Sunday, January 13, 2019

This Fluid Thrill Awards: best books I read in 2018

Some stats and reflections on my year in reading make up the 2nd part of this post, but lets kick off with:


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, 2015)

What I said about it in February:
...In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.
So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.
But I like a strong brew...

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
...Heti's reconstruction of the novel form as something based on thought and deliberation (in this case, whether it's okay not to have kids), rather than drama and conflict, is both appealing and incredibly dangerous. 
For all it's seriousness, I found it incredibly funny. Especially the way the adapted I Ching... gives the novel a feeling of being written in real time. Even though it's random, so many of the responses are so perfectly mischievous and gnomic (like a good piece of AI poetry) that I couldn't help be tickled.

Three Men in  a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (novel, 1889)

What I said about it in December:
Loved it. The funniest book I read all year.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (novel, 2018)

What I said about it in August:
The kind of book you nestle into, not because the content is comforting, but it's clear from page 1 you are in the hands of a master and you can just let yourself go with it. 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in October:
It's comic without being silly. Romantic without being gaga. So: like life, but better.
Highly recommended.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Noah Yuval Harari (non-fiction, 2016)

What I said about it in April:
I've recommended this book to three people since I read it, each for different reasons... but each time with the caveat that the book is confusingly structured...
Still, it was the right mix of a secondary explainer of the work of others and more adventurous, more challenging thinking.
Good stuff.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (novel, 2008)

What I said about it in August:
Loved this, too... All those extended sequences that fly the geek flag high (the immersive world of the Three-Body Problem game; the challenge of unfolding a proton into an 11-dimensional shape and then folding it back up again).

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.
I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates (non-fiction, 2015)

What I said about it in October:
The audiobook is read by the author, and I can't imagine receiving the content without Coates' delivery, which sounds a little like slam poetry, only tolerable...
While not everything about US race relations can be applied elsewhere, at a little over 3 hours, it's essential reading/listening for anyone.

Vacationland by John Hodgman (non-fiction, 2017)

What I said about it in February:
If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.


In 2018 I got through 42 books, which falls short of my usual target of 1 book a week.

In 2017 I read 66 books. My favourite was Sam Lipsyte's The Ask. (I'm excited about Hark coming out this year in a matter of days!) But I was a full-time writer in 2016 and in 2017 I... wasn't. Though I still had to finish off the manuscript for Nailing Down the Saint and negotiate the editing process.

So I'll take 42 books read, but reckon I can do 52 in 2019.

For a start, I didn't read any poetry collections in 2018. Reading just one collection a month would have got me over the line.

What did I read?

27 novels, 3 short story collections and 12 works of non-fiction.

The 70/30 split between fiction and non-fiction is about the same as last year, though the fact I don't count reading for research, or podcast series, tends to depress the non-fiction figures.

How did I read it?

39 audiobooks (92%), 3 physical books.

Last year, audiobooks made up 71% of my "reading". I noted last year how a heavy reliance on audiobooks naturally limits the scope of what you can read (see: Who did I read? below), though setting targets and rules can help in a lot of ways.

In defence of audiobooks, I think listening to so many has improved my prose and I definitely know it has improved my ability to edit. Words on the page aren't the living object - it's only when they're read by someone (whether in their head or aloud) - and the sound of those words in sequence, the cadence of your message, is just as important as the meaning.

Who did I read?
  • Male: 62%, Female 28%.  Last year: 68% male, so a slight improvement, but still not flash.
  • US authors: 52% (last year 48% - so sadly static here). 
  • Then it was: UK (6 authors), NZ (3),  Australia (2), Canada (2) and a six countries with one author each. Not reading physical books severely limits my NZ reading, but it's a bit chicken and the egg. If I really wanted to read NZ books, I would have. I'm going through a low ebb in my interest in NZ stuff. That will change. Until then, I need to consciously ween myself from the Americans.
  • White authors 73%, non-white 27%. In 2017, only 6% were non-white, so this is a big improvement with room for more growth.
  • Works in translation: 2 (5%) compared to 6 (9%) last year.

Books by publication date
  • A third (14) of the books I read in 2018 were published in 2018. That's insanely high for me. In 2017, I read 13 books that came out that year, but it only made up 20% of my reads due to the higher volume of books read over all (and was my all-time high to that point).
  • In 2018 I also read 10 books published in 2017, so all up 57% of my reading was less than 2 years old.
  • Other years: 2016 (3), 2015 (5), 2010 (2), 2008 (1), 1980s (2), 1960s (2), 1800s (2).
  • Median year: 2017.
  • Oldest: 1818 (Frankenstein).

You may have seen that I previously tweeted my 5 favourite books from 2018... well, only two of those books cracked my top ten (though Rachel Kushner and Leni Zumas would be 11 and 12 on the list if it went that far). 

This is to say that current doesn't equal better. I saw someone on Twitter had a reading resolution to only read things that have been out for more than 2 years. That way, the books that are all hype and no substance should have evaporated and you have a better shot at reading the important stuff. But what's "important"? And if no-one reads (maybe just "buys"?) books the year they come out, contemporary authors will be schnickered.

So my reading resolutions for 2019 are the following:
  • Read great books
  • Read at least 52 books
  • Read at least 10 poetry collections
  • Read more than 40% female authors
  • Read at least a third non-white authors
  • Read less than 40% US authors
  • Read from at least 10 different countries
  • Read at least 5 works in translation
  • Target median age of books read: 2009

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