Warning: this is going to be epic, I can feel it.
Remember my 52 books in 52 weeks project that I was so gung-ho about this time last year? I did pretty good until about October and then I lost my steam in a big way. I didn't read seven of the books; still, 45/52 is still pretty good. The seven, sad unread books are still on the shelf looking at me so I just might get to them in 2012.
There were several standouts in the project, books that stuck with me. Most were quite good, a handful were just not for me. One was truly bad. Of course many of 2011's reading highlights were *not* from my 52 in 52 project at all. They were the books I read on the sly. They were the ones that presented themselves to me like a gift. Some were recommendations. Some I found on my bookshelves and just felt like reading that day or week. So that's what I am going to do in 2012 – stay open. I think I am finally done with the list mentality in regards to reading.
In July, I read a really thought-provoking book about books (I have a weakness for these types of books. I now own an *entire* bookcase filled to the brim with books about books. I treasure them. My girls will probably toss them out when I die, but for now, I get great satisfaction from looking at that bookcase. Anyway, back to July. I read The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and it congealed many thoughts I have about reading.
This is a little long, but I love what he says about attention:
This is why attentiveness is worth cultivating: not just because it is good for you or because…it can help you "organize your world," but because such raptness is deeply satisfying. It is, really, what Whim is all about; what Whim is for. I even think that such satisfaction is largely what David Foster Wallace has in mind when he says that without attentiveness, and the ability to choose what we attend to, we will be "totally hosed" – because after all, people get by without being able to make such choices. Many of them have very successful lives, in most of the ways that we measure success. But they're missing something, something vital, by never knowing what it's like to be so absorbed.
But how can we concentrate, how can we cultivate or practice deep attention, how can we read with all this noise? Impediments surround us, even when we're away from our screens. In explaining why he wrote his book In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik offers a telling statement: "I've always been a lover of silence, and this love is bound up with my passion for books. The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.' For years before I began writing about the subject, I'd been feeling that silence was a diminishing natural resource. I wanted to understand whether this was more than a substantive impression. If so, why had the world become louder, and what could be done to reinstate silence as a value in our culture?"
Good stuff, right? And then I came to the following passage and had the proverbial ah-ha moment. It's not like I didn't know this about myself already but it's so nice to find company in another reader:
I used to try to determine in advance what books I would read over the summer, but eventually realized that to put any book on such a list nearly guaranteed that I would not read it. No matter how anxiously I had been anticipating it, as soon as it took its place among the other assigned texts it became as broccoli unto me – and any book not on the list, no matter how unattractive it might appear in other contexts, immediately became as desirable as a hot fudge sundae. And over the years I have decided that this instinctive resistance to the predetermined is a gift, not a disability. The cultivation of serendipity is an option for everyone, but for people living in conditions of prosperity and security and informational richness it is something vital.
To sum up, in 2012, I am saying NO! to broccoli and YES! to hot fudge sundaes and serendipity. Basically, I am going to read what I want and see where it takes me. And I realize I am way too old to be just figuring this out.
And in case you care, here are the books that stuck with me the most in 20111:
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford (read in February).
Week 7/52: The most perfect chatty upper-class British society novel. I read a combined volume but if you choose just one, definitely go with The Pursuit of Love.
Great House by Nicole Krauss (read in March).
Week 11/52: Follows four disparate characters in eight chapters that seem to be connected by more than a large, looming desk but it isn't until the very end of the novel that the connections become clear. Krauss writes of loss, regret, memory and shattered existence so well that I forget she can be so funny – see History of Love.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (read in April).
Hamilton is a writer first, chef second. She has a great voice; this is an engaging memoir.
Life. Keith Richards (read in April).
First off, the audio version is one of the best I have ever listened to (three narrators including Richards & Johnny Depp). I have never been much of a Rolling Stones fan but I was enamored with the reviews of the book so gave it a try. Richards manages to be both entertaining and erudite on everything from the creative process to drug addiction.
One Thousand Gifts. Ann Voskamp (read in April)
Quite a jump to this one but this a Missy recommendation. The language is on the flowery side but I quickly got over my preferences because the content was just exactly what I needed to read. Voskamp writes of living the full life of eucharisteo (with grace, thanksgiving, joy). The book is especially geared to young mothers. One quote from J.I. Packer: "I can see through the woods of the world: God is always good and I am always loved."
A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz (read in June).
Subtitle: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. SO CHARMING. Deresiewicz writes a memoir of his emotional education intertwined with the novels of Jane Austen. This is what literature should do – intertwine with our own lives and education in surprising and lovely ways.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (read in June).
Week 24/52: A heartbreaking portrait of the perfect English butler that has devoted his life to a social order that is fast disappearing in a post-WWII England.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (read in September)
Week 34/52: Subtitle: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — And How it Changed Science, Cities & the Modern World. So the title is a bit grandiose but honestly this is gripping stuff: against all odds, a curate and a local physician take on a horrific cholera outbreak.
Matterhorn by Karl Malantes (read in October)
This was another audiobook. I wasn't so sure this would be my thing, a novel of the Vietnam War, but I decided to give it a try based on the reviews. Matterhorn is a humane but an unflinching look at war and the young men (boys) that fought it. I basically sobbed throughout.
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey (finished in December)
It only took me five months to read this. Weiland & Wilsey commissioned 50 writers to write essays on the 50 states (an updated version of the Great Depression's WPA guides to the states). I read the essays slowly and just enjoyed each writer's take on their state. This is good stuff, people. Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island, Dave Eggers on Illinois, Jonathan Franzen on New York…it just goes on an on.
Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos (read in December)
The most perfect comfort, Christmasy type of book. Marisa de los Santos' plots are on the well-worn side but her characters just have a way of getting ahold of me in the most serious of ways. I just love what she has to say and how she says it. This is a story of friendship and love and second chances and taking risks.