Until last year, my reading had declined with each year of my 30s. While having a full-time career after years pursuing various degrees could take part of the blame, I was simply spending too much time in front of the TV or the computer — or both. My attention span was shrinking. I rarely even finished reading a blog post or a newspaper article before I'd get restless and move on to something else. I could almost feel my brain atrophying,
So last year I set an ambitious goal for myself: read one book each week, for a total of 52 by the end of the year. This turned out to be too ambitious, and I finished 2008 having read only 17 books. I was disappointed, but that was certainly a big step up from 2007, a year in which I completed less than 10 books. Having made some progress last year, I decided to lower my expectations while still upping my total for 2009, cutting the goal down to one book every two weeks. This made my goal for the year 26 books.
In reality, this didn't result in my reading one book every two weeks. I didn't finish my first book until February, and by the end of May I'd only read four books. After reading 4 books in June alone, I didn't finish another until September 11th. At this point I picked up the pace considerably, reading five books in September, six in October, two in November (a lower total due to my teaching duties at work) and six in December.
Next year, I hope to increase my total once again. My goal for 2010 will be 39 books. In effect, that's three books for every four weeks, or as someone calculated on Facebook, one book every 9.3 days.
Here's how my reading for 2009 looked:
1. "The Associate" - John Grisham
Simply awful. Grisham was never a great writer, but his gripping suspense used to make up for what he lacked as a craftsmen. No more. Nothing happens in this book. Having worked at Yale Law School, I'd looked forward to this book because part of it takes place there. Unfortunately, there's nothing in this book to suggest that Grisham ever did one bit of research about his location. He could have swapped out the Yale name with any other school in the country and it wouldn't have affected the story at all.
2. "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry in the Digital Age" - Steve Knopper
Excellent history of the record industry's last 25 to 30 years, covering the CD boom, the teen pop fad, illegal downloading and the rise of iTunes. Knopper systematically piles on the evidence of how the music labels stubbornly ignored consumer demands, allowing outside forces to steal control of the business.
3. "High Rise" - JG Ballard
Essentially "Lord of the Flies" in a condo. Enjoyable tale of the systemic breakdown of societal and moral rules in a high rise building as essential services break down.
4. "The Bonfire of the Vanities" - Tom Wolfe
Wolfe's tale of 1980s excess on Wall Street is an enriching observation of the class splits within New York City. As with most of Wolfe's fiction, however, he hasn't the foggiest idea how to end his story, slapping on a unsatisfying non-resolution.
5. "The Gunslinger" - Stephen King
Slow-moving but somewhat interesting beginning to King's long-form fantasy series. If I was judging the series by this book alone, I wouldn't move on to book two, but I've heard enough glowing reviews of the later chapters that I suspect I'll plow ahead sometime in 2010.
6. "Generation Kill" - Evan Wright
Wright, a "Rolling Stone" correspondent, writes about being embedded with a company of Recon Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As events unfold, the book provides a good ground level view of the unconventional invasion strategy employed by military commanders that would have negative repercussions for years to come. While the conflicted statements and actions of the Marines themselves would suffice to communicate their frustration, Wright often goes too far with his unfounded speculations of what's going on in their heads. Nonetheless, and enjoyable and educating read.
7. "The Black Echo" - Michael Connelly
Connelly's first entry in his long running Harry Bosch mystery series. Much like contemporaries such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, Connelly is a reality-based suspense novelist with a knack for making his home city an enriching part of his stories. For Connelly. that home is LA, which is why I wanted to read his work. A strong debut, and I expect to read more of his work in 2010.
8. "Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen" - Mark Rudd
As an unapologetic liberal, I expected to find some sliver of common ground with Rudd through his memoir and the documentary "The Weather Underground." No such luck. The Weathermen were delusional children of privilege whose lack of regard for anyone other than themselves and their status as revolutionaries made even the Black Panthers want nothing to do with them. Rudd's book is eye-opening and informative, providing insight into a world most of us will never see, but when I closed this book for the last time, I was glad to be leaving that world behind.
9. "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" - Michael Lewis
Don't let ads for the Sandra Bullock movie adaptation fool you. This is a football book. Lewis tells how the Tuohy family took in troubled teen Michael Oher, providing him the opportunity to develop into an All-American football star. Along the way, readers learn the ins and outs of football recruiting and strategy. By the end, you'll know why left tackles are paid so much in the NFL, how the San Francisco 49ers became the dominant team of the 1980s, and why passing has become so much more important than rushing in today's game. I blame this book for getting me interested in sports again after several years of disinterest.
10. "On Writing" - Stephen King
Half autobiography, half writing manual, this book explains King's process and methods as a writer. I recommend this for anyone who does any writing in their life, no matter how minimal, as it puts into words and action the simplicity of great writing.
11. "The Lost Symbol" - Dan Brown
Perhaps the worst book one could read immediately following "On Writing." At any rate, Brown's aimless, preachy tome is the worst book I read this year. Dan Brown has never been a master of the written word (see redundant phrases like "soggy marsh"), but he's always had a knack for finding great subject matter on which to base his skeleton plots. That talent eludes him here. Perhaps he just needed to get the obligatory Freemason book out of the way so he could get back to finding subject matter he can get excited about.
