Those End of the Year (Reading) Lists
I'm not very big on just doing something because you've always done it. I'm not big on living life by rote, by habit, without thinking about it very much. I'm not big on not-thinking, on received wisdom that is accepted without being examined first. Ironically, of course, those people who most cling to their opinions as being their own are often those same people who don't really have any ideas of their own, but thrive instead on parroting received wisdom. "Everybody knows. . ." is the phrase that most often precedes a flurry of thoughtless, unexamined opinions.
Most lists are pointless. It's not even that they're predictable, dull, and always the same sort of thing as they were last year. It's that they change nothing. The world doesn't ripple with their passing. So lists, especially Top Ten lists, don't seem very useful. Nothing changes: mostly the status quo is affirmed. (I'm not alone in this opinion.)
Far more interesting are lists of things people have accomplished during the past year, including such lists as Stephen Mills' list of what books he read. That's an appealing idea. It's actually the only idea for an annual list that appeals to me right now.
Yet when I thought of compiling a list of what I've read in 2011, to be honest I was daunted, as it's a huge list. People who know me know that I'm a voracious reader, usually reading more than three books at any given time; I read quickly, and retain most of it. I actually couldn't give you a complete list of what books I read in 2011, because I didn't count or keep track; and to be honest, a couple of months are blurry in my mind, following the surgery at the end of June, when the anaesthesia was still fogging my memory and cognition pretty badly. At the same time, when I was first recovering from the surgery, I wasn't very mobile, and sat around reading a lot for a few weeks. In fact, I had laid in lots of unread books on my sun-porch table, to read as I was moved while recovering. I got through some of those, but not all of them. Well, there's another surgery to get through in the coming year, so it's good to stack on hand for then, as well.
And then there's the long list of books I've re-read, read again, read for the umpteenth time—because as unfashionable as it is in many critical circles I do read for pleasure as well as for edification; so I come back to re-read some books every so often. Every couple of years or so, I re-read two or three of Raymond Chandler's novels. This past year also includes a lot of Virginia Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse, which I've been thinking about a lot this year, as a work of fiction that tells much truth about what it is to be an artist and a person.
I also re-read, as I usually do, some favorite novels in the science fiction and fantasy genres—as problematic as I find the whole literary-critical situation around "genre," especially in the way mainstream "fine art literary fiction" tradition tends to look down its nose at SF, claiming literary quality for itself and denying it to "genre" fiction, which is bloody nonsense—including a couple of SF series by C.J. Cherryh and Chris Claremont. I also read a series new to me, by Jack McDevitt. And some other SF classics that I hadn't actually had the chance to read before, like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.
Notable reading this year in poetry has been getting further into Kenneth Rexroth, re-reading Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin and In Search of Small Gods, and a few other things. I've found a number of small books by poets I hadn't heard before which I quite enjoyed, for example, Elizabeth Dodd's Archetypal Light and Brendan Galvin's Whirl Is King. There's been more, both critical reading and pleasure reading of actual poetry, as heretical as that seems to be in some quarters nowadays, a list too long to detail without having to spend an hour compiling it. I did re-read a poetry classic, Love Alone by Paul Monette.
I read a lot of non-fiction. I get a lot out of good creative nonfiction writing, on the level of John McPhee and Barry Lopez. This year I read a couple of Michael Pollan's books on botany and our human interaction with it. I re-read some Henry Petroski, who is one of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, taking delight in the things that people make and unmake. One of my favorite reads this year was Annie Proulx' Bird Cloud, her memoir about her home in rural Wyoming, which she built on land full of wildlife and beauty. I enjoy reading writer's books on writing, both memoirs of life and of writing; it's not that writers make better or more self-aware critics of writing, but when they speak as artists talking about art, it often leads to insights about creativity itself.
There's more, of course, but I'll stop there. Needless to say, reading is a continuous activity in these parts. I don't apologize, though, for being well-read. It adds a lot of layers to living. And makes life more interesting.