A Year in Reading: Kate Gavino

At the time of writing this, I’ve read 83 books this year. Of those 83 books, 60 were audiobooks, 12 were e-books, and 14 were physical books. I read 45 works of fiction, 27 works of non-fiction and/or memoirs, seven YA books, and five graphic novels. Twenty-three and a half books I read this year involved a love affair ruining someone’s life. (The .5 comes from Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, in which the main character thankfully comes to her senses at the very end.)

I know all of these stats because I keep a
detailed spreadsheet of my reading habits. At first, I only recorded titles and
authors. Then I branched out to include genre and book format. In 2017 I
noticed I was reading a fair amount of books in which people were having
illicit affairs and ruining their lives, so I added a column for this arbitrary
category. I enjoy this nerdy, slightly narcissistic hobby because each time I
add a book to the spreadsheet, I take a moment to think about the stories that
have kept me company over the past year.

A partial screencap of the Spreadsheet

The Spreadsheet, however, doesn’t tell the whole story of my year in reading. Last winter I moved to Paris, France, from New York City, and along with the shift in culture, a major shift in my reading habits occurred as well. I used to work for the Brooklyn Public Library, a job that meant I took home stacks upon stacks of physical books every week. Now, I am a full-time freelancer. As an illustrator, I find myself obsessively listening to audiobooks while I ink and sketch. I’ve passed days engrossed while listening to books like Know My Name by Chanel Miller, A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.

On weekday mornings, I am also (if I do say so myself) a sought-after dogwalker in the 6th arrondissement. Like illustrating, dog-walking is another ideal activity for audiobooks. I remember a particular memorable walk with Lola, the half-schnauzer, half-water dog, as we walked from the Tuileries to Gare de Lyon, listening to Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.

I’ve listened to so many audiobooks this year that certain streets and train lines bring to mind a specific book. I cried on the RER A while listening to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The 95 bus makes me think of all the what-the-fuckery in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Walking up to Montmartre past Opera reminds me of the piercing stories in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina.

Next year I’ll probably add a column to keep track of the books I’ve been reading in French. This list is nonexistent so far, as I read French at a glacial pace. The three books I’m currently slogging through are Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and the first installment of the Hunger Games series.

My move to France also meant that I had to find a home for the sprawling library I had amassed over a decade in New York. I donated more than one thousand books, gave away hundreds, and stored a few dozen at my parents’ house in Houston. I moved to Paris with what I decided were my 10 favorite books (a stack that included Colette, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann M. Martin, and Victor Hugo, among others.) But living in an apartment without books depresses me, and I’ve been trying to re-build my library here, despite the size constraints of a 30 square meter apartment.

I found myself regularly attending a bi-monthly book swap, where a group of women meet in a cafe to exchange books and talk about them. That was how I ended up acquiring and loving Nina Lacour’s We Are Okay and Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose. On occasional trips to the States, I’d come back with a suitcase full of books that included Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, and Bryan Washington’s Lot. These books, along with my “Original Ten,” formed the base of what I hope will someday become my sprawling library in France.

Despite no longer working at the Library, I borrow more books than ever before thanks to my Overdrive app and the online collections of the Brooklyn and Houston Public Libraries. I’ve always kept my e-reader on my bedside. In the hazy minutes before falling asleep, I read Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick.

All of these books are dutifully recorded in the Spreadsheet, but I know the act of reading these books will most likely fade over time. I may always be able to recount the story of The Remains of the Day, but will I eventually forget that I read the novel on the hottest day in Paris history, when it got so scorching in my un-air-conditioned apartment that I had to check into a cheap hotel?

I’ll leave that question up to my own memory,
but there is one book in my 2019 spreadsheet that brings with it a reading
experience I never want to forget.

I took a quick trip to Amsterdam in September, my first time in the city. Rain drizzled, and my fingers were frozen. Earlier that day I had purchased a paperback copy of Anita Brookner’s Incidents on Rue Laugier in a used bookshop. To escape the cold, I went inside the American Book Center, a large, cozy bookstore in the middle of town. I found an armchair in the corner and proceeded to read the Anita Brookner from cover to cover in one sitting. When I finally looked up from the book, I was slightly disoriented, not completely remembering where I was. For the rest of the day, I thought about this all-encompassing experience, relieved that such a thing could still happen to me after decades of reading. That was the 61st book I read that year. 

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Image credit: Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade

Overlooked Heroines of the African-American Press

For the New York Review of Books, Maya Millet examines the buried history of the heroines of America’s Black Press. For many people, Ida B. Wells remains the most well-known black woman journalist, but Millet encouraged readers to dig deeper: “[Wells] was part of a much larger network of black women journalists who dared to wield their pens in the names of truth and justice. At a time when all women were discouraged from engaging in ‘unladylike’ activities like politics, the women of the black press were boldly writing about racial justice, gender equality, and political reform.”

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Sarah M. Broom on Unfinished Work

Newly announced National Book Award winner Sarah M. Broom recently spoke to the new class of Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant winners about the importance of sitting with unfinished work, and an excerpt from her talk can be found in the Paris Review. “The unfinished work is no less real, or necessary, or powerful than the book,” Broom says. “How we need it, this work, these long, beautiful digressions, these surprises. May we continue to gift writers with the time for wildness. May they ramble, digress, go beyond the edges of all the known and touted maps, may they hew close to the question, to unearth the questions beyond.”

Tommy Pico on Being a Poem

Poet Tommy Pico spoke to Joseph Osmundson for the New York Review of Books about therapy, the New Native American Renaissance, and the language of food, among other things. Pico also discusses the concept of being a poem, referring to the line “Shall I be a poem for you?” from his latest book, Feed. “I’m definitely a poem for my parents,” he says. “You know that Langston Hughes quote about a dream deferred? That’s me to them. They wanted to be poets. But they didn’t come up in a time when that was possible for them. And they had responsibilities, and they had kids, which is not something you’re gonna catch me doing.”

In the Kitchen with Shirley Jackson

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Constance Garnett Gets Her Due

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The Refugee’s Story with Dina Nayeri

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Aja Gabel on Apocalypse Stories

As a first-hand witness to the California wildfires, Aja Gabel reflects on how the natural disaster has changed her views on apocalypse stories for Alta. “I’m disoriented and nauseated watching what I love burn up,” Gabel writes. “It’s not as easy to describe as what I wrote in my apocalypse stories, to witness the incineration of a way of life. And I don’t love apocalypse stories anymore, anyway. I feel like I’m in one.”

Image credit: Senior Master Sgt. Dennis W. Goff

A Postcard from Your Favorite Author

A personalized postcard from the likes of Viet Thanh Nguyen, Valeria Luiselli, or Edwidge Danticat could be a unique holiday gift for someone, and The Common has you covered. This month it launches its sixth annual postcard auction, headlined by the above authors, as well as André Aciman, Susan Choi, Mira Jacob, Ann Patchett, George Saunders, and many, many more. “Authors are enthusiastic about connecting with their fans this way,” says The Common’s editor-in-chief, Jennifer Acker. “It’s infinitely more personal than social media, and as a physical object, the postcard lasts as a keepsake. Often recipients frame the cards they receive.” All proceeds directly benefit The Common, supporting payment to and mentorship of emerging authors and the magazine’s extensive community programs. Online bidding takes place here.

Image credit: Camden Public Library