Doug Bruns

The Year in Reading – 2011

In Books, Literature, Writers, Writing on December 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Two years ago I wrote a piece for The Millions called Literature is a Manner of Completing Ourselves–A Reader’s Year. The title is a quote from Susan Sontag. (If you’re a reader you should bookmark The Millions. It’s perhaps the best of the general lit blogs out there.) I came to write that essay because I had for the first time taken note of the books I’d read that year. It–the reading list–was nothing more than a simple spreadsheet, a record, the transcript of a twelve month journey turning pages. (Yes, all the reading was analogue, real paper pages.)

I have below pasted the reading list for 2012. It is interesting to compare the years. This year I read twenty-seven books, not counting the current book which I will finish before year’s end. In comparison to last year, 27 is less by a full 16%. And last year included one thousand page beast, Infinite Jest. No thousand pagers this year.  The really interesting comparison is to 2009, the list I wrote about in The Millions. This year by comparison is less 2009 by 27%. That is to say that in three years my reading pace has dropped by 25%. (Too, that year included two books over a thousand pages, Bolaño’s 2666 and Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.) A quick calculation brings me to the conclusion that at this pace in about five years I will have stopped reading altogether.

Speaking of reading lists. Are you aware of Art Garfunkle’s? He’s a serious reader who has been keeping tally of books read since the 1960s. Here’s a link. To really drive it home, he goes another step to list his favorite books. Browsing through his list is almost as good as studying the library of a dinner host. (Which beats looking into their medicine cabinet any day.)

Here’s my list of books read in 2011. (I’ve linked the books I reviewed.)

  • Jan 7    Bound to Last, 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Book — Sean Manning, Ed.
  • Jan 8   The Maine Woods — H.D. Thoreau
  • Jan 24   A Widow’s Tale — Joyce Carol Oats
  • Feb 19   Portrait of a Marriage — Sándor Márai
  • Feb 28   The Foremost Good Fortune — Susan Conley
  • Mar 5    Moby Dick — Herman Melville (This was a third reading.)
  • Mar 21   The Sweet Relief of Missing Children — Sarah Braunstein
  • Mar 28   Tinkers — Paul Harding
  •  Apr 5    Seeds — Richard Horan
  • Apr 25   Fire Season — Phillip Connors
  • Apr 30   The Pale King — David Foster Wallace
  • May 7    The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers — H. Cartier-Bresson
  • May 15   The Ongoing Moment — Geoff Dyer
  • May 30  The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore — Benjamin Hale
  • Jun 15    Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself — David Lipsky
  • Jun 21    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas  — Gertrude Stein
  • Jul 10     The Tao of Travel — Paul Theroux
  • Aug 3     Feathers — Thor Hanson
  • Aug 15   The Surf Guru — Doug Dorst
  • Aug 20  The Story of Charlotte’s Web — Michael Sims
  • Oct 1      Disaster was my God — Bruce Duffy
  • Oct 20   The Great Leader — Jim Harrison
  • Nov 3     Blue Nights — Joan Didion
  • Nov 9     Beautiful & Pointless — David Orr
  • Nov 19   Swimming to Antarctica — Lynne Cox
  • Nov 29  The Triggering Town — Richard Hugo

Two last notes, should lists be your thing. Here are two that I’ve studied for years. The first is the reading list of St. Johns College in Annapolis, MD. St. Johns is better known as the Great Books School. The entire college education at St. Johns is based on the readings of original texts. Here is the undergrad reading list. It’s heavy duty. A little lighter and less intimidating is the Modern Library list of 100 best: Nonfiction & Fiction. One could do worse than read a few of these.

  1. I have Tinkers & Moby Dick on my shelves to be read, but still have not gotten to them. For some reason, Moby Dick remains a daunting undertaking for me, despite how many of my friends have read & loved it. Perhaps in 2012 it will make it over to the “read” column.

    • L ~ Thanks for reading and commenting. Let’s talk about Moby Dick. Faulkner said it was the book he wished he’d written. Your friends are on to something. It’s the real deal. The Great American Novel. That’s it in a nutshell. But it ain’t a walk in the park. There are a lot of helpers along the way, reader’s guides and of course more commentary than any other American book. But setting all that aside, you sound to me like someone who knows what she’s supposed to read and wants to read the right stuff. So, for what (little) it’s worth. Don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t appeal to you at first blush. Dive in. But do so slowly. Ten pages a day, tops. (That was the secret to getting through Infinite Jest too, pacing.) Ten pages then go on with your life. And tomorrow ten pages more. Don’t skip the parts about the history of whaling or the story of the whale. Don’t skip. Melville put everything into this soup and you’ve got to taste all the flavors. It’s taken me a long time, three readings over many years, to make this one a desert island book. This and Walden and no matter what the world threw my way and I’d be okay. Let me know how it goes once you decide to roll up your sleeves and go to work (and yes, it is work).
      Thanks again.

    • …and Tinkers is a beautiful little book, reads like a long prose poem. Lovely. But dark. Ever so dark.

