The basic stats from My 2019 in Books tell a story. How does it all break down?
Total books read: 219
Re-reads: 48 (22%)
So, a fifth of all the books I’ve read this year are ones I’d read before. That doesn’t surprise me: I’ve always gone back to books I love. What does surprise me is what I haven’t read this year: no Clive Barker (other than the Nightbreed tie-ins); no Neil Gaiman or China Mieville; only one Stephen King; and no Renaissance drama (Shakespeare/ Marlowe/Webster, etc.).
Graphic: 60 (27%)
A quarter I’ve classed as “graphic”: that is, they’re manga/comics/bandes dessinée. That’s probably slightly higher than other years but then half of those are the 27 individual volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist, which my son got me into.
Just over half are works whose original language is English. As above, many of the 44 translated from Japanese are manga. I’m happy that a quarter of the total are from other European languages, with French and German leading the way. One book – a history of the Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise pro cycling team – I actually read in the original Dutch, and it’s always good to remember that English is far from the only language of the United Kingdom’s nations.
As you’d expect there’s a broad overlap between language and nationality but not, of course, a complete fit. Tristan Tzara’s poems were in French but he was Romanian, most of the German-language lit I’ve read has been Austrian.
Libraries: 101 (46%)
I’m doing my bit to counter the decade of Tory austerity by ensuring my local libraries are in demand. Almost half were from libraries: mostly Edinburgh City or Midlothian public libraries, with a few from Edinburgh University & Edinburgh College of Art too.
Writer I’d always meant to read: Yukio Mishima. I made up for lost time here, reading all but 2 (I think) of his works that are available in English. As I wrote in my article on him, the books do tend to blur a bit in the memory, but The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea and Life For Sale retain an immediacy that makes them the ones I’d recommend.
Also: Robert Musil. I attempted the humungous The Man Without Qualities in 2000 and really didn’t get very far at all. One of the epics of High Modernism along with Joyce, Mann & Proust, it took me two decades to give it another go. I may not get much further than the first volume this time around, but I’m glad I got that far at least.
Writer(s) I’d always meant to read more of: Franz Kafka & Virginia Woolf. I went through a modernism phase in the spring (helped by a 3 for 2 offer in my local bookshop) so I was able to read The Castle for the first time. Its unfinished state seemed almost part of the plot. To The Lighthouse underwhelmed me, but The Waves I found breathtaking.
Also: Amos Tutuola, a writer who should be better known. Faber’s current editions of his work are dazzling and vibrant, just like his folklore-inspired tales from the heart of Nigeria.
Writer(s) I’m looking forward to reading more of: Adam Scovell. Mothlight was one of the year’s early highlights. I hadn’t been too enthused by the mise-en-scene but ended up highly impressed. His next novel – How Pale The Winter Has Made Us, out early 2020 – sounds superb and therefore is hopefully even better.
Also: Max Porter, whose Lanny is outstanding.
Best re-read: Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. After re-reading the excellent Northern Lights and the not-quite-as-good-but-still-very-enjoyable The Subtle Knife, I swithered over the final part of the His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s not a book I had fond memories of, though it’s at least fifteen years since I read it. But what a work this is. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the books that have ever made me shed a tear, but this one did. The emotional heights and depths are breathtaking, and Pullman’s overarching ideas are so elegantly expressed I really couldn’t see what had turned me against it the first time. A truly wonderful, epic, novel.
The fact that I re-read a book at all generally means I hold it in high esteem, but an honourable mention also goes to Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow, which I can see myself revisiting every winter.
Also: Dubliners (obvs).
Eyes opened/mind blown: Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. And that’s just the cover illustration. His best work, and that’s saying something. Where next?
Also: Philip Payton’s Cornwall: A History. I thought I knew a little bit about Cornwall, and it turns out I was right: I really did only know a little. A fascinating look at Cornwall from the Bronze Age to Eden, from the refreshing point of view that it enjoys an entirely separate history from England.
Also: Tom Phillips’ A Humument.
Writers I’d never heard of last year and want to read more of next: Arthur Schnitzler. The tail-end of the year saw me deep into German lit. and Schnitzler’s Late Fame was the cream (schlag?) of the crop.
Can’t see what all the fuss is about: A controversial choice this, but Alan Garner’s Red Shift and Thursbitch. I can see what he’s doing, and I do understand why people adore his work, but The Owl Service aside (and that took this year’s re-read for me to enjoy), I guess he just isn’t for me.
Books I couldn’t finish (and therefore didn’t make the list): George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man. In 1995, studying Victorian Lit at University, I thought life was too short to bother with George Eliot. In 2019 I found no reason to change my opinion. As for Perec, this, his only “conventional” novel, lacked the spark, the fun, the wit and ingenuity of his other – often unclassifiable – writing.
Roll on 2020. I’m not aiming to top this year’s total because 200+ books is almost embarrassing: shouldn’t I have been doing other things?