Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: Randy's Reading Retrospective

What the hell happened, 2017? When I reflect back upon you, and my (narrow) Fifty Books Project participation, what sordid tales will my stats tell? Seventeen books? Only seventeen books?

Three of these "books" were The Paris Review--which has always had a dubious-at-best status as a "book." Six of them novels, of which half I was re-reading (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Satanic Verses, and The Gunslinger). Five--nearly one third--were in an amorphous and unexpected business self-help category (I am excluding these from consideration for my best-of because, well, because I can and it's a free goddam country goddammit. Don't tell me how to live my life.)

Setting aside the re-reads, The Paris Review, and the self-help books, I have three novels and three non-fiction. A measly six books. (Notably, of these six, I did manage to review five).

So, WTF, 2017? I'll say simply that the year has been busy in a way that made the Siren's song of my PS4 very difficult to resist. When I reflect back, I will see the forgiving arms of an understanding game console in a cold year.

With only seventeen books, a top-three feels right. Here they are:

<drum roll>

Bronze Medal: Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States

LaChance's book changed the way I think about the death penalty by causing me to think, for the first time, about what the death penalty represents culturally. It had never occurred to me to think about the death penalty culturally, so that merely engaging in the thought experiment would have accomplished much. However LaChance's insight also provided answers about the death penalty. The death penalty's role is clearer to me now than before. But the book did more than change the way I think about the death penalty, it also changed the way I think about our society. Die Hard is a different movie for me now because of this book, and I suspect many other movies or cultural phenomena will be different too.

Silver Medal: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Pinker's a book, which was a spontaneous purchase based on a half-remembered shadow memory, was a surprise strong finisher for the year. I expected to read a book that offered some helpful thoughts, but which would largely repeat truisms about writing I'd encountered over and over again before. Instead, I got a thoughtfully crafted book about the craft of writing and why good writing is good writing (and why bad writing is bad writing). In addition to the forest, though, I also got trees: Pinker gave not just the big-picture of good writing, but details too. For putting into words what I intuitively understood about good writing, and giving me the conceptual tools to be able to describe good writing, this book will have a lasting effect on my own writing.

Gold Medal: Don Quixote

Don Quixote was, reading-wise, a game changer. I became, and still am, obsessed with this book. I read Nabokov's lectures about it; I watched the musical Man from La Mancha; I am excited about this documentary; I am even more excited about this movie. I got Monsignor Quixote for Christmas. I cannot now get enough Don Quixote, and I am not sure I ever will. What is the nature of Quixote's madness, and what does it say about us? This question eats at me and the various versions of media playing with Quixote all allow me to think about it more. Are we all engaged in quixotic quests that we don't recognize? What (self-)deceptions guide us? Quixote will be back in 2018, this I believe.

Speaking of 2018: what windmills will I tilt at in the new year? I am two volumes behind in The Familiar: I will continue to review them as I read them. I think I am going to try reading the two volumes back to back to see if that helps with my relapsing memory of the plot and characters. There are some famed female writers who I'm ashamed to admit I've never read (Atwood, Munro, Bender), who I really would like to get to this year (Brittany gave me quite a look when I realized all my authors over the last year were male). So, only vague aspirations.

Still, looking forward to another year with Fifty Books.

No comments: