This year’s syllabus was a colossal failure. I never cracked open a book about Islam or an epic fantasy or an urban fantasy. I did start a book about the Holocaust and the Grant biography I am about halfway through does touch on Reconstruction. By May, I abandoned the list altogether. Looking at it now, I only accidentally completed some tasks because they were in categories I tend to read anyway. That’s fine with me. I still had a decent reading year. As of December 31st, I’ve read 51 books—better than some years, not as good as others. The goal of the syllabus was to keep me out of a book rut and, more importantly, to get me to read more broadly —whether that meant genres I’d previously avoided, books I’d deemed too intimidating to tackle outside an academic setting, or people underrepresented on my shelves. Looking back at the books I actually read this year, I expected to see a lot of “escapist” reads and they’re certainly there. I listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audio. I read a fair amount of historical romance, but significantly less than I read the year before. I still sought out challenging, difficult work. Lincoln in the Bardo and The Female Man both defy regular narrative structure. Tell Me How It Ends explores the migrant experience using the questions asked of unaccompanied children facing deportation. I listened to Sherman Alexie recount his complex relationship with his mother and Roxane Gay chronicle her complex relationship with her own body.* By the time I got around to reading Human Acts and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wasn’t thinking about checking boxes. I tracked down the Hamid because of the story’s narrative structure and I read Kang because I’d loved The Vegetarian. Looking back through my reading year, it was profoundly female but still very white. This is a problem I will probably continue to have but I am going to keep trying to course-correct.
I’m not doing this again next year. I don’t have specific quotas or particular books to check off a long list. I’m not going to worry about reading regionally. I think (I hope) I can read broadly without checking boxes if I just remain mindful. I plan to keep a physical book journal to help with that (one of the problems with averaging a book a week is that sometimes I forget I’ve read a book. I hope writing down my thoughts as I muddle along will alleviate that.) The syllabus, for all its strengths, focuses on breadth over depth. Doing a deep dive into the works of Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich doesn’t undermine the ultimate goal of my reading life—to live lives outside of my own—but I can’t follow a whim if I am worried about checking every box on an arbitrary syllabus. The syllabus helped me change the way I think about the books I read and it got me reading more when I wasn’t reading enough. It’s a valuable tool if you’re at all concerned about your own reading habits but I don’t think I need it right now.
I only have 6 guidelines for reading in 2018:
- Read one big (scary) book. This year, I didn’t read any of the books I’ve been putting off for one reason or another. I try to tackle one behemoth a year, but I didn’t in 2017. I have a few contenders already on my shelf: 100 Years of Solitude, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Underworld, 2666, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Any of them would be an accomplishment…or I could finally get around to Tolstoy, but probably not.
- Read more books by people who are not like me. I am college-educated, straight, white lady from the east coast. There are a lot of writers like me. I like seeing where I fit, but you can’t just do that by mirroring your own experience. Reading things by people who aren’t me could mean taking into account an author’s gender or race or sexual orientation or political ideology or religion (or lack thereof) or home state or home country. I don’t get to travel much, but I can read.
- Read fewer books by men. I’ve read 10 books by men this year. Seven of those men were white and from the US. Most of my education was spent reading books by white men from the US. I don’t think I’ll be missing out if I never get around to The Corrections.
- Read more poetry and short stories. I don’t know when I stopped actively seeking out new poetry, but I only read one collection this year (milk & honey.) I did not read any short stories. There was a time when my reading was almost exclusively poetry and short fiction.
- Read more books about writing. I tried unsuccessfully to kickstart my own writing habit throughout this year. Maybe it’s time to go back to school, so to speak.
- Read books I already own. The Japanese word, tsundoku, describes the tendency to buy books and allow them to pile up in one’s house, unread. I have 678 books right now. I have not read 361 of them. This number doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should, but it is a little surprising (I guess I borrow more books from the library than I thought?) I know I bought a lot of books this year because I buy books, bath bombs, and face masks when I am stressed or anxious. I maintain this is better than buying a lot of candy or drinking to excess but it still results in a fair amount of clutter and a lighter wallet. I’m not going to stop buying books in 2018, I know better than to make that pledge. I’m not going to stop checking out books from the library either because I am fairly certain patronage numbers are taken into account when allocating money to the library and I like my libraries funded, but I am going to make a concerted effort to clear out some of my backlog. I’m not very good at getting rid of books (I actually like to look at the piles), but I cleared up some space on the shelves today (I was never going to read Pillars of the Earth or the Sagas of the Icelanders.) I’m even taking the books to Goodwill and not the local used bookstore where they’d invariably be exchanged for more books. After helping my mom clean and reorganize her bookshelves last week and telling her repeatedly that she had to cull her stacks if she expected everything to fit on the shelf, I can’t very well let mine go to pot. It would be hypocritical and I’d never hear the end of it.
2017 Reading Syllabus, final tally:
- Elena Ferrante
- Toni Morrison
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- Virginia Woolf
- Joan Didion
- bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
- Blood Meridian
- Sound and the Fury
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Feminist Sci-Fi: Female Man by Joanna Russ
- Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
- Epic Fantasy
- Urban Fantasy
- Living African Author: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
- Living Middle Eastern Author: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
- Living Asian Author: by Han Kang
- Other Criteria
- A book about Whiteness:
- A pre-Soviet Russian novel
- A Soviet novel
- A post-Soviet Russian novel
- A book about Reconstruction
- A book about Islam
- A book about the Holocaust:
- A short story collection
- A poetry collection: milk & honey by rupi kaur
- a STEM book
*In the last couple years, I started listening to memoirs when they are read by the author. I cannot recommend this practice enough.