Reflections on a reading year

My 2015 end of year write-up is divided into two parts. The first is some reflections on my reading habits and how they’re affected by time pressures, which you can skip if you just want to get to the list itself.

I don’t have an apposite image for this post as it’s not a review of a single book. I thought therefore I’d include the poster for what was probably my favourite film of those I saw in 2015:


Reading reflections

When I wrote up my 2014 end of year review I found myself complaining once again of having read fewer books than I’d hoped. It struck me afterwards that while it had seemed to me 2014 had been particularly bad, in fact dissatisfaction with how much I’d managed to read was an annual refrain. A key goal for me in 2015 was fixing that.

One of the advantages of having a blog is it gives you moderately hard numbers on what you’ve read during its life. Only moderately, as while I blog pretty much every novel I read I only tend to write-up shorter works if I think there’s something interesting to say about them (I just don’t have time to write-up every short story I read much as I might like to). In addition, there’s been a couple of times I’ve had too big a review backlog and have had to skip a couple of reviews (though I keep note of them in case I get a chance at a later date). Still, overall, counting my posts gives me a pretty good sense of how much I’m reading.

Back in 2009 I read around 56 books. Skip forward to 2012 and I’ve slipped down to somewhere between 30 and 40 books. By 2013 I’ve only read 32 books and in 2014 again it’s 32 books. Admittedly some of them were chunksters, but even so that’s not great.

I carried out that analysis around the beginning of 2015, and it shook me up a little. I’m busy, but not more so than in 2009. The issue isn’t free time. The issue is prioritisation. What changed between 2009 and 2014 wasn’t how much time I had to read, but how much time I used on other stuff.

The decline in my reading dates roughly to when I got an iPad and started watching tv shows on my commute home. It aligns too with my getting into the habit, when tired of an evening, to watch an episode of a show I’m following rather than to read a little. Basically, it ties to my taking time away from reading and putting it instead towards tv. It’s pretty much that simple.

There’s nothing wrong with tv. It’s a valid artistic medium, and if (as I do) you actively choose what you watch then I don’t see it as necessarily more passive than any other art form one might enjoy. Still, since I found myself each year disgruntled at not having read more that did raise questions about whether I was using my time well.

The result was that in 2015 I tried to make a more conscious effort to make time for reading. That meant cutting back a bit on other interests, but the truth is if you’ve got a full-time job you just don’t have time for all the things you might enjoy. I don’t play computer games much any more – I didn’t have time for that and films and tv shows and reading and other interests all of which come after family time and have to come after work. Something had to give, and that’s ok.

At the end of 2015 I’d read around 50 books. That number could still be better, but it’s a hell of an improvement over 32. I’d made a choice over the past few years to watch more tv instead of reading without realising what I’d done. Once I noticed, I made a conscious choice to the contrary and the result is I’m a lot happier writing up this year’s list than in the past couple of years writing up the preceding lists.

2015- prize categories and winners

This year the books are in roughly chronological order based on when I read them, save for my favourite book of 2015 which I’ve put right at the end (which I guess tells you that I didn’t read it in December).

Best overlooked impressionistic Modernist classic that hardly anyone seems to actually read: Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. Arguably Mrs Dalloway is the better novel, but Jacob’s Room was my first Woolf and I loved it. Woolf seems to me a writer more referenced than read, overshadowed by the endless praise for Beckett and Joyce. Her prose though is exquisite, and yet her novels are still effortlessly readable and not precious at all. Woolf is one of my great discoveries of 2015.

Best wryly intelligent hyper-contemporary novel written in the second person: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Being honest this almost got cut, as with more books read this past year the competition is fiercer. When I looked back at the year though it still stood out as fresh, original and ambitious. Hamid doesn’t get the critical attention I feel he deserves and while I doubt one end of year blog post will do much to change that he still deserves a place on the list.

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men was also a candidate on the hyper-contemporary front (if not on the second person front, but that’s pretty much Hamid’s thing). It’s a fascinating and enjoyable novel and on another day it could easily have squeezed out the Hamid.

