Why, How and What I’m Reading this Year
I started this year with the goal of trying to read one book a week. Turns out—with pregnancy, a new job, house-hunting, two moves, buying a house, and now a newborn—that just wasn’t in the cards for me. When I realized this, I tempered my loftier ambition and decided to aim for at least two books a month. This still hasn’t been the easiest.
But reading helps make me feel like myself, and in the midst of so much transition (…see list above), it’s been important for me to maintain habits that feel like they anchor me. These kinds of habits (the self-loving, life-giving kind) tend to be the first ones I sacrifice when life gets busy—it feels luxurious, bordering on absurd, to insist that I take time away from my ever-growing to-do list to read a novel, doesn’t it?! So to make sure that casual reading wasn’t sacrificed on the Altar of More Urgent Priorities, I made a plan. I thought in advance about what I wanted to read, why, and how to make sure it happened. I thought I’d share not only my reading list with you, but my thought process in creating it during such a busy year.
- Choose from books you already own
If you’re a book hoarder like me, this is a no-brainer. It’s easy to read books that you already own—much more convenient than having to order a new one each month when book club decides its next pick. And (bonus!) it means you get around to those books that have been given as gifts for Christmas or birthdays before they collect dust!
- Diversify your author list
Taking a cue from my old book club in New York—which decided as a group to read exclusively female authors for a year following the last presidential election—I’ve tried to skew my personal reading list toward women writers, writers of color, and queer writers when possible. Since so many of the authors assigned within the canon of traditional education are white or male, I consider it a responsibility to get exposed to more diverse voices and perspectives. Additionally, I also try to make a point of reading a mix of both debut authors and classic works.
- Diversify the genres you read
In a given year, I want a good helping of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, prose, short stories, memoir (and so on). Sometimes I have all these things on my bookshelf waiting to be read, and sometimes I reach out to friends (or the NYT bestseller list) to get ideas.
- Read more than one book at a time
If a certain book I’m reading seems to be dragging on and on, I simply start the next one without feeling guilty. (I know some of you are cringing right now!!) Reading, at least for me, is often mood-based—so having more than one book going at a time means I can have different reading experiences that suit whatever my mood is at the moment. This way, if I don’t feel like bringing some morose novel to a picnic in the park, I can bring a series of short stories or some poetry, instead.
- Support local bookstores and local publishers
Let your reading list be an excuse to support local bookstores and local publishers! In the Twin Cities, I love Subtext, Birchbark Books, Magers & Quinn, and Midway Book Store. And our great state has a booming local publishing industry, as well: Milkweed Editions, Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press are all favorites of mine.
All of this thoughtfulness in advance helps me focus on reading, rather than trying to decide what to read. This is really important! If there’s one reason I don’t read as much as I’d like to, it’s that I haven’t decided what to read—I don’t have a book going, or I finish a book and don’t know which one I’ll start next.
With all this prep in mind, here’s what I’ve read this year:
- WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier– in this book of award-winning debut poetry by a Lakota woman, Long Soldier is “clapping back” against the total inadequacy of the U.S. government’s “Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native American” offered under the Obama administration.
- Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut was one of my brother’s favorite authors, and reading him always helps me connect with more of my brother’s soul, his taste, his absurdist sense of humor and wry wit.
- Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – this is a memoir that came highly recommended from several friends; Lockwood is a writer perhaps best known for her poem “Rape Joke”; this book is tragic and funny and beautiful and difficult in ways I didn’t know one author could combine so skillfully.
- Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – from our very own local Graywolf Press (as is Long Soldier’s book, above)! This debut book of short stories has won tons of awards, all well-deserved.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – a classic that has long been on my must-read list, but it finally felt like the time was right. I knew it would be heavy (it deals with suicide, depression, and mental health stigma, especially in women) but also knew it was important to read.
- My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman – a Christmas gift! And an author I’d heard of but never read; it was a lovely and light novel compared to some of my other selections which is always nice to have in a lineup.
- It’s Okay to Laugh, Crying is Cool Too by Nora McInerny Purmort – I somehow hadn’t read this book yet but knew I needed to (because I adore everything NMP does, and her book came so highly recommended by so many people!) I finally picked it up after a reading she hosted at Subtext Books in Saint Paul.
- Winter Journal by Paul Auster – Auster is one of my favorite writers; his style has been called “absurdism,” often dealing with identity in the postmodern world. I wanted to read this book because I’m such a fan of his fiction, and this memoir, which focuses on art, mortality, bodiliness, and aging, sheds light on his other artistic projects.
- Self Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon – the debut novel for Lyons, about an artist in the 90s trying to further her art and maintain her relationships and integrity. The author is a good friend-of-a-good-friend from New York and when I saw her book in a bookstore in Saint Paul, I scooped it up immediately!
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – ahh, this book crushed me. Jesmyn Ward is an award-winning author and this is her second novel; it’s about a little boy growing up in Mississippi and the poverty, racism, drugs, spirituality implicit in that space and time.
- Commonwealth by Anne Patchett – Anne Patchett’s ability to tell a story and weave in and out of different emotions and characters is truly profound. This was my first Patchett novel despite how often she’s been recommended to me!
- Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Cox –a baby book! About baby sleep habits! Because let’s be realistic, I have to be practical about what I’m reading sometimes, too.
- The Diary of Anaïs Nin Vol 2 by Anaïs Nin– Nin is one of my favorites. She was a bohemian Spanish-Cuban-American woman living in Paris with a bunch of literati, keeping a journal as the threats of world war grow increasingly imminent.
- The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott– McDermott is an award-winning author writing about spirituality, scandal, and the ways women persevere in the midst of these things.
- The Power by Naomi Alderman– this book is like The Handmaid Tales in reverse; a society in the future where women have come to dominate and run society, and social stereotypes are all reversed.
- Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard – Dillard is one of my all-time favorite authors, so I didn’t want to miss the chance to read her this year! This particular book is a short meditation on nature and spirituality.
I’ve got a few more books started and a few that are on my list to finish before the year is up. What books are you reading? And what tricks or tips do you have for picking out what to read, and sticking to a book or a reading list once you begin?
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Ellen Koneck likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works in academic publishing. She has one plant, one tattoo, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.