The defining authors of my year of reading. Because it’s my list.
End of year lists go in the box with things that we like but have to pretend we’re tired of, like new podcasts, superhero movies, and reality TV. And so when someone on some platform puts together a list with the best, worst, most memorable, etc., of the year, sometimes it’s delivered with a rueful self-awareness, like “Sorry to bother with you with another one of these but please hear what I think.” Likewise, it seems we sometimes receive these with an eye roll, sighing and saying “Okay, well, I guess I could see how your end of year list differs ever so slightly from the five other lists I’ve read today.” And still, people write them and people read them, and I think we all actually enjoy it.
This year I’ve been seeing a lot of lists of what people read in 2018. In addition to the numerous “Best Books of 2018” lists, there are many posts about “The Best Books I Read in 2018.” This is a very different kind of list, and my first impulse is to say these lists are a way to boast about how well-read the author is. “Look at me and the 100 books I read ranging from Greek philosophy to Cormac McCarthy!” Yes you’re very smart. Shut up. It also seems like a way for someone to get in on the end of year thing without actually having a sufficient grasp of current culture, like that person who is going to talk about their best films of the year without having seen Burning, The Favourite, or Minding the Gap.
But you know what? I think these lists, while not accomplishing the same thing as a conventional “Best Of,” are defensible and even of similar value. For starters, I get the impulse to share what you’ve been reading because reading is for many the most isolated culture we engage with. By that I mean many of us read a book without expectation of talking about it with someone else, while it’s a little maddening to watch a film or television show and have no one to talk about it with. But, even without the expectation of discussing the book, that sort of solo work eventually takes a toll, and you want someone to know what you think about the things you’ve been reading. So I get that.
Furthermore, trying to get any sort of grasp of the year in books is a fool’s errand, and any year-end list is going to leave out entire genres and fan bases. It’s worth reviewing the year’s trends, rising authors, and groundbreaking works, but, even more than with film and television (and even music), trying to wrangle a culture’s year of books is bound to be seriously flawed. And, because of the great volume of books that come out every year, these lists, too, will be “personal,” as no one is able to sufficiently cover everything. Personalized lists of books across the years, then, provide an alternative. These bibliographies tell a story about one person’s year of reading, and through that specificity they have the capacity to make more meaningful connections to the people reading those lists. They give a picture of what one person actually read. I care more about what my friend read this year than what “everyone” supposedly was reading this year. The books my friend read will stay with them, while the “Year’s Best” might not stand the test of even a little time.
Given the lasting power of good books, isn’t that just as fair a summary of the year in books as one limited to books released this year? I think it might be.
So all of that is a preface to my own list, which is actually a list of authors. I read many more books and authors than I list here, but these are the four authors who most affected my year of reading. I’d like to say a little about each of them.
Per Petterson(Out Stealing Horses, I Refuse, I Curse the River of Time, It’s Fine By Me, To Siberia, In the Wake, Ashes in My Mouth Sand in My Shoes)
One of Norway’s most celebrated writers became one of my absolute favorites this year. His novels blend together ordinary everyday experiences with dramatic, life-changing moments to great emotional effect. He writes with profound wisdom and emotional perception while remaining unassuming, and his style is simple and straightforward while allowing for flourishes. There’s lots of cold weather, cigarette smoking, and family troubles. He writes the way I wish I could, and I’m a little obsessed with his aesthetic. I’ll be revisiting his works for the rest of my life while looking forward to what he writes next (and trying to get hold of a copy of Echoland). If you’re interested in getting introduced, I’d recommend starting with Out Stealing Horses or I Refuse.
Jeff Vandermeer (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
This only covers three short books, but these recent works of science-fiction were a highlight of my year reading. The first book, Annihilation, is one of the better books I’ve ever read, and while Authority and Acceptance are not quite as good, the world, story, and stakes Vandermeer creates are compelling enough to make you have to read to find out what happens, even if Annihilation works as a standalone novel. The style of Annihilation is simple, yet haunting and affecting, and its narrative perspective and subject matter has made me think a lot about the relationship between our inner selves and the outside world. I don’t know if I will seek out more of his work (although Borne is on the list), but this trilogy had a profound impact on me.
George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire)
Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows, and while waiting for a new season I found myself wanting to spend more time in that world. So I did, reading all five books over the course of the last year, and now I too am waiting with a little impatience for the next book (I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have been with the series from the very beginning). Yes, these books are violent, sexually explicit, and prone to killing off characters, but they’re also just really, really good. The world building is stunning, the characters are phenomenal, and the story is addictive. And they’re smart, which I think a lot of people don’t know. Fire and Blood, a work related to ASoIaF written like a history rather than a novel, is next on my list now that I finally got through the waitlist at the library.
J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien, The Fall of Gondolin, The Children of Húrin)
I have been a Tolkien fan for a long time, and while I’ve watched the films regularly since they were released, I had not read any of the book since I was a child. I thought it was time to revisit them. I did more than that, reading the recent releases edited by Christopher Tolkien and going back to works I had never got around to, like The Silmarillion. He’s just the freaking man, you guys. I already want to read The Lord of the Rings again, because, while his world-building is an unfathomable accomplishment, he’s also a legitimately great storyteller. FOH with that nonsense about this works being boring. One main takeaway for me reading these works was how good The Children of Húrin is, not just as a great tale, but as a compelling, thought-provoking work of literature. Critics say Tolkien’s characters are too simple, that his world is too black and white. Not so with this one. It’s darker than most of his other works, and features complex characters in tough situations. Really, guys: he’s just the freaking man.
(Speaking of freaking men, yeah these authors are all (white) men. So that’s not ideal, and while I promise you I do read women and POC, it’s a goal of mine to be a little more diverse in my selections. It’s important.)
So there’s my list. I’ll leave you with three quotes from A Song of Ice and Fire about reading:
Tyrion: “I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”
Rodrik: I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood.
Asha: Do you want to die old and craven in your bed?
Rodrik: How else? Though not till I’m done reading.
Jojen: The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria