I read 104 books in 2018.
Some people have superpowers of running marathons, parenting more than two children, or playing the guitar. Other people have superpowers of keeping meticulous track of their money, knitting, or remembering everyone’s name and birthday. My superpower is reading.
I like to read, obviously, and I’m a fast reader, but it’s also been a very conscious choice the last few years. I used to do most of my reading on vacation or fantasize about taking a sick day so I could stay in bed and tackle a stack of library books. Then I decided that was silly. I made a decision to stop treating reading as a luxury and to treat it instead like a necessity. Just like I need food, water, sleep, touch, friendship, safety, shelter, I’ve figured out that I also need the quiet, solace, and challenge that reading gives me.
I got excited about probably 40% of the books I read this year, but I’m glad I read all of them, for one reason or another. What follows are some faves, and then a few tips and tricks for developing a reading life.
Three books I couldn’t put down and won’t stop thinking about for a long time.
Marrow, by Elizabeth Lesser. Spiritual teacher Elizabeth Lesser tells the story of giving bone marrow to her sister, and how the two of them worked to create a relationally hospitable environment for her sister’s healing. Since reading this, I’m convicted to work for all my relationships to be a little bit better.
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. In a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel, Bui tells the story of her family’s immigration from Vietnam and the particular kind of love and loneliness that comes from growing up in an immigrant family.
Rising out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow. The awakening of a former white nationalist, Derek Black, and the amazing friendships that spurred it. There are a million reasons to read this book, including better understanding the rise of Trump and the normalization of white supremacy. But what I loved most was the powerful example of relationships to change lives. A total page turner.
Some of these were hard to read, some were fiction, some non-fiction. They all opened me up to wider worlds, which was a big reading goal of mine this year. I feel very strongly that there is NO REASON why those of us with privilege should stay uninformed about the realities the rest of the country and world face. It’s not hard to find stories. It’s not hard to find information. It’s one of the ways we can make the world a more just place.
Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, by Lauren Hilgers. Literary journalism about pro democracy activists in China and the immigration of two of them to Queens.
There There by Tommy Orange, a novel about urban Indians in Oakland.
“You can Tell by Looking” and 20 other Myths about LGBT Life and People by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico.
No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America , by Darnell Moore.
Your Black Friend, by Ben Passmore. A comic book about racism.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler. A time traveling first-person narrative about slavery.
Undocumented, by John Moore. Intimate and sweeping photos of immigrants waiting to cross or trying to cross the U.S. southern border.
I see when I look over my list for the year that I tend toward non-fiction. Thank goodness for this fiction in the mix, though there’s just as much learning in it.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Paralleled my growing fascination with trees and my growing sadness about climate change. This book was completely masterful.
Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler. This isn’t her first rodeo, and it shows. I love stories of unlikely friendships.
The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. Fiction, but the most realistic portrayal of a marriage I’ve ever read.
Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.
The NInth Hour, by Alice McDermott.
Yay for Literary Journalism
Some of the books above fall into this category, too, but I’m really loving this form of nonfiction that uses some of the strategies and techniques usually associated with fiction.
Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife. By Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari.
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, by Ted Genoways.
Tips for Developing a Reading Life
There are so many ways to grow in our humanity. Reading isn’t the only one. But if you want to make it more a part of your life, here are some thoughts:
Find a few referral sources you like and consult them often. I get my referrals from my local bookstore and their newsletter (three cheers for Village Books!), from the New York Times, and from NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. And from friends, of course!
Get cozy with your library. Almost every single thing I read this year came from the library, though I do allow myself a few purchases. I have the library app on my phone and reserve several books a week. When I stop by the library and head to the hold shelves, it’s like getting a present. When I go in, I also spend a few minutes in the New Arrivals section and have picked up some of my favorites that way.
Figure out your reading style. Are you an audiobooks person? Do you like to read from actual paper copy or are you the ebook type? I’ve figured out that I like the real thing in my hands and that I space out with most audiobooks.
Set a realistic goal. If you haven’t been in the habit of reading, set a modest goal for yourself. Maybe you want to read 6 books in 2018. That’s a lot if you’re starting from zero!
Nancy Pearl’s 50 page rule is the bomb. The famous librarian and book reviewer says that, if she’s not intrigued by page 50, she puts the book down and starts another. The world is too full of good books to waste time!
…but give your attention span a challenge. If you haven’t been in the habit of reading, maybe don’t adopt the 50 page rule just yet. It might be boring at first since lots of us are used to scrolling instead of reading. Keep at it and enjoy the feeling of having to stick with something.
Find an outlet. I take a picture of every book I read and post it on my private instagram feed. This helps me keep track of what I’ve read, lets me write a few sentences about the book, and gives me a little reward for finishing it.
Happy New Year! I hope your 2019 is full of learning, connection, and joy.