On Reading Widely: 2017 book list

At the end of 2016 I read a lot of year-end lists from people who’d only read books by women or books by people of color or queer writers. These were justice-minded readers, whose goals were to support expanded diversity in the literary community. I wanted to be that kind of reader, and I wanted to read all of the (hundreds of) books on all of these lists. But I already had dozens of unread books on my bookshelves, books I wanted to read, many of them by writers who would have easily fit on any one of these lists.

So I began 2017 with a single criterion for my reading list for the year: I would spend the year reading books I should have read a long time ago. This left a lot of room for possibilities, because there were a lot of individual books and plenty of genres I had dismissed without much thought, or had never had time enough to read. But 2017 was the year I spent hundreds of hours on the train, back and forth to a job in another state, and there were days when all I wanted was to get back on the train so I could finish a chapter. I found solace in books.

In the last twelve months, I read widely. I read more books of poetry (seven), more graphic novels (nine), and more fantasy than I ever had before, and I formed very definite opinions about certain writers who’ve garnered a lot of acclaim for their work but who left me feeling unsatisfied. I picked up some books and nearly put them down again, and because of that impulse I committed to reading against type. I read so many essays. I returned to short stories and, finally, learned to love them—and, by consequence, I actually finished writing two long-languishing stories, because it’s true that you have to steep yourself in the kind of writing you want to write. I asked people what they were reading and recorded their recommendations (I learned, in the process, to record who recommended each book, so that I could ask for more suggestions), and I read some of them, and now I have a book list that will last me years (decades, probably).

This was the year I had three or four books going at once, the year I found unexpected connections between the work I was reading and the work I was producing. Reading this year became a different kind of MFA program: I read for pleasure, yes, but I was always reading like a writer. I devoured good sentences, delighted in discovering new authors, read widely and with particular craft questions in mind. It was the year I realized every piece of media consumed makes up a writer’s toolkit, and that every published word makes up a writer’s canon.

Here’s the most important thing I learned: Read outside your comfort zone. Pick up a book even if you feel in your bones that you’ll likely put it down fifty pages in. Put the book down if you want. Keep reading. There are so many books. And if you really hate the book that won the Man Booker Prize, fine. Have your reasons and cultivate your own tastes. (I learned this attitude from one of the books I read this year, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.)

I read 90 books this year, including 60 books written by women, and 23 by people (mostly women) of color. Compiling this list, I was surprised at the number of Mary Roach books I read this year (four) and the number of Margaret Atwood books (zero). Of the 20 books written by white men, 6 were by C. S. Lewis, 2 by Neil Gaiman, and two by Art Spiegelman. Next year maybe I’ll plan to read fantasy series written by women of color–suggestions welcome!

