I track a lot of information about the books I read, partly for the fun of making overly-complicated graphs about it later. 2019 was my fourth year of extra-thorough reading reviews, and the second year in a row where my reading was no longer dominated by texts assigned for graduate school. In 2018 I followed a themed ‘reading challenge’ to push myself to still read widely, but 2019 I went truly solo: so what did I read? (And what do I actually recommend you read?)
Another year of “yikes”: just embarrassingly white
My one reading goal for 2019 was to increase the number of nonwhite authors I read, trying to exceed the very low bar of four. Well…
The four books by nonwhite authors that I read in 2019 were Paul Krueger’s Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, and Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory. Maybe I can give myself a half point for This is How You Lose The Time War, by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar?? I tricked myself a little by reading books about people of colour (like the fantastic The Black Count about Alexandre Dumas, no, not the Dumas you’re thinking of), but which were still written by white people; this gave me a feeling of ‘broadening my reading’ without actually accomplishing my stated aim.
If I give myself a half point for group publications that include nonwhite authors, 8.4% of what I read this year was nonwhite. That’s technically improved from 8% last year, but the total count in both years is 5– it’s just a higher percentage because I read fewer total books in 2019. This strikes me as, frankly, stupid. In 2020, I will read at least eight works solo-authored by people of colour.
Oddly modern reading in 2019
Scrolling through my Goodreads “Year In Books” I am reminded of how fun it was to read Jeeves & Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey books side by side in chronological order. From the very beginning Sayers is occupying a totally different 1920s than Wodehouse (one where you can actually tell that WWI happened) and as the years go by, the worlds they occupy only diverge more and more starkly. Interestingly (to me), it seemed like Wimsey’s butler dramatically diminished as Jeeves’s star rose, as if Sayers needed to disavow Wodehouse.
Wodehouse and Sayers are part of an overall pattern of 2019 being the most “contemporary” year for my reading since I started tracking this:
I’m not entirely pleased to have my habits skew so modern; I’d like to be reading more eighteenth-century works. Looking just at whether a book was published in the eighteenth century or not shows a decline:
I wouldn’t really expect to match 2017 again, since that was the year I took my Special Fields exam, but six books seems like too few. I’d like to manage at least 10 eighteenth century works in 2020.
The default book is a novel by a woman
It’s always been clear that my idea of pleasure reading — the stuff I read quickly, and therefore in larger volume — is fiction, chiefly by women. In 2019, I read so much prose — only 3 things that weren’t prose! — that I finally subdivided my assessments into “prose fiction” and “prose non-fiction,” which makes my preference for novels by women especially clear.
I’m still reading slightly more books by women than by men, now that my exams are over, though it’s not as stark a difference in 2019 as in 2019.
What is pretty stark is the correlation between prose fiction and female authorship across four years of data!
More than 100 works of fiction by women in only four years! Almost half of everything I read is fiction by a woman. The only problem I see here is how few works of non-fiction, comparatively, are by women: I suspect that’s especially reflecting a male bias in the scholarly monographs I’m reading, so I’d like to correct that.
Reading on my phone almost exclusively
In 2018 I started also documenting the source and format of each book I read. Ever since downloading the Libby app mid-2018, it appears that almost everything I read is now a book I have on my phone through Libby:
I’m less sure what to make of this phenomenon. I think it’s my default to Libby which has skewed my 2019 reading so modern: almost no 18thC texts are available in Libby, even when Project Gutenberg or LibriVox editions of those works exist. I’ve still done a little 18thC reading by downloading facsimiles from ECCO onto my phone (the form factor of an 18thC facsimile is oddly well-suited for phone reading — the dimensions line up well and the type is plenty large enough for readability!), but I often like the smoother experience of a contemporary digital edition. The only non-ECCO 18thC work I read in 2019 was a LibriVox audiobook of Cecilia that I’d begun in 2018.
Since I’m writing this review well into 2020, I already know that Libby’s role in my life is going to shrink; a major benefit of Libby is how smoothly it works during my pedestrian commute, and… 2020 isn’t going to have a lot of pedestrian commuting. So, I’m just curious to see how these breakdowns end up being different in 2020.
I explored the world of non-fiction a little this year, particularly biography. I very highly recommend Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, about Alexandre Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas pére and the inspiration for his son’s book The Count of Monte Cristo. I also found Janice Nimura’s The Daughters of the Samurai so engrossing that I used it to bring the wikipedia article on Ōyama Sutematsu up to “Good Article” status. I also sort of recommend Lindsay Powell’s biography of Marcus Agrippa, although actually what I really want is for someone to write a big, meaty novel about Agrippa which takes all the artistic liberties necessary to fill in the gaps. (I did read my way through all of the Agrippa/Augustus fanfic that exists, but it does not scratch this itch.)
My fiction recommendations from 2019 are mostly good meaty fantasy novels.The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is at the top, with complex and rewarding worldbuilding and, the Leckie specialty, a compellingly almost-alien narrative voice. I also recommend The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (a childhood reread that really held up!), and Naomi Novik is writing really rich and fascinating stuff post-Temeraire; Uprooted is great, if slightly more heterosexual than necessary. Honourable mention to The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I regret to say that Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder absolutely fails to deliver on the clever court intrigue that these other novels will inspire a taste for; I was actually unable to finish it, the plot fell so far from its initial promise.
Since I read so little from the 18thC, I have few suggestions for older texts. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Mr. Denne’s observations on a triple stone seat at Upchurch in Kent, nor An account of the Newcastle dispensary, for the relief of the poor. I assume you have already heard about Pride and Prejudice. But I can endorse the one new 18thC novel I read, Cecilia; Or, Memoirs of an Heiress — Jane Austen liked it for a reason!
Goals for 2020
As I said above, I’d like to read at least 8 works solo-authored by people of colour, and at least 10 works from the eighteenth century. I also don’t want to do another reading “challenge” like the PopSugar challenge; the prompts did push me out of my comfort zone, but often not in ways that were all that rewarding. Instead, I just want to keep up my general pace of reading, and read 50 books overall, of whatever seems appealing.