2016 — my year in books

Liam reads an Elephant & Piggie book to Kellan

I made a New Years’ resolution in 2016 to diversify my reading — not by genre, but by author. I had realized that in 2015, of 26 books that I read, 22 were written by white men — an astounding 85%. So I had a goal to flip that percentage in 2016. Here’s how I did, in a quick summary of books:

  1. Golden Fool (The Tawny Man Trilogy #2), by Robin Hobb
    I love everything by Robin Hobb, and have loved every page of now 8 Fitz books by her. They’re true page-turners in the best meaning of that.
  2. Brooklyn, by Colm Toíbín
    I hated this book. I read it because of reviews and the movie (which I also hated) … and I should’ve stopped about 20 pages in, but I just kept reading, alternately to see whether it would redeem itself (no) or what it felt like to hate-read an entire book (not good).
  3. Fool’s Assassin (Fitz & the Fool #1), by Robin Hobb
    This new series, set when Fitz is much older, is heart-breaking for fans of the series and so, so good.
  4. Fool’s Quest (Fitz & the Fool #2), by Robin Hobb
    See above.
  5. A Man In Love (My Struggle #2), by Karl Ove Knausgård
    If my darkest inner voices were given public attention, perhaps they might sound like this. It is brutal honesty (although fictional? maybe? I hope? A devastating book.
  6. A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
    So! Much! Fun! I don’t know why I didn’t immediately get the next one in the series, except that I wanted to let Kell ruminate in my mind for a while, this was such a lovely tale.
  7. The Hidden Oracle (Trials of Apollo #1), by Rick Riordan
    So, I’ve read all of the various Percy Jackson-related books to, and with the kids, so I got this one too — and the magic is gone, and Liam didn’t care and I regret reading this.
  8. Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2), by Ann Leckie
    Onto book two, where the gender-fuck of the first book has become normalized and the characters, story and setting can truly shine. This is my favourite of the series.
  9. The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1), by N. K. Jemisin
    An amazing, different take on magic in a dystopian (future?) society. Possibly my favourite book of the entire year.
  10. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
    The buzziest book I read all year (an Oprah bookclub selection!) that totally held up despite the hype. I loved the magic-realism of the device of a real underground railroad, and it was heartbreaking and hard and beautiful. Contains the most gut-wrenching sentence I read all year (which, for spoiler reasons, I won’t share).
  11. The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2), by N. K. Jemisin
    Not quite as good as The Fifth Season as it normalizes into a fairly standard fantasy/odyssey book, but still well-worth the journey if you love the characters as I do.
  12. Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3), by Ann Leckie
    Read this as a meditation on the a nature of identity and empathy and, well, yeah. There’s so much going on in this book, in this series. It should probably be the subject of several academic think-pieces.
  13. The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman
    I needed a Neil fix, and was getting on a plane, and this did the trick (It’s a solid habit to read one book by Neil Gaiman every single year, IMO). It’s all over the place. The best thing though is his unabashed love of Books, in all their forms, and the humans who write them. I added a dozen books, by a dozen authors, to my wishlist from reading this (NB: I’m still reading this. I have read a few sections between each of the rest of the books this year).
  14. A Heart so White, by Javier Marías (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
    I struggled mightily with this book — It came highly recommended by my mum, who rarely is wrong about these things, and, much like reading Shakespeare, it takes a while to wrap your head around the language and format, but once I did, wow! I read it nearly twice over.
  15. Charmed Life (Chrestomanci #1), by Dianna Wynne Jones
    Silly, simple fun. Ends before I was ready for it, but also definitely felt a little dated.
  16. Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6), by James S. A. Corey
    The best entry in the series since book 3. Either you love The Expanse, or you haven’t read it yet.
  17. The Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1), by Ken Liu
    I learned of Ken Liu through reading Cixin Liu, and, am so much the richer for it. This book deserves all the accolades it received, but, it took me a while to get through it, as I didn’t get fully into until about 100 pages in.
  18. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers
    This book is sci-fi equivalent of a Belle & Sebastian album. It is lovely and twee, and not quite what I hoped it was. That being said, I immediately started reading the follow-up, so there you go.
  19. A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
    The first book in the series was self-published — I don’t know if this one was, but it feels so much tighter that I wonder if it at least a new, better editor was found. A similar feel to the first one, only moreso, in all the right ways.

I fell way short of my goal for reading this year — I was aiming for 40 books, and didn’t even crack 20. Of 19, 6 were written by men, or 32% — which also fell way short of my goal of reading only 10% white men. But, a definite improvement over my previous habits. Noticeably, when browsing the Kobo store, the recommended books are much more diverse in authorship than they were prior to this.
I’m hoping for follow-ups from Robin Hobb, V. E. Schwab, N. K. Jemisin & Ken Liu this year, and will continue to try and diversify who I’m reading.

Access to reading: architecture informs literacy

riverside book-stall in Paris

I’ve been thinking recently about the privilege of access — mine in particular. A fact about me that I constantly found surprising growing up is that, generally, I’m significantly more well-read — wider-read — than many people that I’ve met. I’ve always loved to read, but I’ve had the immense luck of getting to know many brilliant people with advanced degrees, often in the arts and humanities, which require lots of reading. And while they’ve all read deeper than I have, I’ve learned by taking those Facebook quizzes about what books you’ve read that I’ve generally read more books that most of my friends.