  2. I love book lists! Thanks for yours and Art’s. Both are especially interesting this time of year as I think about my 2012 selections. My 2011 list is even shorter than yours. Some I am really proud to broadast; others not so, but here they are:

    How to Live, The Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell
    Radioactive, Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout – Lauren Redniss
    Settled in the Wild – Susan Hand Shetterly
    Life – Keith Richards
    Just Kids – Patti Smith
    Mindfulness – B.H. Gunaratana
    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloat
    War & Peace – Leo Tolstoy (month of April while on retreat)
    Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
    Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
    Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
    Pale King – David Foster Wallace
    People Reading – Valens & Beier
    Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged Edition) – Edward Gibbon (3 months for that one)
    The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein
    The Hedgehog and the Fox – Isaiah Berlin
    The Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    Memories, Dreams and Reflections – Carl Jung
    Whereever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat Zinn
    The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories – Leo Tolstoy
    Blue Nights – Joan Didion
    The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obrecht

    A number were recommended by you. Thank you very much. I share LWSpotts’ interest in Moby Dick (also recommended by you) and I pulled Harry’s very old paperback version from the shelves after reading the review of the book, “Why Read Moby Dick.” I also debate with myself whether I am ready for “Infinite Jest.” I was so fond of “Pale King,” but you warned IJ is not as accessible. “Tinkers” is taking up a tiny part of my upstairs bookshelf, so if I were in a competition, I would pick it up with the intention of finishing by the end of the year, but I did begin Jim Harrison’s “The Road Home” and am enjoying it and don’t want to rush it, given holidays and all.

    Thanks for a year in books! I will enjoy perusing the lists for 2012. (Not forgetting there may be a bit of Nietzsche in the mix.)

    • S ~ Your reading list is wonderfully eclectic and speaks to mind curious and also (like me) intent on self-improvement. Thank you for sharing it. I remember years ago reading a book of grammar when a writer-friend said to me derisively, Oh, you’re one of those self improvement types. I recall thinking at the time, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with our life? Now, a few decades later, I better understand how few people hold that opinion. I didn’t know you read Shetterly. Lovely book. And the Hedgehog and the Fox. I love that book. And of course it is a classic. You cannot get better than Berlin for stimulation and mind twisting. I read years ago his book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. Last year I picked it up and decided to re-read it. But, as I’ve said before, there is a right time for a book and a wrong time. It was not the right time. I’m not sure what, if anything, that means.

      I might have misspoke if I said IJ was not accessible. It is accessible, though famously called unreadable by one noted critic. It is accessible, though like so many worthy things in life (cliche), requires a measured approach for fear of failure. I have a reader’s companion which was quite helpful. You are welcome to borrow that if you decide to give it a go.

      Tinkers is a lovely book. Another book, similar in my mind, is Out Stealing Horses. Oh my, how wonderful that book is. Maybe perfect. I think the right book for you, after Harrison, would be The Elegance of the Hedgehog. You should check into that.

      We will no doubt continue this conversation. Books are endless, of course, and talking about them one of life’s great joys.

  3. I read the Elegance of the Hedgehog. Its charm eluded me. I found it a bit too predictable. And the references to literature or art seemed hokey. It was highly recommended to me when I read it, so maybe that was a poor introduction. Now, you are the second person with whom I share literary interests who liked it. Perhaps its meaning just went over my head. Not hard to do!

  4. Before the Blog closes, one last book list. I decided to give each family member a book this year, inscribed with a greeting and an explanation of why I chose the book for them. I have a fairly small family, so the list shouldn’t be too long:

    Husband: “What it is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes (He loved Matterhorn by same author.)

    Daughter: “Then Again” by Diane Keaton

    Son-in-Law: “Winter Trails Maine” by Marty Basch

    Son: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig

    Daughter-in-Law: “Robert McClosky: A Private Life in Words and Pictures” by Jane McClosky

    14 year old Grandson: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

    10 year old Granddaughter: “The Moleskin Journal of Cats”

    8 year old Grandson: “The Lego Ideas Book” by Daniel Lipkowitz

    6 year old Granddaughter: “Stranger in the Woods: A Photographic Fantasy, Snowflake Edition” by Carl Same and Jean Stoick (This is one of the most beautiful children’s book I have ever seen!)

    I think these gifts were the most meaningful I gave and I intend to continue the tradition each year.

    Thanks for keeping the blog going long enough for me to report these.

    Happy Holidays!

    • We did not get to discuss your lists–most excellent, indeed! I think you should start your own blog.

      I have been kicking around the idea of turning …the house I live in… into a “readers & writers of northern New England” blog slash resource slash lit-community water cooler. I even went so far as to write Susan Conley (The Foremost Good Fortune) and Gibson Fay-Lablanc (poet and former director of The Telling Room), two writer friends, to contribute postings about books read in 2011. But didn’t hit send. Alas, I don’t have the mojo. Maybe later…(I was going to ask you to share the editorial responsibilities with me, that maybe we turn the site into something cool for readers and writers stuck here up north.) Oh well…

      Thanks for sharing this list. I really love seeing what books you gave and to whom. Was it during one of our visits we talked about Robert Pirsig, living up the coast somewhere, a recluse?

      Reading for 2012 is going to take a different turn.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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