How I Read 52 Books A Year

My goal, every year, is to read 52 books. Here’s how I do it (as randomly illustrated with pictures from the Wire):

1. I prioritize reading books. I endeavor to read, at least for a couple of minutes, everyday. I’m lucky in that I live in New York City, and can read for about an hour to an hour and half every day on my commute. I also read every night before bed, while I wait in line, and anywhere else I can find the time.

But it’s not only that I prioritize reading, I prioritize reading books. I read only one magazine regularly (the New Yorker) and one newspaper (the New York Times) and even with those two, I am very selective in which article I read. It isn’t that the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, or the Economist aren’t doing great things – they are—but I’ve chosen to focus on the long form and that means choosing not to read things elsewhere.

2. I listen to books. This is probably the most “controversial” thing I do to get to 52 books a year. I run quite a bit and when I do so, I am almost always listening to an audio book. Some would say “this isn’t reading”, to which I respond, “whatever.”

I read for a number of different reasons. For information, for aesthetics, for pleasure, and for distraction. That means I read lots and lots of different kinds of books. Some lend themselves to the audio book format (I think memoirs and narrative nonfiction do well) and some (literary fiction) do not. The real talk is with two young children, I serious doubt I’d make it to 52 books a year without audiobooks, getting an audible account, and into audio books, was one of the best investment I made in my reading in years.

Here, take this.

3. I (try) to put the phone away and turn off the TV. I try my damnedest to not have my phone near me when I read. I don’t pull it out on the subway, and, lately, I’ve been making sure it is charging in another room when I crawl into bed with a book.

I struggle with this. Like many others, I am always wanting to be grabbing the phone to see what the president has done or how badly the Knicks have lost. But those quick fix news moments are fleeting, and I’m try (but often failing) to get at something a bit more substantive, which I find in books.

Similarly, I almost never watch television. This isn’t to say there isn’t great television out there, but with only so many hours in the day, it’s something I’ve scarified. I now watch television (a) if E (my wife) wants to or (b) if I’m on the treadmill. That’s it. Removing the television from your life gives you scores more hours for books, if that’s your thing.

All the pieces matter

4. I keep track. I have recorded in a series of notebooks every book I have read for the last twenty something years. I also have a google sheet I use to track my progress through the year, which automatically calculates how many books I need to read to read reach my total number goal, and my diversity goals.

This is some highly geeky stuff, but it helps keep me on track. I always know if I am ahead or behind in my reading, and I always know the rate at which I need to complete books to make the goal.

5. I juke the stats. If it’s December and I need to read eight books by the end of the month, I’m not above selecting books by their page count. You might think that’s crazy, and you’d be right. But here we are. I enjoy hitting the 52 book mark every year and if that means I need to focus on short works of literature here and there, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

 

2016: My Year In Books

In 2016, I embarked on a project where I tried to match my reading to the demographics of the U.S.* I set out to read 52 books broken down like this:

  • 10 books (or ~17%) written by Latino writers
  • 7 books (or ~13 %) written by writers from Africa or of African descent
  • 3 books (or roughly 5%) written by writers from Asia or of Asian descent
  • 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a Native American writer
  • 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a writer from the pacific islands or of pacific island decent,

The rest of the books could (but certainly did not have to be) written by Caucasian writers.

Half of all books had to be written by women.

So, how’d I do? Pretty well, but not perfectly. I met the racial diversity goals, but, due to some faulty math along the way, I ended up reading slightly less than 50% female authors. I tried to hammer through and ended up reading a bit more than 52 books, but alas, the clock ran out at around 43% female writers.

Oh well, good effort, kid.

When I started this project, I knew it was problematic, but I thought it was worth giving it a try. Here’s what I learned:

The Good

For someone like me, who, when left to his own devices, will overwhelming read white men, setting up these rules forced me out of my comfort zone. I read books I’d never have known about before, seeking out Native American and Pacific Islander writers who would have forever been off my radar.

In seeking out these voices, I learned things I’d never have known otherwise, and that, to me, is one of the reasons for reading in the first place.

