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titles did belong at the bottom of the table – Jung Chang’s wearingly negative Mao biography and Philip Norman’s outdated and joyless Beatles book, Shout!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?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is another novel American critics have feted. It is really, really good, but it wasn’t, for me, not the best novel of the last decade – though that case is interesting put in this piece in the New Yorker. Difficult to say why; telling the story of the geeky Oscar and his Dominican family, their flight into exile in the USA and their struggles and triumphs with life, it is brilliant to read. Junot Diaz spent ten years writing it, and instead of creating some massive door-stop of a book, Oscar Wao is compact, powerful, funny, fast and the words are just really well placed. But it wasn’t, for me, the best thing I read all year, probably because it doesn’t quite intersect completely with my interests and just didn’t quite connect completely with me; not a problem with the book then, or the reader, just in their relationship.
So what was the best thing? Well, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has a good shout at that. I’ve been a fan of Haruki Murakami since I read Norweigan Wood(1) about ten years ago (it helped I bought a lovely replica of the original Japanese version, a mock hardcover box that opens to reveal the story split between two paperbacks, red and green). It was only in 2009 that I read the book widely considered to be his best, and it didn’t disappoint. It brings together all of his obsessions, from shifting identities, the surreal nature of real life, loneliness, jazz, cats and how hard it is to know other people, especially those we love. The deliberate flatness of Murakami’s writing in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – which perhaps takes its cues from plastic surfaces, the easiness of consumer life and the coolness of post-60s love – is given depth and heart by the plot, which tackles cruelty in the here and now, and in the past, specifically World War 2. It’s a great book, and one of my favourite novels of the year.
The other would be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I read it in one go – five hours while flying to the US in October. The story of a father and son, traversing a cold, barren wilderness is terrifying, exciting and hugely affecting; when I’m writing something, the main question I think of is ‘will the reader really care about these characters?’ The answer, in The Road, is undoubtedly yes, to a degree that in the book’s moments of peril, is beautifully, painfully unbearable.
So those are my favourites; I did also really enjoy Emily Mitchell’s The Last Summer of the World, a fictional account of pioneering American photographer Edward Steichen, who lived in France just before the First World War. The plot runs a little predictably (particularly thanks to the flashback structure) but the topics – photography, memory, the world that will be burned in the war – give it an attractive melancholy and gauzy sadness. If you like historical fiction then it’s definitely worth picking up. If you like puzzles and philosophy, try The End of My Y – it’s a headspinning and ambitious time travel story.
Perhaps the biggest difference this year over previous years was the fact I started, from the summer onwards, reading eBooks. The presence of Melville and Jules Verne this year is thanks to my Sony PRS-505 eReader. It’s a beautifully engineered machine that I suspect will be outdated within six months. The interface is slow and the UI is lumpy and circuitous, but the eInk screen is as good as paper to read on. It’s also light and slim, and compatible with a wide-range of formats, so you can get reading material from a range of places.
The real downside is the computer software is dreadful, as is the shopping situation. Waterstones are currently charging £12.50 for the eBook version of Wolf Hall, when you can get the hardback from Amazon for a tenner and the paperback will then be about £6. Quite simply, that’s fucking stupid. The eBook is a tiny digital file – it doesn’t even (or doesn’t need to have) a cover graphic. The printed book is over six hundred pages long. Six hundred pages of real, actual, weighty paper. I ended up getting a friend in the US to register for the Sony US store, and I then buy books using their card (and pay them back via PayPal); this drops the cost of eBooks to $10, and unlike the Kindle store, they’re in the widely-accepted ePub standard. Even with my workaround to get the pricing right, I still had to contend with the fact the catalogue of eBooks is embarrassingly tiny. It’s very easy to find stuff which doesn’t exist in eBook format. Wolf Hall’s easy to find, but try looking for stuff from the 60s and 70s such as John Cheever, for instance. No Harry Potter, no Cormac McCarthy, either.
So there are a lot of downsides – all of them, worryingly, inflicted by the publishing industry on itself. But when it works? Getting books instantly, and being able to buy new books, which are in the press and part of current conversation (such as Wolf Hall) for a sensible price is glorious. How great would it be for, instance, if you could click on titles of the books I’ve mentioned above, see an extract, and then get the book straight away?
I think I’m right that eBooks are inevitable; revenues are growing *despite* all these obstacles being placed in the way, and the convenience factor plays a huge part in driving why people adopt new technology(2). This doesn’t mean that I think in ten years we’ll be reading eBooks as we do right now (i.e. ePub files on dedicated reader devices with eInk screens), or that paper publishing will be made obsolete, especially for mainstream novels and non-fiction – but the fact is people spend a lot of time reading on screens, instant delivery of new stuff, cheaply is a sexy premise, and getting novels onto those millions and millions of LCD screens is a huge opportunity to get a new audience excited about fiction.
(1) Apparently there’s a movie of Norweigan Wood coming out at the end of this year; stars Rinko Kikuchi, who was Oscar nominated as the deaf/mute/naked girl in 21 Grams.
(2) E.g. what most people like about DVDs over VHS is arguably not the quality of the picture, but the fact you don’t need to rewind or fast forward them.