A Year of Reading

I read 203 books in 2011, or, on average, a little more than one book every two days. You would think I would be burnt out, and I am a little, but, as trials go, it was strictly Judge Wapner presiding. Small stuff. (I don’t want you to think I’ve got a big head or anything (I do, but only in the literal sense — can’t wear hats).)

I think the first one was Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom. You’ll forgive me, I’m sure — when you’ve read that many books in a year, you tend to forget certain things. Book number 100, for instance: was it Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station? Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree? Francis Levy’s Seven Days in Rio? Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass? Brian Oliu’s So You Know It’s Me? Couldn’t tell you. I’d take any one of them for a sawbuck. I do know what book 203 was: Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. But then, I’ve just finished it. The only reason I am able to give you a number is that Goodreads has helpfully number-crunched and cataloged this year’s reading for me. (“Helpful” in that it will theoretically keep me from rereading a book so bad I can’t even remember reading it.) It began with simple curiosity — I wondered how many books I had read in 2010, but there was no way to find out retroactively (no way appealing to a, let’s say, “efficient” man like myself). Maybe I read more in 2010. I doubt it. Emboldened by that number at the top of my browser’s pane, I figured, what the hell, I’ll give myself a goal. I’m not normally much of a goal man — I’m too superstitious for them (blame it on something; I haven’t got the time). Naturally, as a “not normally much of a goal man,” my goal was to read… some number of books in 2011 — I don’t like to put numbers on things, either, I guess. But by March 1, I had read sixty books. (Slightly) more than a book a day. I figured, why, at this rate, I could read 300 books this year! 350! 365! But why on Earth would I do that to myself? 200 seemed a goodly and noble amount. And so I set off.

[A note about that Goodreads list — I will admit to a certain amount of inflation. Mistakes were made. There are a handful of things there that I would not consider “books” (I mean no disrespect to their authors; I just mean that an occasional story or essay slipped in there as a book — nobody’s perfect, and neither is Goodreads). I made up for those, though: I didn’t count the books I reread, and Goodreads’s database isn’t comprehensive. There are also the thousands of manuscript pages I read this year that may never appear on Goodreads. To their authors I say: I hope to add your books soon, and not because it will mean that I get to say I read 215 (or whatever) books in 2011.]

Given the lack of a tiresome bullet-pointed list or a facile “Best of My Reading Year 2011” (Happy Holidays, everybody!) here, you’re probably thinking I read 203 books just so I could write this post, but no, you’ve got it the wrong way around, Jack. I’d feel a little cheated: I read 203 books in a year and all I got is this lousy post? That’s the wrong way to look at it.

I read more poetry than I ever have before (I put that first in this enumeration of pros because, to me, it is the best thing to come out of this ill-conceived endeavor). I read many books I owned but had never read (and might never have read; that’s the way it goes — some of us get picked for kickball, some of us stay on the sidelines). I read a number of books I wouldn’t have “had time for” otherwise. (I tend to read in preparation for, um, everything, I think, but especially for writing. This year, though, I let that go and read for “pleasure” (if by pleasure you mean “a goal” — it was undirected reading, which is rare for me, is I guess what I’m saying). I read nothing because I “had to.”) I was very green.

You see, every hour I spent reading was an hour I did not spend writing. I realize this will probably sound a little disingenuous coming from someone with two forthcoming books, but some writers write too damn much. I’m not interested in being one of those writers. Read more, I want to tell them. Or, you know, do stuff (I don’t, so, you know, don’t go by me). Logorrhea is a real thing, ladies and gentlemen. You, or someone you know, may have it. If we’re all so busy writing books that we don’t stop to read them, well, uh, what’s the point of writing more? On occasion, I felt like some AWP avenger, swooping in and reading books only a dozen other people had read. Not that I expect a medal or anything.

So I wrote very little this year. I finished a draft of a novel near the end of 2010. At the beginning of 2012, I will still be working on the next draft of that novel (and it’s a very short novel). I wrote three or four short stories, some very short. I wrote two book reviews. I think that’s it. That kind of sounds like a lot. Hmm. Well, I spent my writing time reading, anyway. I don’t how all that writing got done. I have no excuse.

In 2012, I won’t have a goal. Or my goal will be to NOT read 200 books. I would very much like to do some writing (yeah, yeah, I know what I wrote above — I can read, you know). I would also like to reread some books. I would like to give myself the luxury of taking the time to read the books I do read with care, to reread them if necessary. Before this post devolves into treacle, I’ll just say that I’m glad I read 203 books in 2011. And I will never, ever do it again.

2 thoughts on “A Year of Reading

  1. Gabe! Your years sounds JUST like my year. I felt I’d written enough, that I needed to slow down, and really take time out for the work of my fellow writers–and I read more poetry, too! At AWP I bought the entire Black Ocean and Wave catalogues and read them all hungrily and my writing has improved because of it, I swear. My writing ALWAYS improves when I take a lot of time to read. I mean of course, right? I so agree–I know it sounds weird but I think we ALL need to write less and publish less and read more. I’ll give you a medal in my head for doing so. :)

  2. Thank you for writing that, Amber– I probably sound like I think I’m doing writers a favor by reading their books. Really, of course, we both know that it’s the other way around. That’s why there are pretty much just pros here– the one con is arguable: that I wrote less than I might have? Some people reading this will probably join me in thinking that is a pro.

    And thanks for the medal! My first award since T-Ball, I think.

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