I’m not doing an end-of-year roundup of what I’ve written this year, or what I’ve read, or what I’ve watched, or what I’ve listened to, or where I’ve traveled, or the museums I’ve visited, or the concerts I’ve attended – that last one because I didn’t attend any concerts in 2023, not even Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. But I’m not writing up any of that other stuff because I don’t know: don’t know how many books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, etc. etc. I couldn’t tell you what the most-read posts on this blog are because I don’t have analytics enabled. I don’t know what my Top Ten Books of the Year are because I just don’t think that way.
I used to; when I was a teenager I kept a list of the Ten Best Books I’ve Ever Read and every time I read a book I felt obliged to sit down and think about whether it broke the top ten – and if so, where did it belong? (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End reigned unchallenged at the top for quite some time – and then I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.) But then after a few years I realized that some of the books that meant the most to me were, unaccountably, not on the list; while some books that I had put on the list … I squirmed just seeing the titles. And the whole business was so much work. I now think of the day I crumpled up the sheet and threw it in the trash as my first real step towards maturity as a reader.
But it took me a lot longer to rid myself of that year-end feeling of accountability, of the calendar-turning responsibility to make a report. Now that I’ve put all that behind me, it seems odd that I ever thought that way.
Micro.blog has a great feature called Bookshelves, which I often – though not altogether consistently – use to note what I’m reading, less for myself than for those who ask. You can note what you want to read – which I never do, because I read at whim – what you’re currently reading, and what you’ve finished reading. But there are (blessedly) no dates on that page I just linked to, only book covers. I could figure out how many of those books I read in a given year, but I never have and never will. And in any case those three categories are insufficient: something important is missing.
I am inspired by my buddy Austin Kleon’s list of the books he didn’t read this year, the idea for which, he says, he got from John Warner. Inspired not to do that, exactly, but some year – not this year, mind you – to make a list of Books I Abandoned This Year.
I think one of the most interesting things you can do as a reader is to sit down and think about why you abandon a book, when that happens to you. Many, many pages in my notebooks discuss just this question. Over the years I gradually came to an awareness: the kinds of book I am most likely to abandon are history and theology; the kinds I am least likely to abandon are novels and biographies. It turns out that while I am deeply interested in both history and theology, my mind needs a human story to hook itself to. (Thus the great narrative historians, like Gibbon and C. V. Wedgwood, command my attention in precisely the same way that novels and biographies do.) Novels and biographies raise certain questions for me that I pursue by mining works of history and theology for information and insight, which means that I read quite a bit of history and theology; I just don’t read those books from beginning to end. I don’t read them the way I read narratives.
If you ask yourself why you’re abandoning a book you can learn a lot about your own intellectual habits, preferences, needs. The books you don’t finish can be even more important to you than the ones you do, if you learn to inquire into your own responses. And that’s one reason why I don’t make these year-end lists: they tell a misleading story.
And I’ve only noted one of the ways they mislead: What about short stories and poems and essays and even blog posts? In any given year, those short-form genres may shape your thoughts and feelings, may contribute to your flourishing, more than any work that happens to be book-length. One of Pascal’s pensées or one Psalm may matter more than a dozen books.
A few years ago, I started the practice of taking one hour each week to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous seven days; and one morning each month to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous month. I think that has been infinitely better for my intellectual and spiritual orientation than any year-end list could be. Something to consider, maybe?
A blessed new year to you, to me, and to this poor wounded world.