12. "Duma Key" - Stephen King
Of the recent King work I've read, this comes the closest to matching the style of his 1970s and 80s greatness. Still, as strong a work as this is, it still lacks a certain oomph in its action, with most of the horror occurring "offscreen," so to speak. While containing plenty of moments of creepiness, at times it just feels as if King is pulling his punches.
13. "Flashforward" - Robert J. Sawyer
Far superior to the TV show it inspired, Sawyer's novel focuses more on the science and the impact of knowing the future than does the disappointing, poorly-acted police procedural on ABC. Sawyer is not exactly a master of prose, causing the book to fall short of what it might have been, but his story and ideas make this into a solid piece of science fiction.
14. "Heart-Shaped Box" - Joe Hill
Hill tells an entertaining enough story about a macabre rock star who purchases a haunted suit, but he never fulfills the challenge faced by any horror author of establishing a believable world that has its own rules. Instead, at any given moment, Hill allows his ghost to be capable of things that were deemed impossible earlier in the book. When the ghost inhabits a character's body late in the book, one can't help but wonder why this hadn't happened about 200 pages sooner. A great premise lazily executed.
15. "The Road" - Cormac McCarthy
One of the best books I have ever read. Devastating and beautiful. I don't know what else to say except, "Read this book!"
16. "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer" - James L. Swanson
A strong account of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and aftermath, but I have little patience for history writers who repetitively make claims as to what some long-dead person was thinking at certain moments, unless there is some sort of record on which to base such claims. Swanson mars his otherwise solid history tale with way too many "what Booth must have been thinking" moments.
17. "Revolutionary Road" - Richard Yates
It's never easy to like a story with no likable characters. Both protagonists of Yates's tale of suburban life in the 1950s are self-absorbed and somewhat delusional, but the story that the author builds around them is hypnotic and heartbreaking. Skip the movie, read the book.
18. "Juliet, Naked" - Nick Hornby
Hornby is usually at his best when writing about music, and for the first half of this novel this remains true. Sadly, the legend of Tucker Crowe, the musician at the center of the story, and the obsessed fans who discuss him online make for better reading than what Hornby provides when the real Tucker enters the book.
19. "The Lost Painting" - Jonathan Harr
As a librarian, it should be no surprise that I found myself riveted by Harr's account of an Italian grad student searching through archival records to trace the whereabouts of a lost Caravaggio painting. The world of art scholarship and provenance tracing was so fascinating to me that I found it difficult for awhile to get through books on other topics after finishing this one.
20. "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" - Mary Roach
If you can get past the morbid subject matter, this is an informative and often hilarious tour through the world of corpse science. Roach, a former travel writer, applies her travelogue methodology to a very different kind of topic with fantastic results, providing chapters on medical school gross anatomy labs, automotive crash testing, human composting, and other subjects.
21. "Carter Beats the Devil" - Glen David Gold
This was probably the most enjoyable read I had this year. Carter tells the fictionalized life story of magician Charles Carter, featuring numerous cameos from luminaries like President Warren Harding, magician Harry Houdini, and electronic television inventor Philo Farnsworth. Gold uses the apt theme of illusion to full effect throughout his story, demonstrating the many ways that our perceptions differ from reality depending upon the information we have available to us.
22. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" - Mark Haddon
Narrated by an autistic teenage boy, this book puts the reader inside a mind that operates on a literal level unlike our own. This book did more to educate me about autism than any non-fiction work has done to date. But this is more than an education, telling a gripping story about the narrator's attempt to solve a dog's murder that results in his own reality unravelling.
23. "Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax'" - Philip Plait
More than simply a book debunking pseudo-science, Plait is able to weave in on overarching story of our universe through astronomy. Highly recommended to anyone looking for an easy starting point for learning about astronomy and cosmology.
24. "The Lovely Bones" - Alice Sebold
A teenage girl watches the aftermath of her unsolved rape and murder from heaven, going through her own coming-of-age there as her friends and family do the same on Earth. There's plenty of suspense to be had as her father and sister try to prove their neighbor's guilt, but this action is secondary to the emotional developments of everyone involved, with many lives sent into unexpected directions following the murder. I won't be seeing this movie anytime soon, because I see no need to ruin the experience I had reading it.
25. "The Day We Found the Universe" - Marcia Bartusiak
Edwin Hubble always gets sole credit for discovering that there are galaxies beyond the Milky Way and that the universe is expanding, and while he was a great astronomer worthy of acclaim, the other astronomers whose work contributed to these discoveries have been all but forgotten. Bartusiak traces the full story of how the mysterious spiral nebulae were observed and theorized about by several brilliant scientists for 25 years prior to Hubble's 1925 announcement. Easily the best work of non-fiction I read this year, and not just because this was the first book that made Einstein's general theory of relativity actually make some sense to me.
26. "Await Your Reply" - Dan Chaon
I ended the year on a high note with Chaon's 2009 novel about three strangers taking seemingly unconnected journeys. The three stories are engrossing enough on their own, but as Chaon skillfully pieces them together as the book progresses, the book becomes nearly impossible to put down. "Await Your Reply" probably warrants a second read given that it becomes a different story by its end.