I don’t set a reading “goal” on Goodreads. At the risk of coming across exactly like the smug shithead I really am (when I’m not pretending to be chill (ugh) so that men will like me), I admit here that I find the premise of a reading goal pretty lame. Nor do I have a journal or list wherein I have notes, or even titles, of books I have read or plan to read. I have tried to do so in the past, and find the very act of keeping a record turns the reading itself—an activity I’ve always understood to be an idle pleasure—into yet another task to accomplish. I don’t want to lump reading in with exercise and regular meals and dental checkups. I think those of you who do this, and who, as a result, will lament how little reading you get done, are masochists.
We’ve already lost our peaceful night’s sleep to the doom scroll, and given shopping—which, you might remember, used to be fun—up to the one-click economy. I’m keeping reading for the big waste of time it is. Reading is not going to be just another thing I’ve failed to accomplish; reading will remain the thing I do instead.
This is all to say, I hardly read anything this year. I spent a lot of time on social media. An amount of time I’m humiliated to admit. In July, my iPhone reported my screen-time average at just around six hours a day. Isn’t that fucked up? I looked at all the bad news quite a bit, of course, and occasionally posted my disappointment in our species on Twitter, as though I had anything original or intelligent to say about coronavirus or the climate crisis or the lizard people now sitting on the highest court in the land. But the majority of the time I spent on my device was totally self-centered. My own first novel was released in May, and publishing a novel, it turns out, is a months-long manic episode, and in 2021, it’s also an experience a person has almost completely online.
To make myself feel a little less greasy and lonely about how often I was Googling my own name, I started a support group for early-career writers, a private online collective where debut and sophomore authors could ask one another questions, express anxiety, disappointment, and joy, and find general camaraderie within an otherwise alienating and deeply vulnerable experience. At first there were about a dozen writers, mostly people I already had some relationship with online, through Twitter, or from my time as a bookseller in Brooklyn and general book-person at large. Now there are nearly 100 of us, fiction and nonfiction writers from both Big Five imprints and independent presses. The only sure commonality among us is that we all wrote books that came out this year or will be released in 2022 or 2023.
Usually I regret putting myself out there. Like most annoying people, I’m easily annoyed myself, and I can come across as aggressive and high-strung. But it actually worked out, and I’ve met a lot of really great people, a heaping handful of whom I now know in the real world (which still exists!), and the small number of books I did read this year were almost exclusively written by these new friends.
I’m unsure if I left my apartment at all in January. I remember January 6th, and watching the insurrection on television, and my birthday is inauguration day. I watched a little of that, too, from bed, before switching back to continue my one-woman King of the Hill re-watch party, which is how I spent most of the winter. I smoked a lot of weed. The only book I read was The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard. It’s Ladee’s second novel; we were in workshop together in graduate school in 2012 and 2013, and her debut, The Talented Ribkins, I’d read excerpts of while it was in process. She has a unique tone and pace, and in this book I was awed by the way myth-making and a classic revenger’s tragedy reconfigured the story America tells about itself and the people who live here.
In February, I got new glasses and started taking long walks again. I listened to a lot of audiobooks, including two boarding school novels, both debuts: The Divines by Ellie Eaton and All Girls by Emily Layden. They are very different books and it was a mere coincidence they had that setting in common. I trudged through the melting gray slush on the sidewalks of South Brooklyn, with its paved-over front yards and decaying Virgin Mary shrines, immersed in the worlds of women who leave home not just eventually but immediately, and felt glad I never really did.
Around this time, I read Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, which I then bought as a gift for nearly a dozen people. It’s short stories, and I can barely remember the premise of most of them, but the writing stunned me, and excellent prose is still the best part of reading.
In early April I read The Scapegoat by Sara Davis, a postmodern mystery, a book that felt like a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster made from pieces of writing by Deb Olin Unferth, Jonathan Lethem, and Ben Marcus, but smooth, none of the stitches showing, with nice blunt bangs covering the forehead bolts. It was perhaps the best book I read this year. At least, I thought about it for a long time. I’m still thinking about it.
Right before my novel came out in late May, I tore through The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado, a collection of short stories that reminded me, more for the pleasure of it than the content, of reading Marquez for the first time when I was young. I read an early copy of Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby, another short story collection—though it’s not being published until this coming January—and it kind of made me want to write a short story for the first time in like five years. Okay, not really, but it did make me wish I could.
Then I was busy for a while. My book came out, and I went to Cincinnati, and when I got back I moved out of the apartment I’d lived in literally forever. Then I got a new job and was working on my feet and with the public again for the first time in a year and a half. My life felt frantic. Have you ever cleaned the emptied-out sarcophagus of an apartment you lived in literally forever? I may never recover.
I came out of my fugue, somewhat, at least enough to read a little, in mid-August, when I swallowed Chaney Kwak’s travelogue The Passenger whole. It’s one of only a couple works of nonfiction I read this year, and is truly great. Kwak is a travel writer and he was aboard the Viking Sky, that luxury cruise liner that was struck by a bomb cyclone, with 50-foot swells and extreme hurricane force winds, off the coast of Norway in 2019. The book plays out as a Dark Night of the Soul for one member of the “Pics or it Didn’t Happen” generation, and I thought it was so funny and tender.
That same month, I took my damn time reading Hanna Halperin’s Something Wild. I’d known Hanna Halperin a little in an earlier, very different version of my life, and had badly wanted to be friends. I’d read a chapter of this book—the plot revolves around family violence and intimate partner abuse, and it was really wrenching and quite good but also I was scared and sad!—because it was so good!—and would put it down for a week, then go back. I think I’m going to listen to the audiobook as a reread, which is a thing I like to do when a book really kicks ass.
Then I read The Portrait of a Mirror, A. Natasha Joukovsky’s clever retelling of the Narcissus myth. Imagine Edith Wharton as a millennial, writing a prestige HBO series. Delightful.
In September and October, I read Sally Rooney’s new one, and Animal by Lisa Taddeo, and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, because I am back at work and booksellers need to be able to say “Yes,” when customers ask “Have you read this one?”
A friend asked me recently if it wasn’t kind of anxiety inducing to read all these first books in a year when my own first novel came out. I knew what she meant, because of course comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s also impossible not to go around comparing yourself—your work, your clothes, your hair, your online repertoire—to people doing something similar. But the truth is, reading all these debuts was pretty nice, like a conversation I was part of without having to say anything. I hadn’t read so much writing by people I knew personally since my MFA, and it was especially great to read peers’ work without having to decide what to say about how it could be altered for improvement. It can be very good, sometimes, to know something is finished, and can’t change anymore.
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