A Reading Year

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This year, I read 60 books. A nice round total. I read a hodgepodge of all sorts of different things, ranging from literary criticism, fat historical volumes and weighty classics to popular fiction, modern plays and young adult novels, reflecting the fact that I spent most of the year doing an MA in Victorian Literature part time, spend my days teaching English to teenagers and am a member of a book club and record a podcast that require me to read books chosen by other people. In fact, when looking closely at the list of books I’ve read throughout 2018, there are surprisingly few that I actually chose to read, or that were plucked from my existing collection. I buy a phenomenal amount of books, I’ve realised, with excellent intentions, of course – yet probably read only about 10% of the books I read within the year I buy them – only really those that I’ve bought because I’ve got to read them for whatever reason. That means I have shelves and shelves of books that have been sitting there, waiting to be read, for years, and the total of unread books is growing every year.

Now I have my own flat and have been reunited with all of my books, most of which have been in storage for some years, the reality of this excess of unread books is surrounding me on a daily basis, taunting me. It is weighing on my conscience, I must say. I don’t have a wardrobe full of unworn clothes, so why bookshelves of unread books? And why do I keep buying more when I already own so many I’ve not read? Obviously it’s the pleasure of being in bookshops, the thrill of the chase, the delight in finding a longed-for edition, an overlooked treasure, the final volume in a long-amassed collection – but, breathless joy aside – the reality is, I need to actually take stock and enjoy what I have. I have made three new year’s resolutions for 2019 – reduce the amount of plastic I use, reduce the amount of stuff I buy, and go swimming twice a week. My book habits fall neatly into the second category. I really don’t need to buy any more books. I have enough unread ones to last me for years as it is. So, this new year is going to be the year of reading what I already have. If I’m desperate to read a new release, I’ll get it from the library. I want to finally read all those classics I’ve been avoiding, as well as the cult classics I pretend I’ve read. I also want to make the time to re-read old favourites. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be great. During the year, I’m going to make a list of all the books I’ve been tempted to buy but haven’t, and then if I still really want them by 2020, I can buy them then. It’ll be interesting to see how many books I thought I wanted weren’t really that necessary to my happiness after all!

Well, enough about 2019. What about 2018?

The book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading:

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pierce. Oh, I was so excited about this book. It had a beautiful cover, was about a magazine agony aunt during WWII, and was set in London – it promised to be a delight. Instead, I found it cloyingly, clumsily written, with an irritatingly fey narrator and a painfully predictable plot that ticked every cliché about WWII. Definitely something I wish I hadn’t wasted my money buying!

The book I recommended most often:

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I had so much fun reading this brilliant, complex, thrilling murder mystery with such a unique plot that I couldn’t help but force everyone else I know to read it. I’ve even got one of my classes at school reading it for their holiday homework! If you love a good murder mystery and want to be kept up until 2am because you can’t bear to stop reading, this is definitely a book you want to get to sooner rather than later!

The book I was most glad about having read:

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. Goodness me, it was a slog. But having finished my MA in Victorian Studies in September (whoop!), I couldn’t in all conscience call myself a semi-expert in the Victorian era if I hadn’t read one of its most famous novels. Plus there was a new TV series of it that I wanted to watch, so I had to read the book first. I did enjoy it, and I am very glad I’ve read it, but I certainly won’t be in a rush to read it again!

My favourite new author discovery:

Definitely Dorothy L Sayers. I love a good vintage crime novel, and I thought Agatha Christie couldn’t possibly be bettered, but then I found Dorothy. I’m never looking back! I love the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, who is much more three dimensional than Poirot, and someone the reader is encouraged to care about and feel a connection to through the way we are given access to his past and to the wider members of his family. I also love Sayers’ prose, which is elegant and stylish, far more so than the more functional writing of Christie. I’ve bought up most of her books and have them waiting on my bookshelves – I can’t wait to read more in 2019!

