Read or Don’t Read

How quaint to re-read my post from February 3rd, where my main concern was whether to set a reading goal, rather than worrying about which of my friends and family members might get, might die from, COVID-19.

Some of us are reading more to escape. Some of us can’t concentrate enough to make the letters line up and sink through the miasma of anxiety.

I cycle through both.

Some of my calmest moments in the last few weeks have been listening to Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor, as I walked around my neighbourhood; or reading This Lovely City, by Louise Hare, in baths so hot my skin turned red on contact. Both books pulled me out of this where and when, and placed me somewhere else – amongst magical young Nigerian teens in the first instance, and amongst Jamaican immigrants to London in 1950 in the second. The main characters in both books face many hurdles, but none of those hurdles is a global pandemic, and it was a blessed relief to be transported through the pages to anywhere that isn’t The World, March 2020.

Other times, I’ve tried to read or listen to my books, and my mind has raced right through them and back around, blocking out meaning even as my eyes or ears are tracking the words. Not even the beautiful Nigerian-accented English of the Akata Witch audio-book could take me away when every cell in my central nervous system roiled with what needed doing Right. Now. Right. Now. Right. Now. I still have moments when all I can do is scroll through Instagram or Twitter, hoping that someone will have an answer. How long will this last? When can I see my friends again? I will touch your arms and your hands. I will tap your knees gently to make my point. I will lean my head on your shoulders. I will hug you and hug you and hug you.

I won’t read 100 books this year. I don’t care. Any time – every time – I can pull myself away from a small screen to lose myself in a book is a moment the the worry abates for a moment, and that is the best I can hope for right now.

Numbers Game

I’m torn on setting a number as my reading goal for 2020. Which isn’t to ding the people who do set a number as their goal. Anything that gets people reading anything is good in my books.

Set yourself the goal of reading 100 books and make all of them graphic novels? Great.

Read one book, but it’s In Search of Lost Time? Great.

Try to read all the books you managed to not read during your English Lit degree? Great.

My reading goal this year is to get through the pile on top of the bookshelf on our 2nd floor landing. It’s a mix of books: those I’ve bought in the last couple years because they looked interesting when I was feeling flush; a few from my collection I’d like to re-read; books my partner has read and thought I’d like; a couple loaners.

It’s maybe 20, maybe two dozen books. I read 100 books last year, so that pile should go pretty fast, right?

Not so much.

So far, what I’m finding is that if I’ve read a bit of a book and put it in the pile, I’ve put it in the pile because it’s slow going for whatever reason.

It means that so far, I’ve only picked two books off that pile. The first, Tommy Pico’s book-length poem Junk, was really good, though I didn’t find it as quickly engaging as Nature Poem, which I read last year. Still, Teebs is a great character, and each time I picked it up it was easier to roll into.

The second I just finished last night, and my god, I hauled myself through it. Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1878-1984 might have read better in 2005. Though that’s really giving him the benefit of the doubt. It’s racist. Mostly in that insidious way that’s more difficult to call out.* Great swaths of British postpunk bands steal heavily from reggae, lover’s rock, and dub, from disco and funk. Which is to say, from Black music. Reynolds lets the postpunk musicians speak for themselves, quotes them humble-bragging in interviews from the time about how they were only white person at reggae nights in London, but how they never felt unsafe even though. And Reyolds never puts any 2005 context around any of these comments from the late 70s and early 80s. I’d say he doesn’t talk about race, except he does, here and there; he just doesn’t think very deeply about it.

I care less about a genealogy of who played in which bands with what kind of guitar sounds than where those sounds came from, how they were used, and what that means culturally. I wish someone would write that book about that scene.

But I digress, at least a bit. It took me weeks to read that book, two or three. Many times, I thought to just put it down and give it up as DNF. But by the time the racism really came out as a pattern and I gave up on him addressing it, I’d already put a lot of effort into the book.

