Dec 30, 2016

2016: The Year in Review

When I first started thinking about writing this post, I soon realised I’d have to approach it differently than I did in previous years — if nothing else, because I have no reviews to link to. 2016 was the first year in nearly a decade when I didn’t make an effort to write about the majority of the books I was reading. There are things I miss about my previous way of blogging — how the process of writing makes my reading more memorable, and most of all how it allows me to figure out what I think when it’s not immediately obvious to me — but to be honest I lost less than I was expecting when I decided to shift gears.

2016 was an important reading year for me. My reading felt more vital than it had in a long time, and more deeply connected with the business of becoming. In some ways I was less adventurous, but in others I feel that I delved deeper. When I found someone who was saying something that felt essential to me, I made an effort to stick with them. I allowed books to lead me to other books, and followed threads of thought across time and space. I had a non-fiction heavy year, for no other reason other than that it turned out that way; I read more poetry than I had in ages; I made more time for rereading (though still not enough time); I continued to love comics and find joy in them. I read fewer new-to-me authors, especially when it comes to fiction, but the ones I did discover quickly became essential to me. When I think back on my favourite books, they feel like the building blocks of my current self: they enlarged me by expanding the range of thoughts and possibilities that were available to me, and I can no longer imagine myself without them. This has always been the case with the books I love deeply, of course, but I was lucky enough to have it happen numerous times this year. This was a year of transformation, much of which was only possible because of these books.

I don’t think I’d be able to do a list type post, but I’d better tell you what my favourite books I read this year were before I say more about the experience of reading them. Here they are, in no particular order:

Favourite reads of 2016: Upheavals of Thought, The Argonauts, The Dream of a Common Language, The Raven King, Troubling a Star
  • Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  • Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
  • The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis
  • The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman
  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • How To Live by Sarah Bakewell
  • American Hunger by Richard Wright
  • Labor of Love by Moira Weigel
  • Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson

    Reading Upheavals of Thought on my Easter break was genuinely one of the most important things I did this year. As I said at the time, Nussbaum’s work helped me articulate ideas that had become increasingly important to me over the past few years. If they seem obvious now, it’s because books like this one allowed me to reach my current level of clarity. Upheavals of Thought is a philosophy book about the role of emotions in our private and public lives, about trying to withstand need and be comfortable with interdependence without giving in to shame, and about the consequences and implications of our various struggles for dominance and control. It addresses the myth that it’s possible or desirable for human beings to ever be entirely self-sufficient, and it explores its many ramifications in our lives. To quote from my April post, “if we accept the insurmountable fact of human need in ourselves and in others, we can hopefully lead lives that are based on reciprocity, compassion, and full respect for the individuality and will of those we love or live in community with.” Learning to live by this truth is always a work in progress, but if I’ve become a little better at it, it’s partially thanks to Nussbaum.

    Reading Maggie Nelson this year was just as momentous. I listed The Argonauts as my favourite, which it was, but The Art of Cruelty also mattered a lot to me. My favourite thing about Nelson is that no matter what she’s writing about — gender, sexuality, queer families, art, criticism, what have you — she opens up possibilities instead of closing them down. She writes about wanting to do this explicitly in The Art of Cruelty, but it’s there in the rest of her work, too: she makes it possible to inhabit nuance, to resist false binaries, to avoid being corned into positions that we feel sacrifice the complexity of our lives, our feelings, our thoughts. She makes me braver, and she helps me reach further. Nelson was one of the authors I fell for so hard I had to read everything of theirs I could get my hands on. The Red Parts made me think, in ways that were both useful and complicated, about the potential pitfalls of narrative; Bluets about the intricacies of desire. I’m grateful that I read them.

