(Not) Books of the Year 2019

This has not been a good year for me, reading-wise. Last year’s Year in Reading post features a stack of great books published in 2018 that I was able to enjoy and write about as they came out. For various reasons, this year’s stack is much smaller. This might be simply that there weren’t so many good books, or it might be that I lost my taste for them – for books, for reading.

There are some other mitigating circumstances:

First of all, 2019 was supposed to be the Year of Reading Proust, something I set for myself as a new year’s resolution, with a dedicated Twitter account to accompany it, and give me encouragement. It started well, with the first two volumes done over the first two months, but the third wasn’t finished until I was on my summer holiday. The fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, sits by my bed even now. Proust calls for time properly devoted to it – you have to have time to find time, or speculate to accumulate you might say – and time this year was sucked up by other things.

There were four intense reading projects that got in the way: a blitz through some unread Iris Murdochs ahead of a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival; rereading some Brigid Brophys as I put together a chapter for an academic book; reading and rereading Don DeLillo for another academic chapter; and currently an avalanche of Simenons for a long piece to be published next year. These were and are all fulfilling and exhilarating in their different ways, but ate up much of my reading/writing energy while they occurred.

Work got in the way: academia is becoming more gruelling. (Academia, in part, means reading lots of things fast to find the things I want my students to read more slowly. It means strategic, points-based, results-oriented reading.)

Writing got in the way, for a time: my morning commute, which is often my best time for reading, suddenly gave itself over to the first draft of a new book – that now, alas, languishes at 45,000 words, untouched in two months. I have no idea when I will get back to it.

A Personal Anthology has been a happy distraction: all those short stories to read! Obviously, I don’t read all of all of them, but the project has sent me in many different and rewarding directions.

There were months this year – September and November – when I didn’t read an entire book front to back, though I never stopped reading. Reading just became scatter-gun, fragmentary, a bit of this, a bit of that, snacking, never finding the book that would suck me in and close off the rest of the world. Perhaps this is to do with teaching (I am always looking for useful examples of types of writing, always classifying, always comparing), perhaps with writing (I am always looking for inspiration, for something in a book that will light the fuse under my own writing; a snatch of writing can be enough).

I’m somewhat in that mood at the moment, on the last day of the year. Knowing that I have a big piece of writing work to do in January (academic bureaucracy) and a big piece in February (the Simenons), I find it hard to settle on any book that I feel deserves my full attention.

Or rather I feel I don’t have enough to offer any book that is going to make demands on me, as a reader. And I have too much pride to reach for something that demands nothing from me.

Instead, I reach for books that I think will steady me, will give an intense shot of what I need without having to read all of it – a ‘livener’ I think you’d call it. Something bracing. So, in the last few days I’ve picked up:

  • an Alasdair Gray novel from the four I have unread on my shelves. It was Something Leather. It didn’t do the trick;
  • a John Berger book I have read before (Here is Where We Meet), hoping that it would match or else steer my self-pitying end-of-year rudderlessness (it didn’t);
  • a big book of RS Thomas poems. That did the trick for one bedtime;
  • then Alasdair Gray’s wonderful The Book of Prefaces, which is the very definition of the intellectual livener.
  • And then see me walking back up the road from the high street, having dropped off a selection of books at the charity shop, reading the opening to Adam Mars Jones’s book of film writing, Second Sight, a steal at a pound, and instantly, though temporarily, feeling invigorated. Here is someone writing insightfully, fruitfully, encouragingly about culture, making it all seem worth while.

None of those books, though, have been read enough to count as Reading. They haven’t been ‘ticked off’.

So if I look back at my Monthly Reading posts from 2019, I find that the new books I read that I loved the most were not new books at all, but just newly translated.

  • I point you towards Tove Ditlevsen, especially the third part of the Copenhagen trilogy, Dependency.
  • I point you towards Mario Benedetti, perhaps especially Who Among Us?, though all of his books are tiny marvels of melancholy.
  • And I point you towards Nathalie Léger’s Exposition, the latest publication from Les Fugitives, which is as clever and insightful about art and femaleness and their contentious overlap as was the same author’s Suite for Barbara Loden.

