2020 roundup, or: who knew I loved numbers
What a wild year it has been, folks. I looked back and realized I… don’t remember reading some books from the beginning of the year. Or rather, I remember reading them, but it feels like I read them a lifetime ago. Like I finished Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom in February? I would have SWORN to you I read it in 2019.
I don’t know that I need to like. Recap the disaster of a year we all had, or I had personally. It was a roller coaster of a year, it will continue to be a roller coaster as we face what the continual state neglect we have seen will mean for us, but it will inevitably have some highlights, just like this year. Reading is of course one of my highlights, and I did a lot of it this year—108 books in total, 30,773 pages if the app I use to count such things is to be believed. There were other highlights—giving the speech for the friends graduation, committing more deeply to my own personal politics, really rewarding tutoring work—so this wasn’t all gloom and doom all the time, and I doubt next year will be either.
But this newsletter is about books at least on the surface, and when I tell my therapist that I like to track my reading because it’s a little dopamine hit, I’m not lying—I love to see numbers go up, I love to feel accomplished about hitting goals. That being said, I know that it was borderline impossible for some folks to read this year, and I want to say this is not me trying to shame anyone for not reading; there are people who read way more than me! I am just interested in the numbers and what they reveal about my reading habits this year.
What I Read
According to my very fancy spreadsheet, originally designed by someone at Book Riot in a post that has since been taken down so I can’t even credit them properly, I read 60 books of fiction and 50 books of nonfiction. [Note: this number includes books that I did not finish in the calendar year of 2020 but will finish in the near future, which explains why that number would say I have 110 books but I have only finished 108.] I’ve read 48 print books (42%), 59 digital books (51%), and 8 audiobooks (7%—for a total of 3 days, 6 hours, and 19 minutes of listening time!)
Last year, 39% of the books I read I had checked out from the library. This year, an overwhelming 58% of the books I read—67 books in total!—were books I borrowed from the library. Going to the library has been one of my few real joys in this year, and is a special outing I plan for, usually once a week. Shout out to librarians who are out there working under unsafe conditions—I wish you didn’t have to, and I would be okay if we closed them up and went ebooks only again (I say as I sit on top of the 50+ books I have checked out right now, many of them from March the day before our lockdown began.) (Just kidding, I respect library books and would not sit on top of them.)
I was just struck by the realization that I read 50 novels this year? That seems like a lot; I went back to check and I only read 40 novels last year. This was the year of returning to childhood favorites (I did 20 rereads this year, compared to 1 last year) so that might account for some of it.
I also realized that I read fewer books of poetry this year than I did last year, oops. I guess that’s what happens sometimes when you try to work at something intentionally instead of just letting it flow! Though my chart says I read 6 books of poetry, not five—I’m not sure how that happened, but I’ll believe earlier me! (I may not have counted Jacquline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming as poetry? Who knows.)
Who I Read
Last year I made an effort to read authors and poets of color. This year, not so much. I am going to try again this year, with a reading challenge over on The StoryGraph to keep me honest. But for not trying, I didn’t read exclusively white authors; I read 36 books by people of color, or 31% of the total. Is that way fewer than last year? Yes, but as I noted at the beginning of the year, I was doing more reading by white theorists than I expected, to follow through on citational lineages and better understand certain discourses. As I said, I’m going to go back to consciously trying to read more books by authors of color, so hopefully that will improve!
In terms of gender, without trying at all, I read 46 books by men (39%), 64 books by women (54%), and 8 books by non-binary people (7%.) This again cements my idea that you really have to ACTIVELY TRY not to read a book by a woman. So if you aren’t read books by women… give yourself a break from trying so hard and read a book by a woman! I’m also proud that by not trying at all, I read more books by non-binary people!
I also read 5 books that were translated! I did not agonize over the translation for any of them except War and Peace, which was only one of 4 books that I read that were over 700 pages.
Top 5 Favorite Books
Stolen from friend of the newsletter Jaime, I thought I’d list my top 5 favorites in fiction and nonfiction (I didn’t read enough of other types of books to really rank, I don’t think. Oops!) I am not great at top five lists, so these will not be ranked in any real order, but these are the books I think I found myself recommending the most as I read them, or books that made me think the most. I didn’t give all of them 5 stars—in fact, none of my fiction picks I gave 5 stars, because I’m picky about fiction Moving Me in a particular way—but they still are what I think stuck with me the most this year.
Sisters of the Vast Black, by Lina Rather. This sort of snuck up on me; I can’t remember when I decided to read it, except maybe a friend read it and I was like “oh, sounds cool!” It just took on so much in such a little novella, and left me with many questions but not feeling unsatisfied at the end. Plus: nuns, in space! What isn’t there to love about that?
Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett. I felt like I kind of had to pick a Discworld book from this year, but this was also a genuinely good book. It was just Sir Terry at his best, I think—a Moral of the Story that I enjoyed, homosexuality so gay that the author didn’t know it was there (my favorite kind,) and just really, really good characters doing their best to take care of each other. We love to see it!
The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones. Another sleeper; I wrote in my original review about it that horror is not a genre I personally gravitate to, because I am a scaredy cat, but this was a book that snatched me up, kept my attention even as I was wary about some of it, and started some conversations with folks which I really enjoyed having! Plus it’s just like brutal but incredibly written.
