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December 31, 2019

Filed under: fiction»reviews

A Year in Books: 2019

Starting last January, I tracked every book I read in a spreadsheet, including author information, length, genre, and whether or not I'd read it before. Several of these are inexact measures: page count is of course largely meaningless when most of my books were on a Kindle, and assigning a single genre to a book is often reductionist. But I was curious how it would go.

All told, I read 138 books this year, totalling 51,432 pages. That seems like a lot, but you have to remember: I read a lot of crap — disposable science fiction and mystery novels make up a lot of my media diet. In fact, 54.4% of the titles on my list are some kind of speculative fiction, followed in frequency by non-fiction (19.6%), literary fiction (10.1%), and mystery (4.4%).

I could have done better when it comes to reading authors from different backgrounds. Although 72.5% of the books I read were by women, only 31.9% were by people of color. Combining the two is more dire: women of color made up 24.6% of the authors I read, slightly more than white men (20.3%) but behind white women (47.8%). Men of color were not well-represented in my reading, at 7.3%. And looking at the specific backgrounds, there's relatively few black authors of either gender in the sheet.

One hundred books is enough for them to blur together a bit, especially when — as I said — most of them are pretty pulpy. Many of my favorites have been well-lauded: Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere or Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror, but there are a few that I haven't seen recognized elsewhere.

Laurie J. Marks' Elemental Logic series has been in progress for most of two decades (starting with Fire Logic in 2002, proceeding through Earth Logic and Water Logic, and wrapping up this year with Air Logic). The long gestation might explain why these phenomenal books have flown under the radar. Where most fantasy yarns peak in a big fight that solves everything, the Logic books are preoccupied with the fallout of wartime and occupation, the trauma it leaves, and the slow and difficult process of recovery. They argue that there's no easy solution, just a lot of painstaking work. Even so, they're full of life, and not as grim as I make them sound. I can't believe these aren't better known.

W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits was my greatest source of professional inspiration this year: comprised of visualizations that he assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition, it's a rich collection of data storytelling from a time before the field had much in the way of guidance or conventions. Du Bois hoped to show the fullness of black lives in America, as well as the oppression they faced. I love the unorthodox choices he made when displaying outliers or broad data ranges, which you don't see very much in a time when we've largely automated visualization.

Esme Wang's The Collected Schizophrenias made me more uncomfortable than almost anything I read in 2019 — it's not as simple as humanizing or excusing mental illness, or even explaining it. Wang writes frankly about the horrors of being institutionalized, but also the horrors of needing to be for her own safety, and the safety of the people around her. This is not a book with neat answers for anyone.

How to be an Antiracist is the other book that I think about regularly: part memoir, part history, and part theory, Ibram X. Kendi wrote a book that thinks deeply about racism and what it means to actively fight it — to be "antiracist," not just "not racist." Given the failures of American newsrooms to deal responsibly with coverage of race and class, in large part because they don't understand the "antiracist" vs. "not racist" distinction and err toward the latter, I'd recommend it to any reporter or editor.

Finally, Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire was one of the last titles I read this year, but I don't think my high opinion is just recency bias at work: it turns out that "diplomatic murder mysteries set in byzantine empires" is exactly my jam. Memory reminded me a lot of Ann Leckie's Ancillary books and the way they re-examined space opera from the point of view of the bureaucracy. In this case, it's the story of a new ambassador whose predecessor died from intrigue-related complications. There's a sequel on the way, apparently, which I'm very much anticipating.

Now that I've measured a year of books, I think next year I'll put the spreadsheet away — or choose a different subject, like cinema. I don't think this changed my habits substantially, but I could feel the temptation to read more (or read differently) in order to add more rows to the list. In 2020, I'm going to be spending a lot of time in spreadsheets for work, so I'd rather keep my virtual bookshelf separate.

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