So,How Did You Read This Year?

How to organise your reading experience over the year

Published: December 29, 2013 4:19:32 am

One of the great joys of the year-end is to pick through various people’s reading lists of memorable books from the year that was. It’s a bit of a production,of course,the authoritative tone that many strike. That’s what makes it enjoyable,besides giving us the welcome chance to get suggestions on what we could pick up during the holidays — it’s a side ritual to work out what pose each one is trying to affect by citing the book/s of the year that she does,and inevitably covering all the bases important to her profile and sense of self. Nothing wrong,we all do that in private recollections too. And admit it,it’s anyway difficult to suddenly organise a year’s worth of reading in a short paragraph. So if you too tend to struggle,and in any case are struck by the dissonance between the best books you read in the year and those that altered your reading habits,a timely publication may help.

The novelist Nick Hornby has been writing a monthly column in Believer magazine on the books he bought in the month gone by and the books he read. Collected in Stuff I’ve Been Reading,the columns are seeded with ideas on how one may organise one’s reading experience. So,in no particular order,here goes.

The “svelte” books and the doorstoppers

For Hornby,they are a perk of the book columnist’s life. Mindful of the impression he’d make if the “books read” list is consistently brief,the job predisposes him to the shorter novel. In a year when the Booker went to the longest book in the prize’s history,The Luminaries by 20-something Eleanor Catton at more than 800 pages,and two of the most spellbinding novels weighed in at just marginally less (The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and Goldfinch by Donna Tartt),that was a tough act to follow. But do look at your reading list,and you’ll see that it takes a rash of good reviews or special affection for a writer to pick up,randomly at a bookshop or a library,a fat novel.

The books read twice

I’ll put it down to the peculiarities of a book columnist’s harried reading life,but Hornby says at one point: “I haven’t read a novel twice in six months for decades,and the experience was illuminating. It wasn’t that I had misremembered anything… but I had certainly forgotten the proximity of narrative events in relation to each other. Some things happened sooner than I had prepared for,and others much later.” As a habitual re-reader,sometimes within minutes of finishing a remarkable book,as happened with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland this year,I’d say that the recall of “proximity of narrative events” changes in each reading. It’s a special exercise in the reading diary,on which reading you liked a particular book best.

Books acquired for another reason

Hornby says of a particular book that he bought it for another reason than that he was in a bookshop he desperately wanted to support. But it’s part of a bigger sub-set of our collections: “Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having — a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day,when our lives are different,quieter,more introspective,and when all urgent reading,whatever that might be,has been done.” Any such you picked up this year that says less about the book and its contents and more about you? I’m not telling.

Reading a bunch of books by the same writer

This,in its nicest form,is never really planned,reading a book by “a well-established writer (Muriel Spark in his case) previously unknown to me that resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre”.

Abandoned novels

Hornby is a kind soul and does not name the book he abandoned for it being so unreadable. But it is a fact of our reading lives that our instinct for the book that should be left alone sharpens with time,and the guilt that once used to attach to having abandoned books loses its sting.

The months of no books

It’s a book columnist’s nightmare,having to bluff through pages on end because he did not get down to reading as there was just too much good sport on television,the football World Cup in Hornby’s case. It happens to all of us,and the most riveting writing on figuring out how to justify watching sport endlessly is contained in a collection of letters published this year between JM Coetzee and Paul Auster,Here and Now.

So,happy new year,have yet more fun with book lists.

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