    2016 was also the year I binged on Adrienne Rich: I started by picking up On Lies, Secrets and Silences (because I came across a quote from one of its essays exactly when I needed it) and there was no looking back after that. I loved The Dream of a Common Language, of course, but also What Is Found There and Blood, Bread and Poetry. Naturally I love Rich’s unapologetic feminism, which I found far more spacious and nuanced than I was expecting (I don’t know why; she’s not a household name for nothing). But most of all it was her voice, her use of language, that allowed her particular take on familiar subjects to resonate with me as much as I did. There’s a profound emotional and intellectual seriousness to Rich’s essays; a willingness to go as far as it takes, to peel back layer after layer of assumptions and prejudices. She’s willing to be tentative, to be wrong; to think things through and then to think again. She’s also deeply concerned with articulating what once seemed beyond the reach of language: her struggles to render into words her experiences as a woman and as a lesbian, and her generosity in making them visible to us, made speech seem a little more possible for me, too. Then there’s her poetry: these lines from “Splittings” — “I believe I am choosing something new / not to suffer uselessly / yet still to feel” — are a beacon I hope I can continue to move towards. As if all of this wasn’t enough, reading Rich led me to so much else — Michelle Cliff, Karen Brodine, rereading Audre Lorde, Three Guineas. My year would have been very different if I hadn’t discovered her.

    Favourite reads of 2016: Tehanu, Women, Race and Class, The Faraway Nearby, The Gentrification of the Mind, Citizen
    When it comes to fiction, I found no greater pleasure this year than in rereading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. It was a partial reread (I still have to go back to A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore), but it was enough to find out that although I love these books more than ever, my favourite has changed: it’s now Tehanu rather than The Tombs of Atuan. Tehanu left me in awe of Le Guin’s skill; she excels in capturing the delicate balance between accepting our inevitable vulnerability as human beings in a world we don’t control and fighting political disempowerment at every opportunity. It’s also a thoughtful, beautiful novel about gender roles, surviving abuse, and creating the sort of space where love and trust can flourish. I’ve actually just finished another Le Guin, The Dispossessed — much as with The Left Hand of Darkness, it took me a few attempts over the years to finally read this book from start to finish, but the time and effort were more than worthwhile. I might write more about it in January, if I find the time and my mood is right. I found it thoughtful and moving and very much worth chewing on.

    The other SFF author I spent a lot of time with this year was Madeleine L’Engle: I read The Small Rain, which was equal parts troubling, moving, and beautiful; carried on with the Time Quintet, of which A Wind in the Door is the stand-out so far; and, most memorably of all, I read the extraordinary Troubling a Star. I don’t always love L’Engle unreservedly, but at her best I really do adore her. Her best writing is so full of light, so generous, so thoughtful. She has the same gravity to her as Adrienne Rich, though it manifests itself very differently. Troubling a Star comes after A Ring of Endless Light, one of my favourite books from last year (and indeed by now a forever favourite). It follows Vicky Austin as she journeys to Antarctica, and it is, it seems to me, very much a novel about trust. Vicky survives the volatile situation she finds herself in partially because of her deliberate choice not to see human relationships only in adversarial terms. There’s more to this than a facile “see the best in others and you’ll make it so”. Perhaps a quote from Le Guin’s The Dispossessed will allow me to illustrate what I mean:
    We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we don’t reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is.
    I don’t know whether this makes sense to anyone else, but it does to me.

    I was drawn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila for similar reasons, even though it’s a very different novel. It explores trust too — in this case a fragile sort of trust that becomes possible in the context of a small number of relationships, but with implications that extend beyond them. Robinson, too, is a writer of immense generosity. Lila was my favourite, but I was also impressed with Housekeeping; I hope to read more of her fiction in 2017.

    Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King, the long-anticipated end to her Raven Cycle, made my heart soar. As I said when I read it back in April, it’s a story about not being done, about continuing to find liminal places and unexpected magic and people to love. It reminded me that the world can feel “huge and unlimited and surprising”; I did my best to let this feeling guide me.

    Favourite Reads of 2016: How to Live, American Hunger, Labor of Love, Lila

    This year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Faraway Nearby. I loved the former for a paragraph that starts “we treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and sensation of desire”; for the final chapter, with its unexpected, brief and moving glimpse into what it’s like to grow up in a house of horrors; and most of all for its celebration of uncertainly — of, once again, inhabiting nuance. As for The Faraway Nearby, it’s about Solnit’s fraught relationship with her mother, about caring for her during the years when she has dementia, about memory, and about how we attempt to organise the world and our lives through the stories we tell ourselves. As I said a few months ago, Solnit acknowledges narrative’s potential to lull us into betraying complexity for the sake of a story with a neat shape; nevertheless, she believes that through writing we can articulate the kind of nuanced, subtle truths we can’t really do justice to without a lot of context and of explaining. I think I believe that too.

