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My year in books

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In 2016, I read 172 books; an average of roughly one every two days.

Well, okay, when I say “read,” I don't actually mean read. The vast majority of those, I skimmed. About 40 of them, I barely even glanced at; just enough to be sure I wasn't interested, then I put them on the giveaway pile. There were a few I read all the way through, but not many.

This project had its roots in 2015, when I got magnificent new bookcases, and I brought all of my father's books out of their boxes in the garage, and Kathleen cleaned the soot off them and catalogued them (using a Mac/iOS application called Bookpedia). I did a triaging pass, which, in addition to the main set that I wanted to keep, resulted in about 100 books that I wanted to glance at before giving away. I went through most of those pretty quickly in late 2015, and finished up the last 15 or so in the first week of 2016.

The remaining books went on the shelves. At that point, I had about 350 mass-market paperbacks on my unread-books shelves; probably about two-thirds of those were Peter's. The rest were mostly books that had been sitting around waiting for me to read them for 20+ years.

And I decided that I really wanted to make significant progress on my unread shelves before continuing with my usual habit of buying lots of books but never getting around to reading them. (The 350 were only the ones on my mass-market-paperback shelves; another bookcase held the nearly 600 unread trade paperbacks and hardcovers.)

So around the beginning of 2016, I dove into them. I used a random-number generator to pick which one I would look at next, to avoid having to read too much of the same kind of thing in succession, and I made myself read some books that I had been inexplicably shying away from for a long time.

That all went pretty well. Except that a month or two into this project, the local used-book store (Bookbuyers) went out of business, and had a huge sale, and I ended up buying about thirty books there, mostly books I had always been interested in but never got around to reading.

So that was a setback. But I kept going. And in the end, I got through probably about 150 of the books on those unread shelves. (The other 20ish books I got through in 2016 were from other sources.)

My father loved science fiction anthologies, and owned a great many of them that were published in the '50s through the '70s. He also loved certain authors, and owned a bunch of their books. The vast majority of the authors he read were white men. So the vast majority of my 380-or-so unread paperbacks were science fiction written by white men, published between 1950 and 1980.

And it turns out that that kind of thing no longer appeals to me as much as it once did.

I have found a few gems, including a few pieces I'm hoping I'll be able to get permission to reprint as ebooks when I get Constellation Press off the ground. But not many; not enough, really, to justify the amount of time I've been spending on this project.

I got my start reading this stuff. I'm better-grounded in the history of the field than most people my age; by the time I was ten or so, I was reading my way through my father's bookshelves. I loved all the old science fiction at the time, but little did I know that I would still be reading through my father's bookshelves decades later.

Anyway, after a year of reading through those shelves, I've still got over 230 books left to go. I've been moving books as I go, either to the read-books shelves or to the giveaway shelves upstairs. So although the entire top section of my bookcase (20 shelves) is still full of mass-market paperbacks (both the read and the unread), the overflow into the next section has been reduced to only about 15 books, about half a shelf. A couple weeks ago, after yet again noticing that I'm not really enjoying this project much at this point, I decided to give myself a break: I would finish that overflow half-shelf (seems plausible I could do that by the end of January), so all the mass-market books would be confined to one section of the bookcase, and then I would pause and try to focus on reading some stuff that I actually like for a while, to remind myself that I do like reading.

Today, I stared at that last half-shelf for a long time, and it finally occurred to me that I don't have to finish those before I take a break. I can just pause the reading project.

I would really like to get done with it. But at my current rate, it would take me two more years just to finish with the mass-market paperbacks. And I don't know that I can sustain my current rate; it's about six or seven times my usual reading rate. And of course I haven't stopped buying books altogether, though I have drastically slowed my buying rate, and am mostly buying ebooks these days.

Most of the time when I start to tell people about all this, they gently suggest that perhaps I don't need to finish the project at all. What if I just don't read a lot of the books on the unread shelves?

That's certainly an option. But the majority of those books are actually things that I want to read, for some value of “want.” They're classics that I've always meant to read; or they're by authors who I've liked; or I've heard good things about them. The anthologies should be easier to discard without reading—why would I need to read yet another Groff Conklin or Roger Elwood anthology?—and yet each time I pick one up, I find a couple of stories by authors I like, and then I look at the story introductions and they sound interesting, and I end up skimming a bunch of stories. It generally only takes an hour or two, but even so.

