2006 – 25 books, 28% non-fiction, and my book of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
2007 – 24 books, 33% non-fiction, far fewer contemporary novels, and my pick of the year was Crime and Punishment.
2008 – 22 books, 54% non-fiction, all but one of the novels were contemporary. Best book I read that year was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
And 2009? Well, I read more books – 25 – than last year, with one DNF. The number of non-fiction books dropped; only six titles, 24% of the total, lower than ever before. Whether this is related to the fact this has felt like my best year in reading for a long time, I’m not sure. True, two of the non-fiction titles did belong at the bottom of the table – Jung Chang’s wearingly negative Mao biography and Philip Norman’s outdated and joyless Beatles book, Shout! – but the other four were among the best, with Ma Jian’s reckless Red Dust playing a big part in sending me to China on my sabbatical, Michael Lewis’s compelling The Blind Side introducing me to American Football and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder illuminating the links between art, science, madness and genius in a group of late 1700s scientists and thinkers.
There was also journalist Anthony Loyd’s second volume of autobiography. In the first, he is a heroin addict who decides the best way to get off the junk and get his life together is to do a quick course in photojournalism, and then go to Bosnia at the height of the civil war and give war reporting a go. The follow up, Another Bloody Love Letter, features moments considerably less sane than that. It is, however, suffused with more self-knowledge, more sadness and more righteous anger, all of which make it a terrific book to read.
All four of these non-fiction books are well worth reading. But 2009 was primarily a year for novels; I even managed to read one that was actually published in 2009 – Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. It wasn’t one of my favourites though; although it showed up on a lot of year-end ‘Best of’ lists in the US, for me, Await Your Reply was the equivalent of an album with a terrific three song stretch and nine ho-hum tracks. I certainly don’t regret having read it, but it’s not the book out of all 25 that I’d leap to recommend. It’s good to see a well written (or, ‘literary’ in publishing terminology) novel which deals with identity theft, the disconnect between the web and the world outside, but you have to read a fairly turgid first half to get to the good stuff. I wrote at the time that ‘when the book kicks into gear, it is terrific, at least for a little while, Chaon managing to remove the bottom from the characters’ world and letting them fall a long way. As good as this part is, it struggles, like so many modern books, to end, and mostly fritters away the menace and meaning of these highlights.’ Looking back, I think that’s a fair judgement, at least in terms of reflecting how I felt.
So what were the highlights?