Monday, January 4, 2016

2015: My Year in Books



In 2014, I made the audacious reading goal of 200 books thinking I probably wouldn't hit it. Somehow, I did. This year, I shrank my goal back to 175, thinking I would never again find the time to read 200 books in a calendar year. I'm as shocked as anyone else to come to the end of 2015 and discover that I actually read 206 books this past year. Apparently, in working to reach my goal in 2014, I shifted my reading habits and never shifted them back. So... I guess 200 is my yearly baseline now?

Whatever the reason, this year's increase in titles gives us a lot of ground to cover. Without further dithering, I offer a quick analysis of my year in books.


2015: My Year in Books


Total number of books read: 206
Total number of pages read: 61,553
Average book length by pages: 305
Average pages read per day: 169
Average books read per week: 4
Longest book of 2015: Winter, by Marissa Meyer, 824 pages.

Not only did I hit a higher book count than ever before, but I also read more non-fiction than fiction for the first time in my life. Of the 206 books I read this year, 87 were fiction, while 119 were non-fiction.

Breakdown by Category:

Theology/Bible Study/Spirituality: 24 Books

Most of the year's standout reads in this category came from Tim Keller. I'd read one of his books last year (Encounters with Jesus), greatly appreciated it, and decided to work my way through any of his books that I could get my hands on. Throughout all seven of these reads, I learned to appreciate Keller's thoughtfulness, deep exegesis, and Christocentric focus. Each book challenged and comforted me to various degrees, but Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work spoke most accurately to my current struggles.

I also greatly appreciated Russell Moore's book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, a call to end the hand-wringing and hair clutching in favor of marching forward with Jesus into the future that He has foreordained. Moore has an engaging style and neat turn of phrase, making his book as readable as it is challenging. "Keep Christianity Strange," indeed.

General Adult Fiction: 23 Books

I finally caved to years worth of recommendations and read Lief Enger's Peace Like a River. I want to thank everyone who kept recommending this book: it's everything you said it would be. The story is unexpected, finely-drawn, and above all, starkly real. Even the "unreal" elements of the plot feel grounded. I appreciate Enger's handling of spiritual elements, and I learned to adore Swede like I haven't adored a character in a long time. She's definitely the runner up for my favorite new character of 2015.

Young Adult Fiction: 21 Books

My YA reading really took a dip this year (in previous years it was always my top category). This is partially because I purposefully diversified, and partially because I've developed some ambivalence toward the genre in general. Lately it just seems that the YA machine has churned out more than its fair share of overly-hyped duds. Or maybe I'm just bad at picking which ones to read. Who knows.

One notable exception would be Stacey Lee's Under a Painted Sky. This book hit all of my sweet spots: a tightly-knit plot, well-textured characters, believable story developments, strong friendships, heart-twisting romance, and a denouement that packed a punch straight to the feels.

History: 17 Books

For whatever reason, this year I developed an overmastering obsession with polar exploration and arctic disasters, reading seven books on these subjects alone. Ironically enough, I read most of these during the infernal heat of Florida summer. Standout reads in this category include Alone on the Ice: the Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts and In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeanette by Hampton Sides. I must admit that I read Roberts's book just to see if it could live up to its grandiose title (it did), and I read Sides's book to see just how terrible the voyage of the U.S.S. Jeanette really was (so, so terrible). I regret nothing.

Aside from polar exploration and Arctic disasters, of special note was Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. This book is just a fantastic read from start to finish. Not only does Johnson  develop the narrative of the outbreak with both sympathy and flair, but he also closes the book with broader implications for modern readers. I really learned a lot. 

Also recommended is Karen Abbot's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. It's engagingly written and is definitely not a work of hagiography, depicting these four women as the complicated messes that they probably really were: alternately brave and foolish and deluded and sly and smart and noble and riddled with flaws. Belle Boyd I'd heard of, of course, but the rest of these women were a total revelation.

Perhaps the read that most changed my view of a particular historic event was Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692. This book has convinced me that if I ever do time travel, I'm not going within a hundred miles or a hundred years of Salem in 1692. What a dreadful time it must have been to be alive, and what a heavy weight of conscience the key players must have carried with them to their graves. Also, if this book did nothing else, it opened my eyes to Cotton Mather. He was just a blip in my school education; I had no idea what sort of person he was or what a role he played in chronicling (and attempting to re-write) the history of the witch trials until I read this book.