Interestingly, both Hamid and Kunzru seem to me to be writing with an almost SFnal sensibility, which may in part be why both seem so good at capturing that sense of the contemporary that I think most novelists miss (usually in fairness as they’re not aiming for it). Both are fairly close to me in age, Hamid has a background in corporate law and Kunzru like me is a Londoner born and bred so perhaps it’s not surprising I find resonances in both their work. They’re both writing about worlds I recognise.

Best 500+ page novel structured around a train journey: Zone, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell). This was a candidate for my best novel of the year, but ultimately only came third in that category. It stands out however for its depth, its structural cleverness (without being off-putting), its rhythm and momentum and for its sheer bloody size. I’m looking forward to my next Enard, and I’m looking forward to it being shorter too.

Best absolutely delicious sun-washed novel somewhat reminiscent of a nouvelle vague movie: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (translated by Irene Ash, though apparently the Heather Lloyd translation is better). I just loved this. The image of Cécile eating an orange while drinking a scaldingly hot cup of coffee remains with me. A gorgeous novel.

Best Californian first person narrative: Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker. Dorothy Baker takes that old standby, the well-off family in crisis, and manages to do something interesting with it. There’s a lovely use of twins and parallels; subtle structural complexities that don’t need to be noticed to be effective; and a narrative drive which made me at least want to know how it would all turn out (impressive given the novel hasn’t much of a plot).

Best novel restoring my faith in ProustSodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust (Kilmartin and Moncrieff translation). I struggled a bit with The Guermantes Way, so it was an utter relief to find Sodom and Gomorrah such a wonderful read. It’s funny, yet as perceptive as ever. Only Proust can cover grief, sexual obsession, forbidden desire and garden party comedy all in the same book (though it helps he has so many pages in which to cover it all of course …) Looking back on my year, this was literally the only book I read in April 2015. It took me over a month to finish, but it was more than worth it.

Best short story collection featuring Cornish folkloreDiving Belles, by Lucy Wood. This is just a marvellously inventive short story collection, rooted in place and yet unconstrained by the puritan realism of so much literary fiction. It was one of the first books to come to mind when I started thinking what would be on this list, and while it wasn’t in the top three for the year it is so refreshing and so enjoyable that I couldn’t ignore it. Look for Karen Lord to occupy this spot next year, save that her book’s not a short story collection and isn’t set in Cornwall.

Best novel in which basically nothing happens and where everyone is really rather nice: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. Nice is such a damning word. When I was a teenager and later when dating the worst word you could ever hear applied to you from a woman was nice. Nobody wanted to be nice. Nice means safe, unexceptionable, unexciting. Nice is your ticket to indifference at worst, tepid friendship at best.

Blessings though is a nice novel, and it’s a nice novel filled with largely nice people. The challenges its characters face aren’t terribly serious and nothing too bad is likely to happen to any of them. Despite that it’s a wonderful read and a comic delight (it’s the kind of novel that asks for phrases like comic delight, I’m not sure why, tradition I guess). It’s charming, and charm isn’t something there’s so much of that it should be lightly disregarded.

Best reinvention of narrative: Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector (translated by Ben Moser). This did make it into my top three for the year, edging out Zone to take the number two spot. No small achievement given it’s literally less than a fifth the length of Zone. For all that size disparity Hour is ingenious, challenging, masterful in its command of language and generally is just exceptional. A truly amazing novel.

Best novel set in early 20th Century ViennaMaster of the Day of Judgment, Leo Perutz. Oddly enough, if I ran this category exactly as worded over the whole history of this blog it would probably be one of the most contested. An incredible place and time for quality literature. I found this wonderfully clever and even audacious. For much of it I wasn’t even quite sure what genre I was in: crime or horror (or both?) Pushkin have turned me into a Perutz fan, and I’m seriously looking forward to their next by him.

Best novel about being a woman in 1920s Paris with your looks fading and no certain incomeAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, by Jean Rhys. Rhys pretty much always wins this category to be fair. There’s a cold clarity to Rhys’ prose and an honesty to her gaze which makes Rhys just a marvel: you feel the impact but it’s hard to say quite how she achieves it. She’s easily one of my favourite authors.

And finally, drumroll please.

Best novel of 2015The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. This was actually the first novel I read in 2015, and here after the year’s ended it remains the best. It’s just extraordinary. A densely murky yet brilliantly written unreliable narrative where everything is “all a darkness”. This is a novel which not only could bear rereading, but which demands it (not that I have yet). Superb.

What else? I’ve not included Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon as it was a reread, but it was a bloody good reread. Otherwise, I’ve cheated a bit above by including links to the Kunzru but I was struggling between that and the Hamid. Even with that little bit of fudging I’ve omitted books which could easily in another year have made the list (Open City leaps to mind, which is genuinely excellent and might well have appeared above if I’d written this on a different day; similarly William Golding’s The Inheritors with its dazzling evocation of the internal experience of Neanderthal man).

In all truth Open City and The Inheritors probably have better cause to be on the list above than say the Hamid or the Wood. Both the Cole and the Golding are superbly well written: the Cole daringly undermines itself and risks entirely losing the reader’s sympathy; the Golding takes huge risks in terms of language and subject. In the end, however, it’s my list and an emotional response is as valid as any other. Perhaps it’s the best response.

Right, now that this is written I’m finally free to see what others put in their end of year lists. Hopefully at least a few books I overlooked, some of which will may end up on my 2016 list as I catch up. Thanks as ever to everyone who bothers to read the blog, and thanks too to all those who maintain their own blogs and keep my to be read pile ever longer than my managed to read pile.


Filed under Personal posts

24 responses to “Reflections on a reading year

  1. Tredynas Days

    Some interesting titles there, Max. I don’t usually produce an end of year list; what I enjoyed most, I think, was Javier Marías’ The Infatuations and Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster. After reading you and a few others on B. Pym I’m currently reading Excellent Women, and thoroughly enjoying its niceness. And she does have a sly wit: it’s not all twinsets and ‘more tea, vicar?’! Very funny and charming.

  2. The Good Soldier is on my favourite books on all-time list, and I’m a huge fan of Pym–although my favourite Pym is Quartet in Autumn (for entirely personal reasons). Funny how you tot up the free hrs to see where they go–I’ve been doing more word puzzles.

  3. Don’t know if you knew that the Great Beauty is based on a book. I tried to get into it but couldn’t.

  4. Thanks Simon. Nora Webster didn’t make it for me this year, partly as I preferred Brooklyn which covered similar territory. It doesn’t surprise me though that others would have it on their lists.

    Sly wit, quite. Pym’s something of a surprise given her subject matter isn’t she?

    Guy, I can see why, it’s a pretty much undisputed first choice this year.

    Do you know who the book was by? I’m curious, but I suspect the film is very much its own beast. It’s visually splendid the film, I imagine the book must have other strengths.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’m hoping to revisit Jacob’s Room as part of the Woolfalong, because I remember it as innovative and do feel it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

  6. I’ve spent part of the morning investigating the differences between Wales and Cornwall. Being American, I had not previously considered the difference. This interest was brought on by your review of Lucy Wood.

  7. FYI max: it’s a Glass of Blessings

  8. A great round-up, Max. I’m so pleased to see Cassandra on your list, one of my favourite characters in literature – delighted to see that she made the final cut. Likewise the Jean Rhys. I have a little batch of her books on the shelves at home and hope to read another fairly soon.

    Oddly enough, I’ve just been finalising a review of my first Pym, Excellent Women, which I thoroughly enjoyed! I’m pretty sure the words “charming” and “engaging” feature fairly heavily, a most enjoyable book.

    Interesting to see your reflections on reading vs watching television. I think I’m much more ruthless when it comes to giving up on a TV series than I am with a book. If a programme isn’t doing it for me after a couple of episodes, then I tend to cut and run. Books on the other hand….I find it so difficult to put one aside, just in case something happens in the closing stages which casts a new light on the whole thing. Of course the same could be true of a TV series, but somehow I find it easier to walk away.

