2017 was the year I stopped reading. All told, I finished eight books. I probably started two dozen more. Nothing could hold my attention. Nothing seemed as gripping as this vicious news cycle, the new Netflix drama, some podcast, my social media feeds. Actually, it’s not true I stopped reading this year, just my reading was mostly of woke Twitter threads, idyllic Instagram captions, Facebook rants. It reminds me of the Aziz Ansari joke that when our kids ask us what we read, we will have to print out hundreds of 500-word op-eds we don’t even remember by the time we’ve finished tweeting them.
I’m not the only one who couldn’t read this year. I’ve had friends confess that though they attend readings, buy new books, and tweet about the literary community, they can’t remember the last novel they opened. One said he just wasn’t sure if he was even into reading anymore, like it was some teenage hobby like skateboarding he just outgrew. Friends who managed to finish a book a week might as well have been running a marathon. It seemed impossible when living in America in 2017 is like always having a new nasty car wreck to gawk at daily—no, hourly.
That’s why I am surprised even eight novels managed to keep my attention. Reading this year wasn’t about escape for me, ironically, because there was too much going on to escape. Instead I was sucked into books that reflected what I was going through. On the surface, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is about a group of unlikely friends who meet as teenagers at an artsy summer camp; this is usually the part of the novel people like the most. Yet most of the novel is really about creative competition. How do we handle it when our friends are more talented than we are or more successful? Although the book is about these six friends, it’s really about Jules, the least creatively talented, and how she harbors her jealousy, resentment, and imposter syndrome over watching her friends succeed when she has a perfectly normal, albeit mostly happy, life. Jules is a messy protagonist prone to fits of rage and envy. Her own husband gets fed up with her, shouting, “Specialness—everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do—kill themselves?” Jules is not likable, but I loved her and worried I might be her.
This year, I “left” journalism to work in higher-ed communications. The funny thing is I now write more than ever, for work, my TinyLetter, my sketch comedy group, and I even still freelance. Yet I often felt like I was selling out and had a few conversations with people who implied as much. What mattered more being special or being happy? The Interestings gnawed at me, exposing my darker insecurities. Even though I’m still not done trying to be “special,” Wolitzer’s perspective will haunt me and make me question my creative motivations, and sometimes I need that.
Of course, some of this preoccupation with specialness and comparing myself to other people and worrying about what they think comes from anxiety, which is why I loved John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. The protagonist is yet another high-strung often unlikable character, Aza, whose anxiety and OCD are so pervasive she self-harms and alienates her friends. Although my own anxiety has never been as bad, fortunately, I’ve never related more to a description of anxiety than Green’s. It’s a never-ending spiral of obsessive thoughts you know are irrational that you can’t turn off. “The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely,” Green writes. Aza’s narrative isn’t one of redemption either. She gets worse throughout the book and never totally recovers because anxiety can’t be cured, just coped with. This fall I had a bad bout of anxiety for no apparent reason right before a trip to Rome. I thought I had learned to manage it, but here I was waking up with nausea at 5 a.m. again. I realized maybe I’m just a person who has bouts of anxiety, and that’s okay. I happened to buy this book in the airport on the way to Rome and never saw mental illness articulated so well. John Green is YA’s king for a reason. We owe him a lot for giving voice to experiences that elude even those who go through them.
This was a stressful year both nationally and personally. But the books I read made me feel less alone and reminded me why I read even when there’s so much else to distract me.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.