Like many academic types, I have to read so much for research that I often run out of time for reading for pleasure. It isn’t just that I miss reading, I also miss being informed about subjects other than music. So this year, I decided I was going to make time for reading non-music books.
I can hear you splutter “Make time?!?!”
The inspiration for this was the work of Laura Vanderkam, whose podcast on time management I’m addicted to. If Laura can have four children and a stellar career and still have time for fun, I thought, I can have time for fun too (and I only have one child). I just need to make better use of the hours in my day. Just like Laura says. Be like Laura.
Here’s how I did it. Instead of lying in bed for half an hour blearily reading the New York Times on my phone and getting mad about everything in the world every morning, I decided I would get out of bed as soon as I woke up, make coffee, and sit with a book for 15 minutes. Fully awake now, I would then put on exercise clothes and run on my elliptical machine for another 15 while either reading a book or listening to an audio book. Then I would get dressed, put on makeup, and make breakfast for my daughter and me. Next, I’d walk my daughter to school, then put on headphones and listen to an audio book while I walked to work (45 minutes).
All of this necessitates an early start, but my circadian rhythms always wake me at 5:45 anyway so this new habit was simply a better use of my waking hours than reading obsessively about political catastrophes that fuel my already high anxiety levels.
When my family and I got home from work in the evenings, I would put something simple in the oven (I don’t like cooking, so it’s always something simple unless my husband cooks) and then go run on the elliptical again for half an hour with a book or audio book. Or walk my dogs while listening. My dogs were thrilled about this plan.
This ended up working really well, because now I get loads of exercise, at least by my slothful standards, and also get to read for pleasure without feeling guilty about doing anything that’s not work or spending time with my family.
Best of all, this was a very thrifty hobby, since I got almost all the books as e-books and audio books from the public library using the Libby app that all public libraries have these days. I highly recommend it, since audio books are pricey. Anything the public library couldn’t supply, I got from our magnificent University of Idaho library.
I didn’t make any especial rules for this project, but I did make a conscious decision that I’d like to read more novels and memoirs. When I read non-music books, I usually choose history and psychology, but I thought it might be fun to get a bit out of my comfort zone by reading some things I wouldn’t normally pick up.
All the Books I Read This Year
- Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Definitely put a new perspective on the Little House books, that’s for sure. I spent most of it feeling faintly horrified at Laura’s feckless Pa, Charles Ingalls, and what he put his wife and daughters through. It’s a great book.
- Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders. I’m not always a huge fan of historical novels but this one, set in plague-stricken seventeenth-century England, was brilliant. I couldn’t put it down. Read it today.
- Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. After Year of Wonders I wanted to read anything I could get by Brooks, so I picked up another historical novel set in the time of the Pilgrims. Also couldn’t put it down. Amazing.
- Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book. A multi-layered novel of scholars and researchers and stories and histories. Spellbinding.
- Roxane Gay, Hunger. A powerful memoir of Gay’s deliberate weight gain as a response to trauma. At times it was discomfiting to read, but I think she meant it to be. One of the best memoirs I’ve read.
- Liane Moriarty, Nine Perfect Strangers. I find all Moriarty’s novels delightful and ingenious, and this was no exception.
- Brené Brown, Dare to Lead. I prefer some of her earlier work, especially Daring Greatly, but it was still full of that ebullient Texan charm that makes me feel very nostalgic for the years I spent in Texas.
- Aja Gabel, The Ensemble. I usually avoid “music novels,” because for the most part authors get the music part wrong. There are a couple of notable exceptions, such as Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Mostly Gabel gets it right, though I find the idea of romance between two quartet colleagues a bit improbable. Lots of quartets have married couples, but they were usually married before they were in a quartet. The thought of falling in love with an existing quartet colleague seems far-fetched to me. If you don’t know why, ask a quartet player.
- Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered. Disappointing. I usually love her work, but this “collision of the generations” story seemed a bit contrived to me.
- Trevor Noah, Born A Crime. I’ve loved Noah’s TV show for years, but hadn’t realized how traumatic his childhood had been. It’s one of those hilarious-but-serious books. Recommend highly!
- Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety. I certainly learned a lot about anxiety from it.
- Liane Moriarty, What Alice Forgot. Charmingly idiosyncratic.
- Elizabeth Willard Thames, Meet the Frugalwoods. A book about being thrifty for those already thriving. Didn’t love it.
- Stephanie Land, Maid. A painfully honest memoir that recalls Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (in fact, Ehrenreich wrote the preface for Maid). But while Ehrenreich was only dressing up as a domestic worker, this was Land’s real life. She illustrates bravely just how hard it is to pull oneself out of poverty even when employed full-time. The stress of being just one catastrophe away from insolvency is difficult to read about — but I think we all should.
- Katie Fforde, Stately Pursuits. I needed something light-hearted to read after Maid, and this worked great.
- Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things. It was OK. The story was an intriguing one, but the writing is full of massively annoying plot holes. I probably won’t read a book by her again.
- Sarah Knight, Get Your Sh*t Together. Surprisingly good advice on, well, sorting your stuff out.
