A Year of Reading Differently

December 23rd, 2015 § 10 comments

I’m listening to ‘A Long December’ for the first time in 2015.

I don’t let myself listen to this song much.  I tend to melancholy; if I didn’t impose some rules I’d wander around in a haze of mono no aware 24/7.  I’d go full Toreador, and you never go full Toreador.  But if there’s a time for listening to a song about looking back, and looking forward, it’s the hinge of the year, and this has been a year of moments for holding on.  A lot of what’s happened is too personal for the public space: friendships forged and built, relationships deepened, communities cultivated, and a general development in directions I’ve never moved before, even as (and possibly because) I’ve written a truly enormous amount, for me anyway.

There’s a story that before 1905, before Einstein, the scientific establishment regarded physics as essentially a solved problem.  There were a few weird corners to finish filling in, some shading to correct—that pesky perihelion of Mercury, for example—but we thought we understood the world in which we lived, at the macro scale.  And we understood so little!  What we thought was the world was in fact the corner; what we thought was the corner was in fact the world.  Adulthood, or this reasonable facsimile of it I’m growing into, feels like that for me.  I keep turning around and realizing how much more there is out here.  I’m thirty-one now.  When I was younger, I expected to have everything figured out by this point.  I didn’t even know, back then, what there was to figure out.

But all that stuff is too big to tackle in one essay, so I’ll focus on one particularly cool aspect of the year.

In June of 2014, I caught dinner with my friend Chris, who mentioned that he was taking a year to read exclusively books by women.  That seemed an interesting and praiseworthy project; I had initial doubts, but I know well enough to suspect those doubts, so I sat with the idea for a while.

There were minor professional issues: I read my own books, and I receive books to review and blurb, some of which are by dudes, and I receive friends‘ books to beta read, and some of my friends are dudes.  Any reading project, then, would need a touch of flexibility for professional commitments.  That said, I don’t read particularly quickly—about a book a week, if they’re not terribly long books—and the dynamics of kyriarchy are such that I might find myself unconsciously prioritizing books by dudes that I “had” to read.  Tack three or four “haves” together, and all of a sudden I would have abandoned my project for a month or two.  Also, I wanted to read more widely across a number of spectrums, of which gender was only one.

In the end, I settled on a related project: I wouldn’t read two books by straight white cis men back to back.  (I excluded graphic novels, since I read a trade paperback in under an hour.)  I started late that summer.  2015 has been my first full year of this approach.

The easy executive summary is that this project hasn’t changed my reading habits much at all.  I’m still reading fantastic books by authors I know and love, and uncovering new authors at the same pace.  I expected I’d have to adjust my reading patterns a lot to compensate; in fact I’ve rarely had to delay reading something I wanted by even so much as a week.

But there are subtle differences, and they bear mentioning.

I’ve been slightly less likely to reread series by white dudes.  Not that I go on series kicks much in general—I think my last was in college, if you don’t count a Name of the Wind reread before Wise Man’s Fear hit shelves—but I, for example, did not embark on the epic Terry Pratchett reread I considered, or my always-threatened second time through Book of the New Sun.  But those books aren’t going away, and Pratchett doesn’t need to be read in a solid streak.  This is, however, the reason I haven’t yet read the Iremonger trilogy, even though a great friend whose taste I trust implicitly has been urging me to for most of the year.

regularly found myself reading some fantastic book that I’ve known for years was hugely important, pivotal, groundbreaking, and just kept putting off for, you know, reasons.  “Why the hell,” sez I on the train, gasping, exhilarated, overcome with awe, “did it take me this long to read To the Lighthouse?”  “The Fire Next Time is every bit as brilliant as people have been telling me for a decade, and it’s only like eighty pages long.  Why did I not—”  Midnight’s Children!  Fucking Midnight’s Children, which is a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed literary novel about the X-Men, what was I waiting for.  I knew I loved Woolf.  I loved Satanic Verses.  So why did I read [stack of mediocre novels] before these?

… Oh.

Oh.

oh.

One exists, of course, within a karmically determined universe.  One’s choices, even at the most minute level, are shaped by overlapping fields of power arising from the movements and injustices of history.  If we’re not conscious in the way we engage with those fields and manipulate them, we perpetuate them.  But it’s scary to see that face to face, to recognize its presence in one’s migration of one’s library.  (I owned all the books I mentioned in that paragraph already, and had for at least five years.  I just hadn’t read them.)

I became a lot more aware of authorial identity—which was great.  Dumas was black!  Foucault was gay!  The author may be dead, but authors aren’t, and it’s cool to open up these authors as characters in history, think about who they were, who they might have been, what they saw and felt and how it shaped their work.  Of course, including sexuality into the question is a bit tricky for modern authors I don’t know personally.  I don’t stress about that too much.

