2016 was a year for the books. Both in the sense of the popular idiom, roughly translating to "holy sh*t, did that just happen?" (I trust I needn't elaborate, you lived through it too) and in the sense of actual books. You know, literature! I used to be quite good about keeping detailed reading lists, but fell out of the habit sometime along the way. I picked it back up at the start of this past year (recording in my 5 Year Journal, about which I ought to elaborate another time) and now as we kickstart 2017, I'm looking back on my year in reading.
In 2016 I completed 55 books. More than one per week on average, bah-booh-yah! 12 of these were books I "had" to read for work, which sounds like a lot until you realize we publish 30+ titles a year. In 2017, I will do better. Of the books I read for funsies, 4 were by men and the remaining 39 by women. I realize midway through the year that I was inadvertently favoring the ladies, and decided to lean into the trend. Only three were non-fiction and all of them in the memoir/personal essay genre. A whopping 12 were psychological thrillers, the rest a pretty even mix of historical and "literary" fiction, with a handful of short story collections sprinkled on top. 14 of the overall total were written by non-white authors, which leaves the balance of 41 books by white writers, eek. Looking at my list, it appears that many of the books by nonwhite authors I read were published by my imprint, which makes me proud to work for a publisher that values diverse voices, but does encourage me to look deeper when considering the writers I'm consuming in my free time. Thinking about it now, white women (esp British) women seem to be dominating the psychological thriller genre. I wonder what's up with that?!
2016 was also a year of unfinished books. I used to be of the philosophy that you should never quit on a book, no matter what, but ride it through to the end. A year or two I abandoned that ideology and in the process, many novels that just weren’t quite for me for whatever reason. I still can't help but feel frustrated by time "lost" reading a book, only to not make it to the end, but I guess them's the breaks. I carted Zadie Smith’s newest in my bag for weeks before conceding defeat (beautiful writing, but we all know I need a fast-paced plot!), and seem to have come down with the only case of curable Ferrante Fever. The flame burned hot through all of book two, The Story of a New Name, but cooled reading the third, which I finally tossed aside ¾ through. Am I the only Ferrante Failure?? I’ve also taken to the habit of keeping inspirational or self-help type books by my nightstand, tucking into a few chapters before bed, but never really finishing any. I’ve been working through Pema Chodron’s Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times for the past few weeks (since November 9 obv) and savoring essays from Mary Oliver’s Upstream, too.
As people say about their pets or children, and I often say about sandwiches, it is hard to pick one favorite. But a few did stand out, like the bulging Italian hoagie from Faicco’s in the West Village or the gooey, savory breakfast sandwich at Deli Board in San Francisco.
Oh wait, right, this is the Year in Reading, not the Year in Eating. A few books did stand out, too! A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara remains a singular reading experience, impossible to fit into simplistic like or dislike columns. It was the very first book I read in 2016 and still it haunts me. As I recently wrote, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad blew me away, easily living up to the great hype. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett felt familiar and comforting, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi made me weep and weep and weep. American Housewife by Helen Ellis also made me weep, but with laughter. This slim little collection of stories still stands out as one of my most enjoyable reading experiences of 2016 and I’ve re-read many of the stories over and again throughout the year. My two favorite thrillers were actually the last two books I read this December, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh and Under the Harrow by Flynn Barry. Full reports to come on both!
But possibly my favorite book of 2016, were I to have to pick just one, is not a new release at all, but an old, yet eerily prescient novel, The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. Working in publishing there seem to be these classics that everyone has read and this one is pretty much the bible for literary feminists. I’d never read it and was feeling quite shameful about that fact. Finally visiting Bookshop Santa Cruz on vacation I scooped up a paperback copy and devoured it, dog earing page after page, propelled by the suspenseful plot, horrified by the connections between Atwood’s fictional dystopia and the events unfolding around me in real life. I realized that perhaps I’d yet to read it because I needed it now, this story came to me at just the perfect moment in time. If you’ve not yet read it oh, do it. And also after confessing to a few literary friends, who revealed that they too hadn't read it yet, I now know for a fact that many of you probably haven’t either and that’s totally OK! We really ought not to feel so shameful about books we have yet to read - so many books, so little time, etc. Another goal for next year! Not to read more old books, but you know, to stop assigning pass/fail grades to every decision I make. In literature as in all life!