So I may need to be more generous with myself and less disciplined with my goal. I should have tossed Rip It Up over about half-way through. No one’s going to give me a prize for finishing that racist book.** No one cares if I actually finish the books on my landing or just quietly re-shelve them.

More generous, sure, but maybe more mindful would be better way of saying that. To keep in mind: Why am I reading this?

It took me a long time to read Junk too, because it’s written in stream-of-consciousness couplets dripping grief and dissociation. But I’m glad I pushed through that, and I’d do it again. In the end it challenged me in a good way, pushed my boundaries and my thoughts on love, loss and language, instead of just adding a bunch of names and dates to my already detail-saturated brain. And that’s an experience worth taking time for.

*Though not only, like the gem where he says that “Eskimos” kill unwanted girl children and are always putting old people out on ice floes to die. I mean, I know 2005 was a long time ago now, but come the fuck on.

**Also kind of sexist. Some of that is hard to help, since he’s describing a scene that has few women in it because sexism, but also, why in the hell did he start referring to women in the scene as “punkettes” in the last few chapters? Please, you’re kidding me, right. Right?

How to Read More

I’ll start with a definition. I’m using the word “book” pretty loosely and without judgement. A book can be an audio-book, an e-book, a slim volume of poetry, a 60-page graphic memoir, or a 500-page work of historical fiction. If you want to include magazines, include magazines. It’s your reading life! You make the rules! Be generous; there’s no point in being otherwise.

  1. Read whenever you can, for as much time as you’ve got. Don’t think you need to wait to start until you’ve got an empty half-hour: it will not magically appear. Read on your breaks for 5 minutes, at the bus stop for 10, while you’re brushing your teeth for 2. Pasta for dinner? You’ve got 15 minutes for water to boil and 12 minutes to cook. You may only get through a couple of pages, but that is two pages you hadn’t read before, and they build up faster than you’d think.
  2. Always carry a book. If you’re going to read whenever you can, you need to have a book to hand. Move from room to room with your book. Tuck it into a corner of your bag when you leave the house, even if you’re only going to the corner store. Waiting for a friend in a restaurant? Pull out your phone to open your e-reader.
  3. Don’t make reading a punishment. You don’t have to read every page; if an entry in a short-story collection is boring you, move on. If you hate the main character of a novel so much the book remains untouched by your bedside, chuck it and find something that makes your fingers itch to hold it.
  4. But do make it a challenge occasionally. Once you’ve got into the swing of reading back, try reading something you normally wouldn’t. Poetry, plays, science-fiction, non-fiction. Anything different. It’ll keep you from getting bored with what you normally read. And if you find you really don’t like that something new after you’ve started, see number three.
  5. Don’t say you’re going to cut x out to make more time. If you try to force yourself away from Facebook to read, you’ll only resent reading. Instead, make reading your priority, and you’ll figure out pretty quickly what can easily fall to the wayside to make time for just one more page.
  6. Don’t count if you don’t want to. Numbers aren’t everything. For lots of people, they’re really motivating, so count away if that’s you. But if what you love to read is a thick tome of modernist literature, or complicated science fiction that takes 200 pages just to set up a whole new world, you simply can’t get through the quantity of books you could if what you liked instead was poetry or graphic novels. All of it is valid reading. If you need to count, try counting pages, not books

Following these basic guidelines, I read 104 books in 2018, which is about 84 more books than I’d read in any of the previous 5 years. The number makes me proud, I’m not going to lie. But more importantly, my brain is stronger and more plastic, my attention span has increased, and I feel like a more empathetic person. You don’t need to read 100 books to get that. Just more.

The Power, by Naomi Alderman

First book down of 2019. I was actually hoping to finish it on Dec 31, 2018, but wine and charcuterie took priority that night. No matter, it was a great way to kick off 2019.

The Power is one of those books that fogged my brain into its universe as I was reading it. You know, one of those books that rewires synapses so that your world is overlaid with the fictional world from which you have to tear yourself away to do non-fictional human things like buy groceries, shower, and answer (repeated) direct questions from your partner.