    The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman is a book I really wish I had written about at length — I can only think of a few other books that feel this close to my heart politically. It’s a memoir of Schulman’s AIDS activism in the 80s and early 90s, a brilliant work of cultural, social and political analysis, and a tribute to the politics of radical structural transformation that drove queer activist in the period Schulman writes about, and which have been gradually eroded with the encroachment of neoliberalism. The Gentrification of the Mind is beautiful, moving, profoundly intelligent, kind, humane. There’s a lot I could highlight, but I’ll pick one thing: I was struck by Schulman’s description of hegemony thinking, her phrase for the sort of logic that encourages people to only acknowledge the humanity of others when they can be socially or professionally useful to them. She mentions it in the context of the New York theatre world, but I’ve encountered it in many context. It’s perhaps the one thing all the environments I felt deeply uncomfortable in have in common. It put me in mind of Granny Weatherwax: Evil is when you treat people as things.

    Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich got at things that feel true to my experience. It does a brilliant job of exploring the relationship between the circumstances of Cvetkovich’s life — including the political climate she finds herself in, and the brutal reality of life under neoliberal capitalism — and how she feels on a day to day basis. As I said, I find much of what she describes to be true of me, too. Much of what I learned this year about articulating the links between public life and my private feelings was thanks to Cvetkovich. Plus this was another book that sent me in a hundred different directions: Depression is informed by the work of various artists, feminist writers and queer theorists, most of which I now desperately want to read.

    American Hunger by Richard Wright is the follow-up to Black Boy. I loved them both, but American Hunger moved me in ways I didn’t expect. I’d never come across a book that did such a good job of articulating isolation and yearning for belonging, for a community of equals, in terms that are both personal and political. Wright’s profound isolation is a direct result of growing up as a black man. When he moves to Chicago and becomes involved in left-wing politics, he experiences a lot of disappointment and heartache — but also movements of enormous hope and love, which he describes beautifully.

    I can’t believe how much I haven’t touched on yet: there’s Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which was an unexpected delight and a perfect match for many of my preoccupations this year. Bakewell’s articulation of Montaingne’s “philosophy of unassumingness” is important to me. Labor of Love by Moira Weigel is a nuanced look at the intersection between love, work and money, and at how our very specific social and historical circumstances shape private arrangements we see as inevitable and freely chosen. Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class was brilliant from start to finish. As the titles indicates, it explores the relationship between sexism, racism and classism from a historical perspective, and it taught me a lot about the history of feminism in America. I’m permanently in awe of Angela Davis’ insight into how structural injustice works and how it perpetuates itself, and so grateful that she shares it with the world. And I also loved Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a beautiful amalgamation of poetry, essays and artwork that looks at racism from a perspective that is simultaneously structural and deeply personal.

    I want to finish by mentioning a book that didn’t quite make this list, but which has stayed with me: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. On the one hand, it includes a disappointing, knee-jerky, exhausting chapter full of clich├ęs about how technology is isolating people; on the other hand, its best sections are absolutely brilliant. The final three or four pages are among the best things I read all year. It’s hard not to call a book that has paragraphs like this a favourite:
    I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted. Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.
    The following were also meaningful and memorable reads, even if I didn’t manage to fit them into this recap: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, Communion by bell hooks, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay, Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking by Karen Brodine, Necessity by Jo Walton, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, That’s Revolting! edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

    I’ll stick to tradition in one small regard and finish with my reading statistics. I’ve been writing the same disclaimer for the better part of a decade, so here’s the abbreviated version: I’m interested in numbers not so I can compete with myself or with others, but because I find it interesting to trace patterns in my reading across the years and link them to what’s going on in my life and in the world at large. Lastly, and as I’ve also explained before, the following categories don’t add up to 100% because several of them overlap:

    Total books read: 144 (4% down from last year)
    From my TBR pile: 28 (19%)
    E-books: 26 (18%)
    Library Books: 47 (33%)
    New Releases: 36 (25%)
    Rereads: 6 (4%)

