A Few of My Reading Statistics from 2014

Number of books I read last year: 53

2014 Reading Challenge2014 was the first year in a good long while where it felt like I might fall short of my reading goal. I’d originally challenged myself to read 75 books – I’ve easily read at least that many for the past few years – but it wasn’t long before I walked that back to 52.

Why the slowdown? I listened to a lot fewer audiobooks, for starters. I no longer have a job that is well-suited to audiobook listening, and I haven’t been going for walks like I used to. I also read during almost every lunch break at my old job, but I haven’t been doing that as consistently since getting my current job. All of these things combined to cut into the time I spent reading this year.

Number of graphic novels: 25

ComixologyI got back into graphic novels in a big way thanks to my regular use of the Comixology app on my iPad. It helped that comic books and graphic novels are usually quick reads and made it easier for me to work in some reading time without feeling like I was committing to yet another book I might not finish.

Number of audiobooks: 14

AudibleThis number is definitely low compared to previous years when my Audible membership was the primary way I did my reading. It didn’t help that two of the books I listened to took half the year to finish. Of course, they’re also the longest books I read all year.

Physical books vs. digital books: 16 to 37

4460748699_1eefa8dfb1_qGood thing I have so damn many unread physical books sitting on my shelves, right? A lot of the digital books I read were comics in Comixology, but the number also includes a few library books and all the review copies I received from Netgalley and finished during the year.

Books with female authors or artists: 13

LandlineSeveral of these include graphic novels written by a man but illustrated by a woman (Saga) or short story collections that include work by both men and women (Dangerous Women, Rip-Off!). I definitely need to do better on this count.

Longest books: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Dangerous Women by various authors

The LuminariesThe Luminaries weighs in at a solid 848 pages in hardcover. I listened to the audiobook version, which lasts 29 hours and 14 minutes and took me from June to November to finish. Ultimately I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but after a certain point I stuck with it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

rp_51PmRdBcW-L-199x300.jpgDangerous Women is 784 pages in hardcover, but the audiobook version is 32 hours and 49 minutes long, possibly because the narrators read their stories at varying speeds. I listened to this collection from December 2013 through July 2014, and wrote a detailed review of my impressions once I finished.

Most favorite book: Lexicon by Max Barry

rp_51JJOXEz4-L-198x300.jpgI raved about Lexicon as soon as I finished it. I loved the premise and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the audiobook version. It’s especially interesting that I loved this book so much, considering the fact that my only previous exposure to Max Barry was Jennifer Government, which I thought was pretty terrible when I read it back in the day.

Least favorite book: Pretty Deadly, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick

rp_pretty_deadly-194x300.jpgPretty Deadly was doubly disappointing because DeConnick is an author who gets a lot of raves for her work on Captain Marvel. I also wrote about Pretty Deadly here.

Crucial Listens: The Best Audiobook Experiences

I’ve had an Audible membership for a few years now, and although I’d enjoyed audiobooks before I started my membership, it wasn’t until I started listening regularly and widely to audiobooks that I began to understand how much difference a great audio production can make when it comes to reading. I’d argue that some books only truly come alive when you hear them read aloud; humor comes across more clearly, characters become more vivid, and good books transform into great ones.

The Blade Itself audiobook, read by Steven PaceyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, read by Steven Pacey

The Blade Itself was one of the first books I picked up with a credit, and Steven Pacey’s performance blew me away. Like many epic fantasy series, The First Law has a huge cast of characters, and Pacey accomplishes the rare feat of giving each character a unique voice and accent that makes them immediately stand out. After a certain point, Abercrombie could have forgone character identification and I would always have known which character was speaking. It also helps that the series is bloody, subversive and thoroughly entertaining.

Redshirts audiobook, read by Wil WheatonRedshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton

If you’re going to tell a metafictional story about a starship crew that realizes they’re actually characters on a terrible sci-fi TV show, you really can’t pick anyone else to read it but Wil Wheaton. Luckily Wheaton isn’t just a former sci-fi TV star, he’s also an excellent narrator with a flair for reading comic novels like this and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Wheaton doesn’t do too much with character voices, but he understands the emotional core of this and other books I’ve heard him read, and I’d easily pick up any new book read by him on that criteria alone.

Bandits audiobook, read by Frank MullerBandits by Elmore Leonard, read by Frank Muller

I picked Bandits because it’s one of my favorite books by Leonard, but really anything read by Muller is worth picking up. He’s the perfect narrator for Leonard’s casts of characters on both sides of the law (but usually the wrong one). Muller growls and drawls with the best of them, giving Leonard’s minimalist prose the exact right amounts of menace and wry humor. I recently went on a Leonard listening spree, and Muller immediately became one of my favorite narrators.

