Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual. J.L. Borges
Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.
I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Out of Africa; Seven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen
Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.
The Sea, The Sea; Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.
High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates
Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.
On Violence by Hannah Arendt
Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.
The Handmaid’s Tale; The Penelopiad; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.
Typee; White-Jacket; Moby-Dick; The Piazza Tales by Herman Melville
Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.
Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)
He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.
The White Castle; My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Already written a review of these books here.
Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell
The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Julian by Gore Vidal
Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.
Half of a Yellow Sun; Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I already reviewed these novels here.
Things Fall Apart; No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe
This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.
Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka
Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.
Weep Not, Child; Wizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.
The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim
Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.
Song of Solomon; Beloved by Toni Morrison
This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.
Go Tell it on the Mountain; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar
A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell
After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.
Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss
Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.
Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)
Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti
Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton
Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.
Daisy Miller; The Turn of the Screw; The Aspern Papers; The Ambassadors*; The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.
Pragmatism by William James
Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.
Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.
Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson
Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.