My biggest reading surprise:

I was dreading teaching Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton to my Year 11 class this year. I didn’t know very much about South Africa and its history, I knew nothing about the author, and the first few chapters I found oddly stilted and confusing. I couldn’t see myself being able to teach it with the enthusiasm and passion I would like. But as I read more, and then studied it with my class, I found myself falling in love with this beautiful, heartfelt novel that is so skilfully and passionately written. It is a true classic: a book that creates characters who will stay with you forever, and that teaches you something profound about the human condition. Most surprising for me was that my students loved it too. Probably because it meant they got to laugh at me getting tearful whenever I talked about particular characters, but…for a book to get through to a group of reluctant readers, it’s got to be something special. If you’ve never read it, I really encourage you to give it a try.

My favourite book of the year:

Little by Edward Carey. I first discovered this when looking through the list on Amazon of new releases coming up in the months ahead, and though I’d never heard of the author, was fascinated by the premise. A novel about Marie Tussaud’s life in 18th century France, told from her perspective, it is a beautifully written tale of one woman’s indomitable spirit, and also a novel about love, artistry and self-reliance. I loved every page, and I also loved the illustrations. Edward Carey is a very unique literary voice and I’m really looking forward to reading more by him in future. I’m currently reading Alva and Irva, his earlier novel, for Tea or Books?, and probably, if I were to finish before midnight, that would have been my joint favourite book of the year!

Thank you so much for reading along with me in 2018 – I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

22 comments

  1. Lovely overview of your reading year, Rachel! I’m also determined to read a lot more my shelves in 2019 – might make choosing our podcast books harder, but we can do it 😉 (Catalogue your books on LibraryThing and then we can see the ones we have in common!!)

    So pleased that Carey was your top slot, and looking forward to discussing him more!

  2. Also a lover of Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night. Have you read Josephine Tey….another vintage detective and mystery writer. Love reading your blog, also need to actually read all my unread books and not just stroke them!!! Happy New Year.

  3. Came across your blog by chance and so happy I did! Have loved reading your posts!! I also have far too many books I haven’t read so have also decided that 2019 will be the year to read what I already have and not buy any more – beginning to wonder whether I’m a Compulsive buyer!! Congratulations on your MA. I will also be starting one in Anthropology in the near future so won’t have any time to read much else than recommended texts anyway. Wishing you a very happy new year!

  4. Thank you for another year of wonderful book reviews, photos of your travels and your beautiful and stylish new home, Rachel. Happy New Year to you!

  5. Your enthusiasm for the Stuart Turton was very convincing, so much so that I gave it to my mother for Christmas but plan to steal it to read as soon as I can. And I’m glad to know I was not the only one who thought Dear Mrs Bird a pitiful waste of a great concept. I struggled through the first third of the book but had to give up in frustration.

    Good luck with your resolutions! With plenty of Sayers’ books waiting for you, that should make reading from your own shelves a real pleasure.

    I’ve been spending the weekend plotting my 2019 travels and it looks like I’ll be in London in late May/early June (I’ll email you once confirmed). Hopefully we’ll be able to get together – maybe even for a swim (Hampstead Ladies Pond, perhaps?) to help with your swimming resolution and stay away from unnecessary book-buying!

  6. I am happy to hear I am not the only one who was disappointed by Dear Mrs. Bird. I thought it was going to be wonderful and instead, I almost couldn’t be bothered to finish it. I read the Stuart Turton book because I heard you talk about it with great enthusiasm on your podcast. I read it at a breakneck pace and thoroughly enjoyed it so, thank you for that recommendation.

    I am so glad you discovered and love Dorothy Sayers. I have loved her books since I was a teenager. I hope you enjoy working your way through them.

    I should join you in not buying books for 2019 but it sounds so hard!

  7. I’ve heard so much about Stuart Turton’s book – finally going to be reading it soon!
    I know what you mean about all the unread books. I have quite a few unread on my shelves now. The problem is that I prioritise advance copies and e-books from the library, so the print books I’ve bought don’t really get a look-in. I am definitely going to get into them this year.

