Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Year of 100 Books

In an attempt to recapture the frantic hunger with which I would consume books in my youth, I decided that in 2011 I would try to read 100. Now, there's been a lot written about how being well-read is a fundamentally pointless endeavour, and how no human can hope to catch everything important in one lifetime, and at least one of those articles (if I remember rightly) discusses the idea that any attempt to master any given canon can be read as an attempt to cheat death. I don't think I was by any means trying to cheat death in reading these books this year, but it's an interesting theory.

In November 2010 I began (and aborted) a short story about a man who has read every book ever published, and in doing so gains entry to a small society of individuals who have achieved the same feat. The story kind of hinged on the idea that he wouldn't have to keep up with new books that had been published since he stopped reading - that "the entirety of books ever written" was a finite concept instead of one that keeps expanding out towards the borders of space - and in that sense it wasn't a very good short story. But the idea intrigued me. I picked 100 as a nice, manageable number which still sounded kind of impressive. There's a movement of people who try to read 365 books in 365 days, but I wanted a number that wouldn't interfere with the way I live my life - I'd spend more time reading than I had in 2010, for sure, but not to the extent that it stopped me from doing anything normal. There would be days when I didn't read at all, and there was a month when I hardly read anything (July, when I moved back to Cambridge and started a new job).

I'd expected, foolishly, that an English degree which ostensibly covered all British literature and some from other countries from 1300 to the present day would chuck me out on the other side with a much better grasp of what had been written in these isles (and other lands) during that time. It did not. If anything, my degree left me feeling less well-read than I had felt before I embarked upon it. And, what's more, I felt like I was losing my edge. In school it had been remarkably easy to be better-read than almost everyone I knew, particularly since I had books instead of boyfriends at that age. And at Cambridge I was doing okay - I was either slightly better-read or about the same as most of the people I encountered. But the degree knocked the sheer joy of reading out of me, and I didn't rediscover it as quickly as I'd hoped I would after I graduated. So this challenge, in 2011, was in part an attempt to get that back.

Some of the books I read were works of great literature, and some were not. Some were excellent and some were execrable. Do I feel like I'm suitably well-read now, or that I've caught up, or that I finally have my edge back? Do I hell.

The rules were simple: no cheating (a book had to be read from cover to cover to count) and no re-reading of books already read. The second was much harder to achieve - I yearned, at points, for books I'd read before. But ultimately I managed to resist the temptation. I haven't included poetry, as I rarely sit down and read a book of poetry all the way through.

Without further preamble, here is the list:


Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood
Morality Play - Barry Unsworth
Players - Don DeLillo
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
One Day - David Nicholls
A Pale View of Hills - Kazuo Ishiguro
Shoplifting from American Apparel - Tao Lin
Be Near Me - Andrew O'Hagan
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
Down to a Sunless Sea - David Graham
The Blue Flower - Penelope Fitzgerald


Cakes and Ale - W. Somerset Maugham
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
Minority Report & Other Stories - Philip K. Dick
Our Fathers - Andrew O'Hagan
The Beginning of Spring - Penelope Fitzgerald
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Lady Chatterley's Lover - D. H. Lawrence


The Art Fair - David Lipsky
So Many Ways to Begin - Jon McGregor
Lover of Unreason - Yehuda Koren & Eilat Negev
Persuasion - Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Couch Fiction - Philippa Perry
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
The Prescription Errors - Charles Demers
Lunar Park - Bret Easton Ellis
The Tent - Margaret Atwood
Blindness - José Saramago
Model Behaviour - Jay McInerney
Identity - Milan Kundera


The Bell - Iris Murdoch
Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier
Naked Spirits - Adrian Abbotts
The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
Tam Lin - Pamela Dean
Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
Animal Farm - George Orwell
Big If - Mark Costello
Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer


The Flight from the Enchanter - Iris Murdoch
The Spot - David Means
The Promise of Happiness - Justin Cartwright
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
The Italian Girl - Iris Murdoch
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
The Death of Grass - John Christopher
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios - Yann Martel
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
The Grass Arena - John Healy
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde


