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Tag: books

2022 in Books

This post is inspired by Kate McKean’s recent newsletter article, which I thought was a great way to visualise, rather than just list, books read last year.

I read 50 books in 2022, which makes me very happy. It’s been a hard year at work and in my personal life, but I’ve still found time for reading. That’s an average of almost a book a week — though I definitely squeezed a final few in there over Christmas to give a satisfying round number.


58% fiction, 42% non-fiction. I’m not surprised that sci-fi tops the list of fiction, nor by the tie between fantasy, horror and literary fiction. I haven’t done this kind of analysis on previous years, but that pretty much aligns with my gut instinct about my reading tastes. More unusually for me, thriller/crime are >0% — I’m trying to branch out a bit into what is usually a dull genre for me. My guess is that I’m drifting year-on-year from a fiction-dominated appetite to something more balanced.

A closer look at non-fiction

Looking closer at non-fiction, it’s obvious that ‘Craft/Creativity’ was a hot topic for me. These were mostly books about writing or about artists. I’ve enjoyed reading more essays and memoir this year, and my reading list for 2023 is leaning into that. Self-help reading centred around creativity, productivity and introversion/sensitivity.

Book formats

I’m shocked by how few audiobooks I listened to this year. Over the last 10 years I’ve usually had an audiobook on the go most of the time. But this year I’ve been listening to so many podcasts that I haven’t really had time for audiobooks. 24% ebooks sounds about right, though also might be a reduction from previous years. I do tend to mostly read paperbacks, so there’s no surprises here, but there are definitely more hardbacks than I anticipated (lots of these were gifts — if friends/family are reading this, yes please, more hardbacks for my birthday next year).

Minority voices

This analysis is definitely reductive. I haven’t researched people’s identities in detail. In any case, artists shouldn’t have to divulge details of their personal lives to further their careers. I’ve gone with ‘white and/or cis-gender male’ as the easiest questions to answer. A 60/40 split isn’t bad, but it’s not brilliant either. I think it’s better than previous years, but the trend will be clearer if this analysis gets repeated in future years.

Completed vs partial reads

I count books as ‘read’ on my log even if I don’t read them cover to cover. Sometimes books lose momentum or I lose interest, but I still feel that I’ve absorbed the essence of the book. As a rule of thumb, if I get more than halfway, I’ll count it. But it looks like I read 84% of books cover to cover this year. That’s 42 books completed, 8 partial reads.

For reference, here’s the list (see the Book Log for previous years):

  1. The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
  2. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  3. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  4. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
  5. It Happened in ‘Loontown by Lavie Tidhar (short story)
  6. The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  7. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  8. The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley
  9. Siege & Storm by Leigh Bardugo
  10. This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
  11. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
  12. Appropriate by Paisley Rekdal
  13. Why I Write by George Orwell
  14. The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers
  15. The Fisherman by John Langan
  16. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  17. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
  18. Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
  19. The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
  20. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
  21. Odyssey by Jack McDevitt
  22. Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  23. Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  24. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
  25. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
  26. Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
  27. 1Q84: Book Three by Haruki Murakami
  28. A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
  29. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
  30. Permission to Screw Up by Kristen Hadeed 
  31. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
  32. Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
  33. What It Is by Lynda Barry
  34. The Stormlight Archive: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  35. Acceptance by Jeff VenderMeer
  36. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
  37. Mistborn: Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
  38. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
  39. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones
  40. Refuse to Be Done by Matt Bell
  41. Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  42. Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
  43. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
  44. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  45. The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
  46. Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey
  47. Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
  48. Ringworld by Larry Niven
  49. Cauldron by Jack McDevitt
  50. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

H is for Hawk: when words fly

I recently finished H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It’s a stunner.

I’ve read a lot of non-fiction books lately where you initially wonder how a publisher ended up green-lighting the book. Somebody’s dad dies to they buy a hawk and try to train it?

I mean, okay, sounds a bit off-the-wall, but I’ll give it a shot. It starts off smooth enough, and I thought it would be a bit avant-garde, a book about hawks that might be tenuously linked to some aspect of modern life. I was happy enough.

Then it span around and kneed me in the delicates.

