A year in books – 2019

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.

Languages:

lang

 

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.

Nationalities:

by country

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.

***

Awards time:

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?

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