2018: My Year in Books

Ramon Casas i Carbó’s After the Ball, one of the images featured in Stefan Bollman’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous

When I was in second grade, my teacher held a contest to see who could read the most books in a month. She hadn’t set any rules about the kind of books that counted, and I quickly realized I could rack up my tally by opting for short books that were meant for younger children. Little Golden Books, which were sold near the checkout at our local grocery store, Food World, were just that sort of book. My mother, perhaps relieved I was begging for books instead of candy bars, indulged me. I won the contest handily.

This year, short books have once again dominated my reading. I could blame Twitter for strip mining my attention span, but whatever the reason, I credit short books for getting me over a mid-year reading hump. First to break the impasse was writer and activist Sara Marchant’s novella, The Driveway Has Two Sides, which I devoured in a weekend. After that Nancy Mitford’s slim comedy of manners, The Pursuit of Love, gave me a British fix full of interesting women navigating the period between world wars. Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams was the perfect choice for October—not exactly a ghost story but a spooky masterpiece in 116 pages. Olivia Laing’s much-talked about contemporary novel Crudo wasn’t as enjoyable as I hoped but was more than curious enough to sustain its 133 pages. I had moved onto Deborah Levy’s brief, excellent memoir (the second of a trio) about womanhood and writing, The Cost of Living, before it dawned on me that my recent run on reading had been fueled almost entirely by books under 200-pages long. 

Not surprisingly, essay collections that bring the satisfaction of completing something in a handful of pages have also featured in my reading list for the year. David Sedaris’s Calypso provided the expected dose of wince-inducing humor as well as stark, raw writing about his family. The “Best American” series of anthologies produced its first ever edition on food writing (what took so long?), including one of my favorite tweeters and food writer at The New Yorker, Helen Rosner, and the late great Jonathan Gold, plus exposing me to terrific pieces by Tejal Rao, Lauren Michelle Jackson, and Khushbu Shah. I’m currently dipping in and out of Human Relations & Other Difficulties, a collection of pieces by London Review of Books editor and woman-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up, Mary-Kay Wilmers.

My peak good-things-come-in-small-packages literary moment was when I bought a dwarsligger edition of a John Green novel. Dwarsligger is the Dutch term for a deck-of-cards-sized horizontal book, a format that’s popular in the Netherlands. I had no desire to read a YA novel, but I was curious to know if the form factor delivered on the promise of one-handed reading, and the concept was being tested in America with reissues of Green’s books. A New York Times article had likened turning a dwarsligger’s page to “swiping a smartphone,” but my hopes for tricking my brain into replacing my Twitter addiction were quickly dashed. Reading a dwarsligger was decidedly a two-handed experience, and mine is being re-purposed as a stocking stuffer for my tweenie niece. Maybe she’ll get it.

Vintage Trailer Rally Happiness

At the other end of the size spectrum, 2018 was the year I started buying coffee table books. I suspect this might be an indicator as telling as my reading glasses that I’m utterly middle-aged, but I enjoyed buying books I felt no particular obligation to read. These included Vintage Camper Trailer Rallies, a purchase that foreshadowed my husband’s and my purchase of a 1959 Shasta, complete with silver wings and an avocado-upholstered banquette. We even attended our very first vintage trailer rally, but as visitors rather than campers. Turns out getting a camping slot in these events is more challenging than getting past the bouncer at Berghain. Still, the visual feast of a day visit was well worth the trip.

Not content with physical objects, 2018 was also the year I delved deeper into book-related podcasts. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is my favorite for reading-while-walking, and Harriett Gilbert’s A Good Read is just my favorite. New, welcome discoveries were Between the Covers and Literary Friction, the latter of which featured an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, writer of my favorite full-length novel of the year, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I liked it so much I wrote about it here, as I did with my other favorite novel of the year, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Oh, and I’d hate to leave out my other other favorite novel I read this year, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m looking forward to delving back into the Between the Covers archive to listen to the interview with him.

My year in books unwittingly extended itself to film, too. My favorites all have some connection to books, like Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the late writer Lee Israel’s memoir about how, when down on her luck, she began to forge letters by authors like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are a delight in it. I also loved the post-Hundred-Acre-Wood Christopher Robin starring Ewan McGregor. For sheer froth, it doesn’t get dishier than the documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, based on a memoir by Scotty Bowers about his role arranging liaisons for gay actors and celebrities in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, watching the film adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife (with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce) made me feel less bad that I haven’t managed to read her 2018 novel that showed up on almost every best-books-of-this-year listThe Female Persuasion.

What I hate most about those best-books-of-the-year lists is how they all come out in November or early December, well-timed for encouraging holiday gift purchases of books, but almost crass in their dismissal of the possibility December might bring. I, for one, am not giving up on my reading for the year yet and just bought National Book Award-winner Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. At a mere 212 pages, I’m pretty sure I can fit it in before the year’s out, which will bring my tally of books read for the year to twenty. The pleasure I get from reading is far beyond a number on a list, but twenty is pleasingly round and the second grader in me is grinning at the prospect of hitting it. 

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  • Cal Gough
    January 2, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks for the list! Interesting sounding titles here that I’ve duly added to my hopelessly lengthy To Be Read list. Thanks for describing them so interestingly!