My reading status and accompanying thoughts at the end of 2020 are as follows:
Some mixed reading experiences this year. In the pursuit of a better reading year in 2021 I am not going to follow trends as much, or read as many reviews. My backlog of TBR grows as the future diminishes. Therefore, it is with discipline that I chip away at certain authors who have stood out to me as somehow closer to the ideal I seek in my frolic through the mounds of printed matter. I do not want GR to become a platform the only point of which is seeking confirmation for my specific tastes. My taste should be of little consequence, as should that of any other reviewer. I’ve put great faith in certain friends and professional reviewers in the past only to disagree with their conclusions repeatedly. What might work better, I think, is taking the result of a review as a summation of one reviewer’s processing of the reading experience. We are all sharing experiences here, and experiences of any kind are not meant to mirror one another. I may read hundreds of manga and a mix of classics and contemporary novels, but I don’t expect anyone to follow in my reading footsteps. This site is how I keep track of my own chaotic wandering through the microcosm of literature. It is not how I entice a band of loyal followers down the rabbit hole of my own whimsy-reading, nor how I might persuade them through endless argument that what I am doing with the few thousand hours of writing-reading time I have earned is meaningful to anyone but myself. Notating a book is one of the best ways to remember it. I thank Goodreads for providing a place to showcase my public thoughts on literature and to interact with people who enjoy this hardly navigable industry with me.
As I continue writing books, I have become consistently overwhelmed by the sheer number of new books flowing into the world. The writing of them appears to be as common as the reading of them. Currently at work on 3 novels myself, the reading I do does not always influence the writing that spurts from my fingertips. I have found a bit of influence in the sharing of my work with fellow authors this year, as well as the editing of others’ work. Surprising to me was the realization that I finished the reading of 12 novels in manuscript form this year, often scribbling notes in the margins for the benefit of the fledgling author, but also, in some cases, unbeknownst to said author, as if I were marking my path through some half-generated virtual world. The quality of these 12 novels ranged from first draft, unprintable, unreadable cliché-plagued desolation to literal masterpieces. Whether or not these books will ever see the outside of a few desk drawers, I am happy to have encountered and devoured them. I say this as I war against myself for the fact that I set aside this time when in reality the number of books is unconscionable and my time limited, so what business do I have accepting and even (with such gall) as to request unpublished novels from authors operating in the infinite theater of darkness which encompasses our paltry efforts – for to enter out of this darkness one author in a thousand must ascend so many delirious steps as with a heavy burden of ambition and pride, amid the constant disarray around him (or her). There is only one way I can answer. What real, valuable difference is there between what is obvious and what is astonishing? What can leaning too far into one extreme do to one’s conception of art?
Faulkner said that a writer should read everything, including trash. I can only assume that Faulkner read a certain amount of what he termed ‘trash.’ Yet, how amazing was Faulkner’s writing? Basically never suffering from illegitimate influence. If we are to consider that we probably read more in this day and age than people ever have since the beginning of mankind’s tenure upon this earth – what with all the digital script pummeling our brains for several hours per day seven days a week, combined with the work-related reading and the leisure reading, and the endless scrolls of script in every videogame, how many millions of pages do we consume, and how much of it should we label so ungenerously ‘trash?’
Reading Classics versus Contemporary –
I like to think there are 2 types of books. (There are more than 2, but I easily ignore the other types). The first variety are classics. These tend to be the most reliable reading, though they can take work. They tend to stretch the imagination, forcing us out of our contemporary bubble. These have persisted, rising like cream amid the sea of pulp to surmount the ages, often changing shape in subtle ways – for we always flex and massage the texts we read, in digesting them.
The second form, of course, is whatever is written today, or recently. Contemporary books can be fresh, delightful and incredibly strange. Often an author’s intentions are less clear, and they seem to explore some inner landscape or world more intimately more often than our forebears indulged in such impolite enterprises.
For my next year’s reading, I propose to balance my book-diet with a mix of both, but always keeping at the forefront that singular purpose: Escapism – for why else would I seek to read so far afield? One can just as easily escape into some flowery comic book as into a towering work of diamond-dense philosophy. It is more about training the mind to focus on those precepts of illusion to be found in even the most puerile pulp, common to all works of the imagination, which provide us with that unmeasurable ingredient, cousin to distraction, that quirky tinge of nostalgia or that pearl-laden treasure at the bottom of a great plummet into a book. That, my friend, is why I read.
Star-ratings – Let us not invest such arbitrary measurements with great meaning. I have given and received the full range of star assignments. In reality, one should always make up one’s own opinion about a work of art, rather than rely on any authority to tell them how to interpret it. Interpret my last statement however you wish. For you will, as we all do, texture the text with your own mind – for in reading, how much of what we are reading actually exists upon the stage of our intellect? I have come, at the close of this year, to appreciate subtext, including that mystical subtext which is not even suggested by the words on the page.
I was amazed by how many books I failed to abandon this year. What is the virtue in continuing on with some difficult or unenjoyable book? That is another question I have struggled to answer. Is it not true that some of the best books contain passages of such impenetrable compaction that we are left on the outside? Is it not also true that a great number of beautiful books contain passages of utter, execrable twaddle? It is therefore a balancing act. One could read nothing but Tweets for an entire lifetime and never exhaust the feed. Where would one end up in that case? I find that in such situations, when I begin to sense the brink of that despair, which reminds me too often that I am human and flawed, that it is then I turn aside, regarding the future with a hopeful investment into my next few steps, back on the path of enjoying life, instead of contemplating its atomic structure with my clouded eyes.
The difference, for me, is to know when I am reading a story and when I am reading someone’s opinion about a story. The latter interests me little, since opinions are stories we tell ourselves about other stories. Get the story direct, I say.
Again, I am only thinking out loud. If you have read this far you probably know something about what I read this year. But let me leave you with my recommendations. Try them out if you care to glimpse the horizons I have most fondly remembered from 2020.
My favorite reads of the year: (‘Favorite’ does not imply that they are more or less skillfully written, only that I enjoyed them more)
Sayaka Murata – Earthlings
Smart Ovens for Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan
Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah
The Royal Family – William T. Vollmann
Laura Warholic – Alexander Theroux
Lord Valentine’s Castle – Robert Silverberg
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
Antkind – Charlie Kaufman
There were many more I loved, but these were the most memorable.
I doubt I will participate in the ‘Reading Challenge’ for 2021. It is a stress-inducing nuisance to be told I am ‘one book behind schedule,’ or ‘two books ahead of schedule.’ How about I just read as much as I can, for the rest of the time I am given? I could easily fudge the numbers, play this site RPG-style, climbing the ranks of ‘most-well-read’ by marking every short story and half-consumed thing, like an accumulation of imaginary capital. How about instead I enjoy the full-bodied flavor of a single book, well-loved? If I only read half as many books next year, it will probably be because I read fewer flimsy, short books, in favor of vast journeys. Who knows? Check back with me in 2021, dear friend, and may you find whatever it is you’re looking for.