This past year, I decided to read more books. In my youth, I had always read voraciously. I can distinctly remember trying to read faster than the approaching dinner- or bed-time to just get to that part of the story I was anticipating, before I’d have to put my book down. I remember crying most of the way through “Where the Red Fern Grows”, wishing I was in a part of “The Boxcar Children”, and as I got older discovering myself through Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems, Latin American essayists, and the fictionalized philosophical journey of “Sophie’s World”.
Thus, I was a bit aghast to reflect that I really wasn’t reading very much anymore. So, with a relative amount of freedom this past year—traveling and working around the world—and a lot more emphasis on reflection and living my life more in line with my beliefs, I set out to revive my love of reading.
I didn’t read as much as I would have liked, mainly because of my extrovert nature and, let’s be honest, the very real distraction of the internet and social media, but I read more books than I would have without the intention. Most important to me, what I read was shaped by my life and travels. I read a few books about and set in Asia, having spent the past six years living there. A trip to Morocco inspired me to learn more about Islam. And, my new home in East Africa had me reading books set in Africa and about some of the most influential forces, like the slave trade and international aid and development. Of course, I also just read for fun, for instance, finally picking up a Sarah Waters’ novel after seeing the BBC dramas and the adaptation of “The Fingersmith” into the “The Handmaiden” by the South Korean Director, Park Chan-wook, among other books.
And, so, my 2017 reading journey looked something like this:
My top 5 books (with 1 bonus) were:
- Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): Essay, in the form of a letter to his son, about the harsh realities of being Black in America.
- A Golden Age (Tahmina Anam): Historical fiction about one family during the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
- Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese): A fictional story of two Indian-British twins growing up in a medical clinic in Ethiopia.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami): The surreal story of a man in Tokyo whose wife goes missing and, in her pursuit, discovers the occult and other worlds beyond.
- The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen): The story of a Vietnamese spy during and after the Vietnam War.
- No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (Reza Aslan): Non-fiction book about the history and future of Islam.
A breakdown of what I read by genre and subject:
*Other includes: technology, race in America, religion, and a fictional dystopian patriarchal world.
Most of my reading followed my life, as I visited Tokyo I finished “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, I read “A Golden Age” in Bangladesh, and the doctor giving me my vaccines in the US before embarking to Ethiopia recommended “Dark Star Safari”.
I also read a pretty good balance of fiction and non-fiction. Much of the non-fiction I read was prompted by curiosity and wanting to know very specific answers to questions I was mulling over, such as “what is the impact of aid in Africa?”. But I do think the non-fiction books really slowed down my reading, as it probably takes me 4X longer to read non-fiction than fiction. Plus, only 1 non-fiction book showed up in my top 5, probably showing I much more enjoy fiction in practice, even though I don’t always know that in theory when buying books.
A breakdown of what I read by author characteristics:
Since, I think what you read frequently represents the background of the author and, thus, has ingrained biases and ethnocentrism (especially when reading books about and set-in many places in the world), I’m glad that more than 60% of the authors I read were not white. But still, in trying to figure out how my reading reflected the actual demographics of the world, I quickly pulled up the statistic that the world is only 11.5% “white”, so the demographics of authors I read weren’t yet representative of all the places I was reading about.
And yes, I can’t believe how much male authors dominated my reading. I really need to read more books by women.
More in-depth reviews and reflections of my top 5 plus 1 (so you can see what you want to read!):
1. Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
Summary: Essay, in the form of a letter to his son, about the harsh realities of being Black in America
What I loved: An incredible, heart-felt, and tragically true observation of what it means to be Black in America (or a Black man, as some have critically pointed out). I especially appreciated how Coates wove together an intellectual history and critique with honest recollections and reflections from his own life. The best part of reading this was discussing it afterwards with D and A on our bus ride and talking about how race has shaped our own lives.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; I’d just remark that I had an uncomfortable feeling of guilt as I sat on the other side of the world in a bus after reading this.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 10
2. A Golden Age (Tahmina Anam)
Summary: Historical fiction about one family during the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.
What I loved: Reading this in Bangladesh gave me much more of an understanding of the country’s history. The story was compelling and felt almost like a movie at time.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; It was enjoyable and gave me more context into how Bangladesh was shaped. If anything, it just piqued my curiosity more about Bengali literature, feminism, and history.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 9
3. Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
Summary: A fictional story of two Indian-British twins growing up in a medical clinic in Ethiopia.
What I loved: Amazing story to read while living in Addis Ababa. Brought the city to life in a new way for me. Loved it and we just gifted it to A’s grandpa for Christmas.
What I didn’t like: Nothing; It is a great epic story that crossed three cultures I have some experience with: Ethiopian, Indian, and American.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 9
4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami):
Summary: The surreal story of a man in Tokyo whose wife goes missing and, in her pursuit, discovers the occult and other worlds beyond.
What I loved: A trippy story that made me feel like I was in another world. Best part was listening to parts of it on a train in Tokyo and getting to see parts of the culture that he described, from train rides, to passing people on the street, to picking up his dry-cleaning at the store.
What I didn’t like: The ending wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. I wished it had culminated in something more profound and maybe I was hoping to be “spoon-fed” the meaning of it all. Also, there was something that bothered me about how women were depicted in the book, much of them sexualized and more type-casts than full characters on their own.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 8
5. The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen):
Summary: The story of a Vietnamese spy during and after the Vietnam War.
What I loved: Completely engrossed me and I felt really inside the main character’s head. Brought out the complexities of war and how all choices are somewhat morally-flawed.
What I didn’t like: It was a bit hard to read the torture, and rape, scenes (and listen to some on Audible).
Overall Rating (out of 10): 8
6. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (Reza Aslan):
Summary: Non-fiction book about the history and future of Islam.
What I loved: I knew so little about Islam before reading this book and this helped me understand the history and beliefs much more. It is so important for non-Muslims to understand the history, culture, and faith of Muslims in this age where we are hit by a barrage of lies and mistruths on what Islam is or isn’t.
What I didn’t like: I am sure Aslan has his own perspective and at times it felt like he was promoting his view of Islam more than being impartial. I feel like I have a lot more to read to really understand Islam and religion in general.
Overall Rating (out of 10): 7
Goals for 2018 reading:
I really enjoyed and spent the better part of a day writing up this review. For 2018, I just want to read more and give myself time to review, read critiques, and write my own thoughts and reflection. This year, I put more of a focus on reading, but still my intellectual and bibliophile curiosity far out-stripped my actual reading.
My more specific goals are:
- Continue reading about countries that I am living in or visiting, which seems likely to be Kenya and maybe some surprise country I don’t know yet. Read about issues in those countries, like poverty, economic development, and government.
- Begin my intellectual journey into understanding slavery from an African perspective, in what happened in Africa as opposed to the impact in America, etc.
- Read more books written by women, especially queer women.
- Re-visit some authors I love: Italo Calvino, Sarah Waters, etc.
- Read more about race in America. This year, I read my first Baldwin, but it wasn’t about race. Next year I want to read “The Fire Next Time”.
- Write more about what I am reading. For instance, I had a big goal this year to make a huge timeline of Myanmar’s history, based on “River of Lost Footsteps”, but I didn’t get around to it. Maybe next year.
Based on my goals, my 2018 reading list looking something like this:
Any other suggestions for what I should read in 2018?