Fludd - Hilary Mantel
Everyman - Philip Roth
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
The Pale King - David Foster Wallace
Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Richard Bach
Oh! What a Paradise it Seems - John Cheever
The Quiet American - Graham Greene


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - Tom Stoppard


I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave - Barry Hines
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke


A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius - Dave Eggers
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
Lincoln's Melancholy - Joshua Wolf Shenk
Young Victorians - Marion Lochhead
How To Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
Nemesis - Philip Roth
V for Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd


Unlikely - Jeffrey Brown
Save Me the Waltz - Zelda Fitzgerald
Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton
The Game - A.S. Byatt
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
Feynman - Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick
The Green Mile - Stephen King


Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro
Summer Blonde - Adrian Tomine
Sleepwalk - Adrian Tomine
Blue Pills - Frederik Peeters
A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Iris Murdoch
The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
Agonizing Love - Michael Barson


Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
Scenes from an Impending Marriage - Adrian Tomine
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Jill - Philip Larkin
Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton
I Never Liked You - Chester Brown
Blankets - Craig Thompson
Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman - Ralph Leighton, Richard P. Feynman & Edward Hutchings
The Treatment - Daniel Menaker
The Millstone - Margaret Drabble

By my count, that's 104. I'm not counting the book I'm currently reading (The Member of the Wedding - Carson McCullers), as it's very unlikely I'll finish it before midnight.

The best ten books I read all year were, in no particular order:

- Fun Home
- The Beginning of Spring
- Blankets
- The Bell
- The Handmaid's Tale
- Be Near Me
- The Things They Carried
- The Pale King
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- Fludd

I don't know that I can pick a ten worst, but the second-worst book I read all year was One Day (seriously, people liked this?) and the absolute worst by quite a long margin was The Prescription Errors - it was pointlessly violent, meandering, almost entirely plotless, confusing, the shifts in perspective were not well executed and most of what was in it seemed to have been included for the sake of it rather than because it added to the book in any meaningful way.

So, that was a thing. In 2012 I plan to make a list of everything I read again but will probably not read as many books. And, although I've barely dented the sheer number of worthwhile books which abound, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011 - Resolutions

I never used to be the kind of person who made New Year's resolutions. I think I thought that self-improvement was for losers, or something, or perhaps that I couldn't be improved - not that I was already perfect, but that I was so far from perfectible that it was useless even to try to work on one small thing. I stopped eating meat on the 1st of January 2006, but even that wasn't so much about self-improvement or about seeing if I could do something for an extended period of time as much as a growing distaste for flesh and disinclination to continue to eat it. The New Year's thing was more a culturally-sanctioned way of finally making a decision I'd wanted to make for some time than anything.

And then last year brought an explosion of resolutions. I think I was feeling particularly optimistic around Christmas and New Year - I had just come back from the US, I had a terrible job but was at least being paid money, things were looking pretty good. I'd done things in 2010 that I hadn't ever done before, including graduating, visiting a different continent and living in another country. The time felt ripe for self-improvement, and this is what I vowed I was going to do:

- Learn German
- Keep a journal
- Be more generous towards my friends with my time
- Learn to play the piano
- Finish my novel
- Be more polite in everyday situations
- Read 100 books

And here's how they went, in order:


2011 wasn't the first time I'd vowed to learn German, and you may not be surprised to learn that I still can't speak it for shit. The fact that I was visiting Germany for the first time in July looked like it would be sufficient motivation to finally crack out the books and make a go of it. And I utterly failed. Of all the things I was trying to cram into my life in the first part of the year, it was the one I was least committed to and the first one to be dropped. Of the BBC listening exercises I did, I can still remember a couple of them almost word-perfect, which says a lot more about the way my memory works than anything. Verdammt.


