2021. My best ever reading year. Well, since records began, in 2006. I suspect that between the ages of 18-25 I read 150-200 books a year. I even once remember reading eight books in eight days once, although that was exceptional.
The main reason for my reading bonanza is the extra time I have now I’m not commuting. And the extra energy. It is a blessed relief. On the negative side, not much has happened. I managed quick away breaks in Herefordshire where I discovered the wonderful Aardvark Bookshop and Café; in the Peak District, where I revisited the holy trinity of Scrivener Books, Scarthin Books and Peak Volumes; another lovely tour of Devon and Cornwall with Mrs PlacesandBooks; a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Edinburgh, including of course a visit to Armchair Books, and I even found two bookshops in Palma on a flying visit to Majorca. OK, so maybe a few things happened. And here’s another plus, I don’t think I’ve had Covid.
2021 reading summary
As mentioned, it was my most prolific reading year. I finished 136 books, surpassing my previous best of 109 books. I read a mixture of poetry, plays, non-fiction and fiction, much of which was very good indeed. Most of my reads were for the first time, but I did manage 21 re-reads, including some absolute monsters. If I had to define my reading year I would say it was the year that I felt (possibly a delusion) that I had made some headway against my to-be-read pile, and where I lost my fear of the 600+ page book.
This was also the year in which I finished reading all George Eliot’s major works (including rereading Middlemarch) and all of Virginia Woolf’s fiction and non-fiction output, barring her letters and diaries. I have two more Dickens left – Edwin Drood and Barnaby Rudge, but I expect I will read them in 2022. This year I read two new Dickens: Dombey and Son, and Pictures from Italy.
Once again, I was a bit light on the blogging, which is a consequence of work. It does get in the way doesn’t it?
Murdoch, Zweig, Himes and Oliver
I set out with the intention of reading a lot of works by Iris Murdoch and Stefan Zweig. This went passably well, but Zweig has only written one full length novel and Murdoch was quite hard work in parts (although rewarding in the end). Of Murdoch’s writing, I read Under the Net, The Sea The Sea, the Italian Girl and The Severed Head. I started on the Black Prince but will have to return to it. Under the Net was a wonderful picaresque romp, and completely unlike any of her later novels. The Sea, The Sea was excellent, though I was near the end before I realised!
Of Zweig’s work, his novel Beware of Pity is for me as good as the best of Zola, Balzac and Flaubert. From his short stories, Mendel the Bibliophile jumps out as a perfect short story, though many others are very, very good too. As an aside, I still don’t really understand why Wes Anderson credits him with inspiring the Grand Hotel Budapest.
My reading diversity was not too bad:
· 75 by male writers and 61 by female writers.
· Books from 24 different countries, including: Spain, England, Russia, Kenya, Persia (Iran), Dominica, Mexico, El Salvador, Germany, Sweden, France, Scotland, India, Japan, Australia, Poland, Austria, Canada, Ukraine, Denmark, Finland, Tibet, Ireland and the USA.
· LGBT. Plenty, and many that were really clearly in the genre, but it’s so hard to classify LGBT accurately. And I honestly don't notice. I just know I did OK, and in passing, finally read James Baldwin’s brilliant Giovanni’s Room.
My 2021 Book of the Year
I have broken down my reading into four categories – new fiction, non-fiction, poetry and re-reads. I’ll start with new fiction…
New works of fiction
Starting with the best:
1. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
2. Come Back Charleston Blue, by Chester Himes
3. Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
4. Flowers for Mrs Harris, by Paul Gallico
5. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch
6. Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson
7. A Man Called Ove, by Fredrick Backman
8. On the Eve, by Ivan Turgenev
9. Merivel, by Rose Tremain
10. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
It was such a strong year that I have to list some of the books just outside the top ten, any of which I would recommend. They were:
11. Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig
12. The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim
13. Monday or Tuesday, by Virginia Woolf
14. Love Me Little, by Amanda Vail
15. Uncommon Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey
16. Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens
17. The Restlessness of Shanti Andia, by Pio Baroja
18. Lyubka the Cossack, by Isaac Babel
19. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark
20. Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote
(A mention in dispatches for Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman too, which was undoubtedly important and epic, but which didn’t quite do it for me.)
I reread 21 books, moderately methodically, and mostly after at least a 30-year gap. Believe me, 53-year-old me is not the same person as 23-year-old me was!
1. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
2. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
4. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell
5. Don Quixote, by Cervantes
6. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
7. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome.
8. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte
9. The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann von Goethe
10. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
It was an AMAZING year for non fiction:
1. Upstream, by Mary Oliver
2. Decolonising the Mind, The Politics of Language in African Literature, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
3. 438 Days, by Jonathan Franklin
4. Take Courage, by Samantha Ellis
5. 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helen Hanff
6. Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom
7. Dear Reader, by Cathy Rentzenbrink
8. Charles Dickens, a Critical Study, by GK Chesterton
9. Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life, and the Dalai Lama
10. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
1. A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver 2. Selected works, by Rumi
3. Selected works, by Banjo Paterson
4. Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore
5. A collection of Persian Poetry
6. Selected works, by Langston Hughes
7. A Shropshire Lad, by AE Housman
8. Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head, by Warsan Shire
9. A collection of Jazz Poetry
10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho
So which book wins the big prize?
So finally, out of all this lot, the toughest decision. My BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020 is…
Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
It’s simply a great book. Like Shirley Jackson's We have always lived in the castle, it has a narrator with an alternative mental state. As such, the sense of whether 'normality' looks crazier to 'insanity' than insanity looks to normality bubbles under the whole story. Anything more would be a spoiler, so I’ll just say that as soon as I finished it, I instantly bought another of hers.
It is a worthy addition to my book of the year winners, but I must mention that any of my top three non fictions could also have won it, and are all highly recommended. Do comment below what your favourite book of the year was.
And in case you are interested, here are my books of the year from when I first started keeping records:
1982 Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, England
1983 Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger, USA
1984 To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, USA
1985 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, USA
1986 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, France
1987 Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy,England
1988 A Room with a View, EM Forster, England
1989 Middlemarch, George Eliot, England
1990 Villette, Charlotte Bronte, England
1991 All Quiet on the Western Front, EM Remarque, Germany
1992 The Scarlet and the Black, Stendahl, France
1993 Crime and Punishment, Fyedor Dostoyevsky, Russia
1994 As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee, England
1995 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Russia
1996 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte, England
1997 Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, France
1998 Kim, Rudyard Kipling, England
1999 The Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournieres, France
2000 Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, France
2001 Catch 22, Joseph Heller, USA
2002 The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, USA
2003 A Secret History, Donna Tartt, USA
2004 David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, England
2005 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, England
2006 A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, USA
2007 White Teeth, Zadie Smith, England
2008 The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, Australia
2009 A Fraction of the whole, Steve Toltz, Australia
2010 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, England
2011 Any human heart, William Boyd, England
2012 The Road, Cormac McCarthy, USA
2013 We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Russia
2014 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, USA
2015 Quicksand, Steve Toltz, Australia
2016 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbons, Scotland
2017 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, USA
2018 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, USA
2019 Underland, Robert Macfarlane, England
2020 Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf, England
2021 Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Olga Tokarczuk, Poland