The book rapidly becomes a beautiful account of a woman struggling with spiralling depression after her dad dies, as her regression into a childhood obsession with hawks. There are a lot of parallels drawn between her experiences and those of the writer T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.

The style is strange, with autobiographical elements mixed with fictionalised snippets of White’s life. But this recipe makes the whole thing come alive. The prose could cut glass.

Some favourite snippets:

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.

Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.

Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing breaks, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.

Sanderson’s Gone Rogue

A few weeks ago, Brandon Sanderson posted a video that was almost perfect clickbait. If you don’t want anything spoiled, watch the video before reading on.

Spoiler alert

It turns out it’s not a confessional, but an announcement of a bold plan. For anyone unfamiliar with Sanderson: he’s a prolific high fantasy writer. He writes big honking doorstops of books. And in lockdown he ‘accidentally’ wrote an extra five books. Five.

(Why do the rest of us bother?)

Not only is he releasing these in 2023, but he’s doing it via a Kickstarter campaign. And the books are being released with the options to go in blind: just a book that arrives once a quarter, accompanied only by the knowledge that it’s a Sanderson novel. Or you can get some juicy previews already.

This isn’t unheard of in indie publishing, but Sanderson is a trad publishing heavyweight, so the video was seen a couple million times within 24 hours. This kind of experiment is new ground: a statement that one of the most successful authors in the world is pursuing his own publishing routes, embracing the hybrid lifestyle, and retaining his IP.

Formative Artistic Influences

I’ve been thinking about influences. We are the sum of our experiences, and the media we consume and interact with are a part of that. It also matters when we do the consuming: in our formative years, things become more deeply ingrained, set us on rails that inform our adult interests and reference points.

As a child, my favourite film was Jurassic Park. I was the typical dinosaur-obsessed little boy, who collected fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist. At one point I ran a fan-site and made trailers and videos on YouTube. It was the first thing I really cared about, enough to teach myself video editing, web and graphic design.

Source: Pocket Lint

In high school, I watched a handful of films over and over. Die Hard, especially. I once watched the first three Die Hard films every day for an entire summer holiday. I like having background noise, usually something that I recognise. I learned early on that I’m easily distracted by sound, and that controlling my the sound in my environment is critical for me to focus.

I came to books relatively late. We didn’t have books in the house, and I didn’t have any friends who read. I liked the library and I did read a fair amount, but it took me time to discover the kinds of books I really enjoyed. I was about 15 when I started to come across things that stayed with me: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction, John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman.

Source: Goodreads

When I was nearing the end of high school, Lost was airing its final seasons. Lost is packed full of references, often hidden in the background. Films, books, philosophy, religion. I spent years exploring as many of these references as I could, enamoured with the mystery of the series. The themes, such as destiny and deep mystery, fuelled my reading appetite for years.

My tastes have wandered many times since then, as my reading log shows. I’ve gone through phases of classic fiction, some pretty dry non-fiction, and many other things. However, those initial influences are still there, underneath it all, subtely informing how I process everything.

I came to my first passion through a film. My drive to write came through reading, which I in turn came to partly by following references in TV and other books.

I’m sure that I’d have come to books and writing at some point; my parents say I was born bookish. But it’s interesting to wonder at how slightly different formative experiences might have changed my trajectory, delaying and accelerating my development – or even setting me on a different set of favourite themes entirely.

The Death of Art and Other False Bollocks

How many times have you heard somebody say that X is dead? Cinema, books, a sane taste in music. People love prophesizing the end times of art forms. It’s the doomsayer’s crack.

Some people say the MCU is destroying cinema, by crowding out opportunities for other films. Funding from film studios is finite, and they are likely to choose guaranteed profits over experimental films every time.

The same can be said for books. After the UK Net Books Agreement collapsed in the 1990s and books were routinely discounted by juggernaut retailers, profits in publishing collapsed. (A topic covered among many other book-related tidbits in The Diary of a Bookseller.)

The same story can be found almost everywhere, including music. Streaming services like Spotify are magic to consumers, but result in a cut-throat existence for many artists.

New art seems to be living on slim pickings. Established names are being commissioned over and over with huge budgets, and new names skulk in the shadows, judged as too risky for investment. This seems to be the way of things in the rent-it-don’t-own-it, endlessly-remake-the-classic-hits culture.

