Prose and Cons: A Year of Reading

One of my goals in 2021 was to read 52 books. Having reached that milestone, it’s a bit of a relief to pause and reflect. When I set out on this journey, I saw it as a way to be more intentional about my time. Looking back on the year, I’m grateful for the experience, but I would hesitate to recommend this goal to others.

The Highlights

Without this ambitious reading target, I doubt that I would have ever read some truly excellent books. In the interest of brevity, I’ve whittled down my favorites to the cream of the crop: just four books. I don’t think I’m up to the task of summarizing these works in a way that does them justice, so instead I’ll provide a brief description of each.

Best Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow. A Russian aristocrat loses almost everything when the Soviets come to power. An extraordinary, beautifully-written story about human grace and resilience in the face of seismic change.

Best Nonfiction: Just Mercy. The autobiography of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s spent his life working to reform our incredibly unjust and unfair legal system. Simultaneously crushing and hopeful.

Fiction Runner-Up: Stories of Your Life and Others. An unusually creative collection of short stories, many of which explore what the world would look like with different physical laws. Science fiction at its best.

Nonfiction Runner-Up: Return of a King. This tells the story of the first Afghan war (no, it’s not about hobbits). This early colonial misadventure foreshadowed so much of what was to come in Afghanistan.

The Lows

Sunk-cost reading. For much of my adult life I’ve had a simple reading rule of thumb: if you’re not enjoying it, just set it aside. There are so many great books out there that it’s usually better to cut your losses and move on. The past year was different, because every abandoned book felt like a setback. As a result, I plowed through some books that I should have left unfinished. To get more out of the time I spend reading, I plan to re-institute a low threshold for abandoning books.

Listening isn’t the same. When I set this goal, I decided that audiobooks would count towards my reading total. This past year has convinced me that listening is fundamentally different from reading text. It’s much easier for attention to drift while listening, and I found myself constantly skipping back to find the point at which my mind diverged from the playback. I look forward to listening less and reading more in 2022 and beyond.

Missed opportunities. I spent so much time with books over the last year that some other activities – even other reading activities – fell by the wayside. In particular, my subscription to The Economist didn’t get the attention it deserves. 

Final Thoughts

Though I’m glad that I tried this out, a book a week was a bit too much, particularly in light of the effects this goal had on my other reading habits. If you’re contemplating a similar goal, maybe start with a book every other week. My full book list (including 2021 books) can be found here.