At the beginning of 2018, a friend asked me how she could get back into a reading habit. My response to her became this essay/listicle. While I’ve never had reader’s block (if there is even such a thing), I used to be haphazard with my choices. Journals from 1999-onward show how I used to follow moods and whims and, yes, bestseller lists to pick my books.
That changed after my midlife career pivot to full-time writing. Since then, I have worked to be more purposeful so that every literary work I read — from a quick essay online to a particular writer’s entire oeuvre — serves as a writing masterclass. A writer’s personal reading list is a crucial part of their lifelong DIY MFA. Books can and should fill our wells with ideas and insights that are different from what news and social media keep pouring into our echo chambers.
I may well have switched from private journal records to these public ‘Year in Reading’ and ‘Year in Writing’ posts because of The Millions. They’ve been running their popular ‘Year in Reading’ series for much longer with many well-known and emerging writers as contributors. The approaches to such year-in-reading roundups vary widely. Some have shared lists of only the most notable books. Some have listed out all the books they’ve read that year. Some have woven together essayistic narratives to highlight the patterns in their writerly preoccupations or speak to their current socio-cultural landscapes — often both as these overlap more and more.
The formats of my annual ‘Year in Reading’ posts have evolved over the years. But the goals have remained the same: check that my reading is indeed supporting my writing and that I am reading diversely enough (my own VIDA-like diversity count: women writers; writers of color; women protagonists; translations.) Doing this also helps me identify gaps in my self-directed literary education which I then work to address in the coming year. This is not as clinical or boring as it might sound. There is a certain pleasure in setting quantified, challenging goals and checking them off successfully.
2018 Reading Snapshot
This year, a significant portion of my book-reading has focused on ~500 short stories of the Gujarati writer, Dhumketu. I have been translating a selection of these into English. This is quite the project because there are 10 physical volumes packed with 24 separate collections and my committed word-count is 80,000.
I also read a considerable number of short stories online at various literary magazines for my monthly short stories column at PopMatters. I don’t keep a count of all the ones I read but I do keep a count of the ones I’ve featured. This year, I featured 65 short stories from around the world, which could collectively amount to, say, five physical volumes of stories.
There was, as always, a considerable amount of online essay-reading though I haven’t managed to maintain an ongoing list of even the most notable ones as I promise myself each year. I’ve done a better job of sharing them on Twitter, perhaps. In 2019, I plan to make this my monthly blog series: a list of the best essays read online. (In previous years, I’ve done series on these topics: Journal Prompts; Non-traditional Writing How-to Books; Short Stories (still ongoing); Weekend Poems.)
Given the above, though, I read only 28 other books (with two in progress.) And I reviewed 24 of them. My selections had more to do addressing certain gaps in my reading and certain learning needs in my writing so, while I chose several newly-published books, at least half of them are not likely to be on year-end “best of” lists.
Here’s a quick summary.
2018 Non-fiction Reading
Of these 28 books, 14 (50%) were non-fiction. This is a higher-than-usual number for me in recent years. Throughout my reading life, I’ve gone through phases of only fiction or only non-fiction. For 2018, I had made an intentional goal to balance these better,
Five main themes, which I had not planned, emerged with this non-fiction reading: literary (which often overlapped with the other themes), travel, science, personal, and political.
Literary-themed books: No Time to Spare by Ursula K Le Guin; Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux; Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature by Arthur W Biddle and Others; Elements of Surprise by Vera Tobin; Hearing Things by Angela Leighton. The first three have enriched my essay-writing approaches and, while my own writerly preoccupations have been different, they have influenced, to some extent, my own literary essays published this year (more on these in my ‘2018: A Year in Writing’ post shortly.) The latter two books have helped me read better (like a writer) and, though I have not written any fiction this year, understand certain aspects of fiction-writing better.
Travel-related books: Nautanki Diaries by Dominic Franks; Souvenir (Object Lessons) by Rolf Potts; Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom. Theroux’s essay collection, mentioned above, has several travel essays in it too. While allowing me to explore new worlds through different perspectives from the comfort of my home, these books also reminded me how travel is always much more than being physically in a new place or sight-seeing or taking photographs. For me, travel is about a heightened state of awareness and akin to a sacred experience. It is about becoming so fully aware that I am more deeply attuned to all that comes my way while also exploring new territories of my spirit and discovering my urgencies and hidden self. John O’Donohue’s poem, ‘For the Traveler’, is my constant travel companion and says all this and much more beautifully.
Science-related book: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers by Michele Gelfand. I went through a phase when most of my non-fiction reading was about science or business. Reading this book reminded me that I must get back to science, if not business. Gelfand even had me revisiting a couple other all-time favorites: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Personal/life books (biographies, memoirs, letter collections): The Milk Lady of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan; Sharp by Michelle Dean; The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke. Each one of these is different enough to stand apart in separate sub-categories. And each speaks to specific aspects of my own life journey. Narayan’s memoir is as much about her personal journey of returning to India after living in the US for decades as it is about adopting a cow in Bangalore. Dean’s ten sharp women writers are the most well-known women of letters in the Western world and several are my literary idols. Rilke’s condolence letters (translated so beautifully by Ulrich Baer) to grieving friends are filled with so much wisdom about how to live and how to cope with the death of loved ones.
Political books: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; The Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail (translated by Max Weiss and Dunya Mikhail.) Both were more than eye-opening. They altered my cognitive biases and perceptions of socio-cultural behaviors that I thought I knew well enough. Oluo’s book ought to be required reading in all workplaces. And Mikhail’s book, while revealing the atrocities of the Yazidi genocide, also introduces us to so many heroes (including the eponymous beekeeper) who fight back in the worst circumstances. Both books were deservingly up for several awards this year.