  1. Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shatterly (nonfiction) *
  2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (novel) *
  3. Grunt, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  4. Vivid and Continuous, John McNally (craft)
  5. Some Change, June Jordan (poetry)
  6. Emma, Jane Austen (novel)
  7. American Gods, Neil Gaiman (novel)
  8. The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  9. The Horse and His Boy, S. Lewis (novel)
  10. Gulp, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  11. Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  12. Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, Susan Morrison (essays)
  13. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan (nonfiction)
  14. Kindred, Octavia Butler (novel)
  15. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (novel)
  16. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  17. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (novel) *
  18. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie (essay)
  19. How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen (craft)
  20. The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez (essays)
  21. Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf (craft)
  22. Thrice Told Tales, Catherine Lewis (craft)
  23. The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  24. Lying, Sissela Bok (nonfiction)
  25. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis (novel)
  26. On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Rita Dove (poetry)
  27. The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop, Danell Jones (craft) *
  28. Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin (craft)
  29. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck (novel)
  30. The Door of No Return, Dionne Brand (poetry)
  31. Modern Critical Interpretations of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Harold Bloom (craft)
  32. When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson (essays)
  33. Citizen, Claudia Rankine (poetry) *
  34. March: Book One, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  35. Relish, Lucy Knisely (graphic novel)
  36. March: Book Two, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  37. March: Book Three, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  38. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Mildred Taylor (novel) *
  39. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (novel)
  40. Normandy, Wayne Vansant (graphic novel)
  41. Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher (memoir)
  42. Bonkers, Jennifer Saunders (memoir) *
  43. The Art of Community, Charles Vogl (nonfiction)
  44. Sent by Earth, Alice Walker (poetry)
  45. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (novel) *
  46. Blue-Tail Fly, Vievee Francis (poetry)
  47. Maus 1, Art Speigelman (graphic novel)
  48. The Taste of River Water, Cate Kennedy (poetry) *
  49. Maus 2, Art Speigelman (graphic novel)
  50. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli (nonfiction)
  51. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (novel) *
  52. Stiff, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  53. Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele (nonfiction)
  54. Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy, Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, Allen (graphic novel)
  55. Spook, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  56. Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein (novel) *
  57. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (novel)
  58. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (nonfiction) *
  59. Deep South, Paul Theroux (nonfiction)
  60. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A Fuck, Sarah Knight (nonfiction) *
  61. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (novel) *
  62. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (novel) *
  63. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (novel) *
  64. The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka (novel) *
  65. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (novel)
  66. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling (novel)
  67. God Help the Child, Toni Morrison (novel)
  68. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman (novel)
  69. A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness (novel)
  70. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling (memoir)
  71. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast (graphic novel)
  72. Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver (novel) *
  73. The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (craft)
  74. Archangel, Andrea Barrett (short stories) *
  75. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, Louise Murphy (novel)
  76. Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun (craft) *
  77. Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness (novel)
  78. Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (novel)
  79. One Came Home, Amy Timberlake (novel)
  80. Why I’m Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin (nonfiction)
  81. Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison (nonfiction)
  82. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Bakman (novel) *
  83. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, bell hooks (nonfiction)
  84. Dark Roots, Cate Kennedy (short stories) *
  85. Flesh and Blood, Stephen McGann (memoir)
  86. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (essays)
  87. Separate Kingdoms, Valerie Laken (short stories) *
  88. Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren (novel)
  89. The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit (essays)
  90. Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food, Peggy Wolff (essays)

* books I loved





On Learning: 2014 book list

During the course of my MFA program at Pacific University I had to keep track of the books I was reading for my Official Reading List, and, after graduation, the sense of accomplishment of simply having managed to continue to read books has made post-graduation writing life seem more productive. Before grad school, I was a haphazard reader, and I hated reading more than one book at once. In the months since graduating, I’ve read more voraciously than I ever have, greeting each book with the question, “What can I learn from you?” In fact, preparing this list for this post made me pay attention to the kinds of books and authors I read this year, made me think more critically about who and what I want to read. (And now, in the aftermath of some Christmas generosity, I need to find more bookshelves to house the growing stacks of books in Read This Next piles.)

So, here’s the list of books I read in 2014! The list doesn’t include the book I’m in the middle of reading (Julie Andrews’s Home, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres), and it doesn’t include craft books I read during my last semester at Pacific. Some of the post-graduation titles will be obvious (no HP on my reading list), and some of these books I revisited like old friends (Jane Eyre is high on that list). My favorites are starred.

  1. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson *
  2. No One is Here Except All of Us, Ramona Ausubel
  3. Levels of Life, Julian Barnes
  4. Miss Fuller, April Bernard
  5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon *
  7. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
  8. Ralph S. Mouse, Beverly Cleary
  9. The Witches, Roald Dahl
  10. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis *
  11. The World of a Few Minutes Ago, Jack Driscoll *
  12. The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich
  13. Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton *
  14. Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  15. Stardust, Neil Gaiman *
  16. The Killings at Badgers Drift, Caroline Graham
  17. The Magicians, Lev Grossman
  18. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon *
  19. Tinkers, Paul Harding *
  20. The Obituary Writer, Ann Hood *
  21. The Blessings, Elise Juska *
  22. Little Century, Anna Keesey *
  23. The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
  24. Haussmann, or The Distinction, Paul Lafarge
  25. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis
  26. The Good Lord Bird, James McBride *
  27. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley
  28. Here Lies The Librarian, Richard Peck
  29. Still Life, Louise Penny
  30. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx *
  31. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling
  32. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling
  33. The Tales of Beedle the Bard, JK Rowling
  34. Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick *
  35. The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Mary Helen Stefaniak *
  36. The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Mary Helen Stefaniak (I really did read this twice. Completely, utterly worth reading over and over again.)
  37. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf *
  38. The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen

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