    Anyway, thank you for a very tempting set of of reviews over the past year. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ll be reading in 2016.

  9. Great list.
    Very interesting thoughts about how TV cut on your reading time. More than TV (after all we were born with TV) It’s the possibility to watch what you want whenever you want that impacts your reading. Before that, if there was nothing good on TV, you’d turn to something else. Now, you can choose, so, in a sense, there’s always something good available.

    I’m glad Sagan is on the list. What a debut novel! When you think how young she was when she wrote it!

    You know I love Proust and S&G is truly unique for its style and its views on homosexuality.

    The Good Soldier is incredible. I’d like to read it again too. He managed to put so much in a very short novel.

    I’d like to read Cassandra at the wedding, it sounds excellent.

    Anyway thanks for sharing your list and your reading journal with us. Your reviews are always interesting.

  10. Jacobs Room surprised me too. Even minor Woolf is extraordinary. If you are on a roll with Woolf, the diaries read so well in parallel with the work of the same period.

  11. Absolutely agree on the film choice in particular – also only watched it in 2015. Great Fellini homage.

  12. I’m just coming to the end of my first Pym novel – Tame Gazelles which was her first published book. Not a lot happens if you exclude minor dramas about being surprised by a visitor while you’re in the midst of mending your corset……But it’s an absolute delight.

  13. Nick N

    Max, Crazy that your work commitments interfere; take heart and retire!!

  14. Max – First, thanks for sharing a great year of reading (and watching!). I think you might relax about the numbers; it’s the quality that counts, and that you deliver in review after review. A few of these works were on my own ” best of 2015″ list, including Cassandra at the Wedding and The Good Soldier, a novel so good that I was reluctant even to attempt a post about it and will wait until I’ve read it a second time. I envy you getting to discover Woolf, and will be awaiting your future posts about her work. I’ve been curious about Zone and may have to tackle it this year.

    The book – a book, anyway – on which The Great Beauty was loosely based is Ferito a Morte (The Mortal Wound in its English translation), by Neapolitan author Raffaele La Capria. It was a favorite from my reading last year, and I’ve written about it here:

    It is not an easy book to find. You are correct in surmising that the film is “very much its own beast,” as Sorrentino borrows only loosely from La Capria’s novel and imaginatively re-invents what he’s borrowed, as he does with his other borrowings from from Fellini, Antonioni and just about every other Italian Neo-realist director.

  15. I have readThe Good Soldier several times, and hope to read it several more. Its influence is all over Wuthering Expectations.

    My own vague, impressionistic sense is that Woolf is now read more than ether Joyce or Beckett – I mean read for pleasure. In school, “The Dead” probably wins.

  16. Even if I don’t get the chance of commenting as frequently as I’d like, your blog keeps being a great source of inspiration and a great place to find books and authors yet unknown to me.

    Great job, mate.

  17. I’ll be delighted to see your thoughts if you do Kaggsy.

    Tony, very different. Wales is still a separate country to England and the Welsh language is I think reasonably widely spoken. Cornwall is now a region within England and Cornish isn’t I think that widely spoken (though nor is it a dead language by any means). Also, it’s not legal to shoot a Cornishman with a longbow on a Sunday, whereas apocryphally that was legal with respect to the Welsh until quite recently.

    The tv show Hinterland is like a Welsh Scandinoir and might be worth looking out. Some of the characters speak Welsh (they’re subtitled) and you get a sense of the landscape. It’s also not a bad crime show, though nobody ever seems to change their clothes which is a bit odd.

    Guy, thanks, corrected. Annoying as I got it right in the original piece. Oh well.

    Jacqui, Cassandra’s great. I plan to read her Young Man with a Horn before too long (not least as I’m a Beiderbecke fan). I’m not sure one can review a Pym book without words like charming.

    The tv thing is as Emma says. It’s not that I can’t abandon shows, I can as anything else really, it’s that there is now always something good on because everything’s pretty much always on. If you don’t watch that it’s easy to find yourself in a bottomless pit of actually pretty high quality entertainment. There’s worse problems, but it is something to watch for and a very recent development (but I think one that will last for a long time yet to come).

