I kept the annual chewing of the cud on books of the year, till the end. Turns out, to the very last few hours of the year. It is 10:05 PM on Dec 31st as I start writing this post.
At the start of the year, T.R. Shankar Raman, wrote a post on Goodreads about how he chose to read only women during 2019. It made me count the number of women authors on my list of 2019, and it was around a third of all the books I’d read. Committing to a full year seemed difficult, and given how things panned out, would have been foolhardy and difficult to manage. I chose a more respectable fraction of half.
How different would it be from a normal year? One, you second guess every book you read, you plan, you give yourself windows. And second, more importantly, you seek out books. There were the familiars – Shashi Deshpande, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Thrity Umrigar, Ruth Ozeki. And beyond them? And what about non-fiction, which I realised is more heavily dominated by men than fiction. I still pulled out a Molly Caldwell-Crosby, an Angela Saini, and the best of all the books read – Isabel Wilkerson. Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” also led me to Donella Meadows’ excellent “Thinking in Systems”. In fiction, I finally managed to read “Wolf Hall” which had been lying unread for years, quietly judging me, and also Daphne Du-Maurier’s “Rebecca”. There were also Joyce Carol-Oates, Madhuri Vijay’s excellent “The Far Field”, and Amrita Mahale’s “Milk Teeth”. I managed to reread Jhumpa Lahiri, Anjum Hasan and CK Meena. Towards the end I managed to finish with slightly more than half the number of books by women, the total count being odd, you’ll see when the final list is out next month. This is something I should continue for 2021 too.
This was also a year of tomes. Even though I read fewer books than last year, I ended up with more pages than ever. A quarter of the books read were more than 400 pages long, just under half of those were 500+. This meant an average book size of close to 350 pages over the whole year.
In terms of the fiction/nonfiction ratio, this year turned out fewer non-fiction than the last, even in terms of the fraction. While last year, it was 45%, this time it was 40%. I wonder if this is a consequence of the domination of the non-fiction market by men, and my 50% women target made me tilt towards fiction more?
This was also the year of Black Lives Matter, and I ended up reading some really good works on the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. First was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”, and then Isabel Wilkerson’s epic “The Warmth of Other Suns” detailing the migration of Blacks from the oppression of the Southern states to friendlier shores of the North and the West from the time of the First World War to the 1970s. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how an entire population can be kept from realising their aspirations over generations.
This was also the year I discovered Barry Lopez, who passed away last week. First through this essay. And then through his epic work “Arctic Dreams”. This was one of the slowest books I’ve read in ages, making you pause, reread paragraphs and understand every word of what he’s got to say. The book is painstakingly written, every word precisely worked over. There’s an entire chapter written on the different kinds of ice that form in the Arctic. More than a book, this is what should be called a meditation, a meditation on a place and, sadly, a time. The Arctic that he writes about, in the 1980s, is no longer there. The permanent ice is increasingly being lost replaced by young ice every winter. It is only a matter of time before the northern passage becomes a common feature every year. In 2020 it reads like a memoir and an elegy for a long-dead place.
It is left to those who are left and carrying his torch to guide and remind us of all that there is to lose and being lost. The likes of Robert Macfarlane and Robin Wall Kimmerer, whom I am yet to read. In some ways I am putting off reading her, as the sense of having read a book sometimes overwhelms the sense of knowing that there are excellent books waiting to be experienced. How does one balance the two? Maybe hope they are more prolific?
This was also the year of the pandemic. And the only book I managed to read on that was David Quammen’s excellent “Spillover” which is about zoonoses, diseases that spillover from animals to humans, like the Covid virus did. Written some 4-5 years back, this is mainly about the other viruses that have done the jump and wiped out lives – the SARS virus of 2003, Nipah virus, and biggest of them all – AIDS. A must read.
For 2021, I am already looking forward to reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life”, Barry Lopez’s “Horizons”. There are other fictions in line, Anita Desai, Anuradha Roy et al. What I am really looking forward to and hoping for most from 2021 is being able to walk into a bookstore like Blossom’s or Goobe’s and browse at peace for books. Here’s hoping that that happens!