I read a lot of recent SF and fantasy, both off the heritage genre shelf and out of  YA.  The field is thriving and awesome.  More new great writers arise every week.  I went for months reading fantastic book after fantastic book before I realized I hadn’t read a book by a straight white guy since April.

There’s a bullshit narrative about how projects like this amount to “eat your vegetables,” and nothing could be further from the truth.  My reading list was enormously diverse purely from a genre perspective: formally experimental literary fiction, essays, voice-dense urban fantasy, poetry, hard science fiction whatever that is, fantasy with swords, fantasy without swords, fantasy with Regency Romance, soft SF, space opera, postcyberpunk, actually every goddamn permutation on -punk you could imagine, nonfiction of every stripe under the sun, apologetics, literary theory, historical fiction, mystery…  I read books that made me cry for the first time in years, books that made me punch the air, books that made me hallucinate a heavy metal soundtrack, books that made me scratch my head, books that made me eagerly text friends quotes.  I read books that changed me, books I loved, books I liked, books I shrugged and set down.  In fact, one of the many ways this project helped me, was by encouraging me to think about reading as a project: what’s after this?  What’s next?  Why?

Nonfiction proved trickier than fiction.  If I wanted to read about some particularly narrow topic, for research purposes I might find myself choosing between three white dudes—which, notes for a future discussion about authority and technocracy.

I’ve read great books this year, and I’ve had a fantastic time.  I could talk about local and absolute maxima of pleasure, about the risk of reading and the gravity of power.  If I had more time, or wasn’t in need of breakfast, I probably would.  But the simplest takeaway’s probably the empirical one: I can name more books I’ve read from the last year that I’d stack among the best books I’ve ever read than I can from the three years before that.

I wish I’d kept a more comprehensive Goodreads list this year—for next time, certainly.  But, glancing back: Read Dhalgren.  Read Seraphina and Shadow Scale.  Read Code Name Verity.  Read Uprooted.  Read White is for Witching and Mister Fox.  Read To The Lighthouse.  Just read, you know?

Go forth and have a pleasant holiday.  May this year will be better than the last.

I’ll be a Star Wars geek again next week.

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§ 10 Responses to A Year of Reading Differently"

  • BSD says:

    Looking back at my kindle history for the year, I think I almost achieved this (assuming my reading sequence approximates my purchase sequence, which it mostly does with a caveat to be discussed later, and not counting comics (on Unlimited) or story collections), with two caveats: In July, Last First Snow and Annihilation Score came out in back-to-back weeks (so it’s ALL YOUR FAULT), and just this month I’ve mainlined Tom Holt’s JWW books.

    Where I did fall down was in trying to get through books I enjoy but are long enough or complicated enough they take longer than 5 days of my reading time: One Nation Under God and the back half of Fukuyama’s two-parter being the big ones there.

    • max says:

      Hah! Well, selfishly I don’t apologize for breaking your reading streak.

      I know what you mean about the big-long-chewy books. I’m reading Team of Rivals now, and while it’s a very smooth read from a prose perspective, it’s been a long time since I read something this, well… long! I have to re-adjust my expectations about pacing.

      • J. Cormier says:

        I find non-fiction tough for exactly this reason. I find myself thinking, “Hmm, this first act could use some tightening up,” then remind myself that it’s not an act. It’s reality. Or history. And leaving stuff out for the sake of pacing wouldn’t, like, be professional.

  • J. Cormier says:

    What a lovely piece. I appreciate the points you’re making here. The “Why did I read [this] before [this]?” is a constant refrain in my mind. It does seem like every time I push myself out of my comfort zone or rut, I end up enjoying reading much, much more. The older I get, the more I have to adjust my expectations. The books I used to read as pure entertainment have become dull in comparison to the wealth of diverse fiction that’s out there.

  • MarkC says:

    “books that made me hallucinate a heavy metal soundtrack” which book did this and was it good?

  • […] Max Gladstone’s year of reading differently. […]

  • ConFigures says:

    I read Midnight’s Children in college (1986?) and am so with you there.

  • […] Max Gladstone, “A Year of Reading Differently.” […]

  • Jane says:

    “I write books and games—most notably the Craft Sequence, tales of wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees.”
    If I had never read any of your books before, this sentence would make me run to my library website, Amazon, and Goodreads, and find something that you’ve written!
    But the beauty is that my daughter introduced me to your writing a year or so ago. Now, I must go forth and read more.

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