  18. Emma, on tv yes, exactly so as I was just saying to Jacqui.

    The Sagan’s great. I do plan to get the other translation to see how much they vary, and to read others by her. I think Proust has been on all my end of year lists (showing how long it’s taking me to read him…)

    The Good Soldier is as good as literature gets really.

    Anthony, quite. I recognise it’s not major Woolf, but there is something to be said for that first impact of her prose in whatever form.

    Lee, I saw you’d posted your top ten films at Trevor’s ( which I’ve only had a chance to skim so far but which really looks like a great list. Delighted to see It Follows on there, which I thought exceptional. I’ll leave a comment under your post once I’ve read it properly.

    Booker, it sounds similar, and absolute delight is a good way to put it. Pym’s one of those discoveries I can thank blogging for. I’d never have read her otherwise I expect.

    Nick, I don’t see retirement any time soon, lovely as it might be. I can’t actually imagine what it would be like to be retired to be honest, but with changes to pensions that’s ok because I probably won’t have to…

    Scott, thanks for the link. I’ll check that out. With books like The Good Soldier there is obviously a certain absurdity in my offering opinions on a book which has been the subject of university level discussion and years of highly educated critical analysis. At the same time, each of our responses as a reader is a valid response, and I think we do these books no favours by being too respectful. Woolf, Joyce, Ford, they put books out to the public and if we were readers back in say 1928 we wouldn’t have this daunting weight of critical analysis and approval to put us off them. We’d just pick them up and read them and like them or not.

    It’s hard of course to do that now, just like it’s hard to say listen to The Beatles without the awareness that they’re supposed to be the greatest pop band in the world or whatever. In the end though, they’re just books, they’re just pop songs. Not that I’m saying you disagree with that, your comment just prompted the thoughts.

    I’ve actually seen surprisingly little Fellini, and only one Antonioni (Le Amiche, apparently minor but I thought it tremendous). I need to work my way back through Italian cinema, along with the million other things I of course need to do. Sigh.

    Tom, I suspect you’re right on The Dead and I hope you are on Woolf. I may be misled by twitter (it does do that) where it sometimes seems to me all Beckett and Joyce all the time. The twin high priests of a century old literary movement, going back to my analogy of a moment ago the Beatles and Stones of Modernism in that their position is unquestioned and seemingly unassailable.

    Imperator Rex! Lovely to hear from you mate. I hope all’s well in Barcelona. Be good to meet up in one city or the other before too long.

  19. What a great list! It’s good to see Diving Belles on yours – like you said on my post, it deserves a lot more exposure. I love that Bonjour Tristesse is on there too; I picked it up after reading your review, and I can’t now think why it didn’t end up on my list because I loved it…

    What you’ve said about reading and TV has struck a chord with me. I’ve been thinking recently about how my reading pace seems to have slowed down, and perhaps a lot of that is that I’m devoting my time to other things (like TV) rather than reading. I suppose watching TV often feels easier after a day at work than concentrating on a book…but perhaps I’m making excuses.

  20. Thanks Gemma. It is a great book. End of year lists are funny things, they’re as much a product I think sometimes of the day we write them as the year they represent. Perhaps another day Bonjour would have made yours. Glad you liked it though.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tv, there’s a lot of seriously good stuff out there. It’s just a question of conscious choices. I think if someone decides they’re enjoying their shows more than their current reading and so reads less that’s fine. I think though that sometimes we make these choices without meaning to, and tv as you say often feels easier.

  21. Having arrived fairly late to Antonioni, I spent some time last year catching up with a few of his early films. I would strongly recommend his ‘alienation’ trilogy, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. All three are outstanding. Put some time aside, Max – I’m sure you would find them very rewarding! 🙂

  22. I’m sure I shall Jacqui, but there are so many things I would find rewarding. That’s the trouble!

  23. What is the expansion of “SFnal”? (Speculative fiction?)

  24. Science fiction usually, so much the same thing.

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