Every year I keep a running list of the books I read, then (at the end of the year) reflect on where my whims and interests led me. It’s time for that annual reflection, which I try to use to inspire and inform the next year’s course of study.
In the past — before I had a child, in other words — I was reading at an 80-100 books/year clip. I’m now down to about 40/year, at least if last year is any guide. As I’m sure you can imagine, that’s still a significant investment of time, and it’s not one I make lightly. I’m a devoted autodidact, you see, and I don’t want to end my life without having at least tried to learn, well, a whole lot about a whole lot of things. It’s an impossible task, but I attempt it nonetheless.
The first thing I note about last year’s list: man, did I read too few books that were written by people of color! I try to keep my reading as diverse in as many ways as I can, other than subject matter (more on that in a moment), because I don’t want my mind to be insular. I want to keep it open to new perspectives, new modes of storytelling, new ideas. That means I need to give myself a reminder every now and then to stretch. This is that reminder. Two of the first three books I read in 2012 were written by people of color. It’s a start at least.
I’m also a bit surprised to find how few plays I read. (Note: I include both published and unpublished plays on my list, though not those I read for judging contests, which would lengthen the list considerably. Sue me for the inconsistency, if you must. It’s my list, and I’ll do what I want.) A mere 14 of the 40: this is not enough, not even close. I have, in the past, told young playwrights they ought to read a play a week, even if those are plays written by friends. It’s an hour and a half, maybe two hours at most, of reading time. I honestly can’t believe I only managed a play per month! I can only attribute the fall-off her to the fact that I spent hours and hours reading children’s books to my infant son this year instead of lounging in my study. (Hey, can I count Goodnight, Moon and Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go on my list? I read them each at least a thousand times, it seems.) Bottom line: I want to read more plays this year, and I will.
Another (though more minor) shock came with the realization that I’d read ten works of fiction, one of which was a graphic novel. Now, to be clear, five of those were candy-flavored sci-fi books that almost aren’t worth including on the list. (Goodnight, Moon is a far stranger and, I would argue, more important book than all three of them put together.) But ten times last year I sat down to be told a long-form tale by a stranger, and that’s rare for me. When I was young, I read fiction more than every other genre; I loved getting lost in a narrative, daydreaming and sinking in deeply. There are even, in my lifetime, many entire days — from rise to rest — that were spent doing nothing but reading novels. But as I’ve grown older, and as the world has become more full of distractions (I’m thinking less here of my son than of email, the internet, cable television, my iPad, and that sort of thing), I’ve found myself less interested in that sort of experience. I expect that when I’m older, and when my children are older, I’ll come back to fiction, if only for a goodnight kiss… but for now, we’re simply old and dear friends who haven’t seen each other much for a while. Except for last year.
The other 16 books I read last year were all non-fiction, divided thus: nine science books, four books about theater, one memoir, one art history book, and one collection of trivia. If you’d asked me to tell you, without looking at my list, what percentage of the books I’d read in 2011 were non-fiction, I’d have definitely guessed closer to 75% than (barely) 50%. Non-fiction is where it’s at for me these days, particularly science, for reasons that will probably be obvious if you’re more than a casual reader of this blog. When I read science, it feels as if the news of the universe is being delivered to me. I am awed and inspired. Who doesn’t want to be awed and inspired, after all? I expect the percentage to be higher again in 2012… though for the moment, it’s lower.
Finally, one last general thought: I am mortified to note that of the 40 books I read, only five were written by women. I find this both surprising and disheartening and even a touch embarrassing. The simple fact, I believe, is that I just didn’t think about it. I chose books, as I all-too-often do, less than consciously, following impulses and hungers wherever they led me. Why they didn’t lead me to books written by women I do not know. But I’m going to try to pay attention to that in 2012, too. (I’m two for three so far at the top of the year.) We’ll see next January how I’ve done…