Saturday, 19 December 2009

My Reading Year: 2009

Books, Time, and Silence Ten Days of Christmas – Day 3.
When the history books are written they will not talk about me. But if they did, and they looked into my reading habits, 2009 would not go down as a vintage year. It was the year in which I not only failed to reach my target of fifty-two books, but failed to get close to it. Thirty-four is a miserly total, my lowest since I began counting.


The honest answer is that I don't know. Yet from this vantage point at the end of the year I can speculate. In some way, I guess, I stopped loving reading. At the very least I loved reading a little bit less. This depressing situation was created by the convergence of three separate factors. Firstly, in February I left Waterstone's to start a new job. What I loved most about working at Waterstone's was the intimate relationship I had with the books. Most of them in my sections had been ordered, unpacked, received, shelved, and reshelved by me and me alone. I saw them, touched them, thought about them, and made plans for reading them. All on a daily basis. The breaking of this intimacy curtailed the driving force behind my reading, the incessant need to finish what I was reading in order to read something else. 

This was exacerbated by the second factor, the curtailment of my regular reading environment. I have always read in the bath. There is nothing better than drawing a deep, hot bath and spending an hour or so wallowing in a good book. Yet this year I was not been able to bathe so regularly. For the past few months, I have not bathed at all. Showers are not so conducive to reading. In fact, they are not conducive at all.

Third in my triptych of barriers to reading is less speculative. 2009 saw me read a number of books that proved hard work. Because I was less inspired to read than in previous years, and with less opportunities to do so, I read at a slower pace, and failed to get as absorbed in the plot and characters of a few books.
The Famished Road took almost two months to plough through, Possession promises a similar duration. There were days when I came home and reading was so low down on my agenda it was below things like washing up and flossing.

All of which brings me on to a fourth factor,
which we'll call an epilogue to this post mortem so as not to spoil the previous paragraphs. In previous years, when I have become bogged down in a difficult book, or struggled through a series of hard work titles, there has always been a Haruki Murakami novel to pick up and provide a guaranteed filip to my love of reading. But late in 2008 I finished the last of his novels I hadn't read so that in 2009, when The Famished Road or Possession were finally finished, no title leapt out with a sure fire cure for the reading blues. Often one difficult read followed another, multiplying the downward spiral.

On that note, special notice must be given to
The Famished Road for not only revolutionising my understanding of the type of books I like, but teaching me the invaluable lesson that it is actually possible to take magical realism too far.

Yet all of this suggests I have had a horrible time reading, which is by no means the case. There were some fantastic books I truly loved. 2009 was also the year I started taking this blog seriously, and built it up into a respectable library of reviews and comment it is today. It was also the year that I started contributing to Vulpes Libris, first as a Guest Reviewer and then, much to my surprise, as a fully fledged Book Fox. 
It is thanks to Vulpes Libris, and the need to write one good review a month, that I wrote as many reviews as I did.

I read six book that were first published in 2009, and five provided a rewarding experience (even if three were sequels to teenage fantasy series I already liked).
Of these, The Ask and the Answer stands head and shoulders above the rest. Patrick Ness is an exceptionally talented writer and his Chaos Walking trilogy has been the high point of the entire year. I have no doubt that it is a series I will return to again and again in years to come.

Fever Crumb allowed Philip Reeve one more chance to inhabit his Mortal Engines futurescape, providing a tidy prologue to the previous adventures with all the thrills, spills and surprises his readers craved. Catching Fire, on the other hand, proved less rewarding. Michelle Collins sequel to 2008's Hunger Games started excitingly enough, and had me reading furiously late into the night, but trailed away in the second half and in the end felt rushed and uninspired.

Remaining with sequels, though moving on to adult fiction, J.M. Coetzee's
Summertime wooed the critics and, if rumours are to be believed, was only beaten to the Booker Prize by a compromise vote for Wolf Hall. Yet while its intimate portrayal of Coetzee's self image was sumptuously exact and elegantly written, its epistolary narration frustrated me. There were too many barriers between the author and his readers, too many literary tools used to tantalise and frustrate and get in the way of the story being told. For that reason, and though well worth reading, I found it less rewarding than the previous volumes, Boyhood and Youth.

Less serious, and far more enjoyable, Mick Jackson's
Bears of England served up a veritable feast of fabricated mythology, eight quirky tales about England and the maligned bears who have lived alongside (and sometimes underneath) it.

Of the works published in 2009, only
The Bird Room by Chris Killen failed to inspire me. Its tale of atomised twenty-something life left me cold and craving something big, brash, and grandiose. That said, there is no denying Killen's skill as a writer, it was just the story and characters which I resented.

So there it is, a brief account of my reading year in 2009. The problem with history is that it is either macro or micro. You either look at the wider trends and dominant themes, or else discount these to examine the microcosm of daily life. The impressions that emerge are often dramatically discordant with one another. When the history books of my reading year in 2009 are written (i.e. right here and now) what they record will be dependent on which of these styles they chose. If it is a macro history, the result will be as above, a dispiriting account of a slow reading year, nonetheless broken up by moments of great progress and enjoyment. Alternatively they will take the micro history viewpoint, as I will tomorrow, and highlight those specific occasions which stand out throughout the year, and use these as a litmus test for the entire year.

With that garbled metaphor I will leave you. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for day 4 in the
Books, Time, and Silence Ten Days of Christmas, as I count down my five favourite books of 2009. They are all of the very highest order.

Until then, goodnight, and happy reading.


Sarah said...

I am so glad that I'm not the only one who has changed their reading habit since leaving Waterstone's.
Although I now work in the library I don't have the same relationship with the books and as a result I have read a lot less since May.
It also hasn't been a vintage year for books, I've enjoyed lots of what I've read but I'd be hard pressed to pick a top 10.

Sam Ruddock said...

I'm equally glad to hear it has happened to you too. Well, no I'm not, for you anyway. But it does make me feel better about my awful reading year.

I still spend as much of my day, if not more, thinking about, reading about, and talking about books. But for some reason without holding them in your hand all the time that relationship is far less immediate. I feel like I have a long distance relationship with books now, and that was never the case before.

I agee, top 10 would be hard, but top 5 I can do. And they are great. And I'm doing it right now.