A look back at the pages I’ve perused these past 12 months.
I’m glancing at the collected stack of books that I finished reading over this last year and thinking that it doesn’t compare well with 2016. It seems that I slacked off rather significantly in the books-read department. (And who even knows what happened to 2017’s reading? I don’t.)
I blame the shortfall on having restarted my lapsed New Yorker subscription — and, even there, I’m fully two months behind, though there’s a certain smug satisfaction in reading about the “upcoming” midterms from the safe space of knowing the outcome — as well as on my unhealthy compulsion to scroll through the latest executive-branch outrages on Twitter.
Certainly, many readers are more voracious than I. My friend Carrie Callaghan keeps a lovely book diary to track her reading, and well she might: at her November Politics and Prose book launch for debut novel A Light of Her Own, Carrie told interviewer Tayla Burney that she was “currently reading several books.” No way I’m keeping up with that.
But skimpy as it may have been, I enjoyed what I read this year. Much of it was reading for review, or in preparation for an interview or to moderate a panel, though I managed to shoehorn in a few just for myself. About a third of what I read was nonfiction. I was able to snag a couple of the “big” releases for review, but most were on the quieter side.
Also, as I look at my physical and virtual book stack, it occurs to me: What I buy during the year and what I read during the year are rarely correlative.
Because I have an unwritten rule that I can’t go into an independent bookstore without buying something — and I don’t mean socks or a notepad — I chronically add titles to my to-be-read stack without any hope of having time to read them (or a place to put them).
With few exceptions, any new releases that I read are for review. Here’s what I reviewed in 2018, either for the Independent or for Late Last Night Books:
- A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice by William E. Glassley (reviewed here)
- Carry Her Home: Stories by Caroline Bock (reviewed here)
- Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to Democracy by Marvin Kalb (reviewed here)
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (reviewed here)
- Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens (reviewed here)
- Hard Cider by Barbara Stark-Nemon (reviewed here)
- Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings by Tom Shippey (reviewed here)
- Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates (reviewed here)
- The New Inheritors by Kent Wascom (reviewed here)
- The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations by John McCain and Mark Salter (reviewed here)
- The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen (reviewed here)
- Votes for Women: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling (reviewed here)
- Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman (reviewed here)
- Where Did You Get This Number? A Pollster’s Guide to Making Sense of the World by Anthony Salvanto (reviewed here)
Debut authors continue to impress, and not just because I know many of the authors whose debuts I’ve read this year. (And just because I read them this year doesn’t mean they actually debuted this year; in several cases, I’m either behind or ahead.)
I’ll mention that I’m also looking forward to participating once again as a judge in the National Book Critics Circle annual John Leonard Prize for an author’s first book-length project; those debuts are some of the strongest works I read all year. But they’ll be on my 2019 list.
- A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan (reviewed here)
- A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre (reviewed here)
- Cottonmouths by Kelly J. Ford
- Don't Wait to Be Called by Jacob R. Weber (reviewed here)
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- Float Plan by Rob Hiaasen
- Flood by Melissa Scholes Young (reviewed here)
- Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
- Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (due out April 2019)
- Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College by Caroline Kitchener
- White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf (due out March 2019)
There is a place for e-books — not a big place, but a place. Like many dedicated readers, I will never get over my preference for reading a physical book, which, as I noted in my 2016 review of Keith Houston’s The Book, “is not a commodity but an experience, a full-on feast of the senses, a tactile joy. Try putting that in your iPad.”
Nonetheless, when you’re heading on a trip that demands limited luggage, that e-reader earns a little hallelujah for packing a lot of reading joy into a tiny footprint. On my Kindle this year, I read:
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- The Library Book by Susan Orlean
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
- Secessia by Kent Wascom
- Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
And the few remaining that fit in none of the other categories:
- The Night of the Flood: A Novel in Stories, edited by E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen
- Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk
- What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt
If I had to pick a personal favorite for 2018, it’s The Library Book, in no small part because of Susan Orlean’s resonant description of what must be the universal source of any person’s love of books: childhood visits to the library. (Trust me that I get the irony that I bought an e-reader version of this book.) If you missed Kitty Kelly’s incandescent review, do yourself a favor and read it, then go check out your own hard copy of Orlean’s latest at the local library.
But wait: I’m not finished reading for the year. I’ve got four weeks left! If I were a betting person, I’d bet that I will finish at least two more — these two ARCs that arrived in the mail just recently:
- The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide by Julián Herbert (translated by Christina MacSweeney)
- The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay
Perhaps one of them will become my new favorite for 2018. I’ll let you know.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and writes a column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She served as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Washington Writers Conference, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers Association.