For some, this time of year is for turning our minds towards presents and treats. Depending on which hemisphere you live in, it is also a time for snow or surf, roast turkey or BBQ, ugly sweaters or silly t-shirts. But for me this time of the year is also about putting together a Reading List for the new year.
First a recap of 2022. I should get through all the books on my 2022 Reading List by the end of the year – with one caveat which I will come back to.
Unfortunately, it was a bit of a ‘meh’ year in my reading. I feel like I read a lot of books that were good but not great; books that did not set me alight. I’m thinking here of books like The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin or Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai. I liked Shame, but would not count it among my favourite Rushdie’s. Ditto for The Praise Singer among Renault’s. The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe was a good introduction to African literature, an easy nominee for a list of books everyone should read and it is very well written but did not threaten any of my favourite lists.
And maybe reading Dracula as well as The Passage Trilogy was vampire overload for one year!
But I did not necessarily have high expectations for these. What really broke the year were two novels that I did expect more from – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and The Children’s Book by A.S Byatt. These were long, slow and drifting. At times the were interesting, even engrossing, but for much of them I struggled for enthusiasm. And these are, respectively, a Booker Prize Winner and Shortlister. It has meant that Booker Prize nominees that I have read and found to be just ok, now outnumber those I have found to be excellent, which I find disappointing.
The Children’s Book was not on my 2022 Reading List. This is the caveat I mentioned before – I made a substitution. This was for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Having not read Pynchon before, I did not think I should jump in the deep end with Gravity’s Rainbow. With Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck, I eased myself into their works, reading them fairly chronologically, and I think I should also ease myself into Pynchon. So, I read The Crying of Lot 49 and have put Gravity’s Rainbow aside for now.
Reading Cloud Atlas late in the year did lift things a little. I did not know what to expect but found myself enjoying it more than any other fiction this year. And as a Booker Shortlister, it raises the average just a smidge.
Things were brighter on the non-fiction side. Crucibles by Bernard Jaffe and Simpson’s Confidential by John Ortved were interesting and enjoyable but, as I have a passion for their subjects, it should not be surprising that I should feel that way even though I can’t say I learned much from them. Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett is an excellent book. But the star for the year for me was Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld. I have read a few books on Gandhi and this is so far the best. Lelyveld is respectful and acknowledging of his subject but is never fawning and casts a critical eye on sources and conclusions of previous biographers and of Gandhi himself. The result is that he humanises Gandhi without diminishing his achievements.
But enough, onto 2023 and hopefully a better year!
As always, I have certain genres to include every year. First up, a book series and, like recent years, I plan on reading two! This year it will be 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and The Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault.
I have no idea what to expect from 1Q84, something weird no doubt. Should I play Murakami Bingo?
Renault’s Alexander Trilogy – Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games – will close out my reading of her work. Once I am finished, I will have read eight of her novels making her the author I have read the most. Depending on how I feel about this trilogy I may even find myself calling her my favourite.
My ‘classic’ for the year will be Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
My ‘modern classic’ was going to be A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. But, since I have not read Joyce before and, given my thoughts above about Pynchon, I have already decided to substitute it for Joyce’s earlier novel, Dubliners.
Because I did not read Gravity’s Rainbow in 2022 but still plan to in future, I am adding another modern classic – Pynchon’s V.
‘Contemporary’ fiction has become a meaningless term on my list. My to-be-read pile is so long and so old that nothing I pluck from it is really ‘contemporary’ anymore! Having read Cloud Atlas in 2022, I will be reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green next year.
Each year I read a book from my wife’s collection. This year it will be The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë.
I also include some ‘Indian’ fiction. This year I am reading The Jungle Books (The Jungle Book and the Second Jungle Book) by Rudyard Kipling and The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy.
I don’t always fit in a New Zealand book on my list but this year I will read Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti.
And, every year, I reread a book that is one of my favourites or one I think is deserving of another read. This year it will be one of my favourites – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The last time I reread a favourite I decided that, while I still liked it a great deal, I did not like it as much as others on my list and therefore demoted it from ‘favourite’ status. I will have to see if Frankenstein will still be favourite-worthy after a second read.
And that’s fiction. I think there is enough there for me to be cautiously optimistic for a good reading year ahead. But I can be positively optimistic about my non-fiction list.
My history book for the year will be Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. This comes highly recommended by one of my best friends and I have been eager to read it for years. Expecting great things.
My science book for the year will be The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is probably my favourite non-fiction writer, his Ancestor’s Tale is my favourite non-fiction book. Some consider this book to be his best. Again, I am expecting a shake up of my favourites list.
For a book on the topic of philosophy or religion I will be reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It’s been almost twenty years since this book came out hot after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The feeling that we are entering a new cold war of fighting global religious terrorist organisations has receded but not disappeared. I wonder what reading this book now, with the passage of time, will be like and what it has to say of enduring value.
I read some non-fiction on the topic of India each year. This year I will read Holy Cow! by Sarah Macdonald. This is a book that I was probably never going to read. But a tour guide I met in India said he recommends it to Westerners to learn a bit about Hinduism and that made me think of taking a look. I actually bought my copy in India.
I am also going to read Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha. I am not sure I can take more Gandhi so soon after reading Lelyveld’s excellent book. But this will probably mark the beginning of the end of my interest in reading Gandhi.
Some non-fiction is not so easily categorizable. I therefore have my own category for them. This year I will be reading The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. It sounds like the sort of book every reader ought to read. My only concern is that it may serve up spoilers for a lot of books I have not yet read.
Having a long backlog is not a big issue for fiction but it is for non-fiction as the treatment of some subjects can become dated. I therefore try to elevate some more topical books up the queue and read them sooner. This year I will be reading Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial by Singh and Ernst. Simon Singh is one of my favourite non-fiction authors and I have high expectations for a sceptical, empirical, but fair, take.
So, the complete list is:
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games by Mary Renault
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Dubliners by James Joyce
V. by Thomas Pynchon
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
The End of Faith by Sam Harris
Holy Cow! by Sarah Macdonald
Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Trick or Treatment by Singh and Ernst
Normally I can say at this point that I already know what is going to be on my 2024 Reading List but that is not the case this time. Some years ago, I let chance play a role and had my 2019 Reading List decided by a series of online polls. I am thinking for 2024 it is time to roll the dice again.
A nice collection. I’d say you could do Portrait of the Artist just as well as Dubliners – they’re both easier intros than Ulysses, for example! I hope you have an enjoyable 2023 of reading. I’m finishing up two from my Larry McMurtry project then concentrating on my TBR shelves!
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Thanks Liz, I hope you have a good 2023 too. Do you have a new project lined up? All my reading is really about my TBR – my lists and projects are just different ways of prioritising them!
No, for the first time in probably over a decade I’m literally going to be pushing through my TBR. Taking part in other people’s challenges and, indeed, my sudden Dean Street December challenge, only use TBR books, but my author challenges go back to my main collection so “use up” slots where I could be shifting TBR books.