The Bad

I knew going into this that the project could tokenistic and limiting, and that really started to come through in the last quarter of the year when I was trying to figure out my reading plan to meet the goal. For example, I wanted to read Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, a Jamaican writer, but reading another male writer was going to hurt my stats, so I decided to wait until this year.

How does that make sense?

It doesn’t.

For me, reading is about exploring and learning, and I enjoy being improvisational in my choices. Of course, if I’d read less white dudes in the beginning of the year, reading James wouldn’t have been a problem. But I’d back myself into a corner with my stupid rules and they felt, well, silly and counter productive.

Even if I had read less white men, many other voices didn’t make it into my reading. I made no concerted effort to read LGBT writers, for example, or writers with disabilities. I also painted with an absurdly large brush. I conflated the vastly different experiences of a Chilean poet and a Dominican novelist under the umbrella “Latino” which is pretty much the definition of reductionist.

I knew going in that the limitations would create an imperfect tool, and they did.  Still, I think it was worth the effort. I discovered quite a bit in terms of both new writers and the limits of this type of quota system.

What’s next?

I’m glad I did this project, but I won’t be doing it again. In 2017, I’m going to continue to prioritize diversity in my reading choice, but I’m moving away from this sort of quota system. I’m going to make an effort to read more women, and more people of color, and I’ll pay attention to the way things are shaking out, but I’m taking a break from rigid rules. We’ll see how it goes.

The Actual Books

Ok, enough ruminating. Onto what I actually read – 55 books, split pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction. The books this year were a better than average group — there weren’t many stinkers in the lot.

Indeed, it’s hard to pick favorite, but I’ll try:

Best Nonfiction BookMalcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manny Marable.  A tough one. I loved One of Us and Just Mercy and in another year could have picked either of those. But Marable’s book is on another level. The scholarship, the reflection, the magnitude of the project, all of it combined to make an incredibly compelling read. This is not only the best book I read this year, but one of the best biographies I have ever read.

Best Fiction Book. Winter in the Blood. Equally hard to choose a favorite here. I could have chosen from among the many, many wonderful books I read this year including Family Life,  Too Like the Lightning, Distant Star, the Fifth Season  and People in the Trees, but I’m choosing Winter in the Blood, because it resonated with me so long after I closed it. It is beautifully written, and profoundly depressing, but buried among all the despair, there’s a hint of hope. I need hope right now, so it gets the nod.

Below is a complete list of the books with my annotation of whether I recommend it for the general reader, recommend it for the enthusiast interested in the subject matter, or if I think you shouldn’t bother at all.

Remember, I have no taste.

1. H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald – Recommended

 

2. One of Us: the Story of Anders Brevik and the Massacre in Norway, Asen Seierstad – Recommended

 

3. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

4. Black Flags: The rise of Isis, Joby Warrick – Recommended

 

5. Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Re-invest Money, Nathaniel Popper – Recommended

 

6. Mythology, Edith Hamilton – Recommended

 

7. The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton – Not Recommended

 

8. Stesichorus: Complete Works (Loeb edition), Stesichorus – Not Recommended

 

9. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson – Recommended

 

10. Family Life, Akhil Sharma – Recommended

 

11. Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz – Recommended

 

12. Living With A Seal: 31 Days with the Toughest Man on the Planet, Jesse Itzler – Recommended

 

13. Red Doc >, Anne Carson – Recommended for the enthusiast

 

14. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler– Recommended

 

15. The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction, Eric Cline – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

16. Shadow Divers: The True Story of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One Of the Last Mysteries of WWII, Robert Kurson – Recommended for the enthusiast

 

17. A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar – Recommended for the Enthusiast.

 

18. The Iliad, Homer (trans. Fagles) – Recommended

 

19. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, Dan Harris – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

20. The Odyssey, Homer (trans. Fagles) – Recommended

 

21. The Aeneid, Virgil (trans. Fagels) – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

22. Find A Way, Diane Nyad – Recommended

 

23. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson – Recommended

 

24. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Sonia Shah – Recommended

 

25. A Cold Day in Paradise, Steve Hamilton – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

26. The Trojan Women, Hecuba, Andromache, Euripides (trans. Moorwood) – Recommended

 

27. The World of Odysseus, M.I. Finley – Recommended

 

28. The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates – Recommended

 

29. The Second Life of Nick Mason, Steve Hamilton – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

30. Infomacracy, Malka Older – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

31. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manny Marable – Recommended

 

32. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin – Recommended

 

33. Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer – Recommended

 

34. Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, Matt Fitzgerald – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

35. 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower, Matt Fitzgerald – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

36. The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana In A Female Punk Band, Michelle Cruz Gonzales – Recommended

 

37. Loquela, Carlos Labbe – Not Recommended

 

38. Winter In the Blood, James Walsh – Recommended

 

39. Straits of Mesinna, Samuel Delany – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

40. History of Buddhism, Robert Lopez – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

41. War and the Iliad, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff – Recommended

 

42. Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

43. Inferno, Patricia Mello – Not Recommended

 

44. Run or Die, Killian Jornet – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

45. Hillbilly Elegy: A Story of a Family and Culture in Crisis J.D. Vance – Recommended

 

46. Distant Star, Roberto Bolano – Recommended

 

47. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

48. Sudden Death, Alvaro Enrique – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

49. The Vegetarian, Han Kang – Recommended

 

50. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin – Recommended

 

51. Shiner, Maggie Nelson – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

52. Bluets, Maggie Nelson – Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

53. Pond, Claire Louise Bennett _ Recommended for the Enthusiast

 

54. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara – Recommended

 

55. By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolano – Recommended

*You can see my orginal post on what I planned to read in 2016 here. 

Book Review – Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz

I’m late to the Diaz game, so probably you’ve already read this. If not, here goes: this is the story of awkward overweight SF fan Oscar Wao and his family. Its also a lot more than that.  Diaz uses the Wao family to tell the story of modern Dominican life in both the public sphere (Trujillo, et al) and the private sphere. He shuttles between the DR and the expat communities of New Jersey and New York and, at least from my outside position, he captures the culture well. He taught me things I did not know.

 

The book is, no surprise for a multi-award winner, well-constructed and wonderfully written. Diaz does dialogue and internal monologues extremely well and his sense of place is pitch-perfect. The narrator’s voice comes off as authentic and real. The characters are nuanced and believable. They say write what you know and I’d say Diaz knows this terrain.

 

But this is more than a well done novel. It attempts to explain a time and a culture. Does it accomplish this? I’m probably not the one to judge – it isn’t my culture, nor my place, but I did feel, viscerally, what the pillage and petty cruelty of the Trujillo era did to people. I did get a glimpse of understanding of what it’s like being the boy without the girl in a culture obsessed with getting the girl; what it’s like to be a girl in that culture and a bit of what it’s like to be the mother trying to hold it all together in a world that appears deadest on destroying you and your family.

 

It’s a powerful work, funny, heartbreaking, and very well done. You’ve probably already read it, if not, you should.

 

Recommended.

Junot Diaz

2016: My Reading Goals

2015 was another pretty good year for my reading. 52 books, half by women. I’ll take it. This year, I have two overarching goals: to dig deeper in a subject matter, and to increase the diversity of my reading further. Here’s how I plan to achieve that:

Read fifty two books.

I’ve done this now two years in a row, now. I see now reason why I can’t do it again.

Meet (somewhat arbitrary) diversity goals.

Last year, I was disappointed with myself — I only read a few books by people of color. I want to make a concerted effort to change that this year. How? Well my first thought to mirror the U.S. census in my reading. Putting this into practice turns out to be a complicated and fraught idea. Census data can be unreliable, especially in communities in color. It also fails to count Hispanics/Latinos as a separate category. Also, the numbers don’t really work (how do you divide .2% (the percentage of the population that is Pacific Islander into 52?).

