What I’ve been reading in 2022

It’s (just over) half way through the year, so it’s a good chance to take stock of what I’ve been reading and what the highlights have been (let’s pass over the books that haven’t appealed so much.

Everyone who knows me knows that I read quite a few books each year. For a number of years now I’ve kept track of my reading on Goodreads and they have a ‘reading challenge’ each year where you nominate a number of books that you’d like to read over the course of the year. Since 2018 my goal has been 120 books and I’ve managed to meet that each year. I only just made it in 2020 (the stresses of the pandemic? Perhaps, but more likely an effect of being stuck at home when my usual reading regime includes a lot of reading on public transport). Last year I hit 140 but 2019 was my ‘best’ year (surely my ‘best’ year would be the one in which I read the most profound books rather than the greatest number), with 144 books read. Since I started participating in the challenge in 2014 I’ve read over a thousand books. According to this site the average woman reads 735 books in her lifetime and the average man reads 684; I have no idea about my lifetime figure, but I’m comfortably beyond the average.

I should note that I like to read a lot of graphic novels and poetry books which tend to be shorter, quicker reads, but Goodreads also gives a ‘year in books’ snapshot which tells me that, for example, last year the shortest book I read was 60 pages, the longest 705 pages and my average book length was 238 pages.

So far this year I’ve read 70 books, so I should comfortably beat my 120 book goal again. I also like to keep track of a few statistics in the books that I read, though, particularly because men seem to have an unconscious bias against reading books by women authors. I didn’t think that was true of me, but it turned out that when I started counting it turned out that I read way more books by men, which is something that I’ve since made efforts to rectify. Last year I read 68 books by men and 73 by women. So far this year I’ve read 34 books by men and 33 by women (and three by authors who don’t identify as either).

A few years ago I started teaching an elective course called World Literature and so I’ve also been interested in the geographic spread of my reading. My other unconscious bias is towards American literature: last year I read far more books by American authors (46) than any other country (my own country, Australia, was a distant second with 26 books). I therefore started noting the national origin of authors and how many books I read in translation. Last year I read 32 books in translation and books from 27 different countries in total, although the English speaking countries dominated. Of the 70 books I’ve read this year, 17 of them have been translated and I’ve read books from 17 different countries in total. My American reading is down (just 17 books so far) and local Australian books have dominated (19 in total).

With my Year 9 and Year 10 English classes I try to encourage wider reading beyond the work that they’re specifically mandated to read. Research shows that reading books makes you smarter, happier and healthier. Many of my colleagues use literature circles to encourage reading. I like to set a wider reading checklist challenge for my classes, encouraging them to read a wide range of different types of books. These are the categories that I’ve set for the past few years (with some links to give them some possible books to choose for each category):

A book published the year you were born (The Ten Best Books of 2007 — NYT and The Ten Best Books of 2008 — NYT)

A book published posthumously

A Man Booker Prize winning book

A book by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

A book by a female author

A book by an Aboriginal Australian author

A banned book

A play

A book based entirely on its cover

A book based on a true story

A collection of short stories

A book more than 100 years old

A book more than 200 years old

A book set in the future

A non-fiction book about something to do with science

A fantasy novel

A graphic novel written and illustrated by the same person

A book set in Africa

A book set in Asia

A book by a Melbourne author

A book with more than 500 pages

A novella

A book that is about or draws on Greek mythology

A book written by or with a protagonist who identifies as LGBTQI

A collection of poetry

A book about feminism

A book about or involving a sport

A book published in 2022

A book about a problem facing society today

A book recommended to you by another student in the class

I haven’t been consciously trying to read books from these categories myself, but let’s see how I’m going anyway. Despite this year being a significant birthday for me, I actually haven’t read any books from the year of my birth this year, although I’ve read quite a few from that year (whatever it is) in the past. I have read a book that was published posthumously, though. The Australian poet Anne Elder, who had a previous career as a dancer, died from a rare autoimmune disease in 1976 and a collection of her poetry, Crazy Woman, and Other Poems was published in 1978. I read it this year and was very taken by her feminist vision and poetic ability.

