For years, going all the way back to 2003, I’ve kept a journal of the books I read. They have to be books I actually finish, which reduces my overall numbers, but also relieves my guilt over all the books I wasn’t able (or willing) to see through to the end. Looking back now, it seems a Herculean task to have started with one book (Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS) and slowly filled up the pages of my journal.
And I truly mean “slowly.” It turns out that over the last thirteen years I’ve read an average of 35 books a year, or 455 books total. That, to me, is a sobering number for two reasons. One, last I counted, I owned a little over 400 books, many of which I either haven’t read or would like to read again. Based on my annual average, it’ll take me eleven years just to tackle those, provided I don’t buy any more books, which is highly unlikely. Two, the average expected lifespan of a male living in the U.S., according to the National Labor Relations Act poster at my work, is 78. This means I only have about 1,500 books left to read in my life, or enough to revisit my current book collection three to four times. This may suffice for AMERICAN GODS but not for, say, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN or Jim Harrison’s DALVA.
Still, I dutifully record my reading progress in my journal because not only do I tend to forget the books I’ve read unless I buy them and see them sitting on my shelves, but I also like to leaf through the journal and reflect on my life through the books I was reading at the time. For example, I was in Paris when I read AMERICAN GODS. The weekend I was there, France was struck by a heatwave that left thousands dead throughout the country. It was too hot to sightsee, so I stayed in my hotel. Parisians at the time didn’t believe in AC (maybe they still don’t), so I lay in bed with a wet towel over me — I even opened the bathroom door and let the cold shower run in hopes that some coolness might drift into the bedroom — and devoured Neil Gaiman’s fantastical road trip through an America populated by forgotten gods of the old world.
Similarly, I remember reading John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN in my sister’s old bedroom at our parents’ house in the days leading up to my move from the Netherlands, where I grew up, to the United States, where I’ve lived ever since. And reading Gregory Maguire’s WICKED over Christmas 2006 and Norman Mailer’s THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG the following Christmas, two occasions I should have spent with my family, but that I chose to spend with books instead. Back in 2003, when I began the journal, I was working on my masters’ thesis on Philip Roth, and the journal shows seven Roth entries in a two-month period. I first discovered Cormac McCarthy, now a favorite, in 2007, and Jim Harrison, another favorite, the year after. Since 2011, I’ve read TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson five times.
2010 was a bad year for me for personal reasons, and the journal ends abruptly in July with Paul Harding’s TINKERS. It picks up again in August 2011 with Susan Hill’s THE MAN IN THE PICTURE, representing the longest reading break of my life — 2 years totaling just 18 books. Something had to be done to make up for lost time. I’m not a fast reader. I like to underline things, re-read passages, etc. Somehow, I had to find more time in the day to read. But then I got married and bought a house and spent more time at Lowe’s than on the sofa reading, and then my wife and I had a baby, and by the end of 2013 I had read just 16 books.
Reading, of course, isn’t a race. But that empty feeling of not getting enough books in my system — like a body not getting enough water, vitamins, or sleep — was very real.
So I started listening to audiobooks on my daily commute to work. The main complaint I’ve heard about audiobooks is that people find it hard to stay focused. The drive to work however I knew well and I was able to get into a zone where I was keenly focused on the book (H. P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was my first) while still keeping my attention on the road. This added an hour’s worth of reading time to my day.
Next I began looking for more “cracks” in the day: little openings where I could sneak in a few minutes of reading. Walking the dog (45 minutes). Working out (60 minutes). Even vacuuming, though this required noise-cancelling headphones (20 minutes). All this added a total of seven to ten reading hours to my week. The books I picked were all of that length, so I could get through one per week. I subscribed to Audible, where for a monthly fee you get credits to buy audiobooks. I also learned that the San Francisco Library rents out audiobooks through the Overdrive app and Hoopla, both on the iPhone. I was in audiobook heaven.
