exercises in compound storytelling

Monday, December 28, 2009

A reading year

WASHINGTON - MAY 28:  Senior Conservator of th...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Back in 2003 I made a point of tracking every book I read, with a goal of reading fifty books during the calendar year. I finished with something like fifty-five books, and I have the Excel spreadsheet lying around somewhere for that year and the next. It seemed like kind of a silly project, with a bunch of fairly arbitrary limiting choices (What constitutes a book? Does skimming count as reading? What is or isn't cheating? etc.) and when my obligations and interests changed (basically, for a couple of years my job completely swallowed my life, and I wasn't teaching a Bible study any more) I dropped the project.

Then a year ago (to the day) Karl Rove's article Bush Is a Book Lover: a glimpse of what the President has been reading surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, and it just blew my mind. The President, while being the Leader of the Free World, or whatever, had managed during one calendar year to read ninety-five books in his peak year, averaging sixty-two a year over a three-year period. I realized that by making reading a priority I could do something similar. Especially after I had a look at what he read: while it's easy to take cheap shots at him for not reading enough that is critical of his administration, as Richard Cohen did in the Washington Post, and while there's something self-serving about any President reading too much about Abraham Lincoln (because being Lincoln was a life-long project, and one doesn't become Lincoln by reading about him), it was clear that the President not only occasionally read hard books, he occasionally let some of them influence his thinking, rather than just gathering facts to support his already fixed mindset. And while the results may not have been entirely admirable, at least he had the humility to read a book cover to cover.

So this year I set out to read a hundred books. As I mentioned above, it's kind of an arbitrary goal, and I set some arbitrary constraints:
  • I wanted to average 300 pages per book
  • Books I began in 2008 didn't count
  • Children's books didn't count, but so-called young adult books did
  • Appendices, indexes, acknowledgments, prefaces, end notes, etc. I handled on a case-by-case basis; I generally counted the book as read if I read the main body of the book, but only counted the pages I actually read against the page total
  • Two-fers, three-fers, etc. counted as separate books if they were originally published separately, so the New Testament and Psalms counts as one book, not twenty-eight, and the Tony Hillerman three-in-one packages would have been three if I'd read any of those
  • Large documents not actually published as books counted, but they had to be longer than the shortest book on my list. This is kind of a nit-picky constraint, but it's helpful in an age when "published" is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Re-reads count, but not if they're skimmed.
Along the way I learned a lot about reading, generally. I learned that
  • Contemporary fiction is easier to read on a page-for-page basis than contemporary nonfiction.
  • Reading a lot requires planning: you can't read a book if you don't have one handy, and a long-haul flight can sometimes require more than one.
  • Reading a lot is a discipline, and like most disciplines requires recurring choices: I was on place for 118 books at mid-September, but fell off pace because I didn't stick to my reading.
  • Television is a great distraction; blogging and blogs are an obstacle.
  • Some authors stand up well to being read in sequence and close together, some not so much. Big stories stretching across multiple books need this approach, but not every author expects to be read this way. It doesn't make sense to read J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books out of order, for example, and they do reward the reader if read close together. Tom Clancy published his books out of order, both in terms of the chronology in the overall story and in the order in which he wrote them, so a reader has to pick a sequence. And it turns out some of them are better if not read during a prolonged Tom Clancy binge. Tony Hillerman has two main characters, lets them age, and uses the same devices repeatedly; it's better to read his books over a period of several years.
Once I got into the project I learned that there are other people who undertake reading projects on a more or less formal basis, some with Big Year focus and planning, others as more a way of life like big streak runners. Reformed Christian blogger Tim Challies reads and reviews eighty to a hundred books a year, mostly in the nonfiction Religion and Spirituality genre. Nina Sankovich made the New York Times last year for her book a day project: she reads a book every day and posts a review on her blog the next day. Blogger Angie is also doing the book-a-day thing for 2009, but because she lives outside the New York City metropolitan area she didn't merit mention in the Times.

There are even guides and 43 things tasks for this sort of thing, not to mention the somewhat self-serving Big Read project at the National Endowment for the Arts. They all say more or less the same thing: plan your reading, stick to fiction, pace yourself, avail yourself of public (or university) libraries and keep a standby list of short stuff for tough days.

I prefer nonfiction to fiction, and I suspect that imposes a practical limit, either on the length of the books I'll likely read or on the number of books I can read. I suspect I could do a book a day (or half a book a day) if I stuck to Louis L'Amour or Harlequins or some such, but I'd go out of my mind. And unfortunately it can be tougher to skim your way out of difficult nonfiction than boring fiction. There just isn't enough Malcolm Gladwell, Po Bronson, and Michael Lewis in all the world to sustain a book-a-day pace reading nonfiction.

Regardless, this year, with two-plus days to go, I've read 106 books that meet the criteria above, plus another ten that don't count. It's unlikely I'll get to 110 this year. Maybe next year, or when I'm old. I'll spare anyone who has read this far the entire list, but here are some highlights:
  • All seven Harry Potter books
  • Fourteen Tony Hillermans (thirteen novels plus The Great Taos Bank Robbery); Hillerman's Navajo Country detective novels are sort of a rite of passage for anyone living in the American Southwest, and I can't believe I put them off this long.
  • Five Tom Clancys
  • Four Bob Woodwards
  • All three Neil Humphreys books about Singapore
  • Three Haruki Murakami books (Underground, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and After Dark); I'm still easing into Murakami.
  • The shortest was Henri Nouwen's monograph on icons Behold The Beauty Of The Lord (77 pages)
  • The longest was J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (870 pages)
  • The best was probably Kevin Roose's book about his year at Liberty University, The Unlikely Disciple.
  • Honorable mention to Jeff Sharlet's religious/political expose The Family.
  • Honorable mention to Alex Kerr's second book about Japan, Dogs and Demons.
  • Honorable mention to David Foster Wallace's long-form journalism piece McCain's Promise
  • Honorable mention to Mark Taylor Dalhouse's book about Bob Jones University, An Island in the Lake of Fire
  • There were several books I'd consider "awful" or worse, but they're not worth dissecting here.
  • I averaged 88.59 pages per day for finished books, and an average qualifying book had 300.60 pages
  • At a glance my list looks like it tilts a little toward nonfiction.
I'd love to do this again next year, but my wife and I are expecting our first child in the first half of February, so I should probably be happy if I don't stop reading altogether. And what books I read will probably tilt toward "how to raise a child" and "how to get enough sleep" books. I have a sketch of next year's fiction target list, and right now it includes
  • The remaining six or seven Tony Hillerman novels
  • The Left Behind series (all sixteen volumes)
  • Lots of 20th Century evangelical Christian history and commentary; everybody agrees we're dangerous or worse, but nobody seems to understand the movement or know anyone in it. It's almost like it has come and gone and not found its voice or left a trace.
  • Half or so of the remaining Bob Woodward books, probably not including the Bush At War books.
I'll be thrilled to get to this point next year with fifty books read, but we'll see. Watch this space.

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