The basic premise is that women have developed a new power to generate and release electricity. A tingle across the skin for pleasure, or a bolt to the temples to kill. Women are suddenly and consistently more physically powerful than men, and the book traces how that plays out. It’s set mainly over a 10-years period leading up to the Cataclysm, and follows 4 main characters as they react to, and shape, this new world.

The language is sharp, the story moves along swiftly but not carelessly, and the main characters are so engagingly written that you root for all of them, all the way through the plot.

What elevates The¬†Power narratively is that the basic premise I mention above isn’t actually the book. The story I outline above is actually a manuscript of historical fiction written by a historian named Neil, who’s tired of the lack of audience for his serious books. He’s sent the manuscript to Naomi, his mentor, for advice, and it’s their letters that frame the story. She finds the male soldiers and gangs described in the old world preposterous, since men are clearly the softer and weaker sex. Women need to be strong to protect their children, so you see that’s only natural, and couldn’t possibly have been another way.

Without this framing, the book would have been an engrossing read; with it, the political commentary is amped up a couple more astute notches.

I loved this book without qualification. For the first half, I felt stronger than every man I saw on the street, and felt a glorious “YES! FUCK YOU!” pulsing in a cloud around me, instead of my general woman-walking-outside vigilance. As the book progressed, and the tide turns, that feeling wilted and rotted on the vine, and I felt slightly nauseous at seeing who I could easily have become. I think Alderman would be pleased.

My 2018 Top 9

Looking back over my Goodreads, I had a really good run of reading in 2018. Of the 104 books I read, I gave 24 a five-star rating. That seems like a pretty high proportion – for comparison, I gave only one book a two-star rating.*

I was really lucky, maybe, or really smart in taking recommendations, or perhaps so excited about reading again that every book seemed like something special. No matter, it worked in favour of my enjoyment.

Narrowing the 24 to 9 wasn’t easy. Getting down to 12 was okay – some fives are more five-y than others. Cutting those last three was painful, though. Which means, for you, that I have actually really thought about why these 9 books are there. They’ve maybe stuck with me through months, or changed the way I think about things permanently, or used language so perfectly attenuated to its purpose that they left me in a fog while I was reading them.

Highly recommended, all of them.

Black Wave, by Michelle Tea
It’s 1999 and Michelle Tea is getting sober while the world ends. But sometimes it’s not 1999? Sometimes the person she’s dating has been gone a long time, sometimes they haven’t even met. It is funny and grim, with Tea’s eye for the telling detail. I read a lot of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction this year, but this was the only one with a queer twist. It was an early entry for me, and remains one of my favourites because of

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, by Daniel Heath Justice
I’m glad I read this before I decided to read 100 books, because I read zero non-fiction after that decision, and not reading this would have been a loss. The brillance of using the literatures of various cultures means that Heath is able to draw out some generalizations without ever having to say “Indigenous people believe this.” There’s always another story from another culture to add nuance to a concept, and to move away from reducing hundreds of cultures to “Indigenous culture.” It didn’t add to my knowledge of historical facts, but explained some incredibly important ????

Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis
For months after reading this book I couldn’t look at a dog without giving it a voice of one of the dogs that Alexis so carefully draws. The conceit, that the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo have given dogs human reasoning, could get tired, or seem trite, but it never did. I recommended it to some dog-lover friends of mine, and then almost immediately took that back, because the world of dogs and gods is not kind.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
The only historical fiction on this list, and, to be honest, the only historical fiction I read during the year. Generally not my thing, but Homegoing blew away all my pre-/mis-conceptions. Spanning several hundred years, it tells the story of Ghana, of the US, of wars and slavery, through short chapters narrated by of the descendants of one woman, Maame. Gyasi is stunningly able to bring all the characters to life. If you dislike short stories, this may not be for you, since each chapter stands on its own, as well as building the central narrative; an absorbing read for the rest of us.