  8. I rarely relish an email, but I do yours. Thank you.who is the artist of the beautiful painting on your latest email today. Happy New year from warm and sunny Adelaide.

  9. Happy New Year, Rachel! Congratulations on getting your MA. I have loved following your blog and the podcast. I love your idea of just reading from the TBR shelves and keeping a list of books to buy in 2020. I don’t know if I am strong enough, but it is a fab goal…. Maybe after the Lifeline Bookfest (a week-long second-hand book sale with all proceeds going to charity), held in Brisbane in the last week of January and June. Happy reading!

  10. Congratulations on achieving your MA. I agree with your intentions (decided not to use the word resolutions) for 2019. I have around 1000 unread books on my shelves and thiss is GOING to be the year I read more of them. I need to get rid of the ones I read and won’t want to keep. All the best for 2019.

  11. Happy New Year, Rachel!!
    2018 was the year I joined the local library – for the first time in years. I have a terrible track record of overdue fines from libraries – but in the intervening years since my last membership (which crashed and burned), technology in the form of reminder emails that arrive three days before due dates have kept me on the straight and narrow. We’ve had a financially difficult year, so short of re-reading my entire collection, it was the only way I could manage new books, because my normal buying was out of the question.
    I have a criteria for keeping books – they have to be re-read within a 12 month period, or they have to go…cos I just don’t have space for any more – the bookcases are already overflowing! But I have a steadily growing MUST BUY list – some based on my library books (OMG, discovered THREE Sheri Teppers I’d not read…didn’t even know she’d written them…) and new releases in series I collect. But they’ll have to wait til we’re more flush!!

  12. Really interesting review of the year. Another disappointed reader of ‘Mrs Bird’, but my daughter-in-law really enjoyed it. To me it owed far too much to the wartime diaries of Joan Wyndham, but was not as good- or realistic in portraying living in London during WW2.

    I, too, am confessing to a huge to be read pile of books by my bed which I intend to reduce in the coming year. I really enjoyed A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book ( possibly except for the rather rushed ending) which I grabbed from it during a night of insomnia, so that has encouraged me to do the same again and again…

    My favourite new book of 2018 was probably The Librarian by Salley Vickers, which resonated with me as a child of the 60s, but d-i-l really didn’t like it….

  13. It just so happens that I have a copy of Little sitting here at home so I`m happy to see you really enjoyed it, Rachel. I find myself leaving bookshops without a book under my arm more often these days because there are so many fabulous books at home. Contentment is a very nice feeling! And I like your resolve about less plastic…..Happy New Year!

  14. I read Vanity Fair a long time ago and remember loving it, actually. Becky Sharp instantly became one of my favourite heroines. I watched the series last week and thought Olivia Cooke was absolutely perfect in the role. And Martin Clunes was charming and very funny. In fact I would have married him myself ! But it’s definitely time for a reread because a lot of Thackeray’s witty criticism got lost in the adaptation.

  15. I just read my first Dorothy L Sayers the other day, The Clouds of Witness and really enjoyed it. I was also disappointed by Mrs Bird, I think it was overhyped, I can see it as a great film with Bill Nighy in it. Little is on my wish list.

  16. I am trying to catch up – vainly, really – on the many posts I miss reading. Life is too busy. (I know I’m retired but with elderly parents here, and children and a grandchild there, and volunteer work, somehow it’s as busy or busier than ever!).

    Anyhow, I liked how you did this. And I like that your reading experience is much like mine – in quantity, and in not reading many books of my own choice.

    As for your reading year, I loved reading that you fell in love with Cry, the beloved country. I read that in my teens (a long time ago) and it made a huge impression on me. I really don’t remember the fine details of the plot but I remember its tone, its warmth, and the phrase “go well”. I often use it – or variations like “keep well” or “stay well” – in my written communications. And every time I do I remember Alan Paton and this book. I am so glad you students liked it. They might be reluctant readers perhaps, but liking this book surely suggests they have heart.

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