Continuing my tradition of insatiable reading, I read 112 books in 2018. My reading goal was originally 66 books. I started the year planning to slow down, to make more room for writing, but that’s not how it worked out.
It’s not always easy to pick favourite books, because it’s not as simple as listing out the books I gave five stars. The best books are not quite what this is about, exactly. It’s more about what engaged me significantly or affected me strongly while reading, what stuck with me after finishing, what I want to keep thinking about long after closing the book.
Writing a short summary of the month’s reading in the newsletter has been a useful exercise in giving a little extra thought to what I read. Some books I forget very quickly, but forcing myself to write a sentence or two about each one helps to put them in perspective and makes them seem less disposable than I am sometimes inclined to treat them.
Since I’ve been working on a novel or three all year, my perspective as a writer very much informs my reading experience, of fiction in particular. I respond differently to books which include some element — story, style, structure, tense, voice, narration, whatever — that resonates with what I’m aiming at or dealing with in my own writing. Which is not to say that I only read fiction of the kind I want to write (I try to read diversely but definitely skew more literary than genre), but that I often enjoy novels more when they teach me something about my own writing, even if I can’t articulate exactly what that is.
So let’s go: my favourite books of the year, in no particular order:
How Fiction Works, James Wood. This book deserves its own post, which I plan to give it at some point.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis. Such a romp. Historians travel to the past to track down an object needed for the recreation of a church. Of all the purposes time travel might serve, in this universe it’s reserved for the needs of academic historians in Great Britain. Things get pretty confusing as the end approaches, but it’s fun and funny enough not to matter.
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. A follow-up (not sequel) to Uprooted, another favourite, which did not disappoint. Totally engrossing and engaging. Beautiful storytelling and world-building.
All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym, Frauke Elisabeth Lenckos and Ellen J. Miller. I love Pym’s novels (of which I re-read three this year), and these essays were such a pleasure to read. They provided new insights into some of my favourite books and made me think a lot about my own writing.
The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe. A classic novel about women and careers and relationships and friendships. Totally engaging.
The Friend, Sigrid Nunez. A book about grief and writing and friendship and dogs. A case where the prose is lovely and the story, such as it is, is good, but then the structure and the bits about writing elevate it to something special.
Early Work, Andrew Martin. When I try to describe what this book is about, I start to think it must have been worse than I remember it being, but I really loved the experience of reading it. It was funny and horrible and sublime.
Motherhood, Sheila Heti. I had a long conversation about the decision to have kids with a friend early one Saturday morning in a McDonald’s while killing time before an ultimate frisbee beach tournament. I told her about this book and meant to lend it to her, but I had dog-eared so many pages and kept meaning to write down the passages that struck me, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m not sure this novel helps with the decision-making process at all, but it’s a fascinating engagement with the question.
Boddhisatva Mind and Taking the Leap, Pema Chodron. I list these together because a lot of the content is very similar, although one is an audio lecture and the other is a short book. Full of ideas I return to again and again.
An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler. Immensely pleasurable to read and encapsulates a philosophy of cooking which I’d like to follow more than I do. In 2018 I cooked more than I have in a long time and began enjoying it in a new way. Both watching Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix and reading this book have inspired me to keep experimenting and enjoying the practice of cooking food.
Aside from these favourites, there were several books I really enjoyed which definitely warrant a reread: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, Kudos by Rachel Cusk, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (more here), Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Rachel Stielstra, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, and My Private Property by Mary Ruefle.
I could continue listing more books I liked, but I’d quickly end up listing pretty much every book I read, with the exception of maybe ten. So I’m ending it here and wishing you, dear reader, happy reading in 2019.