instead, there is a lot of clearing up of my TBR pile(s). But I don’t think quality suffers from lack of novelty, often with books it is the other way around. It will surprise no one who knows me or who follows this blog to hear that I already have my 2023 Reading List sorted out but you will have to wait a year to hear about it. As for 2024, well, I’m going to roll the dice with that one!
There is one caveat. I started this blog and kept it up while being a stay-at-home parent and doing some study. 2021 was supposed to be the year I returned to work – the study is complete, our oldest is in school, our youngest is in daycare a few days a week – but the pandemic stalled that plan. Melbourne and Victoria have been the most locked-down place in the world, but the worst is hopefully behind us. That means I should be back at work and, in fact, at the time of writing, I am back to doing some casual, part-time work. It has prevented me from getting some daytime reading in and has also meant I have not been able to do much writing. I don’t know what the next year will bring for me or this blog. I plan to write and post a lot of reviews, more than just what I have down on my Reading List. I will have to wait and see what life has in store.