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A Year in Reading, a Year in Review

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Who needs another list? No one, that’s who. I get nostalgic and sentimental at the end of the year (even more so, I should say) like everyone else, and I do plenty of reflection, make plans for the upcoming cycle around the sun, but why add to the pile of click-bait?

I was going to avoid the whole thing altogether, but then two things happened. First, I noticed that Christmas and New Years will gobble up my normal Wednesday posting. So consider this a last thought for 2013 – Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and a Festive Yule and a bright Winter Solstice and every other blessing to you and yours.

Secondly, though, I read this breakdown of year-end list-making at the New Yorker, and hearing about how we make lists because we fear death and how Santa’s naughty and nice list is really the Book of Life from Revelation’s Judgment Day changed my tune. That’s my scene. That I get. This is something I can get behind.

So let me briefly apply this new-found reflective energy to the books I read last year. Book reading has become list making. Maybe it always was, for some, and I know one of the first things I did when I became a more serious reader was write down the title of every book I read in a little black notebook. But such lists are online now, and even I track my books on Goodreads. Yes, it is a website where anonymous commenters give one-star ratings to The Iliad, but it is also a data-trove to be mined, so let me dig in. And I admit I’m curious, so this is as much for me as it is for you.

I read 38 books last year. I always hope for a book a week, so I’m behind schedule. And considering I’m in Moby Dick right now, soon to be followed by Les Mis and Ulysses, I’m going to fall even further behind. I had a former English professor tell me once that he realized at about age 50 he would only read so many books in his life, and so he started getting very picky. At the rate I’m going, I only have about another 1600 books in me, and that’s if I’m lucky. See, lists really are about death.

Of those 38, 12 were audiobooks. If you want to read more and don’t have a book going at all times in the car, you’re doing something wrong. Start with the audio of World War Z. It features dozens of voices, including Martin Scorcese and Alan Alda and a Reiner or two. Then move on to That Old Ace in the Hole, and you’ll want to move to the Texas Panhandle before noon; amazing but true.

For a guy who is supposed to be researching a new book, I read a lot of fiction, 23 of 38. In my quest to catch up (I was an engineer in college), I finally got to a number of novels I should have read before: One Hundred Years of Solitude, White Noise, Deliverance. In fact, I only re-read two books: The Great Gatsby and The Right Stuff. But I was fourteen years old the last time I read both, and so it’s like I never read them at all. I’ve heard some find great pleasure in re-reading old books – how can you retrace your steps when there are so many new paths to explore?

I read mostly old books, getting to only two new releases when they first hit the shelves: The Circle and Erik Prince’s memoir (I was writing a review). I have few beach reads or books on craft, except for Tracy Kidder’s Good Prose which deserves to be an instant classic. I’m avoiding war books while I’m writing my own, but I broke that rule for Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War and the short story collection Fire & Forget. If you read my blog and haven’t read those . . . again, you’re doing something wrong. I got on a bit of a David McCullough kick (three volumes). I tried Arabic in translation for the first time (Hassan Blasim). While on vacation I read a story about a time traveling Hemingway trying to destroy the universe. Can’t make that up.

I don’t have a Best Book I Read in 2013, but there is one I most hope sticks with me. I finally spent time with Joan Didion this year (again, I’m playing catch up), and if Slouching Towards Bethlehem gets in my bloodstream permanently then I’ll be a better writer for it. I often think WWJoanD while writing this next book, and by that I mean “how do I sum up the Afghan war in this pilot/amputee/bomb tech/analyst like Didion summed up 1960’s San Francisco in a musician/rancher/farm hand/developer?” Doing it one tenth as well would be a start.

I have had a fortunate 2013. I took many steps forward in my goal of being a professional writer: the big article in Wired, pieces in The Daily Beast and New York Times and at Tom Ricks’ page on Foreign Policy, talks at schools and colleges and libraries and book stores around the country (including Yale and the Chautauqua Institution). None of that would have been possible without the support of readers, editors, publicists, my agent, event organizers, librarians, and the many book clubs that chose The Long Walk and invited me to the discussion (in person or via Skype). A sincere thank you to everyone, and I hope for even more – like a new book – in 2014.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for the suggestions. I like your variety. Since you’re open to books that you should have read, but didn’t, you might consider the incredible “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat Moon, a “road travels/enlightenment” book that had huge impact in the ’70s, by a very prolific author I’d never heard of until a recent mention in the NY Times, but now I think about every day.

    December 19, 2013
    • Hi Bob – Blue Highways has been sitting on my shelf for years. Someday I’ll get to it! (along with Roads to Quoz and Riverhorse, also by WLHM, sitting next to it)

      December 19, 2013
  2. D. Kim Hamblin, PhD #

    I have a list for those like me who treat vets and need to add to your book (and this is not exhaustive) Outlaw Platoon, Fearless, The Red Circle, and any or all of Tim O’Brien’s books, e.g., If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box me Up and Send Me Home.

    December 31, 2013
  3. Brian, Have you read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes? I just finished it this past week and was as moved by it as I was by your book. Powerful material for those of us who sew quilts for those touched by war.

    February 28, 2014

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