Harrow the Ninth, by Tasmyn Muir. I have a love/hate relationship with these books (have I mentioned THE MEMES and how THE MEMES KILL ME???) but this I think I enjoyed personally even more than the first one. It helped to have someone to read it with, kind of (shout out to Jaime who reassured me that I wasn’t just stupid for not understanding wtf was going on, and listening to me babble on every morning about my favorite character Mercymorn and how much I loved her) but I think there was more time to get to appreciate the characters in this than I had with Gideon, and though we have to wait a while for the conclusion to this, I’m excited for it (and wary of what new memes will appear.)
Shatterglass, by Tamora Pierce. Again, I felt like I kind of had to include a book from either The Circle of Magic or The Circle Opens quartets, because these books were my little lifeboat this year. When the lockdowns started, and I was up late worrying about my grandparents’ ability to vote in a pandemic, I turned to them for comfort and while I didn’t always get it (Briar’s Book why…… criminology in The Circle Opens, why….) I did get a world where kids love one another, are deeply supported by mentors with boundaries, and who need to get their powers under control and help people in need! I went around recommending this series a lot this year for folks who wanted something cozy, so I’ll say again: check it out!
Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom. This is the book I recommended the most this year, hands down. Cottom is just so insightful and sharp, writes so beautifully, and says things that absolutely need saying. The piece I’ve told people to read out of this collection the most this year is her piece about the 2016 election, but there are other pieces in there that equally blew me away. Definitely pick this up if you still haven’t after I’ve yelled about it literally all year
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde. I reread Sister Outsider this year, but I think Zami provides such a fascinating and good look at Lorde’s coming into Black lesbianism, and there is such a tender love of women throughout the book that really reminds me ways of loving women in my own life. That sounds like… weird and fake, but read the book and you’ll understand it better, I think. Loving women both physically and emotionally, caring for women, doing work with and for women. Just so good for that, for an orienting towards women (rather than away from men, which I think is not unimportant but ultimately cannot be the sole goal of lesbianism if that lesbianism is going to mean anything—and I mean lesbian as a political identity, not just one that loosely describes sexual partner choice.) If you haven’t read Sister Outsider, read that; if you have, read Zami.
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith. I read a number of things about prison abolition and how prisons and policing actually work in the world and specifically in the US; that has been clarifying but maybe nothing has really pushed me to think about criminality as much as this book. The chapter about trans men and transmascs in women’s prisons and the chapter about sex offenders in particular have stuck with me as I chew over my own ideas about safety and challenge the framework of disposability I’ve been taught. I don’t know that this is the place to start with abolition—I’d say maybe read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis instead—but after you read that, read this.
The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland, by Toni Gilpin. I will admit that I was something of a sucker for labor history before this—after all, this is not the only work of labor history I read this year! But this is the one that I keep telling people they NEED to read, because it’s so accessible and because it says so many things that have stuck with me. I have become weirdly obsessed with piecework, and where piecework still exists in our lifetimes, and how to resist speed ups. I’ve also walked around muttering about how management has no right to manage and how fundamental that needs to be to our understanding of our lives as workers. It’s just beautifully researched, beautifully told, and has so many lessons for us in the current moment about what is possible with radical organized labor. I just bought this for myself (THE HAYMARKET SALE IS UP UNTIL JANUARY 4, ACT FAST!!!) and am planning to reread it so I can annotate it and send it out on the annotation book club circuit! Pick up a pretty cheap copy for yourself!
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Recommended to me by friend of the newsletter Mike, this is like the perfect pandemic read that I keep telling people who need something calming to get into. I don’t know why it struck me so much except I read it at the right time, when things are slow but still so anxiety-inducing, because we should be FAST FAST FAST. Even if you are temporarily not disabled, you should read this; if you recently became disabled, due to long COVID or any other reasons, you should read this. Take the time to be slow with it, and slow in your life, because sometimes that’s how we are. Also: snail sex!
Final Goal Results
100 books: WE DID THIS ONE!!!! 108 BOOKS!!!
10 books of poetry: 6/10 is a failing grade (I’m pretty sure, I don’t understand how grading works) but! I still have a lot of poetry to read and I’m ready to try this again, or at least try to read a lot of poems and get my head into them.
10 books of Discworld: 5/10 but that’s still 5 books I’ve read, and mostly enjoyed! (Some more than others.) I will definitely continue to read at least the Watch books, because I enjoy them, and I might read the others to see where they go!
Bible: DONE!! I turned this into my kind of “long book” read, as I then went through War and Peace and Paradise Lost. I’m hoping to turn it back into a kind of theology time, where I learn more about faith and how religions are structured. I have some books lined up for it, so I’m looking forward to all of that!
YOT/S&S/LBC: This was a late addition that also turned into a kind of catchall for “political books I’m reading” rather than like returning to Ye Originale Texts, but hey, I read a lot of books about political things and I’m happy to continue my education this way!
And that’s it for this year! My reading goals are not fully set in stone yet, though I will say that most likely my goal for books will be 100 again; I don’t know that I feel like much more than that is really truly achievable. But I am excited to continue to write to you every week about what I’ve been reading; there is a newsletter (hopefully shorter than this one!) coming your way on Sunday! I know that the change over of a year means very little, but it is still marking a way of a new start, just like each day is a new start, or each week, and I love new starts as much as the next person. A brand new opportunity to get back on the horse! Regardless, we have to keep each other safe in the coming months, and keep ourselves safe as best as we can. Thank you for joining me in the ride. <3