Saturday, December 31, 2011

One Year, One Hundred Books

Sometime around January 1, 2011, I stumbled upon one of those sites where readers had challenged each other to read a hundred books throughout the year. It seemed ridiculously easy at the time, but in fact I almost didn't make it. This has everything to do with my penchant for picking up fat biographies and even fatter books on American History. Early on, I knew I'd have to set some arbitrary ground rules: graphic novels would be acceptable but cookbooks were a sin. So while I can report it wasn't all heavy tomes whose weight broke my Kindle's back, I have to admit I only finished the last book on December 30 at around four o'clock. You can see the full list here.

Some may take exception to the presence of graphic novels and plays on my list, but I'd argue that such items are necessary for anyone planning on following in my, er, booksteps. Consider them as you would consider sorbet during a fancy meal: something to cleanse the palette in-between a heavy course. This isn't an insult. Sorbet is a complex thing, as anyone who's tried to make it can attest. A good sorbet - with or without the liqueur - is a bit of a godsend and there have been plenty of times when the sorbet has impressed me more then the course that came after it. Similarly, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman impressed me far more than Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood.

Reading one hundred books in a year isn't much of a boast: it won't impress the ladies and if you're running for office, it might even turn voters away ("Why is he reading so much? Shouldn't he be out there running the country?"). But for the bibliophile, it can be a pleasant challenge that forces you to get your head out of the Internet. I found myself wantonly distracted throughout 2010 and though my To Read pile increased, the amount of books I actually read was pitiful. I became sentimental for those days as a boy when I would scamper off to summer camp, my duffel bag filled with six or seven books which I read in under a week (I went to camp for the privacy, not the activities). My 2011 challenge, then, was actually an attempt to recapture my inner bookworm, who I had feared had been trampled by the passing of time.

I'm happy to say that he's still alive and just as voracious as ever. Like the alcoholic, I took a single drink and was lost to the ages. Looking back over the list, I'd have to say that my favorite non-fiction read was Kenneth Ackerman's Dark Horse, a book whose relevance will be even greater as we head into the 2012 Republican primaries. I began a (literary) love affair with Sarah Vowell and rekindled the spark between me and Brian Moore. But my favorite fiction of the year is either E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley or Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. For audiobooks, you can't get much better then The Mark of Zorro, although anything read by B.J. Harrison is usually a treat. And I'd have to say the best part of the challenge was that I was able to bookend it with the two volumes of Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics, a companion set that serves as memoir and playwriting masterclass even as it gives a slight orgasm to the musical theatre geek within.

Reading is an intimate and ultimately private act; it's about personal gratification, much like another activity most people do in bed late at night. If your resolution is to read more this year, use the 100 book challenge as your guide: but don't despair if you don't make it. The moment reading becomes a chore, it has defeated its purpose, one of the reasons why academic settings tend to dissuade more people from reading then the Internet ever could.

And what's my reading challenge for 2012? Read Ulysses. Thing's been sitting on my To-Read pile for nearly fifteen years. I'm not kidding. Besides, it's my sister's favorite book and I don't want her ever finding out the truth.

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