Since 2007 I’ve kept a notebook in which I record every book I finish reading in a given year (though I didn’t always start reading them in that year) and the date I complete it. I was just now entering the last book I finished—an hour ago: A Burning in My Bones, the new Eugene Peterson biography—and had a look at previous entries. I keep telling people that I, too, suffered from the common pandemic affliction of being unable to read. I’ve just been too distracted and too tired to focus on reading, is what I say. But when I flipped back in my notebook to last year’s list and then flipped back through all the years of reading before then, I was surprised to see that last year I finished more books than I had in any of the nine years before that.
Then for a moment, I thought that it was just that I was unable to read certain kinds of books, not books generally. Reading in theology and Christian discipleship is pretty important to me, but those books are not always easy to focus on, and so I must not have read much of that last year. But looking more closely, I see that about a third of the books I read would broadly fit into the theology/discipleship category. So that’s not it, either.
I can’t explain the incongruence with the sense that I was unable to read—which I suppose was at least true for extended periods of time during the pandemic…nope: on average two books every month without missing a month—and the actual number of books I recorded in my notebook for 2020.
But I do see that the list was beefed up by the seven Harry Potter books, which I breezed through in September and October (should children’s books count?) and there are also three Billy Collins poetry collections I recorded for 2020. I’m not sure whether I should count poetry collections, which tend to be short, or if they should count as only a fraction of a book each, so that the three Collins collections would count as maybe one book. But then I imagine it took as much time for me to get through Collins’ books as it did to get through the earlier Harry Potter books, and I derived equal pleasure from both authors.
I read two Marilynne Robinson books—Home and Lila, sequels of sorts to Gilead—in anticipation of the release of her new book, Jack. I think I enjoyed those books. I think I did. She’s one of those authors who keeps me reading, but I always wonder if there’s something I’m missing in the story, something I’m supposed to get, but don’t.
I reread Orwell’s 1984, because my daughter was (supposed to be) reading it for school and I thought I would read it along with her. It also seemed fitting for the political climate of the day (I’m told Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is an even better fit, but I didn’t get to that one). I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, one of those books I read for the first time after I saw the film adaptation, but which I think may have make the experience of reading it that much better (but I can’t know for sure, since I haven’t read it any other way). I imagine the desert scenes and yellow colouring of the film as I read and it warms me up. I reread Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves, because, well, it’s Wodehouse and was surprised by vaguely racist content that I didn’t remember being there.
I read a pastoral book by Eugene Peterson and a book of Peterson’s letters to his son. Then I struggled through an old translation of George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, because I had heard Peterson recommend it as essential reading for a pastor. I didn’t love it, but I was fascinated by it, so I ordered a newer translation to give it a second go sometime. I was disappointed by a monk’s memoir. I read other theological and spiritual books, but I don’t remember much about most of them, but I tend to think of them more as mind shaping than books to remember.
The year started with a book I was very excited about: David Orr’s The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, which is about Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and how, well, we all get it wrong. The book interested me because I’ve long thought that most people misused the poem, or at least Dead Poet’s Society did. The book was interesting, but didn’t fulfill my high expectations.
I canoed along in my imagination with Adam Shoalts as he mapped unmapped territory in northern Ontario in Alone Against the North. I enjoyed the Diary of the proprietor (name of Shaun Bythell) of a used bookstore in a remote Scottish town, and then immediately ordered and consumed his Confessions. I was disappointed by the autobiography of Garrison Keillor, a man whose storytelling I admire, but perhaps fiction is better than fact.
The high point of my year in books could be either one of two books. Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, really was a great espionage story. Le Carré, but real life. Gripping. The Cold War was really great for books, wasn’t it? John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air left me breathless (pun not intended until I realized what I had written). I’m not sure which of the two was better, but then they’re very different books. I would recommend them both eagerly and unreservedly.
I guess I was able to read in 2020 after all.