Again, this wasn't the first journal I'd ever vowed to keep, nor was it the first I failed at. Selected quotations include,"I rarely meet burritos I don't like" and, "Surrounded by businessmen. Slept v. badly last night." I think a journal is a very worthy thing to keep if a) you enjoy doing it and/or b) you write about interesting things. This exercise ticked neither box for me. I read over all of the entries from January 2011 the other day, and whilst they were very good at evoking some of the exact sensations and events I experienced during that month, the writing and subject matter was fundamentally uninteresting. I tend to feel that there's something more important or interesting that I could be writing if I'm going to be writing at all, and journals therefore seem like a waste of time. My grandmother has kept a diary for that last goodness-knows-how-many years, filled with entries along the lines of, "Charlotte came for tea. Weather mild." She recently said, "my diaries are up in the cupboard in the spare bedroom, so you can all have a good laugh when I'm dead." I don't want to leave a similar burden to my descendants after I'm gone.

Generosity with Time

By this I meant quite specifically that I would try to stop blowing my friends off whenever I didn't feel like being sociable. It was a more pressing thing when I was living 300 miles away from them, and I did it with the best intentions. I can be very selfish with my time if I don't feel particularly like seeing anyone or talking to anyone, and I was curious to see if this was something I could correct by keeping it in mind and trying to overcome it. This was not the case. It worked all right for a month or so, until the periodic desire to make a hermit of myself grew stronger than the feeling of duty I had to be less of a dick when my friends wanted to talk to me. In retrospect, I think the fact that I occasionally need a lot of downtime is more a fundamental part of my personality than anything, and thus this was never going to be an easy fix. I still think mindfulness of personal flaws is worthwhile, and attempting this did at least make me a bit more self-aware, which is probably not a bad thing.


This got off to a slow start, as we didn't get a piano until early May. As soon as we got one, I practised every day and made some reasonably decent progress. Then I moved back to Cambridge at the end of June, and that was kind of that. I'd still like to continue to learn to play, and will probably take lessons and buy either an electric piano with weighted keys or an acoustic as soon as I have money. And, coming home this Christmas, I found that I haven't become appreciably worse in spite of not having played for six months, which just shows how pervasive muscle memory is.


Finished Part I at the end of January and the whole thing in May, then spent the summer and autumn editing the hell out of it. It's not exactly a thing of beauty, but I did get a huge kick out of writing it and to that end have begun another.


This resolution came out of the fact that I have in the past been notoriously impolite, not so much out of any fundamental rudeness but because I found being publicly and vocally polite deeply embarrassing. I have no idea why I found it so blush-inducingly shameful to thank someone for having me or tell them what a lovely time I had or any of the other little social pleasantries that make everything go along a lot smoother. It wasn't that I wasn't grateful - often I'd be overflowing with gratitude but too awkward to express it. So I jumped in at the deep end and tried to be as courteous as I possibly could in all situations which called for it. And it worked - I got over my embarrassment, I'm now suitable to be received into semi-polite company and I actually really enjoy being polite. I haven't quite been able to stop swearing loudly in the street or in the presence of children (although I've curbed it quite a bit), but the rest of it is pretty much engrained now. An unexpected and happy side effect is that I now find it much easier to make small talk with (and tip!) people working in the service industry, when before I felt embarrassed for both of us that they were making me a coffee or driving me to the station or whatever. The only negative effect I've experienced is that I now notice when other people aren't polite much more than I ever did before, and it really grates on me.

100 Books

This is going to get a blog post all to itself at the very end of the year/beginning of 2012, in part because I reckon I can squeeze at least another book in before Sunday. More on that story later, and a full list (possibly with short reviews of each) will follow.

I also took up blogging again in 2011, and whilst I haven't done it as often as I'd like, it seems to be going vaguely okay.

I've got a few things lined up that I'd like to work on in 2012 and will probably write them up fairly soon.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

It's the time of the season...

When I was a lazy undergraduate, frittering away my eight-week terms and revelling in (read: equally frittering away) endless holidays, I used to wonder how real grownups managed when they only got a week or so off at a time. This year has been all about learning that real grownups are in fact immensely grateful that they get any time off at all.

Don't get me wrong, I love going to work and will very much miss everyone over the break. But it's going to be very nice to do absolutely nothing for ten days.

Towards the end of the year I'll be doing a writeup of all the books I've read this year, plus some general ramblings and resolutions and all that kind of jazz, so stay tuned.