I’ve read 20 books in 2017 — this is what I’ve learned
On my path to read 100 books in 2017, I’ve noticed a few things and made a couple lists.
Measure for success
Last year I started tracking my reading through GoodReads, it’s been a huge productivity boost. In 2016, I read 40 books. Most of those came in the final four months — after I started tracking my work. Based on that, I decided to aim higher: 100 books for 2017. At 20 down by February, I’m halfway to last year’s total and on pace for this year’s goal.
When I had more time, I read too many periodicals. At one point I read the Financial Times (both sections), the Wall Street Journal (just Money & Investing thanks), the New York Times (Weekender edition), Barron’s, The Economist (just the first-world countries), The Atlantic, and The Harvard Business Review (cover to cover). I didn’t read any books! I celebrated the 2008 election by reading All the Kings Men in an all-nighter — and that was the best reading I did that year.
I’m glad I’ve let all these things go. The news is like the tide — it changes 24/7 and while it’s momentary it will still be there next year. A great book is immortal and can change your life today.
Use the Library
I’ve borrowed all my books in 2017. The online New York Public Library allows me to place holds on the books I want to read next. Sometimes I have to wait for the popular books, however, when I go to the library once a week, there are two or three books waiting for me. It’s like my birthday! The Midtown branch has a nice layout of new books near the entrance, so you are nudged to their best newly available books and it has a self-checkout, so you don’t have to stand on line. These have all been wonderful usability improvements. I prefer the NYPL experience to the Strand or Amazon because unlike the Strand I can easily pre-search online and unlike Amazon I get the instant gratification of a book-in-hand and most of all because library books are free!
If you want to read 100 books in year — find a good library. I’ve read books I would never think to buy and enjoyed most of them.
Set A Goal
I need to read two books a week to hit my goal, so that’s why I’m reading books I wouldn’t buy. I’ve lowered my standards to meet my goal and it’s been great. I’ve given books a chance because I have to. I’ve finished books I would have put down because I have to — I don’t have time to waste reading the first 100 pages without finishing.
Mix it up
In order to keep it fun and keep on track, I’ve alternated types of books — I know that I will finish fifth-grade-level business book much faster than a modernist stream-of-consciousness novel.
Rank and Rank
Part of the fun of reading is making lists. Below are the twenty books I’ve read this year ranked in order, separated between fiction and non-fiction.
Top Ten Fiction Books:
Truth is my fiction criteria. How did the author’s story and structure resonate with my perceptions of the collective consciousness and conceptions of basic plot formats? How did the author show instead of tell the story through rich characters and credible dialogue? How courageously did the author take on the chosen themes and how did the author innovate with storytelling and language?
1. Omensetters’ Luck by William Gass
This classic, pits the power words against the power of love. It forms a complex protagonist-villain through stream of consciousness writing. The villain speaks to a gravestone, which speaks back, then he plots revenge, but the villain ends up on the road to Damascus. Gass’ prose is so good, I quote at length in my full review.
2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
A re-read, I found refreshing to read through the whole play after years of conversation about parts and studying the classic monologues. Hamlet’s struggle — how the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought — is part of our daily lives.
3. King Lear by William Shakespeare
Another re-read, and another oft referenced and quoted play that’s restored to much its original stature by a good read through. Lear plays out the inverse of Stan Lee’s quote — with great power comes great responsibly. Lear wanted to enjoy his prestige without the work and that’s not how the world works. Also the Gloucester sub-plot may be the most perfect sub-plot ever written.
4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhal Bulgakov
Another re-read, the first time I read the Ginsberg translation that used the redacted 1966 text. The Brugin and O’Connor translation uses the full manuscript of this tale of Satan’s ball, a writer’s struggle with telling Christ’s passion through Pilate’s perspective, and the absurdity of the devil in an atheist state. I found that Margrita was over-simplistic and flat, but Woland and his retinue make this a must read.
5. Blue Angel by Francine Prose
A Lolita story set in a fictional liberal arts college with a killer sub plot. Superbly written from each word to the overall structure. Prose also wrote How to Read Like A Writer, and Blue Angel testifies that she practices what she preaches.
6. Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
A whimsical, quick comedy with lots of tongue in cheek literary references and word play. The story of what happens when an orphan girl apprenticed to be a lighthouse keeper finds out the lighthouse will be automated and she’ll have to go out to the real world. She’ll develop a psychosis, but eventually she’ll find love. Her story is intertwined with a sub plot of minister who lived a double life a century before her.
7. NW by Zadie Smith
An innovative novel of two girls who grow up in a London ghetto and grow apart in adulthood. A tragic tale about trying to escape the lower class and being pulled back in, like crabs in a pail. The novel had four parts with different story telling devices in each, but the third part could have been cut back.
8. Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh
What happens when big oil finds fracking shale in your little Pennsylvania town — all hell breaks loose and lives are changed. But then they are not. I could have used more personification of the big oil monster and more confrontation of that monster.
9. The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano
A collection of short stories, I found the title short to be well written and interesting, but not enough to make me want to read 2666. The other short stories were shorter and not as strong. However, Bolano reminded me of an Argentine Cormac McCarthy, and they are both worth reading.
10. Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving
While I was a fan of Irving’s The World According to Garp, this novel was not as well put together or structured. The fault is that it has a 63 year span with only two generations. The other fault is that there is no climax in the middle because Irving attempts to write a six part novel, where five is the perfect number — see Shakespeare. The first three sections are classic Irving, but it fizzles in the second half. I learned a lot from the mistakes of this novel.
Top Ten Non-Fiction:
What did I learn and what of it? That’s my non-fiction criteria. How well did the author present their ideas and argue for the importance of their work?
1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The salvation of man is through love and in love. — Viktor Frankl
I’m amazed how Frankl found such love while oppressed by such evil, such profound hope and motivation in the face of such apathy and despair. It’s difficult to write anything after his words, which resound with truth and conviction. I’m thankful that I’ve read this book and hope more people will. Life consists not in the general, the abstract, or en masse, but in each individual, in their specific actions towards finding meaning and love.
In a way nothing a can follow my #1, so I chose this memoir ostensibly about nothing that interweaves supporting stories of visiting artists’ graves, her late husband’s memory, and detective shows into a narrative driven by hurricane Sandy all while moving to the rhythm of cups of black coffee, paying the bill, packing clothes for flights, feeding the cats, trying to write, and snapping Polaroids.
Smith recommended both Bolano’s 2666 and The Master and Margarita.
3. On Writers and Writing by John Gardner
Before his untimely death in 1982, Gardner had strong opinions and influence on American literature. This book illustrates his thoughts on writing and the literary scene of the the seventies and early eighties. Gardner praises Ommensetter’s Luck as one the best new novels of his era and, thankfully, I took him up on that recommendation.
4. How To Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
Cohen, a long time editor and well versed in both classic and contemporary literature, brings the reader into the thought process of famed writers. This is more a celebration of great writers and their craft than a how-to. I took Cohen up on his recommendations of Lighthousekeeping and NW.
5. Creating Flannery O’Connor by Daniel Moran
The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it — Flannery O’Connor
Truth: O’Connor is not a southern writer or a Catholic writer or a female writer, she’s a universal writer. True her landscape is southern and theology Catholic, but her writing transcends all labels.
Thoroughly detailed and unsentimental, the author frames O’Connor’s place in the hall of poets and our literary cannon by removing those labels and arguing for her universality.
6. Originals by Adam Grant
One of the top business writers and professors, Grant examines the creative process. Grant starts with startups like Warby Parker, a company he passed on investing in, and moves to other innovators from Disney to the CIA while giving advice on how to challenge the status quo and implement innovation. I closed out 2016 with similar themed books like Peak, Grit, and Smarter, Better, Faster but Originals was the most wide ranging and mainstream of the group.
He has an anecdote about Disney’s the Lion King, from which I added King Lear and Hamlet to my reading list.
7. Fail U by Charles Sykes
Fail U highlights all the failings of higher education today and adds several new issues sprung from coddling the every-one-gets-a-trophy generation: runaway grade inflation, self victimization, trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces, and sexual assault polices that should raise constitutional due process concerns. However, what’s needed is a new higher education model and this book fails to offer that.
8. Studying the Novel by Jeremy Hawthorn
A Novel 101 course taught by professor who references almost exclusively British authors, this book on books helps frame the study of the art form. The author has a clear mastery of the topic and does want to help the reader learn.
9. No More Dreaded Mondays by Dan Warren
I felt like the target audience for this was a middle aged woman in Ohio or a factory worker in Tennessee. Each chapter is another a way to say: you need to quit your job today and start your own business because you’ll be fired tomorrow and you hate your dead-end job in the first place. Nevertheless, the author offers several introspective exercises, which I enjoyed.
10. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
This is the classic book on web design principles. Unfortunately, these principles have been thoroughly assimilated into software design thinking that I found nothing new here. Can something be so prophetic that no one reads it anymore?
In the past, I’ve been unsuccessful following a set reading plan. Having a goal, but maintaining the flexibility to choose the titles as I go has been a successful route. It’s interesting how reading one book has led to another. I didn’t plan on reading half fiction and half non-fiction, but that seems to be a good way to alternate. And while I aim to read for self-improvement, being entertained doesn’t hurt. So I’m looking forward to the next 80 — whatever they may be.