I used to make a practice of reading the winners of the Booker Prize, so I’ve read plenty of the past winners, but none of them this year. These days I’m more interested in the International Booker Prize, for works in translation. I’ve read two of the books from the shortlist and another three that made the longlist, but I didn’t read the winner, Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell. Of the books I’ve read I’m most impressed by The Books of Jacob by Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, which I’m half-way through (it’s an epic of 965 pages, numbered in reverse).

As already mentioned, I’ve made a conscious effort to read books by female authors at a rate that at least matches male authors and of the ones that I’ve read this year, one of my favourites has been one I read just recently: Bad Art Mother by Edwina Preston. It’s a Melbourne story inspired by the bohemian artists of the 1960s and it’s a wonderful feminist novel that shows the complexity of motherhood and the desire to be something more than is dictated by the social conventions of the time.

Aborigonal Australian literature is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment and this year I read the collection Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now, edited by the wonderful Ellen Van Neerven. As with any collection, I felt it was mixed, but there were some stunning stories in there and it’s essential reading for anyone wishing to understand Australia.

Book banning is on the rise in the United States at the moment, tragically. I’m not sure if any of the books I’ve read so far have been the targets of bans but I can imagine many of them would be if the idiots that try to restrict viewpoints beyond their own limited perspectives had their way. One possible target would be a book like Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner, which revels in its transgressive approach to modern society.

I love teaching plays, especially by Shakespeare, and this year alone I’ve taught The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. I even have my own project to watch all of his plays in chronological order. This year in my Year 12 Literature class I’m teaching a couple of plays that I hadn’t read before, though: Hippolytus by Euripides and Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. Uncle Vanya was my favourite; I’ve read and admired many of Chekhov’s short stories before and I read a collection of his plays this year that also included Ivanov, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. I also watched adaptations of each, but it’s Uncle Vanya that stands out: a rich and subtle examination of character that remains timeless. I particularly recommend Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street if you’d like to come to grips with this wonderful play.

I’m not sure if I’ve specifically chosen a book based solely on its cover to read this year, but a plausible candidate is the graphic novel biography of David Bowie by Mike Allred: Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns and Moonage Daydreams. I was familiar with and have admired the work of Mike Allred so his name played a factor, but his artwork is so stunning that the cover no doubt drew me in…

As a Kiwi, I’m genetically predisposed towards a fixation on the sport of rugby union and when I visited my homeland for the first time in about three years earlier this year I made sure I read some works by New Zealand authors. One of them that was based on a true story was The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones, which is based on the tour of Europe by the New Zealand rugby team in 1905 that established the legend of the All Blacks that continues to this day.

In terms of a collection of short stories, one of the best is the business is Canadian writer Alice Munro, who I’ve admire for a long time. She’s another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and this year I read her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. I have a tendency towards literature and films that are more on the avant garde or wacky side but I nevertheless have immense admiration for Munro’s realistic portraits of Canadian life.

I’ve been concentrating on more recent works of literature this year, so the only ones from the categories of books published more than 100 years ago or 200 years ago are the aforementioned Plays by Anton Chekhov, Dracula by Bram Stoker and (going back a lot more than 200 years) Hippolytus by Euripides.

When it comes to a book set in the future we’re obviously looking to the genre of science fiction and a really interesting one I read this year was The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts. As the title indicates, it’s also a murder mystery of the locked room type, but as always with science fiction it’s a commentary on aspects of the present, particularly the way people get lost in the online world to the detriment of the ‘real’ world.

Another category on the list is a non-fiction work about about something to do with science. I tend to read a lot more fiction than non-fiction, but I’ve read a lot of books about climate change in recent years, given that it’s the greatest existential threat that we face right now. One of the best ones has been Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer who approaches the science of climate change from a more literary/humanistic perspective but it’s there nevertheless.

