Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Reading Year

I confess that I haven’t kept thorough records this year. My list of books read in 2008 totals 75 titles, but I suspect that there are more that ought to have been included on that list that I failed to note down. That partially explains the significant dip from the 100 books per year that I’ve averaged since I started keeping track in 2005. What else might explain the deviation? It’s been a very productive year for me in academic research and writing which has meant lots of time devoted to reading articles, cases, and bits and pieces of books rather than books cover-to-cover. I’ve also been very scattered in my reading of late such that I find myself now surrounded by ten partially read books, some of them 500 plus pages, most of them more than half read, all of them very good books that I plan to finish, but not before the new year rings in. But enough about the books I didn’t finish. What of the ones that I did?

Of the 75 on my list, 62 were fiction, 11 non-fiction, and 3 poetry. They were nearly evenly split between male and female authors: 38 written by men, 34 written by women, 2 co-written by a combination of both, and one written by a pseudonymous author whose sex has not been revealed. The list is dominated by English-language authors from Canada, Scotland, England, and the U.S., but it also includes books by Australian, Chilean, Czech, French, Japanese, Norwegian, and Swedish authors. Eight were translations. I’d like to be reading more works in translation than that but, nevertheless, it’s a marked improvement from the one or two translations per year that I was averaging before I started seeking them out in connection with my 2007 “Reading Across Borders” challenge.

In fiction it was a genre-heavy year, with 40 of the 62 fiction titles falling into the category of crime fiction, and a further 7 into the category of fantasy (the latter a testament to my continuing love affair with Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels). In non-fiction, there was the usual smattering of biography, memoir and books about writing and/or reading. But also a number of books on running (my antidote to Olympic withdrawl) and on nutrition and food politics (always an interest but now, I think, elevated to a preoccupation). The poetry books were all contemporary, small press titles by Canadian authors. Three sounds like a scant number, but given that I rarely read poetry books cover-to-cover, opting instead to dip in and out, that number doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of poetry that I read.

One unusual feature of this year’s list of books read is the number of authors that made repeat appearances on it. The list includes seven authors by whom I read anywhere from three to six books in a single year. This can be accounted for by a combination of happy discoveries (new-to-me authors whose work I liked so well that I immediately sought out and read more of their books) and binge reading (it’s common-place for me to read several instalments of a mystery series in quick succession).

One all-too-usual feature of the list is that it has a resolutely contemporary tilt. It breaks down into 59 twenty-first century titles (18 of those published in 2008), and 17 twentieth century titles, with nary a one from the nineteenth century or earlier. (Yes, if you recall any of the bold resolutions that I made this time last year, that does mean that I didn’t finish War and Peace, or Les Miserables, or Don Quixote.)

If I were in a mood for making resolutions, I’d resolve to expand my reading horizons in 2009 by seeking out books from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and endeavouring to read at least a few pre-twentieth century titles. But I’m not in a mood for making resolutions. I may take my reading in those directions, but I’m not making any promises in that regard to myself or anyone else. I’m going to read whatever I feel like reading whenever I feel like it. My only bookish resolution is to blog more often, or at least more consistently, in 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Not "Influences" But "Acquisitions"

Mavis Gallant on influence and style:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about "pure" style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs. Corruption--if that is the word--sets in from the moment a child learns to speak and hear language used and misused. A young person who does not read, and read widely, will never write anything--at least, nothing of interest. From time to time, in France, a novel is published purporting to come from a shepherd whose only influence has been the baaing of lambs on some God-forsaken slope of the Pyrenees. His artless and untampered-with mode of expression arouses the hope that there will be many more like him, but as a rule he is never heard from again. For "influences" I would be inclined to substitute "acquisitions." What they consist of, and amount to, are affected by taste and environment, preferences and upbringing (even, and sometimes particularly, where the latter has been rejected), and instinctive selection. The beginning writer has to choose, tear to pieces, spit out, chew up, and assimilate as naturally as a young animal--as naturally and ruthlessly. Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection, and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.

From Mavis Gallant, "What is Style?" in The Paris Notebooks (1986).