Another newly published book that I loved, though the book has had previous editions, and in its writing is older still, is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. That was probably my most intense reading experience of the year, though you can add in The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, read for the first time, and already written into my reading self, my sense of myself as a reader.

My new new book of the year, probably, is Ducks, Newburyport. I saw ‘probably’, because I haven’t finished it, just like I haven’t finished Proust, but it’s given me great happiness and joy when I have been reading it.

All of which is to say that reading, this year, has been problematic. A lot of the time I feel like my reading is out of sync with the rest of my life (writing, teaching, family). I haven’t been able to mesh gears with the books I’ve been reading, haven’t been able to integrate them into my ongoing personal narrative.

Perhaps this is natural at the end of year, when people are frantically posting lists (this is an anti-list post, I suppose), both of what they read this year, and of what we should be reading next year. I’ve been guilty of the former in the past, so it’s my own glass house I’m shying stones at. Even if it’s a glasshouse I used to live in, rather than one I currently inhabit.

Linked to all of this moping and mithering is a typically seasonal, flickering, migrainous sense of mortality. Not just Gray, Neil Innes and Vaughan Oliver falling like ninepins over the Christmas period (none of which deaths hit me particularly hard, to be honest), but also two other deaths, near and not so near, that hit two other people I know. I’m still a rube, a child, an ingenue when it comes to death. My three healthy children were able to spend time with both their sets of grandparents over the Christmas period. And yet here I am, over halfway through my probable life, looking to books for guidance. Or blaming them for my uselessness.

This mithering, I feel, comes down in part to the question of how reading fits into a life, of what its function is.

It is probably true that I have enough books on my shelves now to last me the rest of my life, but that seems to beg the question: would that be enough? Would those be the right books? Why do you read, Jonathan? Is it still ‘a project’? Would you be a different person at the end of ‘Proust’ than you were at the beginning?

As it happens, one of the two books I received as gifts this Christmas (I’m rarely given books, which is a shame) was 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, which, let’s say, isn’t a book I’d have bought myself. It was a present from one of my sons, as a sort of loving joke, and in response to the copy of 1001 Films to Watch Before You Die which I’d bought – from a charity shop – and left lying around, wondering if it would get the same kind of obsessive attention from my teenage boys that the Time Out Film Guides used to get from me. (Broadly, no, though that may be changing.)

The book was accepted in the spirit in which it was given. But it did get me thinking. After all, it’s a ne plus ultra of the whole book list genre that gets people riled online when they appear in the newspaper. Though obviously a thousand is a decent enough number that all kinds of multitudes can be contained within it. As it was Christmas, and there was a certain amount of productive lazing around doing jigsaws and rewatching films seen time and time before, I went through and tried to count the number of the 1001 that I’d read. It was, I think, what was expected.

This was harder than I’d expected, as it quickly became difficult to know if I had indeed ‘read’ any particular book. Look at the very first book: The Thousand and One Nights. Have I read it? Well, no. I mean, I’ve read it, but I haven’t read it. It’s there on my shelves – three of the four volumes – and I’ve opened it and looked inside it, and learned from it, and can talk about it, but I’ve not finished it.

That’s the problem with classics: you can pick up so much information about them from the wider culture that when you come actually read them, you run the risk of simply deciding that you don’t need to finish them. An equation:

Everything I’ve read of Don Quixote, over the years + 50pp actually read of Don Quixote = (more or less) reading all of Don Quixote, no?

Ulysses, The Man Without Qualities, The Glass Bead Game, Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau’s Nephew, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Oblomov, If This is a Man, The Lonely Londoners, How Late it Was, How Late, The Recognitions, H(A)PPY,  Invisible Man, Dictionary of the Khazars: all or in fact almost all of these sit on my shelves. I have read some of all of them. And I give you no guarantee that they will get ticked Before, as the book says, I Die.

