How I Read 163 Books in 2018—And What I Learned
I read more than I ever have this year, with my total currently sitting at 163 books. (And I’ve still got some time left, baby!) I didn’t really think that I’d be able to eclipse my total from 2017, which, as I wrote last year, was ridiculous, but I made a pretty big change to my routine: I started reading ebooks and listening to audiobooks. My resistance to these formats was mostly just fussiness—loving books as objects, ink on paper, the weight of a hardcover book, yada yada yada.
But I made the jump when I realized that I could be reading a lot more than I was. Audiobooks mean I can read while getting ready in the morning and while driving, ebooks mean I can read in those dumb little amounts of time when I would normally be scrolling through Twitter or refreshing Instagram. (I still do a lot of scrolling and refreshing, because I am not perfect—yet.)
Diving headfirst into audiobooks and ebooks helped me discover a whole new set of preferences. White text on a dark background works best for me when it comes to ebooks; listening to audiobooks at anything less than 1.5x speed makes it sound like the person reading is seriously disturbed. Also: Audiobooks with a narrator attempting a “Southern” accent are automatic nonstarters.
My favorite audiobook I listened to this year is, without a doubt, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. It’s a beginner’s guide to goshawk training, a meditation on death and grief, a mini-biography of T.H. White, and the story of Macdonald’s reawakened appreciation for life and her hawk, Mabel. It's a book that is so many things at once, and it’s excellent on all fronts. I found myself rewinding this line again and again, trying to imprint it on my brain: “The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.” I promptly bought a physical copy to reread in the future.
Ebooks gave me a jolt this year, too. Flannery O’Connor’s delightful A Prayer Journal made me smile during my breaks at work this summer as I got to see the unpolished workings of a legend’s mind at a younger age. Natasha Trethewey’s Monument—selections from her previous poetry collections and some new offerings, too—felt especially meaningful as I read her gorgeous and complicated poems about her father while on a trip for my own father’s 50th birthday.
This was, of course, on top of all of my regularly regimented ink-on-paper reading. There were times throughout the year where I was reading six or seven books at a time and felt like a crazy person, but it all turned out OK. I tackled two personal literary Everests this year: James Joyce’s weirdass Ulysses and Leo Tolstoy’s glorious War and Peace, both of which I rationed into tiny sections and read over two-month periods. It often felt more like I was living in these books rather than just reading them as I pored over the goings-on of Molly Bloom, Natasha, and Pierre.
I tried to similarly ration Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but ended up falling so hard and fast for it that I couldn’t stop reading. This meant that I finished Smith’s book with more than a few tears streaming down my face at my grandmother’s house on Easter while I marveled over how perfect and sweet and sad and true it was.
And then there are the incidentals: books I picked up throughout the course of the year that stopped me in my tracks. Zadie Smith’s Feel Free felt like proof that you can be smart and serious and still a lot of fun. Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher is a book I really thought I would hate but became weirdly obsessed with—and I’ve been evangelizing on its behalf ever since. What about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, a page-turner about an old movie star dishing out some big secrets that is way smarter and more complex than it ever needed to be? Reader, I loved it. James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon are masterpieces, of course, and both still feel like they’re on fire in the best way.
And yet, something that keeps coming to mind as I think about what I read this year is from Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, a trifle of a book that I read on my phone during lunch breaks. (To paraphrase Bram Stoker, my reading life is now 21st century up-to-date with a vengeance.) In the novella, Queen Elizabeth II decides to take reading more seriously and finds her view of the world shifting: “Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, one just wishes one had more of it.”
When I think about how much time and space reading occupies in my life, this reminder from Bennett and his fictionalized queen feels just right. It’s never just reading. It is always more than that.