Finally, it isn’t like I’m only going to read American authors, there’s a whole world out there. If that’s the case, why not use world population numbers? Frankly, because the statistics are complex; it would be hard for me to fit them into a goal of reading 52 books (though I might try next year).

So with those concerns, here’s what I’ve decided to do – use U.S. demographic information as a jumping off point, and then set my own diversity goals.

Here they are:

  • 10 books (or ~17%) written by Latino writers
  • 7 books (or ~13 %) written by writers from Africa or of African descent
  • 3 books (or roughly 5%) written by writers from Asia or of Asian descent
  • 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a Native American writer
  • 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a writer from the pacific islands or of pacific island decent,

The rest of the books can (but certainly do not have to be) written by Caucasian writers.

Half of all books will be written by women.

I think it would be a fair criticism to say that these goals are simplistic, perhaps even tokenistic. These categories are too broad to be deeply meaningful (as if a writer from Kenya shares the same ideas and concerns as a African american author from Los Angeles). These categories do not include religious difference. Nor do they take into account sexuality, or the place of transgender writers. You cannot break writers down into such neat and tidy boxes, nor should you. You shouldn’t turn whole vasts areas of human thought, and huge groups of writers, into a check boxes.

True.

Yet here is what I have to say in my defense: year in, year out, I have shown that, left to my own devices, I will generally read books written by white men. Last year, when I set a goal of reading more women, I did.  I discovered books I never would have otherwise read, and I learned things I would not have otherwise learned. That isn’t a bad thing. I think taking this project of diversified reading to the next level, while deeply flawed, is at least worth a shot.

I welcome people’s criticism of the idea and suggestions for ways to do it better.

Dig deep into a specific subject area.

In addition to diversifying my reading, I’m also very interested in digging deeply into a single subject (kind of like I did a couple of years ago with the Civil War, but more so). I’ll be writing more about this soon, but for now, but for now, let’s say I intend to take my kinda half-assed study of the ancient world to the next level over the coming years.

Write reviews of all books.

Just like last year, I plan to write short reviews of every book I read. Review must be at least 100 words, but could be (and I hope often will be) much longer.

Every year in January I’m excited about what I’ll discover in the coming year, this year, perhaps more so than before. Please feel free to share recommendations / criticisms / ideas of how I could do this better in the comments.

 

Review: Lippman’s Baltimore Blues

Baltimore Blues: The First Tess Monaghan Novel
Laura Lippman

The first book in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan Series of crime novels set in Baltimore. This was a bit of more breezy than I expected, but does what I want a crime novel to do – give me a sense of place, give me characters I believe, and keep me turning the pages. I like this well enough to finish it in a matter of days, but not enough to track down the other books in the series. If you like your crime novels hardboiled, this might not be your thing, but if you like you crime novels to tell you not only a story, but also about a place a time (here Baltimore, early 90s) then you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

2014: My Year in Books

I’m still not really sure how this happened, but in 2014, I read 52 books. I’ve tracked every book I’ve read for the last 26 years, and 52 books is a record. I’m sadly proud of this.

A couple of things certainly helped. First, I finished a long-term goal of reading the complete works of Shakespeare – and the plays are relatively short. Second, I traveled to Washington pretty regularly and spent many early morning and late night train rides with my head in book. Third, I have no taste and read a fair amount of dude thrillers (note the spy novels and multiple entries for Lee Child novels) which go pretty quick.

Here are some highlights and lowlights:

Best Non-Fiction Book: Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink. I liked this book so much I wrote a actual review of it. Suffice to say, it haunted me for weeks after, and I pressed it into the hands of many of my friends. If you want to see journalism done really well, you should read this.

Best Fiction Book: Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle. This book was written for me. The Mountain Goats are one of my favorite bands, I’m obsessed with the 1970s, love any fiction that involves games, and had a bit of a troubled adolescence myself. Perhaps others won’t be as taken by it as I was.