If I start to pull out differences, a primary difference is that I grew up in a house surrounded by books. We had a bookshelf in nearly every room. Each of my siblings and I had overflowing bookshelves in our rooms. There was a bookshelf in our dining room, piles of books here and there. We had a study, which was an unused bedroom that had 2 walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. This room was also where our TV sat — explicitly linking the notion of relaxation and entertainment with reading. Beyond the quantity of books, the breadth of topic was huge. As a kid, I could freely explore the massive set of Taschen art books, London Times archives, Complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Life-science books, travel books, novels, poetry, plays, non-fiction of all stripes (I learned early on that I generally dislike autobiographies and memoirs, but got a peculiar satisfaction from biographies that were, if not unkind, not wholly flattering of their subjects).

But I live in a townhouse in central Vancouver. While I’m certainly lucky, when I look around the house, there’s not really any unused walls — where could I put a bookshelf? My living room has 1 wall. We put our couch there. The other side is a fireplace. The third wall is doors & windows. The dining area has a no walls: window one side, staircase across. There’s a bit of wall in the kitchen, so we put a shelving unit there to store things like food — but we did cheat and have a lovely cookbook shelf! And that’s the entire main floor! There’s a half-landing as the stairs turn, but it’s too narrow to put a bookshelf there (I tried — even a basic Ikea shelf means I don’t fit width-wise there).

And then I started to think about places where I have lived vs how many books I had. Unscientifically, the older the place I lived in, the more likely it was to have had wallspace for books. But as modern architecture has trended towards open space, this has removed interior walls that are perfect to hang a bookshelf on. Visiting friends, this is true too: Look at where you live. Was it built in the past 20-odd years? If so, I bet there are very few interior walls — it’s not the style — particularly on the main floor. Even large houses often just have larger open spaces. And this, for literacy, might actually be a problem. Sure, I could put a bookshelf in front of that bay window, but I’m not likely to. My bias is showing, but the surest way for me to fall in love with a house while browsing MLS.ca or watching House Hunters is the presence of built-in-shelving. And yeah, once the interior decorator gets done with them, those shelves are generally filled with trinkets, but all I see is double-stacked books in those shelves.

My oldest kid, luckily, is a good reader. But he still is much more constrained than I was by access to books, because they’re not just there. Discovery is a problem. He’s really good about leveraging his own collection, and he gets a monthly eBook allowance, but the issue here is access and discoverability. He can’t just browse the shelves from the couch and pull out an interesting-looking spine to flip through for a few minutes. Buying a book (or even checking it out of the library) incurs a kind of commitment that is larger than we might want. Oddly: I’ve bought many physical books that I didn’t enjoy, so just stopped reading them — because they’re around, I know that I might pick them up again later — and often have. But when I buy an eBook, I slog through it unless I really dislike it — because I know that once I put it down, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, lost in my eReader.

I don’t how how to reconcile interior design and architecture with having more visible bookspace. Indeed, I suspect that architects are responding as much to trends (people own fewer books, so don’t want space for them) as they are causing them. But I do think this is something for parents in particular to think about: Where, in your common family space, can you fit a bookshelf, or bookshelves? And is that bookshelf a common shelf with everyone’s books (yes, even the ones that probably aren’t appropriate yet for your kids)?

Update: The New York Times no less also has a piece on this topic. You should read that one too: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/fashion/our-bare-shelves-our-selves.html?_r=0 (H/T to Richard Eriksson)

Comics

I buy comics. A fair amount of comics. I’ve drastically cut back my spending these past couple of years, but the fact remains is that nearly every week of the year, I’m buying 3 or 4 issues. And they make me happy. Every few weeks, for the past 15 years, ever since I moved to Vancouver, I head down to Golden Age Collectibles on Granville st. There, they’ve put aside the comics I collect in a “saver”. When new series come out, I add those to my list. This is an incredible way to shop. Comic shop sales-people have a bad rep (see: The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory), but in my experience, they’re some of the nicest retailers I know: they get  customer service. If an author or artist I like has a new book coming out, I’ll often find the first issue of that series in my saver even though I didn’t ask for it, because they think I might like it. When I lived in Toronto, I went to the Silver Snail, using the same saver system.

I used to buy physical music. But I started ordering CDs online as soon as Amazon delivered to Canada, and never looked back. I never had a single local supplier of music. & when digital music became a viable option for me, I mostly stopped ordering CDs at all, and never looked back.

I used to buy physical books. A lot of books. When I first moved in with Leah, I believe the boxes of books were more in both weight & volume than the rest of my possessions combined. & I tried to support local, indie booksellers. But in the end, I started ordering online because it was easier. But I didn’t have a single source for books ever since Bollum‘s at Granville and Georgia closed, and so I never looked back. & now I only buy digital books – mostly Kindle, but the occasional iBook thrown in for good measure.

And while I’m bummed about the loss of bookstores & music stores, I never had a connection to any of them. I started reading some digital comics when I got the first iPad. The app sucked, the interface wasn’t great. But you could tell this was where things were going. But now with the new iPad (3), the retina display means that comics could potentially look as good, or better, on screen than they do in print. And there’s no storage issue. I have boxes & boxes of comics, stored in the basement that I don’t know what to do with. Sometimes I go and re-read old series. I hope someday Liam or Kellan might like to. But I don’t want to keep adding to the pile, particularly as I move to a new place where storage is at something of a premium.

And so, I’m likely going to start subscribing to a lot of the series I like digitally. Sure, I’m locking in to some DRM scheme, but I’m ok with that. The convenience of digital subscriptions current outweighs my dislike. But I’ll  be sad about not going to buy comics from my local. I’ll miss their recommendations. And I’ll be sad if/when they close. I don’t know how much the memorabilia/collectable trading card portion of the store brings to their bottom line. But I think the time is coming, in the very near future, where I won’t be buying physical comics anymore.

And I’m sad about that. & I suspect that I’ll miss an ephemeral, but important part of my cultural landscape in a way that I didn’t with books or music.