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 novels1, and my pick of the year was Crime and Punishment.
So how did 2008 go? I read even fewer books than in 2007, which is disappointing, with just 22 finished. I read much more non-fiction than ever before – over 50% of this year’s titles (12) were based on reality2. In another break with tradition, all but one of the novels were contemporary; only Don Quixote was older than I was. The reasons for reading less were obvious: work was tough, with a lot of long hours at towards the start of the year, and the fact I spent months reading Don Quixote.
That said, I don’t regret a page of it or any of the time I invested in it; Edith Grossman’s translation is fantastic and if you feel like setting yourself a project I’d highly recommend reading it. Don Quixote was first published over 400 years ago and is now pretty much only known for two things: the word quixotic, and the idea of tilting at windmills. One of the pleasures of reading it is discovering that it’s the reputation that’s stale, not the text itself. Quixote evolves as it moves, changing because of how self-aware it is. It’s not surprising, of course, if you consider that it comes from the same time period as Shakespeare’s plays, which are often about seeing oneself, what’s faked and what’s real, but I suspect I’m not alone (perhaps lazily) in expecting a certain rigidity from older novels. On the contrary, Quixote’s story and tone is supple: at times devious and cruel to its characters, and at others funny and reflective. No more sore than Part two; originally published ten years after the first, in it Don Quixote and Sancho Panza find themselves famous (as a result of the first part) and the victims of infamy thanks to a cash-in, unofficial second volume.
Of the modern novels, some were absolute rubbish – step forward The Foreigner and Crusaders – but in general, I felt like I picked well. Haruki Murakami didn’t disappoint, but neither did the much hyped Tree of Smoke whose author, Denis Johnson, was new to me.
Looking back though, three books stand out as the ones that, after reading, I found myself either recommending to people or plotting to buy as presents: two factual ones, Evan Wright’s Iraq-set Generation Kill and Tim Butcher’s journey on the Congo, Blood River. Generation Kill is marginally the better book – Blood River has a slow start – but both are tremendous as looks at very different worlds. In particular, I really enjoyed Blood River’s way of presenting complex colonial history as a easily digestible travelogue. It’s a great place to start to get to grips with European legacy in Africa. In terms of fiction, one book stood out this year, which was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s a series of short stories set sometimes in the Vietnam war, sometimes when the soldiers are back in the States, all concerning the men of Alpha Company. The stories do intersect, but they don’t always follow in strict sequence, or link in obvious ways. The effects of the connections are what makes the book as a whole particularly powerful, giving depth, light and shadow to the trusims of how war changes the people fighting, the people waiting back home and all the places in between.
1 Written after I was born (1980).
2 Although I am including Slash’s autobiography in this, so ‘reality’ is clearly a fairly elastic term.