A Dangerous Year of Reading

This past year may have been one huge cluster-fuck of bad news, but one of the good things to come out of it was I had a lot of time to read. So much so, that I have finished 2020 having read more books than ever before (I have a spreadsheet; of course I do). The not-so-great news is, even with all this reading time, I still only managed to finish 44 books, which tops my current record by a slim margin of 1, leaving me, in equal measure, pleased and chagrined. Additionally, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that, when I saw I was closing in on my erstwhile record, I cheated a bit by selecting two rather slender volumes, the last of which I finished only this afternoon.

Still, an ugly win is still a win, and perhaps this will encourage me to try harder next year.

I am, you see, not a very fast reader. I have friends who can finish a book in a day (at least they tell me they can; I’ve never actually seen them do it) whereas I spend up to a fortnight on your average murder-mystery. What I found helpful, especially in my rush to ram as many books as possible into these final weeks of December, is a quota of pages per day, and I discovered something rather remarkable about it.

If you accept the notion that the average book is around 350 to 400 pages long, all you need to do is decide the number of books you want to complete in a year and read that many pages every day. (e.g. 1 page a day will get you 365 pages, or a single book, 2 pages, two books, etc. You’re welcome.) It helps if you develop a reading habit, such as devoting your lunch hour to reading while you scarf down your tuna-and-mayo sandwich, or reading before bed, or carrying a book with you everywhere you go so you can fill the downtime by reading instead of staring at the back of the person in front of you in the queue. (Ebooks work great for this, as do audio-books.)

In his book, A Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller states that he decided on 50 pages a day and, subsequently, read 50 books. (I didn’t read his book, by the way; my wife did, and told me about it.) In addition to a scattering of popular titles, such as Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, The Da Vinci Code and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Miller also tackled the types of books people claim to have read but actually haven’t, including Don Quixote, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Communist Manifesto, Beowulf, Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Middlemarch, Frankenstein and that bane of every American English Lit student, Moby Dick.

My list for the current year is shorter, less ambitious but, quite likely, more entertaining:

I admit to gravitating toward popular fiction, and murder, mayhem and madness in particular, therefore, the Jack Reacher books of Lee Child are on my Guilty Pleasures List. Unfortunately, Mr. Child has recently retired, so that particular stream has dried up. I had also been enjoying the books of Edward Marston (Keith Miles), but I’m afraid that has soured for me, as well.

Mr. Marston is, if nothing else, prolific. His historical thrillers—set in the 1850s, 1100s, WWI, et al—are fast-paced and superficially interesting, but also read like a first draft turned in by a talented 16-year-old. I used to be able to get beyond that, and take delight in the fact that I could point out things I would never do (like have two characters sitting in a room telling each other things they already know simply to get the information to the reader; simple, Writing 101 stuff) and thereby feel that I was a superior writer. But the fact that he has published nearly 100 books and has been nominated for an Edgar Award sorta puts a damper on that bit of fun.

As a substitute, I have discovered the books of Elly Griffiths, and I recommend reading anything with her name on it.

In addition to low-brow lit, I also read some non-genre fiction, thanks to the book club I belong to. This year, these included:

  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, a murder mystery set in the south. I recommend it.
  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, cold war shenanigans, really interesting.
  • The Snakes by Sadie Jones, good book, ruined by the final chapter. Don’t bother.
  • The Ballroom by Anna Hope, love in a prison. Recommended.
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, a weighty but highly recommend tome about (gulp) a pandemic. Must read!
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haigg, quirky, very entertaining, and short.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killerby Oyinkan Braithwaite, ditto.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, really quirky and not as short, but I still recommend it.
  • How to Fall in Love With a Man Who Lives Under a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson. The title says it all. It’s fun, entertaining and short.

Books I highly recommend are:

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. If you have not read this book, go out, buy a copy and read it now.
  • His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman. Stunning in scope and imagery.

Books I do not recommend:

  • Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Prominently displayed at my local bookshop and heralded as a great read. It was anything but.
  • Lockdown by Peter May. He wrote this years ago and his publishers passed on it but, when the real lockdown happened, they pulled it out of mothballs and hyped the shit out of it. I read it, and now I know why his publishers passed on it. Utter rubbish. Read Wanderers instead.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books by Catherine Ryan Howard. Rewind and The Nothing Man were both good books and Ms Howard is gaining traction as an upcoming talent. Keep an eye on her, and buy her books.

That is my reading year in review. I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy many good books in the months to come.

I’ve got my spreadsheet ready for 2021, with 45 empty slots for the books I’m going to read, as long as I can fit in 45 pages a day.