(I did tick The Book of Disquiet, though I’d be lying if I said I’d read every page of it. But that’s not the point of it, is it?)

Why read them, then? What will they offer? What does the book promise?

Or rather: what will they offer as reading experience, and what once read?

Books are at once information and experience, content and form, end and means, and it can be hard to separate out one from the other.

Or another way: books form you, but at a certain point you have to ask, what for?

An epigram:

We read books, as adults, for the consolation they offer for the fact that life didn’t turn out like the books we read when we were younger told us it would.

(I’ve expressed that better elsewhere, though as it’s not on Twitter I can’t find it.)

But go back and read those books again, that we read when we were young, and they will be filled with melancholy you didn’t see the first time around. Or didn’t believe.

You read those books, when you’re young, and you think: how charming, that this old person has written a book saying how dreadful life is! It can’t be true, though, for it is written in a book, and books are things of joy, so it must be a kind of joke, or pretence, or bluff. I see through you, Boomer! You don’t really mean it!

We transpose minor to major keys, when young: instinctively, unconsciously. When older, major to minor.

The more I read, the less I know why I do it. Or rather the less I can separate out what I’m getting from the reading experience in the moment from what I might gain from it post hoc, when the dust has settled, what its lasting impression on me might be.

Books have local effects, and global effects; they work on you sentence by sentence, and page by page, but then – and in an entirely different way – all at once, and over time. To read is to expose yourself to radioactive material that can cause intellectual and emotional mutation long after the event.

I think that, when I was younger, I thought there would be a pay-off to reading, like in a computer game: that you would, in some way, win, or advance, with each book you read. That each book would produce a sprinkle of little gold coins, like in Mario World, which would add to your total, which would equate to your worth as a person, as a human being.

That is the message I would seem to be sending to my children by buying them books, every year, at Christmas and birthday, that sometimes are books beyond their years, or outwith their current interests. I want to form them, or help them form themselves, even as I cast around the thousands of books on my shelves for something to help me tackle the next stage of my life, that will give me the clarity needed to see it through.

This, then, is, I think, the rub of it: when you read, is it the reading experience you cherish, or the fruits of that reading? And if you can read in trust for the first third or half of your life, it’s likely that at some point you will look around and say, Okay, where are those fruits? What have I reaped? Can I cash all this reading in somewhere for something? Where is my wisdom? Where is my wealth of soul?

And the answer you find to that question is likely to change the way you approach the books you read thereafter. You may approach them more warily. Less likely to proceed on the assumption that the benefit of reading is being projected somewhere into the future, to be reaped by your future self. I don’t know…


  1. Tredynas Days

    Why read? You answer this with verve, and articulate what I’ve often thought but never had the wit to put into words. I’m reminded of the student when aged about 15 (now one of my oldest friends) at a school I taught at early in my career; he was a precocious lit student, so I gave him Kafka to read. It took him years to get over the trauma this caused, though now, in his fifties, as you suggest, he’s better able to appreciate the melancholy. I’m very familiar with that notion: can I really tick that one as ‘read’? Richardson? Robert Burton? Some books are best sipped in stages, at random even.

  2. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve never really thought there was a point to reading. One does it for pleasure, like knitting or sudoku. If one reads a lot one gets better at it, gets more from the text and perhaps moves on to more challenging texts (though some prefer just to go wider or stay in a niche). Then again, if one plays sudoku a lot one gets to play harder sudoku I understand…

    Other than that, there really is no reason. No payoff. The joy of art is its pointlessness.

    Re Proust, I didn’t read him in 2019 either which is a huge disappointment to me. I’m stuck on The Captive presently, so a little ahead of you. My only real reading ambition for this year is to get back to Proust. Good luck with your own efforts at that.

    Also, I know you know this, but you’ve not read Don Quixote. Not least as the second volume is never really discussed anywhere, but also because it is superbly well written and incredibly funny and when you hit the second volume shows that postmodernism is older than modernism. If I had to press one (actually two – the two volumes were published ten years apart after all) book into your hand it would be that. It reads surprisingly well in instalments on the tube.

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