2021 was a great year for reading. Last winter, as I waited for good enough weather (and high enough vaccination rates) to see our friends again, I turned to books, always a faithful companion in hard times. For my whole life, when I have faced uncertainty, sorrow, or boredom, books have been my solace.
The year included a lot of fiction; I almost always have a novel to read by my bedside table. I began the year by finishing 2666, the late Roberto Bolano’s epic novel about art, identity and violence against women, set in a fictional Ciudad Juárez at the end of the 20th century. One of the last books I read was the tender and funny Deacon King Kong by James McBride, about salvation and love and baseball and organized crime in and around a Brooklyn housing project in the 1960s.
Between these two wonderful novels, which a bookstore would shelve with “literary fiction,” (along with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I am still slowly reading), I read a lot of books you’d find on the “genre fiction” shelves. Mysteries, science fiction (Anthony Doerr’s wonderful new novel Cloud Cuckoo Land belongs in that category), fantasy (Piranesi by Susanna Clarke stands out), and horror all belong on those genre shelves, as do strange and wonderful books like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation trilogy and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a heartbreaking novel that is partly historical fiction and partly fantasy.
Those labels on the bookstore shelves help readers find what they’re looking for; anything that helps people find a book to read is worthwhile. But there’s no value difference between “literary” and “genre” fiction. There are good and bad examples of both; depressing and hilarious examples of both; liberating and oppressing examples of both. The best writers go where the spirit takes them, even into fantasy, murder, or the distant future. I look forward to a lot more of all types of fiction in the coming year.
As a writer of sermons, and an aspiring writer of essays, I’ve learned that some of the best works I can read are other essays. My eye wanders toward tomes of history on the library shelves, but they’re not as useful (or as full of sermon ideas) as essays and short works of memoir and ethics. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I read and then almost instantly re-read, is a beautiful classic. George Orwell’s essays are brilliant not because they are especially beautiful, but because they tell a clear and insistent truth just as much as Baldwin’s writing. For preachers out there, I highly recommend Wearing God by Lauren Winner.
Books about writing fill the store shelves at any used bookstore, and some are better than others. George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a gem; he presents a book’s worth of Russian short stories, and pairs them with his own essay about the work the writer is doing in the story. It includes exercises for an aspiring writer (or editor) and is a sheer joy to read. I discovered feminist critic Vivian Gornick this year; The Situation and the Story is a book about writing essays, and Taking a Long Look is a collection of her own excellent contributions to the form. David Sedaris’ diaries (I read the second volume this year) are a peek behind the curtain: you can see him working out the experiences and his ideas which will be sifted into essays later on. It will also keep your partner up at night as you laugh uncontrollably reading it.
Since we moved to Worcester in 2014, the number of places to get great books in the city has tripled. Tidepool Bookshop (owned by First U members Jo and Huck Truesdell) is a wonderful independent bookstore at 372 Chandler St. They have an excellent selection and can order anything you need (a great alternative to big box online sellers). Bedlam Book Cafe is a highly curated source of used and remaindered books at 138 Greet St. I hardly ever enter either store without buying a book! And there is our weekly stop at the Worcester Public Library, full of books, DVDs, magazines, museum passes, tools and even COVID vaccines, all absolutely free.
I’d love to know what you read in 2021 and what you’re looking forward to in 2022. Although I hope we have a year of more in-person connection and activity than we did last year, books will always remain my steadfast friends.
My 2021 reading
Novels and Short Stories
2666 by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Natasha Wimmer
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (reread)
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Mrs. March by Virginia Feito
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Case of the Spurious Spinster by Erle Stanley Gardner
D Is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Devices & Desires by P. D. James
Later by Stephen King
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (reread)
Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust, trans. John Sturrock
A Right to Die by Rex Stout
Night Rounds by Helene Tursten
Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer (audiobook)
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer (audiobook)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Essays, Memoir and Other Nonfiction
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Roller-Skating as a Spiritual Discipline by Chris Buice
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick
Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time by Vivian Gornick
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Formation of a Persecuting Society by R. I. Moore
5-Minute Couple’s Devotional by Jake Morrill
Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry (reread)
A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020 by David Sedaris
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Great Love Poems in Calligraphy by Margaret Shepherd
Survival Is a Style: Poems by Christian Wiman
A Graphic Novel, A Work of Graphic Nonfiction and a Knitting Book
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
Intro to Alien Invasion by Owen King and Mark Jude Poirier, illustrated by Nancy Ahn
R:E:D: Rescue Endangered by Design by Polly Cevallos, Dorte Rørmann and Lisa Renner