    Here I had to pause and wonder where on earth the majority of the books I read this year had come from, as none of these categories seems to dominate. I knew I’d read fewer new releases, but not that library books had gone up and that books from my TBR pile had gone down so dramatically. I was convinced that I’d bought fewer books than in previous years, but I think that what happened was that I did a better job of reading whatever I’d brought straight away (I only include books in the “From my TBR pile category” if I’ve owned them for longer than two months at the time when I read them). I suppose that’s an improvement of sorts. Anyway—

    Novels: 38 (26%)
    Short Story Collections and Anthologies: 0
    Comics/Graphic Novels: 30 (21%)
    Non-Fiction: 70 (49%)
    Poetry: 12 (8%)
    By Women: 110 (76%)
    By Men: 18 (12.5%)
    By Men and Women: 11 (8%)
    By Non-Binary authors: 6 (4%)
    By People of Colour: 37 (26%)
    By lgbtq authors: 48 (33%)
    By new to me authors (fiction only): 6 (8%)
    Favourite writers discovered this year: Maggie Nelson, Adrienne Rich, Martha Nussbaum.
    Best reading month: January (21 books)
    Worst reading month: July (5 books)

    Do tell me about your reading in 2016, friends — I would love to hear all about it.
  • 11 comments:

    1. This was so wonderful to read about what made your favorite books favorites. I love Adrienne Rich so very much and Dream of a Common Language is one of my favorites. Have you read A Wild Patience has Taken Me This Far? It actually helped inspire one of my tattoos (a web with a little spider in it). Also you may be interested in June Jordan, Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser. I had Upheavels of Thought out from the library because of you but it is such a huge, dense book and I had so much going on I only managed ten pages before it had to go back. I am, however, determined to try again sometime.

      Happy New Year!

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    2. I loved reading the recap of your reading year. I look forward to reading more poetry in the New Year and expanding my reading horizons. I am happy with my reading year but lately I've been feeling like I need more diversity. Here's to a wonderful New Year!

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    3. Binny Bewitched: I still have not read it! Further research suggests that it's not coming out in the US until June of next year, and then in an edition that does not match the previous two. WHY DO PUBLISHERS DO THIS TO ME ANA.

      Sarah Bakewell is an author I want to try out this year. I feel a little daunted by her, as I do by Maggie Nelson -- it seems like they are dealing with a lot of large, general concepts and I am better at particulars (this is why I will never make a philosopher). But I'm going to try Sarah Bakewell, at least, and hopefully Maggie Nelson too. We'll see how I get on.

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    4. Wonderful recap. I appreciate how much your writing about your reading here, as well as your reading through the year, sounds like a process of self-exploration, but with an eye towards how you live in the world.

      Nussbaum has been quite influential on my literary work too, though it was Love's Knowledge and then Poetic Justice that I focused on. In the end I had some disagreements with the way she used the novels she read (especially The Golden Bowl) but she is someone whose scholarly work is profoundly humanistic and focused on that key philosophical question "how should I live?" and I really respect that and learned from it.

      Best wishes for 2017.

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    5. This is a great recap with much to tempt me into some of the titles you mention -- I've had the Bakewell on the sidetable for months now... time to get to it. Thanks for sharing so many of your thoughts & reflections on all of these favourites, it's very inspiring.

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    6. That's a lot of books! Almost double the number I read this year. I also miss the analytical aspects of writing reviews for every book I read, but idk. I don't have it in me, not the moment anyway. And honestly, sometimes you just want to READ.

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    7. When we first came to Kenyon (before kids) Ron and I read Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness with a group, and it was a great experience I've never tried to recapture, but you remind me that I should try.

      Also, I'm excited that you're going to read A Wizard of Earthsea soon. It's one of the first books that came to mind when we thought of my blog title.

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    8. I loved reading your recap. You bring to vivid life the importance of reading. Thanks to you I read The Argonauts this year and it changed me in ways I am still pondering.

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    9. Looks like despite everything you had a great year of reading. I always enjoy your wrap up posts and seeing what you managed to read. :)

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    10. Here is my 2016 Reading Recap Post: http://www.jenniferneyhart.com/2016/12/2016-book-breakdown.html

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    11. I haven't done much in the way of setting myself reading goals this year, but if I had to sum up what I want from my reading this year, it would be to have the kind of reading year you had in 2016. I want reading experiences that personal and that nourishing and that defining. I sincerely hope your reading this year continues to be as enriching and clarifying and rewarding for you.

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    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.