- Chelsea Handler, Life Will Be the Death of Me. Better than I thought it would be.
- Michelle Obama, Becoming. One of the best books I’ve ever read. A great American story that made me feel proud to be a (new) American.
- Dana K. White, Decluttering At the Speed of Life. Recommended to me by a friend who hates Marie Kondo. I think I prefer Marie Kondo.
- Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder. A book about Tudor times told in rather purple prose. Entertaining on a long plane trip.
- Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life. The best book I read all year. I made all my students buy it so we could have a weekly book club. Seriously one of the best books I’ve ever read.
- Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply. Another in the “painful memoir” genre. The part I loved most was her ill-fated quest to track down Caster Semenya for an interview. Great storytelling, great writing.
- Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling. Many years ago, when I first moved to London, one of the first books I bought was Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island. This book is a follow-up, and it’s just as funny and endearing. I was filled with happy memories of my time in Britain.
- Merve Imre, The Personality Brokers. A fascinating biography of the mother-daughter team behind the Myers-Briggs test. I detest MBTI (ask any psychologist why) so it was with a certain glee that I read about what a giant racket the whole thing was and is. Also, surprisingly fascist, racist, and eugenicist. The MBTI industry probably hates this book, which makes me love this book even more.
- Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink. This reminded me a lot of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. I loved it.
- Jojo Moyes, Me Before You. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I loved it.
- Jojo Moyes, After You. Because I couldn’t stop after the first one.
- Jojo Moyes, Still Me. Still couldn’t stop.
- Jojo Moyes, One Plus One. That was great too.
- Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning. Told in a series of vignettes about belonging, meaning, and purpose, this beautifully-written book is one of the best books I read all year.
- Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls. Amazing story with amazing costumes — what’s not to love?
- Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before. The blurb said it was about improving your habits, which is a subject dear to my heart, so I read it from beginning to end, but by about halfway through I was mostly only hate-reading it. Summary: bossy, hectoring, privileged lady who is oblivious to her own privilege bosses you around in hectoring tones. Don’t bother.
- Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is In Trouble. I love Brodesser-Akner’s journalism, so I thought I would love her novel, but it mostly made me feel queasy and uncomfortable. Which was probably the point.
- Max Lugavere, Genius Foods. Cranky health advice, which I ignored.
- George J. Thompson, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. A book by an ex-professor, ex-cop martial arts black belt seemed too intriguing not to read. It’s wonderful! Anyone who deals with difficult people in day-to-day life will find something in here for defusing problematic situations.
- Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Though the history and politics described are mostly British, there is still so much in here that people in any country can learn from. I learned a ton and I think all white folks should read this so they can too.
- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. I thought this was going to be a self-help book, but in fact it was a terrific read through psychological research into habits of all kinds. Highly recommended.
- David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. As a lifelong “chaos muppet” (to use Dahlia Lithwick’s wonderful term) wishing to become an “order muppet,” I’ve read umpteen books on getting yourself organized. None of them have been in the least useful, until I read Allen’s. I implemented all his advice and have become much more organized, productive, and most importantly happier as a result. If you’re a chaos muppet, you need this book.
- Dana K. White, How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind. I forgot I’d read her book on decluttering so I read this one and I made it to the end and that’s all I’m going to bother saying about it.
- Julie Lythcott-Haims, How To Raise an Adult. A former dean of freshmen at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims knows what she’s talking about. Anyone in the university business will have stories of overparented young adults who can’t take care of themselves. A lot of the material in this book reeks of wealth and privilege — my eyes went on turbo-roll at her advice to parents stop trying to get their kids into Ivy League schools and “settle” for schools like Antioch and Rice — but there’s some wisdom here too. While reading it, I started re-evaluating my own parenting, since I have no desire to raise my daughter to be helpless.
- Philippa Gregory, Tidelands. Gregory’s frocks-and-bonnets historical novels are a guilty pleasure of mine, but this one is rather different. Set in a poor tidal area in southern England during the post-Restoration era, it brings together a clash of cultures and religions and societal expectations in a harsh era of history. I loved it and can’t wait for its sequel to come out.
- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. It made me melancholy to listen to the author’s own recording of this audio book, because we all know how his story ended. But what a terrific book. I’m not terribly interested in the subject of cooking, but to hear his passion for his field and his wildly hilarious anecdotes about how he built his career was a real treat.
- Melody Warnick, This Is Where You Belong. A memoir about learning to love where you live. It was OK.
- James Clear, Atomic Habits. Now here was the book about habits I’d been wanting all my life. I love his thesis of how making tiny changes to your habits can have giant results. I started improving my own habits and my life has improved a great deal.
- Kate Atkinson, Transcription. I’m a sucker for “brave girl during WW2” novels. It was pretty good.
- Cheryl Strayed, Wild. Wow!!! No wonder this became a massive bestseller. I loved how Strayed started her huge endeavour with the wrong equipment, almost no money, and so on, and somehow managed to survive, sometimes by relying on the kindness of strangers. What a great way to work through and work off grief and pain. I can’t say I’m going to go out on a giant hike, but it made me feel inspired to start on some huge projects of my own.
