A Year In Reading: Jenny Davidson

December 18, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 12 2 min read


Fifteen things about my year in reading:

1.   My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles.  Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.

2.  My other most immersive reading experience, magically transporting in a perfectly satisfying fashion: rereading War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

cover3.  The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

4.  The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.

5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

6.  Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great.  The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.

cover7.  The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

8.  The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design.  The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.

cover9.  The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse.  In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)

10.  I found Keith RichardsLife incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.

11.  Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.

12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.

13.   Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books.  (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)

14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.

15. In September, I got a Kindle.  It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better.  The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

teaches eighteenth-century literature in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  Her most recently published novel, Invisible Things, is the sequel to The Explosionist; she is also the author of another novel, Heredity, as well as two academic books, Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen and Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century.  Current projects include a little book on style and a novel tentatively entitled The Bacchae on Morningside Heights.


  1. The wonderful thing about the Dunnett books is that you can read them again and again! I first read Lymond Chronicles in high school (in the 70s!) and have read them many times since. Somehow they get better each time! I think it’s almost time to read the Niccolo books again!

  2. Considering we have similar tastes and I read and loved some of the same books you did, I feel like you would really like Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

  3. As a follow-up to the Renault novels you might consider Annabel Lyon’s excellent novel about Aristotle and Alexander, THE GOLDEN MEAN.

  4. I have read War and Peace so many times – such an amazing book. And early in my writing career, I kept the first line of Donna Tartt’s Secret History (which I like better than Little Friend) up on my cork board, for inspiration.

  5. Dear Jenny: I read your blog Light Reading. Besides your teaching load, your writing, running and swimming, maintaining your blog, reading the articles which get linked to your blog, you are a wonderment to me. Just how fast do you read? It seems to me you read something like 300 or 400 books a year? I love it that you read great and gutter with nary a blush or a stutter.

  6. I enjoyed reading these comments – a pool of like-minded readers!

    Yes, I loved The Little Stranger, what a wonderful book – and Waters mentioned Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair as the inspiration for that novel, Tey is another favorite of mine…

    I am on the lookout for a copy of The Secret History, unfortunately not obtainable by Kindle (I am on an island right now!) – I read it many years ago, and actually have it in the back of my mind as one model for the novel I’m writing now. Hmmm, might be better to wait to reread till I’ve finished a draft?

    I am excited to get the Annabel Lyon book!

    Ruby – you are too kind!

  7. Jenny,

    I am must start reading your blog. Like the others who have commented here, I found my head nodding in agreement at many of the books you have enjoyed. I read Anna Karenina for the first time this past year, and your mention of War and Peace spurred me on to buy it in order to read it as well. And I am a huge fan of Donna Tartt! I loved, loved, loved The Secret History, especially because I studied Latin in high school and in college. I can’t wait to check out some of the books you recommended!

  8. I’ll add my voice to the chorus championing Dunnett. Thanks to Jenny’s recommendation I started in on the House of Niccolo books this summer, carefully paced myself through the fall, and closed the final one with, as Jenny wrote, a real sense of loss last week. They’re like nothing else I’ve ever encountered; I’m indescribably grateful to Dorothy Dunnett.

    And now maybe I’ll have to try Mary Renault.

  9. I’ve been meaning to read The Little Friend for the last few years also, even though I know I’ll love it. So many books…

  10. Yes! I 100% second Kati’s suggestion of The Little Stranger. Sarah Waters is a freaking master of the genre.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.