A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

23 thoughts on “A Year in Reading: 2014

    • 64 is a little disappointing for me, but it’s all relative. I don’t watch television and spend two hours most days commuting, so usually manage to spend at least 3-4 hours a day reading.

  1. I love this statement: “the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately” – that is what happens to me as well, the truly great reads I will buy as presents for friends. This year until now, I have given away several copies of Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon, The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, The Visitor by Katherine Stansfield, A Sportful Malice by Michiel Heyns, Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein, and Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut. This list does not include books I’ve bought or will yet buy for Christmas 🙂

  2. Anthony – I’m eager to look into these writers as there are many with whom I’m not at all familiar. I followed Nick Hunt’s travels over on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog, so that one’s already on my list, as is Ferrante’s Naples trilogy. But who are these others? I’ve never even heard of six of the first eight you mention, so off to library to find out more. It sounds like a high quality year, quantity (impressive nonetheless!) be damned.

    • Certainly a high quality year, as I’ve been ruthless this year in abandoning anything that even felt average. I can say with certainty that nothing on my list was mediocre, at least by my standards. I’m delighted you’ve not heard of the others and hope you have as much pleasure in your discoveries as I did.

  3. I regret the loss of commuting time sometimes, although it also feels like having got my life back. I find it very hard to find real space for reading (three kids and one young adult) and have sunk below 50 for the last couple of years. A few recent train journeys have shown me how much more I would do were they a more regular occurence. The eternally renewing attraction of the internet is also a major distraction that I need to learn to control.

    • My best reading period ever was when I was travelling to Melbourne/Sydney and Washington DC twice a year, very much enjoyed the airtime without the distraction of phones and Internet.

  4. My book count is 59 so far this year. It’s also a declining trend for me. Work load is particularly heavier this year. From your list, Houellebecq and Carson are the only ones familiar to me. I really should go back to my half-read Houellebecq.

    No TV, no Twitter, but lots of other online surfing distraction. There should also be a statistical count of blog posts read since the online reading materials take time away from books.

  5. I haven’t read many of the books on your list and I don’t have much to suggest (my favorite book I read this year was Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu which actually came out last year, but it’s like an explosion of paint, viscera, and emotions; I recommend hell out of it)…. I just wanted to say that for whatever reason I really enjoy this blog and find myself here often.

    All the best,
    -Joey

  6. Maybe not as many books completed as you would have liked, but still, a very good year in reading! Thanks for the info about Dark Mountain Project. I have never heard of them before and their site looks fantastic!

  7. I think it’s worthwhile to be an honest blogger (or perhaps better to say it’s pointless if you’re not), honest in terms of responses, thoughts and so on, but consistency seems to me overrated and unnecessary.

    For me I suspect it’s more like 30 to 50 books, pressures of work absorb much of my time and while I have a commute I’m generally too tired in the evening to read on the way home.

    I have a copy of the Furse, but don’t know the Lacey. Did you write about it?

    • I didn’t think you were in that sense. The finitude of time issue is of course the problem of mortality, I tend to work on the assumption that I just won’t get to it all or even close, which oddly takes a lot of pressure off.

      Thanks for the Lacey link, I’d missed that one.

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