It has been a less than satisfactory reading year, 2012. At the end of 2011 I set myself just two challenges: one to read from the TBR, two to read 60 books. I know that 60 books doesn't sound like a lot to some people - those of you who read 100, 150, even 200 a year. But for me, recently at least, 60 is quite ambitious. Gone are the years when I read 100 myself; I try, but alas.
I'm used to failure on the reading resolution front. I started blogging about them in 2007 and I haven't met a single one, although I've had fun trying. This year I've read just 48 books (so far; four currently on the go), 12 short of my target and four less than last year. And 12 of the 48 were from my TBR, which is an inversion of what I was aiming at. I've maintained the higher rate of male-female writers - 16 to 32 - that I managed last year. I bombed out on the translated fiction stakes, with no books in translation. And, worst of the worst, I hardly wrote about any of my reading here. I even contemplated giving up on blogging altogether, so monumental was my writers block.
Of the books I did read, many fewer of them than usual were in the wonder-gasp-wonder category that we're always hoping. Unlike previous years I don't feel able to do a 10 or even 8 of the best, just 3, plus some notable mentions. These three are great books though, and worth rereading again and again.
Absolutely the book of the year for me. No surprises for you there, since you know what a devotee I am of Wolf Hall. It was the kind of read that ruined me for months afterwards, in much the same way that Wolf Hall did in 2009 and Independent People in 2011. I don't think I can resist rereading it this year. What a high standard Mantel has set herself for The Mirror and the Light, the third book in her Cromwell trilogy! I heard her interviewed at the Hay Festival in May (along with 1000 other people in a cavernous tent) and was impressed as ever by her determination to be true to history at the same time as being devoted to her characters as fiction. I think the success of the novels is in her understanding that these things don't have to be mutually exclusive. I also read a good close-up on her in the New Yorker recently (my boss passed it on to me, because he knows how much I admire her. 'I didn't know she was mad as a bag of frogs,' he said). In it she talks about how she brings one character a day into her study, invites them to sit down on an empty chair (an actual chair, placed there for the purpose) and asks them questions. I don't ordinarily hold with the 'they just speak to me' school of character development, but I believe it of Mantel. I believe she does speak to Thomas Cromwell. I almost believe he speaks back.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
I read some of the essays in this book three times. Jamie's view of the natural world is lyrically precise, or perhaps precisely lyrical. She is best when she writes about birds, especially sea birds. When she writes about the alchemy of bird, sky and sea, it seems like she is writing about something essential that we should all understand. It makes me look up, watch for wings. It makes me think that a pair of binoculars would be an especially good gift. It's a cliche to say that the book invites you to discover a different way of seeing, but it's undeniable. Jamie also has a way of slipping the everyday-isms of life into her extraodinary expeditions into nature. Picking the children up from school, taking her car to the garage, washing the dishes. I'm reading her first essay collection Findings right now, and I can see why there were raves about it when it first came out. I can also see why nature writing is important writing. I'm looking forward to trying her poetry, and also branching out with some other books about birds. I have my eyes on The Peregrine by J.A. Baker; apparently he spent ten years lying in roadside ditches, watching, just watching.
I read four novels by South African writers about South Africa this year: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and Flanery's debut. I admired them all very much, but this was (for me) the best. It was complex, striving, determined, morally confused, bereft of certainty. In this sense it was unlike Brink and Paton, writing before the end of apartheid, with a clarity about what was right, what was necesary, for South Africa. It was one of the few books I wrote a proper post on this year (as was Paton's Cry...), and I'm glad because writing about a book always helps me to remember its particular intricacies. I wish I could motivate myself to write more somehow.
Which brings me to my reading resolutions for 2013. Usually I write a seperate post about these, but they're so simple this year that there doesn't seem to be much of a point. What I really want to write about is books, not my resolutions to read books.
The first thing I want to do, really want to do, is read more. I don't necessarily mean read more books, although that would be a welcome side effect. I'd just like to set myself some reading time each day - an hour, say - when I discipline myself to read. I say 'discipline' not in a shackle-myself-to-a-book sort of way, but in a procrastinating-is-not-an-option sort of way. The amount of time I waste on my iPhone, for example, or watching rubbish food television is all procrastination, meaningful reading time wasted. When I do sit myself down in the quiet and take an hour, I feel so much better about my reading and more completely present in it.
I've read a lot over the Christmas break so far, and more to come. It has been such an enormous pleasure, in the morning with a cup of tea sat up in bed, and then in the late afternoon while dinner is in the oven with a glass of wine. I'm not reading quickly, but in a much more engaged sort of way. This is what I want to recreate in the new year.
Blog once a week. Simple as that. I've had some dark blogging moments in 2012, and have given up on Alexandria for a month or more several times. I uhmed and ahhed about retiring from it altogether in the summer, but could never quite bring myself to do it. My innate contrariness meant that as soon as I decided to pack it all in, I was overwhelmed by the desire to write a post and back I came.
I wrote my first post at Alexandria on 18th February 2006 (it was about a medieval history monograph on old age!), almost 7 years ago. Back then the book blogging community was small, especially in the UK, and I felt entirely at home in it. Now it is huge, diverse and wonderful, a city rather than a village. But at the same time as the blogging world got bigger, the frequency of my blogging decreased from once every other day, to once a week, to once a month and then less. The frequency of my comments on other blogs also went down, and the circle of blogs that I read remained quite static.
I always wanted to use Alexandria to chat about books, so I don't know why it was that I started making posting such heavy work. No wonder I don't want to write when it takes me 3 hours a time. Previous attempts at being succinct have failed - in fact, the more I've said I want to post, the less I've actually posted, although I did make a good attempt at weekly posting at the beginning of last year. The key, I think, is not to overwork my writing, and to make myself write something even when I don't feel like it. (This is also connected to another determination: to write about the books that I'm kindly sent by publishers. I do still get review copies and I feel awful about the low number I eventually write about, although I read quite a lot of them.)
So yes, blog at least once a week. Don't spend more than 2 hours on it. Oh, and read more blogs and new blogs, and comment. I love hearing about new book bloggers. If you have favourites that aren't in our sidebar, do let me know about them.
See you in the New Year!