Art is dead, some say.

What a load of old shit.

Art forms cannot be destroyed, only changed.

They are defined by constant flux. There were no departures from normality, because ‘normal’ is not a benchmark but a brief window of time between metaphorphoses. A change for the better or worse depends on perspective, how willing you are to embrace it.

The printing press was originally seen as a disruptive technology that would make people lazy. The same cry came when the Kindle was invented, only to see print books sales spring back after the initial craze — with another bump during the pandemic. It’s true that independent bookshops are seeing dire times, and retail giants loom large over publishing, but that’s more a failure of regulation of our economy than a decline of the book.

And the monopolies of the film industry aren’t totally at the expense of creativity and ambition. The MCU is a landmark success because it was so experimental, launched in large part by Jon Favreau while making Iron Man.

From the beginning, the MCU films have had big budgets, but the whole universe of extended films could have crashed and burned at any point, with many others films half-finished and millions in investment lost.

I’m not immune to a feeling of doom. I will admit that I despaired while watching Jurassic World. I watched Jurassic Park so many times as a child that even now I could quote it to you word for word (unfortunately not an exaggeration). Jurassic World was an entertaining film that I enjoyed, but a part of me flinched away from a plot so incongruous with the mentally stimulating source material, and CGI that was simply not as good as in the original film — despite over twenty years of technological progress and the fact that the original came out in 1993.

This isn’t an isolated incident. After promising so much and almost reaching the heights of greatness, Prometheus quietly assassinated the genius mythos of the Space Jockeys in Alien. I was less than pleased.

Perhaps I’m being timid. Let me rephrase: I was more than upset by these things than if somebody had squatted down in full view and shat all over my garden.

But it was worth the risk to try something new. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lots of people worked incredibly hard on these films, and I’m sure that millions of people really did love them, and don’t care much for ‘old films’ from the 70s or even (the pain) the 90s.

We went to see No Time to Die the other day. I thoroughly enjoyed it, top marks.

Looking at the reviews on IMDB, however, you’d think the film had been a two-hour shot of the entire cast giving the audience the finger. Die-hard fans are genuinely upset to have had their drug-addled misygenist stolen away from them.

The film’s crime is innovation. Taking old material that has been milked dry for decades, and giving it a little spin and a twist. Taking characters in new directions. Even growth — if you can imagine such a thing, in a Bond film.

I don’t want to pick on Bond fans who are upset, because we could have the same conversation about any fandom when something that dissapoints it comes along. This particular occurrence happens to have me fired up. Fans of old-school Bond: I hope you never feel that anyone is trying to screw with something you love.

Nonetheless we need to stay limber and ready for the new, even if we’re still in love with the old. Changes to the industries around art will always happen, have always happened. But they’re not the real drivers of change. A lack of interest in experimentation and new material from fans is the real danger: if there is no demand for anything new from consumers, creators will lose any leverage to actually create. If we’re going to stave off a time of rebooted remakes of reimaginings, we need to be excited by being turned on our heads.

In Support of Reading Slowly

The speed-reading bookworm cliché

I read at a snail’s pace for someone who likes books so much. The stereotype of a bookworm is somebody who drops a book from standing height and reads the entire thing before it hits the ground, letting the wind flutter the pages at lightning speed.

A. is like that. She can comfortably read a book a day, even beefy fantasies. She says she just lets it wash over her, and the experience is a lot like watching TV.

That works great for her. She gets exactly what she wants from the experience.

My experience of reading isn’t like that at all.

For me, reading is a visceral experience, more of a jumping-off point for thinking than an act of consuming something. If a dramatic scene is playing out on the page, I can’t just read lines of dialogue faster than they would be spoken in real time… surely the voice inside my head would also speed up, become high pitched?

Anyone who knows how to speed read would likely say that’s nonsense, because you shouldn’t be reading with an internal voice. Speed reading is about technique and practice, and discipline. I had to do it all the time for my academic work. It’s about using peripheral vision, intuitively filling in words to complete a sentence, using a ruler or finger to track your progress and not going back.

I ask: where the hell is the fun in that?

I could read faster, but what would be the benefit? We’re supposed to be reading for pleasure, here.

