2014: My Year in Books (& the year I saved myself by reading)

2014 books 2

As already established, I’m a bit of a nutjob New Year’s resolution enthusiast. Some years I have many (eleven this year) and other years I take a minimalist approach. Last year I had only one: Read 55 books.

I went into 2014 feeling depressed: I was unhappy professionally and adrift personally. I didn’t like my job, and, because I spent all my free time watching House Hunters and reading crap on the internet, I didn’t know who I was outside of my miserable job. Life felt empty, and I was floundering for meaning and joy. I knew something needed to change, because I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize or particularly like–and that someone certainly wasn’t happy.

There were lots of things I wanted to change: I wasn’t working out, I was drinking too much, I was spending more money than I made, I ate a lot of candy, and I probably wasn’t calling my mom enough. But I also knew, fragile as I was, I wasn’t going to change everything at once. And as much as I craved a major life overhaul, I felt it best to focus my energies. What, I asked myself, used to bring me joy, outside of my work and my relationships with the (beautiful, crazy, smart) people in my life? And I remembered the little girl, blankets piled high even in the summer to block out the flashlight, reading (and sweating) far past her bedtime. And the teenager who underlined her books and excitedly ran into the kitchen to read lines out loud to her mom and aunt. And the college freshman with e.e. cummings poems taped to her wall, who felt electric and alive and a little scared reading the crazy priest sermon in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten how to read for the pure joy of it. I’d stopped reading almost entirely; my books were turning into decorations.

So I printed out a calendar for January 2014 and I set a goal–50 pages per day–and I tracked my progress. A month in, and I could feel myself waking up. The refreshing sort of stretching and yawning and tingling that happens after a good, long nap. I like to think that we all have a thing that brings us a joy and acts as a benchmark of a well being. My best friend is an incredible athlete, and if the world feels crazy or scary or dark, she goes running and feels brave and sane and strong. Another best friend is an artist, and practicing her art wakes her up; the happier she is the more she draws (and the more she creates, the happier she is). In 2014 I learned that I’m a reader, and if I’m not reading then my whole world is out of synch.

So I set out to bring balance back into my world with the ambitious goal of reading more than one each week. This past year books pulled me, page by page, out of my depression. They were a lifeline to something I wanted to be part of–something that gave me meaning and purpose and, best of all, joy.

Fifty-seven books later, I thought I would share my some of my favorites with you:

Favorite novel:
Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
I read this book early in January, but it held onto this top spot for the entire year. It’s so delightfully unexpected and the language pulled me in and did not let go. It’s a true literary novel, with a rich and complex and lively plot. This book was like coming home to reading, and finding out someone has left the light on for me.

Runner Up: The Known World by Edward P Jones

Favorite memoir:
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
A book about a long, arduous & solitary hike should be about as monotonous as that hike itself. But this book is so vibrant and warm and full of triumph. It made me feel incredibly grateful to be living, and I may have gone on a spent the summer daydreaming about my own hiking adventure.

Runner Up: Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (Haters gonna hate. This book is beautiful and smart and insightful.)

Favorite YA:
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a beautiful story about first love, but for me it was also about the first time you loved a story. Reading it felt intoxicating in a way that only reading as a small girl has felt. I stayed up until 3am reading this book, and as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start over again at the beginning because I couldn’t bear to leave these characters.

Runner Up: Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas (I have a soft spot for YA fantasy books. Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure. If this is your thing, go read some Sarah J Maas; she is perfect.)

Favorite non-fiction:
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
The eternal student, I love a meaty non-fiction book, but they are rarely page-turners. This book about Vladimir Putin, written by a Russian journalist who has been observing and reporting-on Putin’s Russia for decades, was incredibly compelling. Gessen is a brilliant writer and Putin a fascinating subject; I could not put this book down. Bonus: Reading this will make you feel very enlightened and worldly, considering how active and menacing Russia has been lately.

Runner Up: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (If you want to learn more about Jim Crowe South, the NAACP, and the legislative battles of the Civil Rights Movement, especially after Ferguson, please read this book.)

Most joyful book:
Hero Worship by Rebekah Matthews
This book has the distinction of being the only short-story collection I read, and is therefore in a category all its own. And the category I’ve placed it in, “most joyful,” will likely confuse almost everyone, because I can never describe this quite right, but here goes:

Jacques Lacan has this idea that real joy is always a little bit painful. Think of a moment of ecstasy; it’s such a raw moment that you can’t actually stay in that place. And lurking at the edges of joy you can feel the discomfort; they are always a little twisted together.

(And maybe this is why, in my sadness I had turned away from reading, from something I loved so dearly–I knew it would make me feel electric and alive, and in that there is always also discomfort. Maybe I was just too afraid of any pain, even bundled up as it was in goodness.)

Hero Worship is painful and sad and lonely while also being hopeful and sweet and compassionate. Perhaps it is this combination of things, that are both disparate and also make up the very nature of our human experience, that made me feel excited and alive and a little bit uncomfortable while reading it. I cannot recommend it enough.

My 2015 goal is a bit more moderate, because I want to open up space for even more things that make me feel joyful and alive and uncomfortable–like writing and yoga and meditation–but I’m looking forward to many quiet moments curled up with a cup of tea and a good book.

What has helped pull you through dark times? What are you most excited to spend time doing in this upcoming year?

2 thoughts on “2014: My Year in Books (& the year I saved myself by reading)

  1. Jill says:

    This is so lovely. And such a great reminder to give ourselves the space and time we need to find or come back to the things we love, however simple they may be. It also really makes me want to just curl up and read for the day. :)

  2. Megan Garvey says:

    BOOK CLUB REPRESENT!!! Ok but also, in all seriousness, I’m with Jill – this is so lovely! I also tried to read more in 2014, but I didn’t do as well as you (although I did finally tackle some tomes I had been avoiding). I think the hardest thing for me is to keep up the habit – it is so easy let is fall to the wayside, especially when there is a fun new time-suck nearby. I find that putting myself simply under “no glowing screen” rules makes everything in my life 100xs better, it’s just often hard to enforce. But that’s my 2015 goal: Use the phone as a phone and try to stay away from the glowing screens (all of them) at least a few hours a day. I don’t spend nearly enough time with myself.

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