What We Read and What, If Anything, That Says About Us
The Spark Reading List for 2021
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In this issue:
We consider what our reading list reveals about us
The books we read in 2021 that will linger long afterwards
Gayla Gray and some ways to track our reading going forward
Peace, love, and see you next year
My List: Sometimes Escape Hatch, Sometimes Guide to Living In the World As it Is
It is the season of lists. Shopping lists. Reading lists. Best of. Worst of. They appear at a time when even those of us who don’t do much for the holidays feel rushed, busy, a little frantic that the end of one more year is only a few weeks away. It is the time of year when I am forced to consider what it is I actually DID this year.
Well, for one thing, I’ve read 62 books so far and may squeeze in a couple of more before the year ends. I know this because I kept track for the fifth year in a row. While I usually devour the end-of-year lists of books read by others who publish them, I have never shared mine. As I mentioned last week, my method is a little messy. But I am more worried that it will reveal something about me – that I am shallow, boring, scattered, lacking in sophistication or just plain lazy. This year, I guess I’ll take that chance.
Here is the list of books I’ve read so far in 2021 and here is what that list reflects back to me:
I was a reader without a plan.
I was a woman grieving.
I was a writer who was stuck, who needed to see how other writers solved problems of plot, structure, voice, or perspective.
I was a white woman living comfortably in her sixties who found herself fighting both the desire to escape the world and the need to understand the world outside her assumptions and experiences.
A cursory glance at the reading lists I’ve kept since the last quarter of 2016 in my own haphazard fashion, shows me that this year’s list of books bears some resemblance to the preceding four. I’ve read between 55 and 65 books a year. Most of these have been written by women. The books I have reached for in the early days of a new year have not set a pattern for what follows. I began 2017, for example, by reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I ended that year with Elizabeth Strout’s second novel, Abide With Me. In between there was One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich, I, The Divine by Rabih Allemeddine, The Boss by Aya DeLeon, Lincoln In the Bardo by George Saunders, Miracle Girl by Andrew Roe, We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
All of my reading lists reveal a tension between the desire to escape the world as it is and the need to find a way to live in it. This year, many of the books I read fall into the category of “grief reading” – books I read following the deaths of my father and my dog within a month of each other when I reached for book after book to hold close, like a shield.
The year began with The Art of Eating by M.F.K Fisher, a rich collection of essays about the way we eat and live that had nothing to do with anything in my life. I just inhaled each page of confident prose, descriptions of meals and what they meant to those eating them. Simple, distracting, essential. I then did a deep dive into Patrick O’Brian books I’d read with my father, followed by Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan, a story set in the Brooklyn my father knew when he, like one of the main characters in the novel, went to sea as a Merchant Marine. I reread as many James Herriott books as I could download on Kindle because reading these was like drinking warm cocoa and climbing under a blanket.
As the year went on, I found myself picking up books I’d always meant to read in defiance to my idea that books are best read when fresh. This is how I came to White Teeth by Zadie Smith, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. Then there were the re-reads. The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I was lost. I suspect that I was trying to read it on the fringes of busy days, just before sleep. This time, I read it slowly, when I was wide awake and eager to receive. The book slayed me. Her writing left me without breath. I wept.
Not reflected on this list are the books I have been dipping into repeatedly for the past several years because they help me with my writing, or my mood, or my efforts to learn Italian. These are not so much re-reads as continual reads right now. For example, I keep referring to Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe so that I can figure out how she showed so much by saying so little and how she manages to maintain forward motion and a kind of emotional suspense despite stretching the story over decades. Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins uses voice, wit, and a streamlined, time-slipping structure to tell the story of a family. I’ve read In Altre Parole (In Other Words) by Jhumpa Lahiri many times over the past three years so I can feel my progress by noting how far I can read without checking the translation.
I don’t know if a reading list is a window into the soul or not but I’m guessing what we read does say something about us and about where we are in our lives. If you take a look at my list, you’ll probably spot a pattern that eludes me right now. What about your own list? What does it say about you and the year you have had?
Spark Reads 2021: The Books That Will Stay With Us
Thank you for the wonderful books you sent in when I asked for the 3-5 books you read in 2021 that will stay with you. Variety. Depth. Imagination. This list has it all. I’ve included them on a special page at bookshop.org where you can find almost all of them. A couple, listed here, were not available there.
Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62 by B. Lynn Goodwin
Talent by B. Lynn Goodwin
I added mine. The 3-5 books that will stay with me most: A Swim in A Pond in the Rain by George Saunders for introducing me to Russian writers I have avoided and revealing how the best stories work, Deaf Republic for showing me how the story of all wars can be told in a poem about single nameless town caught in a nameless war which comes down to what people are willing to do to and for each other. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, a story about two women, one helping the other to die, both understanding life differently by the end. Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough because her life story brings us to the intersection of so many American faultlines and is told with wit and wisdom that rings long after the last page. No one can finish Bryan Stevens’ Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption without understanding once and for all how essential it is to reform our criminal justice system.
Keeping Track of All Those Books
A few of you told me last week that you use spreadsheets or Goodreads to keep track of the books you read. Recognizing that not all of us are spreadsheet or Goodreads people (raising my hand here) I wanted to share this three-part series on some of the more creative, user-friendly ways readers can keep track of their books. They were written by Gayla Gray, Spark community member and publisher of So Novelicious. If you haven’t found the perfect gift for the reader in your life, there might be some good ideas here.
Tracking Your Reading The Old-Fashioned Way - Pen and paper solutions
Creative Reading Journals - Blank and dotted journals, stickers, colored pens and more
Fun With Digital & Electronic Reading Journals - Going beyond Goodreads – apps and sites that help you track and connect. I’m going to take a look at Storygraph.
Even if you are not in the market for a reading-tracking solution, check out So Novelicious for the book recommendations. Gayla also provides a treasure trove of links to books, authors, events, ideas, articles that are organized in a way that makes it easy to skim and choose. She has even organized “Bookstagrammers” for those, like me, who view Instagram with increasing despair but still keep going back.
Before I go
I caught part of this wonderful interview with Ann Patchett this week on YouTube. It is part of the LA Times Book Club which you can check out here (I don’t think you have to be a subscriber to the paper to see these events) and you can find past interviews on YouTube here.
I plan to finish listening to the Patchett interview this weekend. She is one of those writers who really knows how to communicate with her audience and make her interviewers feel more adept than they are. She knows herself and her writing: “ I am a weak starter, good in the middle, great at the ending.” She said her obsession with time has grown more acute now that she is 58 and she is more conscious of her own time, a reader’s time, the time it takes to write, and the search for a more succinct way to get it done. I need to pay attention to that I think.
With this, I close the year on Spark. We all get to rest, regroup, and think about what we are going to read next year. The next time Spark will show up in your inbox is January 8 unless I just can’t control myself. As most of you know, this has been a year of loss and figuring things out for our family but also for many other families. Your comments, notes, and messages along the way have helped more than you know. Our Saturday appointments anchored me, got me writing when I didn’t think I could. I am grateful and I thank you.
I wish each of you a healthy, happy, and peaceful holiday. I’m looking forward to whatever 2022 brings. I hope you are too.
Ciao for now.
P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…A Heron Shows The Way
Jennifer Silva Redmond captured this incredible moment. I’ve watched it three times and each time I can feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, and a smile spread over my face. Not a bad way to end one year, or to start the next.
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: email@example.com. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!
(And if you’ve gotten here, liked something, and still haven’t hit the heart below, now’s your chance!