If you’re ignoring nuance, structure and pacing, you’re missing out on most of the craftsmanship that’s gone into the book. My favourite part of reading is getting to the end of a brilliant paragraph and going: “You bastard! How did you do that?” And I’ll go back and read it again.

I’ve also wondered at points whether I have some form of attention disorder. I struggle to just sit and read, line by line, page by page. I spend as much time pausing, staring off into space, running over the scene in my head, as I do actually reading.

Part of the joy of reading is sitting here and staring off into space.

I also struggle to read less than two or three books at once. I scribble notes, jump off the sofa to write in my journal about something, or I take photos of the page for later reference.

There’s something about this meandering progress that’s essential for me. It’s what makes it fun.

Austin Kleon said this, repeated recently by Jason Gurley:

Writers are unique kinds of readers because, for them, reading is rarely an end in itself, but a means of generating more writing.

There’s definitely something to that. If a particular story element or turn of phrase is particularly elegant or awful, I take notice. But in general, I’m not sure this is explains all of why I’m so slow. I probably just have an overactive imagination and bad habits of busyness.

Being slow does have its drawbacks. I don’t sample as many voices in a given stretch of time, and I can scope out less of what’s current. I recently took a tour around some writers’ website, looked over their logs of what they’ve been reading (see mine here). Most of them read a lot more than I do. The obvious feelings of inadequacy followed.

No matter that the average person (at least, the average American) reads just 12 books a year. Surely I should be matching these other writers.

Then I had a shower and got over myself.

A lot of the people I was comparing myself to were full-time writers, without a traditional day job. About half of them were lecturers in English or creative writing — so their day job was partly to read books.

No wonder I can’t quite keep with them, given I’ve had a couple of things on my plate (cough PhD thesis). I’m content knowing that I fully explore whatever I do read.

Sometimes it takes me fifteen minutes to read a single page. And for me, that’s the ideal.

Books Fund – How It’s Going

The Fund

A few months ago, I set up a Books Fund. Affording the little luxuries is something we’ve been able to do a bit more over the past few years. But, I’m still a student, and a few books do make a dent in our budget. (Well, maybe more than a few…)

My goal is to engage with the material that attracts me most. So, I started setting aside some money every week to buy at least one book on my mounting to-read list.

How It’s Going

I’ve been trialing the approach since, buying one thing off the list each Sunday. It’s been 9 weeks, and I’ve stuck to it so far. Part of the reason I set up the fund is that some books are overpriced, or rare enough that even second-hand copies are expensive. The intimidating price tag means the book just sits there on my wish list forever.

So far, I’ve bought several books that fit this category. The biggest one so far is Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, a beefy book of wonders. I managed to find it for £15, which would have stopped me before, but with the fund set aside I knew I could afford it.

Other weeks I’ve managed to pick up several books second-hand or on deals, without any guilt because I’ve stayed on budget. This week, I managed to get 4 books for £9, including postage. And I’ve also been picking up the odd book or two on top of the books fund, because I’m weak and bookshops smell nice, so there.

While I’ve been typing this entry, the postman stuffed two more through my letterbox…

Falling Behind (a Bit)

As you might have predicted, the result of this uptick in purchases means I’ve fallen behind in actually reading them. Admittedly, I’m not the fastest reader, but even A. wouldn’t be able to keep up with this pace (and she’s a reading machine).

But the fact remains that my shelf is now populated by things I’ve wanted to read for a while, but had told myself I couldn’t afford.

Top Reads… Summer 2021 Edition

Some books are good enough to recommend to friends, others you’re happy to forget. A handful are so good that you can’t contain yourself when someone you know would love it, confesses they haven’t read it.

“I can’t believe you haven’t read it. You must read it, tonight. I will be calling with questions,” you say.

Maybe you said it a bit too loud for the fancy wine bar you’re sitting in. Maybe you’re a bit too close to their face. Maybe you shouldn’t have grabbed them by the collar.

You’ve lost control. It physically hurts you to hear that they haven’t read it.

Here are several books that trigger that reaction in me.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell knows how to write with a certain fantastical edge that reminds me of Haruki Murakami — if Murakami was an endearingly self-deprecating British bloke.

(Seriously, watch this interview of Mitchell with Neil Gaiman, and tell me you don’t love the man for his lack of ego and being a fanboy over Neil.)