Worst Fiction Book: I have no literary taste. I’ll read Lee Child with the same vigor as I read the Bard, but even I am ashamed to have read the The Madmen of Benghazi, Gerard deVilliers. It’s among the worst books I have ever read – poorly written, full of horrific (and often racist) clichés, and its not even engaging. In my defense, deVillers was written up by the New York Times, which is why I picked this pile of shit up in the first place.

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Lure of Long Distance, Robin Harvie. I have a very high tolerance for reading about people running around in circles as a means of self-discovery; but this was just the worst sort of navel gazing. That a mainstream house published this makes me think Harvie has got some sort of family connections.

Some statistics worth noting:

• 35 of the 52 books (or about 65%) were fiction. This about matches most years.

• 20 were works of the Bard. That is not average I’ll write a separate piece at some point about this whole read all the plays thing, but suffice it to say I’m glad that stupid project is over.

• Only 3 books I read were written by women (and I’m given myself the co-written Locked Room). That’s pretty embarrassing. More on this in my upcoming post on my reading goals for 2015.

Below is a complete list of the books with my annotation of whether I recommend it for the general reader, recommend it for the enthusiast interested in the subject matter or if I think you shouldn’t bother at all.

1. Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews — Recommended for the enthusiast

2. As You Like It (Folger Edition), William Shakespeare – Recommended for the enthusiast

3. Consider Phelbas, Iain M Banks – Recommended for the enthusiast

4. The Schools of Night, Alan Wall – Not recommended

5. Twelfth Night, (Folger Edition), William Shakespeare – Not recommended

6. Echo Burning, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

7. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovery Myself, Rich Roll — Not recommended

8. Cycle of Lie: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, Juliet Macur — Recommended for the enthusiast

9. Hamlet (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended

10. Exodus and Revolution, Michael Walzer — Recommended for the enthusiast

11. Going Long: Legends, Oddballs, Comebacks and Adventures: The Best Stories From Runner’s World, David Willey (ed) — Recommended for the enthusiast

12. The Snowman, Jo Nesbo — Recommended for the enthusiast

13. 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life, Alberto Salazar — Recommended for the enthusiast

14. The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer — Recommended for the enthusiast

15. Decoded, Mai Jia – Not Recommended

16. The Director, David Ignatius — Recommended for the enthusiast

17. Five Days At Memorial: life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink – Highly Recommended

18. Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About Science of Raising Children But Were Afraid to Ask, Dalton Conley — Recommended for the enthusiast

19. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

20. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Richard English — Recommended for the enthusiast

21. Trolius and Cressida (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

22. Without Fail, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

23. Why We Run: A Natural History, Bernd Heinrich — Recommended

24. The Lure of Long Distance, Robin Harvie – Not Recommended

25. All’s Well That Ends Well (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

26. Measure for Measure (New Cambridge), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

27. The Locked Room, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo — Recommended for the enthusiast

28. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, Richard Preston – Recommended

29. The Madmen of Benghazi, Gerard deVilliers – Not Recommended

30. Othello (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

31. Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle – Highly Recommended

32. King Lear (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended

33. Macbeth (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

34. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer — Recommended for the enthusiast

35. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America, Andrew Coe — Recommended for the enthusiast

36. Antony and Cleopatra (Royal Shakespeare Company), William Shakespeare – Recommended

37. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Oceans Tell Us About Ourselves, James Nestor — Recommended for the enthusiast

38. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, David Allen – Recommended

39. Coriolanus (Oxford), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

40. Persuader, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

41. Timon of Athens (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

42. Pericles (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

43. Cymbeline (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

44. The Winter’s Tale (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

45. The Tempest (Pelican), William Shakespeare – Recommended

46. Henry VIII (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

47. Two Nobel Kinsman (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

48. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, David Margolick — Recommended for the enthusiast

49. Monsuier Pain, Roberto Bolano – Recommended

50. Foreskins Lament: A Memoir, Shalom Auslander – Recommended

51. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf – Recommended

52. Tales from Out There: The Barkely Marathons, the World’s Toughest Trail Race, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw – Recommended for the Enthusiast