What soon became clear was, if you’re going to spend a lot of time listening to someone read, you’d better make sure you like their voice. It’s amazing to me, now that I’ve been listening to audiobooks for two years, what a difference a voice can make — and how some publishers don’t seem to put much thought into who reads their books. Will Patton became an instant favorite of mine. His readings of Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST and Denis Johnson’s JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS, and TREE OF SMOKE are sublime — his voice being just the right blend of soothing and sinister. Richard Poe too, particularly his readings of BLOOD MERIDIAN, EAST OF EDEN, and Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD. Becket Royce doing Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING is lovely; John Malkovich doing Kurt Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is a hoot; and so is Jeremy Irons’ version of LOLITA. Roy Dotrice talent for doing dozens of different voices is the only reason I’ve made it through all five of the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books by George R.R. Martin.
I experimented with listening to books at 1.5 speed and double speed. This worked only for some narrators and only for books I read purely for the story rather than the writing. Others I wanted to savor. But despite my best efforts, by the end of 2014 I had only read (or finished) 27 books.
Last year, I set myself a goal: I was going to make it through 50 books, despite having a family and a fulltime job and writing on a book of my own.
By focusing on shorter works (like Denis Johnson’s THE LAUGHING MONSTERS and Richard Ford’s LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU) and plot-driven works (like John Harwood’s THE SÉANCE) I managed to finish 25 books by the end of May, only five months into the year. I could now tackle some bigger books. The SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books range from 35 to 50 hours each, but I was able to listen to those at double speed, spending 2 to 3 weeks with each volume. Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 are also pretty hefty, but those I listened to at regular speed (3 weeks each), cherishing every minute.
In early December I finished my 50th book, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST. The breakdown for the year was 38 audiobooks and 12 physical books. Under normal circumstances — reading only physical books — this would’ve been a terrible year. But since I got much of my reading done in the car or working out or walking the dog, I had made a conscious decision to read fewer physical books at home and instead devote that time to my family. I do miss physical books, and every night I squeeze in a few pages before bed, but audiobooks have proven an invaluable asset to my reading life.
Looking back at thirteen years of reading, it’s tempting to try and pick favorites for each year. But time has undoubtedly clouded my opinion. Or perhaps it has done the opposite, clarified it. There are plenty of books I remember enjoying, but whose particulars like plot and characters have not made a lasting impression. For instance, I remember liking Salman Rushdie’s FURY in 2004, but I don’t know why anymore.
The opposite is true as well. DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, about American paranoia and consumer society, which I first read when I was still living in Amsterdam, made a lot more sense to me when I reread it after having lived in the States for thirteen years. Dean Bakopoulos’ PLEASE DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON, about a town where all the fathers mysteriously disappear leaving the sons to fend for their mothers and siblings, didn’t affect me as much in 2006 as when I read it again in 2014, after becoming a father myself.
I’ve toyed with the idea of putting a checkmark in the journal beside the books I liked best each year and tracking how fresh they stay in my mind, but sometimes the process of forgetting sets in so soon, I’m afraid I’d be looking at red marks I made just a few weeks or months ago wondering what they’re doing there. Recently, for instance, I enjoyed Adam Rapp’s KNOW YOUR BEHOLDER, but I can’t for the life of me recall a single scene from the book. This is not the book’s fault, but mine.
Which of the 50 books I read last year will I remember thirteen years from now, and not just how I felt about them? Which will I want to reread?
My criterion for rereading books is layers: a book needs to be able to reveal more than plot to me upon a second or third read. By this standard, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST (and its predecessor THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM), about the survival of humanity on earth and in space in the next four centuries, is a favorite of the year, but not for life. I think that’s the key to picking favorites.
Out of all the books I read in 2015, there are five that might be favorites for life: THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro, LITTLE SISTER DEATH by William Gay, and the aforementioned WHITE NOISE, LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU, and TREE OF SMOKE. But, of course, only time will tell. So check back with me in 2028.