There are gaps here, of course. Besides adding more science picks, I would like to read some history texts in the coming year too. And I need to get back to poetry as well.
2018 Fiction Reading
With my fiction reading of 14 books, I was intentionally skewed toward short story collections: 11 (40% of my overall reading.) Most were new releases. 2018 has been a banner year for short story collections. Some of these eschewed traditional realism in striking ways: All the Names We Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva; The Merry Spinster by Daniel Ortberg; Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Several remained within the social realism realm but experimented with other literary devices: Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin; You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld; Last Stories by William Trevor; Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya (translated by Anya Migdal); Ayiti by Roxane Gay; Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (a reread); Days of Awe by A M Homes; Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy. Unquestionably, the debut collections have been the most exciting both for their stories and their storytelling. Though I have not written any short stories this year due to my translation work, my love for this form and how it demonstrates a writer’s range, innovativeness, and flexibility will never wane.
The three novels I read — Circe by Madeline Miller; The Storm by Arif Anwar; Living, Loving, and Party-going by Henry Green — were entirely different books as well. Of these, the Green is a must for any writer wanting to better their craft and this novella collection was a lovely reread. The Miller is a must for any writer wanting to learn how to retell an old story faithfully while still subverting well-known plot points and tropes successfully. Of all my fiction-reading, Circe is the only one I pulled an all-nighter with, which is a testament to Miller’s ability to keep readers hooked. This is no mean feat with a story that most of us know before reading her novel.
As my next major writing project is a novel, I’m going to shift the fiction mix more toward the novel form in the coming year. The reading project described below will help.
A quick word about the two books-in-progress. First, I always have some book or other by Virginia Woolf on the go as a reread though I rarely include them in my annual counts. Her essays, in particular, have been nourishing me this year. I’ve also been working my way through The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree and will finish it in the coming year.
2018 Reading Diversity
Here are a few other statistics I track for my reading diversity goals. Clearly, the counts for books about India and books in translation need to improve. The count for books by writers of color also needs to go up but that tends to be tricky within certain non-fiction categories.
2019 Reading Goals
Now, some might think it’s too rigid to make such reading goals. Without them, though, I would get too easily distracted because there are far too many amazing books out there.
Total Books — 30 (not including the reading project below)
Reviews — 24 — 80% (aiming for two per month)
Non-fiction — 12 — 40%
Women Writers — 20 — 67%
Writers of Color — 15 — 50%
Women Protagonists — 12 — 40%
Translation — 5 — 17%
India — 7 — 23%
2019 Reading Project: Toni Morrison
Over the last decade or so, there have been public reading projects online like: #YearofReadingWomen; #YearofReadingTranslation; #YearofReadingAroundtheWorld. While I haven’t participated in any of the latter, this 2019 project is inspired, in part, by this Twitter hashtag: #2019AuthorReadingGoals started by the writer, Maaza Mengiste.
I’ve undertaken similar projects sporadically in the past when I completed the works of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and A S Byatt. With these, the only driving force had been my admiration of their writing.
In 2015, I did a personal reading project that was more objective-driven and could be hashtagged as #YearofReadingIndianWomenWriters. I looked across India’s post-Independence decades from the 1950s to the 2010s and read one landmark novel written in English by an Indian woman writer. My goal was to gain a better understanding of the literary tradition I consider myself a part of: fiction in English by Indian women writers. I had drafted a post about it but think it might work better as a longer essay, which I hope to write in 2019.
Why bother becoming a “completist” with certain favorite writers? Academics, scholars, and researchers do it for pedagogy reasons. For lay-readers, it can enable a deeper appreciation for a particular writer’s sensibilities which, in turn, can alter our own readerly sensibilities.
For 2019, I am focusing on Toni Morrison. Her oeuvre is vast and I doubt that I will get through all her fiction and non-fiction in 12 months with all my other planned reading. However, it’s worth a start.
Why Morrison? Firstly, I have only read two of her novels — The Bluest Eye and Sula — and the odd essay. Secondly, she often gets left off the lists of “greatest American novelists” — that long, global tradition of lionizing white male writers — despite her Nobel in Literature. This year, when Philip Roth passed away, we saw it happen again and several folks, including Pulitzer-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, had to call it out on Twitter.
My plan is to start with her novels and move on to her essay collections. I will likely share my marginalia notes here as I read each book but not necessarily formal reviews.
Also, while reading literary criticism of a writer’s works certainly enriches the dialogue between a reader and a writer, I may not get to all of Morrison-related literary criticism this year because of my other planned reading. We’ll see.
If there is enough interest in this Toni Morrison Reading Project, I’ll start a Goodreads or Facebook discussion group. Let me know in the comments below.
2019 Reading — Join Me?
Overall, 2018 has been a productive, mindful year of reading and reviewing books. While the books I’ve read have naturally been the sources for my literary criticism, what is interesting is how the review-writing has also made me a better, closer reader.
A book is, as Zadie Smith has said, an experience. We are what we consume; we are made of the books we read. It is never enough to simply read one and move on to the next. Here’s more from Smith on how to read.
You can follow me on Goodreads to keep track of what I’m reading. Or, you can follow here on this blog (I do not spam or share your contact information with anyone) as I will be regularly sharing marginalia and reviews of those books throughout the year. Read along with me if you like or share your thoughts on the books you’ve already read.
Again: If there is enough interest in the Toni Morrison Reading Project, I’ll start a Goodreads or Facebook discussion group. Let me know in the comments below.
Here’s to a happy, productive reading year for all of us in 2019.