- Minette Walters, The Last Hours. I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did, but in the end it reminded me of a sort of medieval version of Lord of the Flies and I stayed up late to finish it.
- Minette Walters, The Turn of Midnight. The sequel to The Last Hours. It went on a bit, but I’m glad she didn’t withhold a happy ending.
- Jojo Moyes, The Giver of Stars. A posh Englishwoman goes to Appalachia to become a librarian on horseback. I listened to it on a couple of long plane flights and adored it.
- Ali Wong, Dear Girls. A memoir written for her daughters. I almost stopped reading because I’m not a fan of Wong’s brand of crass humour, but when she started writing about her career setbacks and struggles, her words spoke powerfully to me. I’m so glad I persisted, because I learned so much.
- Oprah Winfrey, The Path Made Clear. It was cool to read about the journeys of so many super-achievers in their fields. Very thought-provoking.
- Mike Dow, The Brain Fog Fix. I hated it. In case you were considering reading it, I will summarize it for you here: “Stop looking at your phone, eating anything delicious, or doing anything fun. Instead, eat a lot of turmeric and fish. But not the cheap kind! You may only eat expensive things, otherwise your brain will leak and you are DOOMED.” I disregarded all his advice and my brain has felt better ever since.
- Julia Fox, Sister Queens. A book about Katherine of Aragon and her sister, Juana the Mad. It went on a bit, and had too much of “Meanwhile, Katherine wasn’t thinking about her sister at all, because….” and “Meanwhile, Juana was still mad.” Other than that, it was interesting enough.
- Bee Wilson, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. Utterly charming and delightful, with some touching stories from her life in there too.
- Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling Upon Happiness. A bit too clever-clever for my taste, but I did make it to the end.
Still On the Nightstand
I mean to finish these ones, I promise. I have a bad habit of not finishing books, which I’m trying to overcome.
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics For People In a Hurry. I’m always in a hurry, so perhaps this is the astrophysics book for me.
- Stephen King, On Writing. I keep hearing that I ought to read this, so I’ve checked it out.
- Sarah Dunant, Blood and Beauty. I also keep hearing that she’s great, so I got one of her books.
- Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork. I loved her other book, so hopefully this will be just as fun.
- Jojo Moyes, Silver Bay. I love everything by her, so I’m saving this for a cozy night in.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer. I’m a giant fan of Coates’ non-fiction, and I’m incredibly excited to read his first novel.
Books I didn’t Finish
OK, here’s the embarrassing bit. I tried to finish all the books I started this year, but alas, there were some I detested so much that I couldn’t read them, and some that were OK but just couldn’t keep my goldfish-like attention span, and some that had to go back to the library before I’d finished them.
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow. I kept hearing that this was fantastic, but I couldn’t concentrate and kept putting it down and not wanting to pick it up again.
- Sarah Smarsh, Heartland. I heard about it on the radio and was intrigued, but I couldn’t focus enough to get through it.
- Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad. I gave up halfway through. I think it was good, though.
- Jennifer McGaha, Flat Broke With Two Goats. The title sounded entertaining so I started reading it, but then it turned out really to be about goats. (I don’t know why this surprised me.) I do not find goats a thrilling topic, although at first I really, really tried to.
- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules For Life. Dreadful. I read about 30 pages and then realized that he really was as much of a fascist as I had suspected on page 3.
- Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code. I loved Coyle’s The Talent Code, but this one just didn’t grab me.
- Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself. This came highly recommended by a lot of my friends. Alas, my brain wouldn’t change itself enough to make it through to the end.
- Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I started this one four times, and each time lacked the focus to persist. Clearly, I need to have another go.
- Julia Kelly, The Light over London. I think this was another “brave girls in WW2” book, but I kept zoning out and returned it to the library before finishing it.
- Pamela Druckerman, There Are No Grown-Ups. Bit boring, that. I read about twenty pages.
- Shonda Rhimes, The Year of Yes. I had to return it to the library halfway through and then it’s been checked out ever since. But I think I’ll try again when I can get it again, since I was enjoying it.
- Anne Lamott, Almost Everything. I think I may try this again as a print book. I had it as an audio book and I found the author’s voice hard to understand. Even after 15 years in America, I am confused by some American accents. I wish that audio book companies would hire professional voice actors instead of having authors read their own books, unless the author is a very good reader (like Anthony Bourdain, for example).
- Simon Sinek, Start With Why. Couldn’t concentrate enough to find out why.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, No Mud No Lotus. Everyone tells me this is a life-changing read. I really want to like Thich Nhat Hanh, but I just… have a very short attention span. No lotus for me.
- Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win. This sounded promising, but ultimately the swaggering machismo of the writing style did my head in and I just couldn’t.
- Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind. Sadly, mine was too disorganized to benefit.
- Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, Altered Traits. I can’t remember why I put it down. I think it was overdue and I never checked it out again.
What are the best and worst books you read this year?