Anyway, so I think as of now I'm tentatively on break from the reading project. I'll certainly finish reading the one I'm in the middle of (Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith, which I'm liking so far), but other than that I think my reading will focus on other things for a while. (I'm also in the middle of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning in ebook form, for example. And I want to read more of what the magazines are publishing.) If nothing else, it'll mean a nice break from the steady barrage of 1950s-1970s sf by white guys.

Lest you think it's all been misery around these parts, here's a quick rundown of what I liked best from my 2016 reading (but remember that I read very little that was newly published in 2016):

Heavenly Breakfast, by Samuel R. Delany
Probably my favorite book I read in 2016. An excellent memoir.
Hold Me, by Courtney Milan
A nicely geeky romance novel with a trans woman protagonist. I didn't love it quite as much as Trade Me, the first book in the series, but still well worth reading.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
I read this because it was on the Hugo ballot. (Took some time out from my unread-books project for Hugo reading.) Enjoyed it quite a bit; nice fairytale stuff, compelling characters, good stuff.
Countdown #3, edited by the Countdown staff
A slim paperback magazine from 1970 containing all sorts of fascinating nonfiction political stuff, including an amazing transcript from the trial of the Chicago Seven, and an article about the shameful murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by the Chicago police.
The Star Pit, by Samuel R. Delany
Science fiction novella about life, and wanderlust, and feeling trapped, and the ways people can be cruel to each other, and love, and other stuff like that. Not as good as Delany's best work, but worth reading.
“Nobody's Home,” by Joanna Russ
A Russ story that I had never heard of, featuring a poly family in a utopian future. Interesting and oblique and well-written, as one might expect from Russ.
“How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” by Alexei Panshin
See my detailed writeup from June. Possibly my favorite story I read this year. Also utopian, in a different way from Russ's.
“Bettyann,” by Kris Neville
See my writeup from July. Good stuff.
Webs” and “Plea,” by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Two lovely sad stories set in the same universe as “Jump Space” and The Stars Change.
“Cat Pictures Please,” by Naomi Kritzer
Fun and sweet and timely/topical.
“Errantry,” by J. R. R. Tolkien
I had read this many times before; re-read it as part of finally reading The Tolkien Reader. Despite the very slight subject-matter, it remains my favorite Tolkien poem, for its delightful playing with word-sounds.

Of course the above weren't the only things I read in 2016 that I liked, just my favorites. I suppose I'll add a couple more books that are worth mentioning even though they weren't among my favorites:

Most unexpectedly fun
Triplanetary, by E. E. “Doc” Smith; the first in the Lensman series. Surprisingly gripping and enjoyable. Lots of over-the-top action. Smith makes everything big bigger biggest, and then tops himself over and over again; the super-weapon meets another super-weapon that's its equal, so the scientists rebuild the super-weapon on the fly to make it even more super. And so on. As long as you don't mind stuff like the protagonists slaughtering citiesfull of aliens, it's a fun romp.
Most politically important anthology
Tie: Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (consisting entirely of women authors, most of whom were pretty prominent but weren't getting reprinted in other anthologies I'm reading from that period), and England Swings SF, edited by Judith Merril (probably the first New Wave anthology to appear in the US).
Heinlein juvenile most unexpectedly relevant to my own writing
The Rolling Stones, which I somehow never read as a kid. Hazel Stone, the grandmother, is a delight; the gender politics are otherwise pretty annoying, though, and these days I find the extensive engineering descriptions kind of tedious. Still, useful for me to have read as I try to write my own family-in-a-spaceship stories. (Thanks to Mary Anne for suggesting reading this.)

I'll also note some of the other famous, important, or influential works that I read or skimmed, even though these too weren't among my favorites: The Legion of Space; The Fantastic Imagination, vol 1; The Space Merchants; Doctor Faustus (Marlowe); The Duchess of Malfi; Steppenwolf; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; The Epic of Gilgamesh (in the Sandars version); The Worm Ouroboros; The Monkey Wrench Gang; and more. So a fair bit of what I read, I was glad to have finally read even if I didn't love it.

Okay, I think that's all from me about books, for now. Hoping that in 2017 I'll make at least a little progress on the unread-books project; but also hoping I'll read more prose fiction that I like.

(PS: I feel like I should note that one category of fiction I've really loved this year is Marvel superhero comics. They've been putting out a lot of really excellent stuff, with very diverse characters (even though the writers are, sadly, still almost all white men). I'm still hoping to write about that in more detail in a separate entry, but I figured it was worth mentioning here.)

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