All of these books pale, however, in comparison to Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship EssexThe tragedy of the Essex is immediately gripping, and I read the entire book in three frantic sittings. I do have a warning for the squeamish: given that it's a survival story, there's some fairly grisly content. If you're sensitive, you may want to steer clear. That being said, it's all recounted with great fervency and impeccable precision. This is an absolutely superlative read, and I recommend it to everyone. This was probably my top read of 2015. (Big thanks to my friend Jerrill for shooting a copy my way!)

Psychology/Sociology: 15 Books

By far, my most compelling read in this category was Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. Using the lives of the leaders as guiding narratives, the author lays out the beliefs of the church and demonstrates how these beliefs are used to manipulate and abuse the followers. I found myself alternately amazed and horrified every few pages.

Middle Grade and Juvenile Fiction: 14 Books

This isn't a category I read often for pleasure, but given the nature of the work I do, a fair number of these books work their way into each reading year. Although it wasn't a read that moved me as deeply as I would have liked, I was delighted with the premise of Hitler's Canary, by Sandi Toksvig. This book offered a look at Danish resistance efforts on the part of a family of spunky theater people during the Nazi occupation. I loved how well the real-life drama of the era matched the over-the-top drama of the characters--especially Mother.

Narrative Non-Fiction/Journalistic Non-Fiction: 12 Books

It's hard to know which books to highlight, since almost every book in this category knocked it straight out of the park. Certainly the one that had the greatest impact on my psyche was Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed.  Ronson's personal interviews with people who have been shamed on the internet and his observations regarding what this means for our society left me feeling both chilled and depressed. I'm still not quite over it.

In addition, Jon Krakauer's Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town left an indelible mark. As with all of his other books, Krakauer pulls no punches. The details of the rape cases are upsetting to the point of being off-putting, but the topic is too important for this book to be passed over. I appreciate Krakauer's even hand and his obvious compassion for everyone involved in the cases. His conclusion walks a delicate line skillfully, and I admire him for that.

By far the most upsetting read of the year, however, was Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. I walked around in a funk for days after reading this, and it's changed forever the way I pray for the people of North Korea. God, have mercy.

Classics: 10 Books

It took us approximately forever, but I spent most of 2015 reading Tolkien aloud to the Podlings at lunch. We finished The Hobbit rather quickly and then spent months following the fractured Fellowship along their weary ways through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The slow pacing of these books is perfectly suited to reading aloud, and we enjoyed the experience immensely. I thought the boys were going to cry when we finished.

Biography: 6 Books

Alister McGrath's superb bio C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is the first Lewis biography I've read that's offered any sort of critical analysis at all. For that fact alone I enjoyed it. I'd really like someone to write a biography that focuses more on his interpersonal relationships, though, because although these are explored in more detail than in other biographies I've read, they're still hugely overshadowed by other aspects of his life (such as his literary career and academic life).

Humor: 6 Books

Since I write comedy on the side, I decided that this would be the year to explore works by some of the world's acknowledged comedy successes. I read books by Mindy Kaling, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Aziz Anzari. Mostly these reads failed to thrill, although Gaffigan's book Dad Is Fat really did make me laugh, and the final selection in Kaling's Why Not Me? is actually the best thing she's written in either of her books. It's a short story based on an alternate timeline of her life, and I dig the overall premise (alternate history) and the storytelling technique (the entire story is told through a series of e-mails).

Literary Criticism/Literary Biography: 6 Books

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne, takes what is known of Austen through her correspondence, unpublished works (particularly her juvenilia), the records of family and friends, etc. and connects these known elements to specific turning points in Austen's novels. This is a fantastic read, recommended especially to anyone well-acquainted with Austen's complete works.

Essays/Short Stories: 6 Books

David Sedaris's Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls establishes the author as a master of the genre and is worth reading for the essay "Doctors Without Borders" alone (although gentle readers will find plenty of offensive content throughout the rest of the book).

The stories in Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning were hit-and-miss for me, although when Gaiman hits, he does hit hard. His epic powers of creepification are almost unparalleled, and the title of the book is well-earned. Trigger Warnings should, indeed, abound. Interestingly, my favorite part of the entire book may have been the introduction. After that, I found the story "Click Clack the Rattlebag" most striking.