Middlemarch audiobook, read by Kate ReadingMiddlemarch by George Elliot, read by Kate Reading

Middlemarch is a massive tome about life in a small British town at the turn of the century. One of the main characters, Dorothea, is a pious woman who enters into a loveless marriage with a shriveled old academic named Casaubon. It might seem intimidating and potentially dry, but it’s actually gently satirical, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully emotional. I feel like Reading’s arch delivery went a long way in aiding my comprehension and enjoyment of the book. Some of my favorite parts are her readings of Casaubon’s meandering writings. Until I listened to this audiobook, I would never have imagined that Middlemarch would become one of my all-time favorite books, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen to more classics.

Skippy Dies audiobook, read by a full castSkippy Dies by Paul Murray, read by a full cast

Most audiobooks have one or maybe two narrators, but Skippy Dies boasts almost a dozen men and women who play students, teachers and administrators at an Irish private school. The book is sprawling, and the huge cast of characters is well-served by the tag-team narration style. I couldn’t imagine reading this hilarious, sad story any other way.

The Night Circus audiobook, read by Jim DaleAnything read by Jim Dale

Best known for narrating the Harry Potter books and Pushing Daisies, Dale brings an impeccably British whimsy to everything he narrates. When I started my Harry Potter re-read, I decided to pick up the audio versions just so I could enjoy his narration. Dale’s narration is a perfect fit for anything with a bit of magic and humor in the mix.

On Progress Bars and Persistence

7_animated-gif-person-turning-page-black-book

I recently bought a Kindle Paperwhite after years of saying I probably wouldn’t replace my Kindle until it broke. The old one still works just fine, but I found myself with a sizable gift card balance burning a hole in my digital pocket thanks to a bonus from work, so I gave in to gadget lust and upgraded.

So far I love it. It appears Amazon has fixed the previous generation’s issues with backlighting, and I have to say that the reading light is indispensable. The contrast is so much better, and the page turns feel more responsive. I thought I’d miss the hardware page-turn buttons, but I’ve gotten used to swiping and/or tapping in no time at all. My favorite feature, though, is displaying your progress as the estimated time left in the chapter or the entire book.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’ve been ever-so-slowly reading Anna Karenina since late last year. Most of that time I only read a chapter or two when I picked it up, and generally felt like I wasn’t making any progress because the overall percent read never changed, and the version I have doesn’t support page numbers. The “location” numbers are essentially meaningless, so it was always pretty easy to get disheartened after reading for what felt like a long time.

However, I’ve managed to make a huge amount of progress in the last few days, and I would definitely chalk it up to the estimated time remaining feature. I’ve got it set to display the estimated time left in the book, and for whatever reason just seeing a reassuringly small amount of time remaining – around five and a half hours as of this writing – is all I need to keep pushing through and making progress.

It doesn’t matter whether the number is entirely accurate; I’m sure the Paperwhite is still getting used to my reading speed, although it was pretty close when I read most of Fangirl in one marathon session. All that really matters is that I can see myself making progress in a measure that makes sense to me. I think that measure of tangible progress is one thing I miss the most when I read a digital book. There’s nothing quite like holding the weight of a thousand pages in your left hand as you finally wrap up the tail end of a book in your right. For whatever reason, measuring my progress in time comes closer to that sensation than measuring progress with a percentage.

When is it time to give up on finishing a book?

pages fluttering

People who read for fun (or read at all) each have their own individual way of dealing with a book they can’t quite manage to finish. Some folks stubbornly insist on finishing every book they start, even if it’s a grueling death march towards an unsatisfying end. It’s possible I am biased against this methodology, because I tend to give up on books after a chapter or two if I’m not getting into them.

The problem is that there are occasionally books that I really want to finish for some reason, but I never want to have to force myself to read something. I feel like that’s against my personal reading for fun beliefs system, a religion I founded and observe by regularly updating my progress on Goodreads.

So, a quandary: what happens when I come across a book that I’d really like to finish, that I might even enjoy in short bursts, but that I just don’t find myself picking up to read? What if I manage to read a huge chunk of the book – more than the maximum fifty pages I give most books – but it’s still not clicking for me?

I try not to drop books when I’ve made it too far into them, but it has happened before. I made it 100 pages into Dan Wells’ Partials and just could not bring myself to care about what was happening. I’m pretty sure I read a good chunk of Cinder by Marissa Meyer before I gave it up as a lost cause.

The only books I’m more likely to force myself to finish are review copies, because someone was nice enough to give me a free book and I should repay the favor. Even still, if a review copy isn’t a quick read and I already know I don’t like it after a chapter or two, it’s probably best that I go ahead and skip writing about how much I hated it.

I’ve been known to put down books and try again later when I’m in the right mood. This happened three times with White Noise, which I eventually finished out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes I’ll stop reading a book in print and try again later as an audiobook. This worked with Heist Society, which didn’t grab me when I first tried to read it but came alive thanks to an excellent narrator.