Cloud Atlas is my favourite of Mitchell’s books. It’s essentially a series of shorter stories nested inside one another like a russian doll.

An ill man on an 18th century sailing ship, trying to get back to his loved one. An oppressed clone-waitress who stumbles across freedom and resistance fighters in Neo-Seoul. A wildman struggling to save his tribe in the ruins of post-apocalytic jungles.

The writing is beautiful, and in this one book you get at least half a dozen unique styles from the various stories-within-stories. The deep layers of storytelling have something new every time I read it. Quite possibly the book that changed me most.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Probably as close to a perfect story as I can imagine. Not in plot or length or character, but in its totality. It is a love letter to the imaginarium of Gaiman’s own childhood.

A young boy moves to a large house in the countryside with his parents. He finds that a strange group of women live at the edge of the lane. They claim to have come from across the pond in their garden long ago, which they call “the ocean”, from a distant place called the Old Country.

A simple, elegant fairy tale that will follow you off the page.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

I’ve only read this one recently, but it hit me like a tonne of bricks. It’s not a long book, but it paints in such bold and powerful strokes that it feels like you know everything about the world.

Addie LaRue is betrothed to marry. But she has never been one to submit. She would do anything to avoid the fate of her friends, who grow tired and older, saddled with chores and children. She wants to explore, to live!

So she makes a deal with the dark spirits that come out at night — the ones she has been told she must never pray to.

The deal is simple: she will never die. Only when she no longer wants to live can the spirit have her soul.

But all deals have a price. Hers is that nobody will remember her, ever. As soon as they lose sight of her, all memory of her existence is erased.

Addie inhabits a private hell for centuries, fighting a battle of wills with the dark spirit that wants her soul, until she meets Henry in New York. The first person who in hundreds of years who can, somehow, remember her.

Setting Up a Books Fund

I have a list of books I want to buy that has been growing for years. Books I know I’ll enjoy but are unlikely to be casual reads. That little bit of added difficulty has one obvious consequence: I tend not to buy from this list very often. I pore over anything from the list I do manage to buy, but getting that far isn’t trivial.

Books are expensive. If they also require even a little bit of effort to digest, you have two counts of resistance working against you.

You can see by my book log shows that I’m always reading something. It’s just that I might not always be reading exactly what I had planned – the things I have good reason to believe I need. Distractions come along all the time. Something shiny, new or discounted, or a recommendation from a friend. It’s also definitely easier to spend £1 on entertainment than it is to spend £11.99 on something nourishing. Propagate that kind of temptation and distraction over years and you start to notice a big impact.

This month my list topped two hundred books. So I started a monthly fund that can only be used to tackle the  list.

The first book I bought using the books fund is this volume of Selected Poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks. I heard about Brooks from Patrick Rothfuss on this episode of the Creative Writing Podcast about a year ago. It’s every bit as stellar as I had hoped: lyrical and powerful and sometimes totally over my head in the very best of ways.

Setting Aside a Money-Pot for Books

My partner and I have an allowance. For our joint finances we use the Starling banking app to allocate pots of money for things like groceries or health expenses.

My allowance is usually just a lump of unallocated money that I can fritter as I choose. It sounds appealing, because it gives a sense of freedom. But it also sets up an incentive to maximise instant gratification over long-term fulfilment. It can also turn you into a miser, counting pennies and going for sub-optimal purchases that don’t achieve your goals. It sets up the situation where you have to expend mental energy to recommit to things at the moment of purchase.

I’m fortunate enough to not have to choose between explosions at the cinema and a history book. The system I have constructed just makes it seem like I do.

Enter my new books fund. At the beginning of the month, I set aside enough money for one non-discounted book per week. It goes into a pot within my account, separate from the main balance. A full-priced paperback in the UK averages around £9. So I round up and throw £10 a week into the pot.

This way discounts on other things won’t tempt me, and I can add things from my list on a regular schedule. It may be the same money, but what I’ve done is removed the component of mental effort. I don’t have to make a decision about what to buy because I’ve made that decision ahead of time, in bulk. I can still buy whatever books I want on top of this fund, but this way I know that I’ll be making steady progress towards reading the things I think I’ll find the most satisfying in the long run.