True Crime: 5 Books

Although the writing's unimpressive, I was quite interested to read Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, in which prosecuting attorney Jeff Ashton breaks down the case from his perspective.  I understand that all the defense needed to do was to prove reasonable doubt, but I still think the justice system failed in this case. I feel badly for all of the people still suffering collateral damage from association with Casey Anthony.

Travel: 5 Books

Shortly after a trip to New Zealand, I picked up Tony Horowitz's Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. This book took approximately forever to read, but I enjoyed it very much. Horowitz's distinctive style shows to advantage not only in the recounting of Cook's adventures but also in the modern-day observances made as he travels the South Pacific (and briefly in the Pacific Northwest). Better still is Roger, who plays a Stephen Katz-type role as sidekick, offering rum-soaked rants and pithy off-the-cuff witticisms with nearly every page turn.

Fantasy: 5 Books / Miscellaneous Non-Fiction: 5 Books / Business: 4 Books

No standouts in these categories. 

Steampunk: 4 Books

Although I enjoyed a few more of Gail Carriger's cute Steampunk Novels of Manners this year, it was Jim Butcher's The Aeronaut's Windlass that really did it for me. Interestingly, the Steampunk elements weren't what got me. Instead, it was the relationships between the characters. The trio at the center of the story (Bridget, Gwendolyn, Benedict) are what really drew me in. I'd have preferred a little more development on that front in exchange for a little less action, although the action really was exciting (Those silkweavers, tho!). Bridget might be my favorite female character of this reading year. I look forward to following this series.

Memoir: 3 Books

No standouts.

Science Fiction: 3 Books

This year, it seemed that everyone was reading The Martian, by Andy Weir. As with most popular reads, I was a bit late to the party, not getting around to the book until just a few weeks ago. For the most part, this clever nail-biter kept me fully engaged. If the book has a weakness, it's that near the end, the complicated scientific explanations sap some of the narrative dynamic. Still, it's an exciting read (if a bit swear-y).

Mystery: 2 Books

I wasn't quite sure where to put the genre-bending book S., but since a mystery stood at the center of the plot, I decided that this was as good a place as any. S. was created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. It was difficult to read, difficult to process, and difficult to review. Honestly, it's not so much a book as it is an experience. It's the only thing I've ever read that's necessitated asking other readers, " "So... what's your system for reading it?"

Basically a novel about a novel, S. is a story told via marginal notes, and I found the best system for me was to read the chapter of the "novel" (The Voyage of Theseus) first, then go back and read all of the marginal notes later--essentially reading each chapter twice. I had to work hard to piece together the timelines (signified by changing ink colors in the marginal notes), but I actually enjoyed the layered style of storytelling. As for this book being difficult to review, I will say that although the concept is fantastic (who doesn't like a good literary mystery/geeky thriller told via marginal notes??), it's still not a perfect book. There's a needless hostility toward Christianity (needless in that it adds no value to the plot) and lots of f-bombs beginning about 3/4ths of the way through the book. Although brief use of strong language generally doesn't turn me against a book (especially if it drives home a plot point) and although I know college students today often speak like this, it still feels like a lazy way to create forceful language in books, and I'd rather steer away from incessant swearing whenever I can.

Still, I enjoyed the read overall, and I thank my friend Tabatha again for sending it to me! I wouldn't recommend this book to many people--it's sort of geeky and requires lots of hard work on the part of the reader--but for a certain type of mind, this method of storytelling can be addicting.

Western: 2 Books

No standouts.

Science: 2 Books

My obsession with particle physics continues, bolstered by Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger's Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics. I enjoyed this read so much and had so many questions about it that I contacted a physics professor from the local community college and asked if I could come to his office hours and talk particle physics with him. He said yes. People are just awesome sometimes.

Language/Writing: 2 Books

While I'm not on board with everything Steven Pinker says (I think language is a gift from God, after all), I can't deny that reading The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language didn't lead to almost complete intellectual joy. Pinker's deep understanding of language acquisition is related so clearly that even people who don't consider themselves grammar people would doubtless be able to grasp his points.

Poetry: 2 Books

No standouts.

Plays: 2 Scripts


The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde just gets funnier every time. I'd like to play Miss Prism on stage someday. 

*****

A huge thank you to the writers of the world for providing me a with such a fruitful reading year.

Incidentally, I love giving and receiving book recommendations. Feel free to share some of your favorite titles via the comment section below. You can also hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, text, e-mail, or however we normally communicate with one another.

I wish you a very happy reading year in 2016! 


No comments:

Post a Comment