by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 31, 2020
Since 2008 on December 31st I blog about my year in reading. I used to list all the books I read during the year, but since last year I’ve been using Goodreads to track my reading. If anyone is interested go see the 2020 titles there. I only finished 45 books, down from 48 in 2019. My goal was 52. However, I did read over 400 short stories in 2020. That’s kind of impressive, but wait until you read why.
The books I recommend most this year are (links to my reviews):
- Best Novel: Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
- Best New Novel: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
- Best Classic Novel: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Best Classic Science Fiction: What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown
- Best Nonfiction: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
I’ve got to admit I read damn few novels while making another orbit of the Sun. Instead, I was gorging on classic Sci-Fi short stories. I’ve become obsessed with old science fiction. This is partly due to belonging to the Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction where we group read old SF anthologies. It’s a lot of nostalgic fun. Membership is currently at 322, and most of the members are old guys like myself who grew up reading short fiction the science fiction magazines.
However, switching to reading short stories is also due to a change in my reading habits. I just hate committing to a long book, even one that’s only a couple hundred pages. It’s amazing I finished War and Peace this year because my mind now craves short fiction. And it’s not because of the pandemic. I started this shift in 2018. Maybe it’s age related and I’m just losing my patience with fiction. That’s also true with movies and television shows. I now prefer spending my TV time on YouTube videos or documentaries.
I’m not sure how to explain this mental shift away from the longer fiction of novels, movies, and TV series. Only a few years ago I was binge watching TV shows and mass consuming novels and movies. I can’t decide if I’m just tired of fiction, or just tired of padded stories. Or maybe I’m just jaded with certain kinds of plots. Even my new passion for old science fiction short stories is wearing out. Of course, after sixty years, it might just be I’m having trouble finding something new and novel to entertain my old mind.
For example, I’ve been trying to get into Bridgerton, the new Netflix series. I love Jane Austen, I love historical stories from the 19th century, and I love movies and TV shows with beautiful period costumes and sets. However, a tale about young Regency ladies hunting rich aristocratic husbands has grown stale, even with the added bonus of graphic sex. Bridgerton is no Belgravia, and a far cry from War and Peace. At best, it’s Jane Austen let’s pretend. And let’s face it, without their costumes, those naked bodies seem way too 21st century.
I’m even starting to get testy with the old science fiction short stories too. That worries me. I’m scared I’m developing a tolerance to my last favorite kind of fiction. Oddly, enough, it was my first type of favorite fiction. Is that a sign of regression?
I worry because I’m constantly searching for more potent SF stories to read. I crave great stories, but I mostly find lame tales that were crude and silly even back when they were first published. The more I read, the fewer jewels I discover. And for some reason, the more stories I read the more I feel the total number of jewels I thought I discovered dwindles. It’s become a process of reading distillation. I used to think there were hundreds of great SF short stories, now I wonder if I can find 100. As I get closer to the end of my life, will it be just 50, or 25? Or will the wonder of them finally disappear?
I wish I had kept a reading diary of the short stories I read this year to chronicle their highs and lows. I started one for The Best American Short Stories 2020 but I didn’t finish it. The reviews I did write go a long way to explaining my changing reading interests and abilities. I only read and reviewed 8 of the 20 stories, but I still hope to finish all of them before the 2021 edition comes out next October.
I also wrote “I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older” for my Classics of Science Fiction blog that explains some of my reading problems with science fiction. That site is where I review the science fiction I read. I’ve morphed into reviewing individual short stories there instead of novels and whole anthologies. And I wrote “What I Love Best About SF Short Stories” that explains my current infatuation with SF short stories if anyone is interested.
I actually getting more excited about the nonfiction I’m reading or watching. For example I read Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner about startups in Silicon Valley in the 2010s. That bit of reality was actually more thrilling than most old fantasies about space travel. I also read Bart D. Ehrman older book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Again, that history trumped most of the science fiction in far out ideas. I’m currently reading Evil Geniuses by Kurt Anderson and it’s inspiring me to do tons of research. However, I mostly fall back to reading old science fiction short stories.
I hate to say this, but I think aging is playing a role. It takes a lot of mental effort to read a big novel or nonfiction book. It takes even more effort to read the supplemental material to research those books and write about them. So, I’ve fallen into the trap of seeking the path of least resistance. I just grab another SF short story or watch a YouTube video.
That’s starting to bother me. I wonder where my reading in 2021 will take me. I’m going to stop making predictions and plans because they never come true or get accomplished.
6 thoughts on “2020 Year in Reading”
Not even an attempt at witty, profound, scathing, sarcastic, complimentary, or argumentative and combative as hell. I have to save all the energy for the hounds of hell I will release at midnight tonight when the fireworks begin. You know, that “celebration” of the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. I am going to my grave certain that that will forever remain the best example of meaningless “pagan myth” and ritual.
Oh, what the hell. One idea comes to mind. You wrote: “Of course, after sixty years, it might just be I’m having trouble finding something new and novel to entertain my old mind.”
And my first thought was Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Too much time…spent on this planet…results in…boredom.
Or this way: “History repeats itself.” Yes, it does. And for people who have paid attention? Boredom.
James, stay safe and be well.
Thanks, Randy. Ecclesiastes was always my favorite book of the Bible. Hope you have a big time tonight.
I never realized how unusual it is for Jake and I to just zip through BASS (and Pushcart) blogging each story over the course of two or three months, until I found how few other people want to do it! Even voracious readers soon want to move on to something else, or just find the project to unappealing to start.
In any case, I’m glad you made a dent in it; your contributions got me thinking about aspects I wouldn’t have seen (like the benefit/risk of hiding context). I’ll be happy to see more whenever you feel like taking it up again.
You’ve also inspired me to look for more science fiction, and introduced me to Ehrman’s works. Thank you!
I’m enjoying the BASS project, but I also enjoy other reading. And was afraid I was annoying my readers by running too many of the same kind of story. The BASS entries don’t get many hits. Strangely, quirky things about myself seem to attract more readers. Although I got 300 hits with my War and Peace review. I can’t tell if they’re interested in the book or find it interesting that I was able to finish it.
I’m not religious, but I love Ehrman’s books. I find his approach to research and writing fascinating.
Happy New Year. I’ll get back on the job soon.
As far as lists go, quality is always better than quantity. I watched the TV version of Belgravia by Julian Fellowes and enjoyed it. I have the book around here somewhere and hope to read it in 2021. Fredric Brown is always fun to read whether it’s one of his SF novels or mysteries. Like you, I read hundreds of SF short stories in 2020 and that trend will continue in 2021 as I start my postings for THE BEST FROM FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION series later this month.
Looking forward to your F&SF series. I just started reading The Best of F&SF #3. I can’t find copies of #1 and #2, but I bet you did.