Friday, January 22, 2010

What I Read in 2009

Near the end of last term, I posed the same question to each of my three sections of 1st-year University Composition. We'd been discussing Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You throughout the term, and they had just finished reading what he says about, well, reading. Given that he's so gung-ho about the cognitive workout provided by video-games, there's a danger he'll be mis-interpreted as dismissive of the benefits of reading. So he spends some time outlining those benefits, pointing out that he's laid out his own argument in book-form, and that sustained, complex arguments require length to develop sufficiently. He outlines the benefits of reading, mindful that while we may all be reading as much in a screen-based environment, we tend not to be spending so much time with full-length books (in fact, he also points out, we're spending less time at almost everything, including, surprisingly, television -- especially the late-teens, early-twenties generation).

So what was my question? I asked my students how many books they read in a year. But rather than wait there, I prompted them a bit by suggesting a number. I picked a fairly random number that seemed reasonable to me -- How many of you read, say, 20 books a year? I asked them. Their response was almost comic -- there was the effect akin to a collective gasp, a drawing back, a shocked "Duuuuuude!" Apparently, 20 books a year is an astronomical amount of reading!

Of course, as the shock waves subsided and I phrased the question more carefully, it turned out that there were a few students who do read well over 20 books annually, but there are many more who read 5, and that would be optimistic. In each of my three classes were several who read one or less (discounting, obviously, their required coursework reading), and the average was probably between 5 and 10.

We had quite a productive discussion about the reasons for this -- many of them find it tough to choose books successfully, and given the investment required -- time searching for and buying the book, cost of the book (most of these students only use the library for assignments and then prefer on-line where possible) -- if the choice is a dud, there's a long-lasting deterrent effect. I was really gratified that one student asked if I'd mind providing a list of recommended books for them and others chimed in to agree they'd like that. I sent out a list by e-mail as classes ended, and was even more gratified to get e-mails thanking me for the suggestions and telling me of books they'd liked. As the song says, "The kids are alright!"

Of course, during the course of my questioning about numbers, a student asked me how many books I read. I had to answer, honestly, that I couldn't think of a year in my life, no matter what was going on, that I hadn't read at least fifty books. Shock and awe. Truly. And yet I know this number is quite typical among my reading friends. I asked my oldest daughter the following week how many books she thought she'd read in a year and she replied, casually, "Oh, probably about fifty," and added that several of her friends would have a similar number.

I was a bit nervous, then, to tot up my reading record for 2009. Would I find out that I'd widely overestimated my reading habits? In fact, I was pretty close -- 53 (would have been 54 if I'd included my re-reading of Johnson's Everything Bad, but I decided to leave it out). You'll note that there is a considerable number of comfort reading -- mysteries being one of the largest categories here. I'm not making any claims, though, about being any kind of intellectual. What I clearly am is a reader. . .

I'm curious to know: where do you fit in the numbers game? estimated annual reading? And what do you notice in the young folks around you? Would they like a bit of help from experienced readers in finding books they'll want to spend time with?

1.Dana Thomas' How Luxury Lost Its Lustre
2. Elizabeth George's Careless in Red
3. Edeet Ravel's Ten Thousand Lovers
4. Bill Gaston's Sointula
5. Rebecca Godfrey's The Torn Skirt
6. Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
7. Lawrence Hill's Some Great Thing
8. Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park
9. Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict
10. Richard Wagamese's Ragged Company
11. Stephen Henighan's The Streets of Winter
12. Dionne Brand's What We All Long For
13. Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog
14. Kate Jacob's Comfort Food
15. Peter Robinson's Friend of the Devil
16. Mark Doty's The Dog Years
17. Kathleen Finn's The Sharper the Knife, the Harder You Cry
18. Julia Kristeva's The Powers of Horror
19. Adele Wiseman's Crackpot
20. Jonathan Kellerman's Bones
21. Randall Maggs' Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems
22. Harlan Coben's Hold Tight
23. Jeffrey Deaver's The Broken Window
24. Carol Windley's Breathing Under Water
25. Lee Child's Nothing to Lose
26. Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies
27. Fred Vargas' Un Lieu Incertain
28. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Knitting Rules
29. Michael Redhill's Consolation
30. Peter Robinson's All the Colours of Darkness
31. Charles Dickens' David Copperfield
32. Don Domanski's Poetry and the Sacred
33. Lee Child's The Enemy
34. Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
35. Sandra Gilbert: Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve
36. Carlos Luis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind

37. Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans
38. Abha Dawesar's That Summer in Paris
39. Susan Hill's The Vows of Silence

42. W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants
43. Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn
44. Jeffrey Deaver's The Bodies Left Behind
45. George Pelecanos' The Night Gardener
46. Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta
47. Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero
48. Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault
49. Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma
50. Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce
51. Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence
52. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall
53. Patricia Cornwell's The Scarpetta Factor


  1. I would definitely fall in the 50+ count, although I didn't keep proper track last year. I tend not to count 'pulp' such as historical fiction and detective fiction, which I consume like junk food, but you've inspired me to keep a real list this year. Everything, including the junk and the non-fiction and the inspirational and the downright rubbish ...

  2. I've never made such an inclusive list before (well, not since Grade 5 when I won the reading contest Mrs. Politeski set . . .). But when my students and I were discussing book-reading, I tried to convince them that any books "counted" and I assured them that I read lighter-weight books as balance to the more demanding ones. It's all grist for the mill, right? I'll be curious to see your list through the year or maybe at the end of the year.

  3. I'd never counted the books I read in a year until I started to blog four years ago and, yes, I'm in the 50+ range too. I keep a record of the books on the blog and find it fascinating to look back at what I was reading at the same time in previous years and to reflect on what remains from those books in my memory - a particular character, strong dialogue, a sense of place etc.

    Last year when I packed up and moved home twice, there was less time for reading. Now that I'm happily settled back in my old house, I have upped the reading rate considerably.

    And a question: there are book bloggers out there who seem to get through hundreds of books a year. How do they do it? How do they find the time?

  4. 60/16: I love this idea of comparing reading from year to year, season to season -- something I haven't been organized enough to be able to do before I started this blog.
    As for your question about bloggers who purport to read hundres in a year -- that's hard for me to imagine. I'm a fairly fast reader, but even if I were retired and had more time to read what I want, I think I'd still want some down time for processing between books. Right now, even the minimal time required to jot down a few notes about each book so as to remember it seems challenging. I'm in awe of those who can manage 100+