Right now, though, the book I’m thinking about most is Anna Karenina. I started reading that sucker in December of 2012, and somehow it’s nine months later and I’m only halfway through. I feel like I’ve invested way too much time in the book to give up on finishing it, but it’s also just taking so damn long to read! I keep imagining I’ll sit down for a marathon reading session and make some good progress, but every time I try, I make maybe 1% of progress and wander off to do something else. I’d like to finish the book before I die of old age, if possible.

Will I ever finish Anna Karenina? I think at this point I may have to throw myself a little party if I make it to the last page.

What I’m Reading Right Now

ReadingMy life has been in a bit of upheaval recently, and it’s definitely impacted my reading habits. First off, I moved from Austin to Los Angeles at the end of June. The months leading up to the move were pretty stressful as I obsessed over every little detail and generally drove myself crazy. I did fit in some reading during that time, but it mostly consisted of listening to audiobooks.

Now that I’m more settled here in LA, it feels like I haven’t been reading as much as I used to. The nature of my work has changed such that I don’t end up listening to as many audiobooks while I’m working. I haven’t been going for walks like I used to in my neighborhood back in Austin (but I was already bad about that before I moved), and when it comes to the printed word, I’ve been working on several books for a pretty long time.

Anna Karenina is the worst offender by far. I started that in December of 2012 and only pick it up to read about once a month. I’m maybe 400 pages into that 1000+ page tome, and I’d still like to finish it if I can. I don’t normally read that far into a book without finishing it. I’m also still “reading” a short story collection that I started in March and last read in April.

More recently, I started Neil Gaiman’s newest book, which is short and should be a quick read, but I just haven’t been making time to pick it up. Of course, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz in the middle of reading the Gaiman, so maybe it’s just me.

There is also the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays recently. Reading so many scripts has been taking up a lot of my free time when I’m not devoting it to playing video games, but reading scripts just doesn’t feel the same as reading a good book.

Either way, I’ll be done with the scripts soon and I think I’ll be able to devote more time to reading for fun. As for my huge audiobook collection, if listening to them is the only thing that will get me outside for a walk, then maybe that’s for the best. I just need to find a good part of my new neighborhood to take a walk.

Horrible Author Thinks Libraries Are Outdated Concept

LibraryEarlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.

First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.

Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)

Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.

Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.

Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.

Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.

To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ’em!”

A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.

Old Friends -or- The Same Book Over and Over Again

The "double-reading" selfportraitWhen I was a kid I read and re-read the same handful of books. The complete works of Douglas Adams were in heavy rotation. Hitchhiker’s Guide, sure, but I also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency until the cover fell off. I also picked up Roald Dahl over and over again. I remember reading The Witches most often, despite the fact that when I tried to watch the movie version it terrified the hell out of me. (The girl stuck in the painting? Nightmare fuel.) Those are the books that stand out in my mind, but I’m sure there were others.

This habit didn’t stick with me, though; as I grew older, I got out of the habit of re-reading books. Part of it may have been that as I had more disposable income (and a car), I could pretty much always get my hands on something new to read, so I no longer felt the need to go back to familiar old books. I certainly have plenty of new books to read now, so It’s rare that I’m willing to make the time to re-read something, even if it was years ago.

However, whenever I talk to people who are regular readers, re-reading books seems like a fairly common pastime. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that re-readers are far more common than folks like me who only tend to read books once before moving on. The simple explanation for a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they like re-reading books because it’s comfortable. Sure, they might know what happens in the story, but reading it again is like visiting old friends or a familiar place. I’ve never been drawn to re-read books out of comfort, but I can understand the appeal.

I can also definitely see the value in re-reading books like Catcher in The Rye at different points in my life. That book meant something different for me when I was in high school than it did when I was in college, and I’m about due for a third reading. I’ve also re-read books for purely practical reasons, such as when I had to read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings for a second time because I was completely lost when I tried to start reading A Storm of Swords.

Lately I’ve been considering going back and picking up books and/or series from my childhood and reading them again just to get a new perspective. Despite reading Hitchhiker’s Guide a dozen times, I don’t remember too much about it, so reading it again now would be a revelation. I am a little hesitant, though. Sometimes the things we love in childhood don’t stand up to scrutiny when we return to them as adults.

I did actually start a Harry Potter re-read last year – this time listening to the audiobooks – but I only made it through the first two books before I got distracted by other things to read. I’ll finish the series eventually, but once I do, I want to take a crack at some other iconic authors from my childhood. I’m also seriously considering picking up some of the books ruined by my high school English classes. The Great Gatsby got it the worst, but I might also take another crack at A Tale of Two Cities. Not sure if The Scarlet Letter is worth a third read, though.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be a re-reader by nature. I’m always looking forward to the next new book in line. I only pick up books I’ve already read by conscious choice… or if they were so unmemorable that I completely forgot about reading them (which has happened before). That said, I think I will be making a conscious effort to dive back into some past reads over the course of the next year, just to see what I may have missed back then.