Over the years I have maintained a list of books I have read. It’s out of curiosity, but also because I remember too little of what I have read and thought it would be useful to have a list. This being the end of the year and the beginning of another annual book list, I thought I would look over at least part of the list to see what I might remember about my reading.
The first book on my list, recorded in 2012, is by Joan Hess, Misery Loves Maggody. A note I made says that it is an Arly Hanks Mystery. Not surprisingly, I do not remember anything about the plot of the mystery. I seldom remember plots for more than a few weeks after finishing a mystery, but I am surprised that I recall Maggody as being set in Arkansas and that Arly Hanks was a small-town sheriff or police chief. Also to my surprise, I remember buying the book at a Lot for Less store, which carries all sorts of remainders from clothes to breakfast cereal to sheets. I was addicted to this store for a long time. Since it was on my route from the subway stop to my office, it was only natural that I went there regularly, buying lots of things I did not need because they, as the name implies, cost lots less than elsewhere. On occasion, the store had books, and on occasion I bought one there–like the Hess book. I enjoyed the Joan Hess mystery, but that was, according to the computer’s find function, my first and last encounter with her and Ms. Hanks.
As I glance down the first year’s entries, however, I have no idea how I obtained many of the books. For example, after Misery Loves Maggody comes Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which a note indicates consists of three novels published from 1960 to 1965 and was made into a BBC series with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. I can’t believe that I bought this giant paperback which still sits on my bookshelf. I probably found it as a giveaway sitting on a neighborhood stoop. I can recall little about the book other than I thought it odd that a country, I think in this case Romania, would accept a king who was not born, raised, or otherwise being of the country and did not even speak the language.
As I glance at the listings from over a decade ago, I have zero memory of many of them. For example, Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper. I noted “M.D. Hit Man.” That seems memorable but apparently not to me. More surprising is that I have no memory whatsoever of Naguib Mahfouz, The Mirage. A note tells me that the author was an Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner. Surely the book had an important literary impact, but not a lasting one on me.
That first year’s list also indicates that some of my book habits had changed. Every fourth book or so a decade ago was on audio. I had begun listening to audiobooks in my running days.
I had at first resisted audiobooks while running. A runner, I thought, should have an unimpeded experience and absorb only the ambient sounds. I felt superior to those on the Prospect Park road who had buds in their ears. After a year or so of running, though, I changed. I was then in a phase of if you are going to do something you should do it compulsively. I was spending a lot of time running my 40, 50, or 60 miles a week, and there seemed to be less and less time for anything else. So I bought a Walkman, or probably a knockoff, and started listening to NPR shows. Then after another year, I broke down and ordered from Books on Tape. I had assumed that listening to a book could not hold up to reading the print version. I soon found that was only partially true. Some books, I felt, were best read by oneself. Many were good in both print and audio versions, and there were some, I was convinced, that were better in the audio form (I felt that about the moving Growing Up by the amusingly astute observer of America, Russell Baker.) Audio continued into 2012 even though the running did not. While they have now dropped to the wayside for me, audiobooks were a regular part of my life for a long time.
I at first also resisted Kindle. Turning pages seemed more satisfying than poking a screen, and with a printed book, it was much easier to go back and find the clarifying passage I did not remember. I read a few e-books a decade ago, but not many. That changed during the pandemic.
My country library is a member of an e-book consortium, and I started getting more and more e-books while quarantining. Then I expanded my horizons and got them from the New York Public Library, and a bit later from the Brooklyn Public Library. (Brooklyn, of course, is part of New York City and most NYC municipal institutions are citywide. However, for whatever reason, when the five boroughs were consolidated into one New York City in 1898, the Brooklyn Public Library remained separate from the New York Public Library.)
Of course, there is a lot to be said for being able to get books without leaving the couch, but I still find one major drawback with e-books — you can’t mark them up. I often underline or write in the margins of printed versions of the nonfiction I read. Sometimes I go back to look at my notes in these books. I know that something similar can be done with e-books, but I have not learned how to do it as efficiently as I do with traditional books.
While the lists eleven years apart indicate a shift away from audiobooks towards e-books, they indicate a consistency in library browsing for new nonfiction. A longstanding habit has been to turn to the right after entering my small, public country library. The metal bookshelves there hold in separately labeled sections new fiction, mysteries, biographies, and nonfiction. Sometimes I may browse for a novel or a fiction, but every time I look at the biographies and the nonfiction for a topic that might be of interest. If I find such a book, I will give it a go even though I may not have heard of it or its author before.
More recently, I have started doing comparable browsing at convenient branches of the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries. They, too, have new nonfiction sections, and rummaging in them has led to much of what I now read. Eleven years ago the browsing at the country public library led me to such books as Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Jonathan Eig, Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, and Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, and others, none of which I probably would have bought to read. This year the browsing in the various public libraries has led me to William Elliott Hazelgrove, Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick, Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, and Porter Fox, Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.
When I look over the 2012 list, I see mostly random reading except perhaps for several books about lawyers and our criminal justice system. I was then in the midst of volunteer work with a couple of public defenders’ offices, and perhaps I had some fantasy about writing reflections about those experiences. If so, nothing came of it.
This year’s list does have a few spots of direction. I was advising a senior at Columbia University writing an honors thesis centered on the January 6 insurrection, and I read several books so that I could advise him better. These included Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction; David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy;and Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
In the years since I started the book list, I became a member of a history book group that now directs some of my reading. For example, among other books this year, we “historians” read Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing; Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War; Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York; Philippe Sands, East West Street; Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History; Report of Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States; and Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
What got the most focus from my reading in 2022 was Iceland. I read novels by Halldór Laxness and Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, many mystery stories written by Icelandic writers, and several nonfiction books about the country. These added enjoyment and perspective to my trip when I was there and afterwards.
I am lucky to have friends and family who are discerning readers and make good recommendations. Mostly, however, my reading seems aimless except that I tend to avoid certain genres. I seldom read romances, although this year, wanting to get a better understanding of the phenomenon, I read a book by Colleen Hoover. I avoid science fiction, although I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and one of his novels sits on top of a stack of books I plan to read in the coming months. I don’t read fantasies, although I feel as if I ought to know Harry Potter and the Hobbit. It has been years since I read a graphic novel, and even longer since I read a western. Every couple years I attempt poetry but never make it to the end of a volume.
I do wonder why I read. I read few books closely. I remember well only a few of the books I finish. I do get some fodder for this blog from my reading. It produces the “First Sentences” I occasionally post. Sometimes the reading gives me an idea for a post or a quotation to use. But I don’t read as if I am researching for the blog or anything else. I read because I read.
I think back to a clerk who had waited on me several times in a ten-day span at the local bookstore. She said, “You read a lot.” I replied, “If you don’t have a life, you should at least read.”
And I continue to keep my book list. I have made the first two entries for 2023: James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (obtained from the new nonfiction section of the Brooklyn Public Library) and Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing (obtained from a sale at the Barrett Friendly Public Library.)