The average American reads 17 books a year. Like most benchmarks, this one is a grotesque over-generalization and one that immediately made me want to see how I stacked up. I checked my Goodreads and filled in some missing pieces then polished off one last read bringing the final count to 26. I am above average!
Here are some highlights from my past year of reading:
West With The Night, Beryl Markham
The man in my life has an uncanny knack at picking up completely random books that turn out being wonderful. I do not share this skill. On the day that I so unfortunately selected The Hangman’s Daughter, the worst read not only of the year but possibly of the decade, he picked up West With the Night. While I mired through stiff characters, witch hunts, and heavy-handed plot twists, he was reading snippets like this:
…it was even more disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED.’ It was as if the mapmakers had said, ‘We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle – and the chances are we won’t know then!
Markham worked as a bush pilot in Africa for years, primarily spotting for elephants – a career choice she later questions herself for making. Her life was fascinating, her humor among the driest, and her writing absolutely captivating. In spite of the fact that she once spurned the advances of Ernest Hemingway, it was the discovery of a letter of his in the early 1980’s that brought West With the Night out of obscurity:
Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.
That about sums it up, it really is a bloody wonderful book.
This was my third attempt at reading Vonnegut. As a kid I found him a bit of a grumpy old man. At 21 I found him snarky and cutting edge. This time I was delighted to discover that he sits perfectly between those original impressions with a high dose of humor and astuteness tossed in. While Cat’s Cradle remains among my favorites, it was in the rambling, exposed pages of Timequake that I really fell in love with him.
Vonnegut is his own animal.Writing exists to serve him. His characters are caricatures, his plotlines haphazard. He’s repetitive – constantly recycling phrases, scenarios, and themes. His protagonists tend to be useless at moving the story forward, either crazy (Dwayne Hoover, Elliot Rosewater) or mostly useless (Billy Pilgrim, Leon Trout). It’s wonderful. When you read Vonnegut you get the sense that he’s not trying to entertain or enlighten you. Rather, like Kilgore Trout, he wrote because he couldn’t stop writing, because writing was his preferred method of making sense of the world he lived in.
I read two books about Zimbabwe. First I read The Last Resort by Rogers Douglas, a decidedly mediocre writer who happened into a wonderful story. I hate when that happens. He is as beige as his parents are colorful and I spent three-quarters of the book strongly disliking him. But by the end, however, the book was a success. He stopped being irritating and my interest in Zimbabwe was piqued.
I sent a message to an old friend who left that country over a decade ago. He recommended Peter Godwin. I spent the next month carefully picking my way through The Fear. Picking because it’s heartbreaking and some parts of it are beyond gruesome. When I finished it I was left thinking about Vonnegut’s summary of the deafness of humanity in Galapagos – when our bellies are full it becomes very easy to forget how horrible the world is. That was the only excuse I could think of for how stunningly ignorant I was of Zimbabwe’s story.
Things I Should Have Read a Very Long Time Ago
The world is filled with dull, unimaginative, flacid people. It’s filled with people who accept the truths they are told and defend those tired ideas long after they cease to hold any value. Malcom X was not one of those people. A dynamic person who above all else, chased truth. Stalked it, hunted it down. Even when his heroes fell and he realized the truth he had found wasn’t all that and more, he continued his pursuits. The Autobiography of Malcom X is the story of his life.
It’s a shame I wasn’t force-fed this book in high school, but it’s my fault it took me so long to pick it up on my own. Everyone should read this book and take a moment to question the people we are told to revere. The people strangely absent from our history books are quite telling about how far (or not) we have actually progressed.
Rediscovering John Steinbeck
A bad author is a liar. They create characters that don’t behave like people behave, they make you think the world is the way they wish it was and not the way it is. The best author is John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck is uniquely gifted at teaching you more about people then you could ever learn on your own. When you read a Steinbeck character you know if you’ve met that kind of person before, and when you do meet them, you recognize them. That’s an astonishing talent. He will teach how people feel, what they think, how to read them, how their minds work. His stories are tools to explore the depth and variety of humans. This is one of Steinbeck’s characters in Cannery Row:
Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. Hazel’s mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits. He never forgot anything but he never bothered to arrange his memories. Everything was thrown together like fishing tackle in the bottom of a rowboat, hooks and sinkers and line and lures and gaffs all snarled up.
I adored Steinbeck when I was a kid, long before I really grasped the “moral” of his stories. It was in his books that I realized how gray people can be. That no one is all good or all evil, that our brains are fickle, unreliable things, and most of us are just bumbling around trying to get some things right every now and then.
I read some good stuff this year, I also read some garbage. For years my approach to reading has been something like feeding a goat. Put something in front of a goat and it will eat it. Put a book in front of me and I will read it, all of it, and probably very fast so that I can read the next thing. I wasted time on a few pretty pathetic reads this year.
In 2014 I want to read 52 books. I want to read more biographies, not memoirs of people with medium-interesting lives, but biographies of people who made an impact on the world. I want to read Mark Twain and Hemingway, both of whom I wasn’t ever able to get into before. I want to finish reading a few that I started, but got distracted from – The Joy Luck Club, A World Lit Only by Fire, and Zealot. Also, I would love some recommendations.