Brother, by David Chariandry
Heartbreaking. The story is set around Michael and his older brother Francis, though it is the return of Aisha, Michael’s childhood sweetheart, who sets the waves of memory and regret to crossing and re-crossing each other. Michael’s love and awe of his brother is captured perfectly, the fear he feels for his mother as a child is tempered with an adult’s understanding of what it would have been like for her to immigrate from Trinidad to Canada.

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson
I’m a huge fan of magic realism, and Robinson wields a deft hand in its use here. Jared is a regular 16-year old, except for the fact that ravens speak to him and otters with human hands try to eat his appendages. He gets by with humour, booze and drugs, and the love of a witchy woman. Robinson’s writing isn’t flashy, but lets the story shine through. I’ve got the next installment in the trilogy on my library holds list.

Little Fish, by Casey Plett
Set in Winnipeg in November and December, Little Fish follows Wendy Reimer, a thirty-year-old trans woman, as she grapples with her Oma’s death, her Opa’s sexuality, love, booze, work, and the ups and downs of being part of a small queer community. Wendy is so clearly drawn that I spent most of the book wanting to hug her or cheer her on. Winnipeg is written with a vibrant love. I loved Plett’s collection of short stories, A Safe Girl to Love, and am very much looking forward to whatever comes next.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
Another magic realism entry for the list. Few books make me want to curl around them and cry, but this one did. It’s a story centred around 13-year old Jojo and the ghosts he sees, some of them flesh-and-blood, some as apparitions. Every one in his family hurts and loves and tries their best and fails and tries, and Ward captures this with a wide eye, and an empathy that allows her perception to move through characters like breath.

Heart Berries: A Memoir, by Terese Marie Mailhot
Sometimes you love a book because it is comforting. Sometimes because it’s completely new, and sometimes because it breaks open something you thought was set within you and shows you where to go. Heart Berries is the latter for me. Mailhot’s writing, for me, evokes Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in all its poetic and incandescent, slightly melodramatic glory. Feel things! Feel them to their edges and write them down, especially where they hurt. Heart Berries and By Grand Central cover some of the same ground, in that both are centred around the love for unworthy men, but Mailhot doesn’t shy away from her place in the world as an Indigenous woman: how she sees herself, how the world sees her, and how she sees herself through the world. A brilliant, emotional read.

*It was Parker Posey’s You’re On An Airplane. With her? No thanks.

Book Goals

At the start of 2018, my goal was to read more. I’d been “a reader” for most of my life, but then… I dunno. Social media happened? Work stress happened? Something unclicked, and my reading had become mostly scrolling. 

Last January, I didn’t set a specific number of books as my goal. I didn’t want to be disappointed in myself if I didn’t meet it. One advantage to being in your 40s is knowing yourself better than you have before, and I know without a doubt that the higher the chance of me failing something, the higher the chance of me just giving up. Something to work on, yeah, but one of the ways I work on it is by working around it.

So: read more. Given that I’d read less than a book a month for the last several years, that felt like a goal easily accomplished.

It was clear by the spring that I had been successful. By July, I was reading a pretty steady 2 books per week: that’s when I thought maybe I’d shoot for 100 books in 2018. 

I hit that goal on Dec 24th, with Blue is the Warmest Color, and it felt fucking good.

That said, I’m not sure I’ll set a number on next year. Having a number definitely changed how I chose books. More graphic novels, for instance. Now, I really like graphic novels, but I don’t gravitate to them naturally. More e-books, so that if I felt the need to look at my phone, I could read instead of scroll. Less non-fiction, shorter fiction. A work friend also loaned me a Elena Ferrante novel in September, and my reaction was “Do you need this back before 2019? Because I am not going to hit a 100 books if I read that thing this fall.”

So: 2019. I will continue to Read More. Maybe not in numbers, but in time spent not scrolling.