And in 2016 I read the internet. More than any year before, I felt like a rabid consumer of all the web had to offer, highbrow and oh so low. If there was an article “How Hillary Lost” or “What The Fuck Do We Do Now?” oh, you know I read it. I read on Bernie Bros, on Standing Rock, anything with bylines by Alexandra Petri or Anne Helen Petersen. I read on super foods, core strength, Aleppo, Lemonade, fertility, cropped jeans, Drake, Flint, gut microbes, Kimye, Zika, gun control, Black Lives Matter, bullet journaling, empathy, apathy, sinusitus, manicure trends, national parks, immunity, “silent majorities,” hair volumizers, succulent gardens, Brangelina. At times my mind felt overstuffed with random knowledge, unsure of how to process, prioritize, understand.
And I read countless, endless, mostly pointless Facebook status updates and Instagram captions, scrolling, scrolling, aimlessly scrolling, often while also eating, watching TV, or yes, even on the john, seemingly unable to just allow my brain to do one thing at a time, to take a single second from endless stimuli. This is one of my main “reading” goals for the year ahead. Less mindless scrolling, more intentional consumption. I realized I may have reached a breaking point when several times in a row Brian came upon me face pressed to phone and asked “whatcha looking at?”, and my response was “Oh, some random person on Instagram.” Unnecessary! The internet can be a big and beautiful space and falling into a Kinfolk prairie mama Instagram k-hole can be a fun way to pass a few idle minutes but so can ripping tequila shots and maybe both activities ought to be limited to special occasions only.
So that’s Year in Reading: 2016...what do I hope 2017 will bring? Why don’t we make a list!
Less aimless, pointless scrolling.
More non-white authors + intentional focus on other areas of diversity - gender, sexuality, physical ability, etc. Essentially, who is being overlooked in publishing and how can I do a better job of acknowledging that imbalance?
Read more books for work. I have a habit of only reading the books I’m immediately assigned to, plus any fun and sexy fiction we publish, ignoring a lot of the really interesting nonfiction we put out (...more on this in a second). Even if I don’t read every word, I want to at least dip into every book on our 2017 list and better support my colleagues and the authors we represent.
NONFICTION! This is my biggie. I realized that I essentially never, ever read nonfiction, and when I do, it’s probably a funny feminist memoir. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it’s an area that gives me room for growth. I do think there is a lot to learn about the world from fiction, but as I enter a period of political uncertainty, with a personal goal towards becoming a better global citizen, it might be time to break out the big guns. There’s so much incredible, investigative nonfiction work that may help me to reframe how I see the world and my place in it. In 2017 I plan to read one work of nonfiction on a social justice or sociology subject each month. Let’s make a list within this list!!!
January is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, a book my very brilliant friend Katie has been telling me to read for a literal year.
In February I’ll tackle The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, another one of those seminal works of woke literature that I’ve been pretending to read but oops, never have.
March - December: HELP A SISTER OUT?! I have a list going here, but would loooove to hear suggestions from y’all.
I also just purchased The Fire Next Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward with essays by a lot of other exceptional black writers, and plan to make this my in-between book, dipping into essays on subway rides, or whenever I’m in between books and can’t seem to commit to starting anything big and new. It’s usually in this window that I reach for thrillers or lighter fare and that’s all well and good and you KNOW I’m going to still go all in on those genres, but it wouldn’t hurt to push beyond that too.
I picked up these three books at Barnes & Noble yesterday (I was too hungover to walk the four extra blocks to the local indie, so sue me) (crushing 2017 so far!!), the guy behind the counter rang me up, gave the books a once-over, and said “well that’s a fiery start to the new year!”
What will you be reading in 2017??? Aside from Hottsauce Blog Dot Com, obviously. And what was your fave in 2016? My TBR is ever growing and I'm all ears (err...eyes?) for your suggestions!
Wishing you a HOTT and spicy 2017, my friends!