I mentioned that I’m a fan of graphic novels and one that I really enjoyed this year was Dragon Hoops, written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang. It’s based on the basketball team at the Californian high school where Yang taught and as a fan of basketball I was intrigued by what he had to say. But it’s also appealing for people not so in to basketball as Yang himself wasn’t before he decided to write the book.

In terms of books set in Africa, the closest I can come so far this year is the science fiction novel Binti by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, which has an African-inspired futuristic setting. I’m on much stronger ground when it comes to books set in Asia and I’d like to highlight Heaven by Japanese author Mieko Kawakami, which was shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. It deals with high school bullying which seems like a real cliche, but Kawakami gives a unique perspective in this sensitive and somehwat harrowing novel.

I’m also not short of Melbourne authors when it comes to that category. One that I’ll highlight is the just published The Diplomat by Chris Womersley. Chris is an old boy of the school where I teach and I’ve known him for a few years now after getting him to come and speak to out students, which I’m hoping he’ll do again this year. His new novel is a follow up to his brilliant novel Cairo, which was inspired by the theft of the Picasso paining Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s a brilliant evocation of Melbourne in the 1990s and a subtle and poignant exploration of grief and regret.

To my shame, I haven’t yet finished a book of more than 500 pages this year, but when I get through The Books of Jacob it will more than fit the bill!

On the other side of the length equation, the definition of novella is notoriously vague but Cold Enough For Snow by Jessica Au at 112 pages probably fits the bill. This was the inaugural winner of The Novel Prize and it’s a beautifully observed work set in Japan by another local Melbourne author.

I strike a blank when it comes to books inspired by or about Greek mythology so far this year, but I have a few options when it comes to books written by or with a protagonist who identifies as LGBTQI. I’d like to highlight the memoir Close to the Knives by artist David Wojnarowicz. I was alerted to this book in another book by the writer Olivia Laing and it didn’t disappoint in its portrait of life in the edge in 1980s New York.

I also have options when it comes to collections of poetry, so I’ll just highlight yet another Nobel Prize-winner: Louise Glück. Her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night is another impressive work. In my Goodread review I wrote the following: “I absolutely loved the first half or so, which has some of my favourite poems by Glück, but it started wearing on me a little towards the end. Still excellent. That’s four or five collections I’ve read by her now and I feel like she was good value for her Nobel.”

When it comes to books about feminism I’d highlight the most recent novel I finished: Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. It’s set in the 1960s and 1970s and is a brilliantly funny and subtle portrayal of the growing feminist awareness of its main character.

I already mentioned a book about sport: The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones, but the rules stipulate that you can’t use the same book for more than one category, so I’ll instead nominate for the ‘book based on a true story category the harrowing graphic novel Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim about Korean ‘comfort women’ during World War 2 and have The Book of Fame in the sport category.

In terms of books published this year I’ll highlight Paradais by Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor and translated by Sophie Hughes. I read and was impressed by her earlier novel Hurricane Season, which was also longlisted for the International Booker Prize and this one is similarly brutal yet somehow beautiful in its examination of violence in contemporary Mexico.

As a nomination for a book that is a problem facing society today, I’d suggest the French graphic novelist Jacques Mathis: Psychotic. The mental health impacts of the pandemic have been immense and this inside view of what it’s like to suffer from mental health problems is innovative and moving.

None of my students have suggested a book for me to read this year, so I don’t meet the final category, but by my count so far I’ve probably hit 22 of the 30 categories with my reading so far. I’ll be impressed if any of my students have come close to that!

As always, I’ve read some marvellous books this year. The best way to give yourself the chance of reading something magical is to read a lot, so get reading! Remember, it’s good for you…

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Blair Mahoney

Blair Mahoney

Teacher of Literature and Philosophy, prolific reader and sometime writer