While I’ve been keeping a personal list, or rather spreadsheet, of books I’ve read since 2013, this is the first time I’ve written a blog post about them.

In most of the last 5 years I’ve balanced my ‘free’ time between reading, listening to podcasts and listening to music. Normally reading was done at home, and podcasts and music, in the main, consumed as I walked about. That changed in December 2020 when I created an Audible account to listen to the first volume of Barack Obama’s autobiography. That was the first and only audio title that I listened to last year.

This year I’ve listened to very few podcasts – and cancelled my premium Spotify account. Given that I walk about 12,500 steps per day that gives me the best part of 2 hours per day of extra ‘reading’ time for unabridged audio books.

My reading is a mix of e-reader, paperback, hardback and audio formats. I’d hit 50 titles by the end of June. So, I set my target at 100 for the whole year, and today I’ve exceeded it by 2. You can see a full list here.

Analysing the data in my spreadsheet I can see that this year I read 57 novels, 18 non-fiction titles, 9 volumes of poetry and 7 collections of short stories, plus 4memoirs and (auto-)biographies, and a handful of other types.

The format of these was 50 audio books, 28 Kindle or PDF titles, 13 paperbacks and 11 hardbacks. Without the huge boost of those those audio books, my reading would have been much more consistent with previous years.

The writers of who I read most were Hilary Mantel (6 titles); Simon Armitage and Kazuo Ishiguro (5 each); William Boyd (4); Kurt Vonnegut (3); Damon Galgut, Ian McEwan, and Virginia Woolf (2).

Given that I’ve been keeping the list as an aide memoire, so that if asked “what have you been reading?” I could more easily recall titles or give recommendations I guess I should pick some favourites from this year.

Having read 56 novels, it’s hard to rank these in a non-subjective way. I’m convinced that even half-decent novels sound better when read skillfully as an audio book. Last year’s Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and this year’s one, The Promise by Damon Galgut were both very good in different ways. My two favourite audio books, were Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel. I’ve read every book that Doerr has published since I discovered him through All The Light We Cannot See in 2016. He really is a master storyteller and his latest work ingeniously weaves historic, recent past, present and future narratives into a deeply satisfying whole. It has themes of environmental concern, conservation of knowledge, how chance plays a part in how things endure and much more.

I read a lot of Hilary Mantel this year too. If pressed for a favourite I’d have to say Every Day is Mother’s Day. It is a dark, very humorous tale reminiscent in many ways of Joe Orton’s work – featuring an extremely dysfunctional mother and daughter, her social worker, and their interlocking circles of acquaintances. This was Mantel’s debut novel in 1985. I also read Vacant Possession, which is Mantel’s sequel to that title. While it ties up loose ends of the former, and is equally dark, it is less satisfying.

I’d previously only read one title by Kurt Vonngegut: Slaughterhouse Five, so listening to three other titles this year was an unexpected pleasure. Mother Night was very good indeed, as was God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. I’ll definitely come back to more from his extensive canon. Similarly Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – were late discoveries.

I enjoyed all of  poetry titles I read. I’m late to reading Simon Armitage’s work which was triggered by a live peformance in Aberdeen Library (which had to be done live online) in April 2021. This spurred me to read more of his, and other poets’ work.

Of the four photography books which I’ve added to my collection this year the most impressive was 90-year-old Marilyn Stafford’s A Life In Photography.

It is said that reading, and reading fiction more specifically gives you greater ability to empathise with others, and I’d agree with that. Two  non-fiction titles stand out as ones which really forced me to think, each of which I’d picked up as reduced price titles on Audible: Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchy and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick.

Finally it is probably worth noting that I use Book Bub to alert me to Kindle titles which are on sale at Amazon. I’ve a stack more purchased ready to read. I also, in addition to a monthly £7.99 subscription to Audible which gets me one ‘premium’ title per month, I look out for marked down titles £1 each, 3 for £10 etc to keep it topped up.

Having read more this year than any year since my teens I do intend to keep it up for another year – but perhaps to mix back in some more music and podcasts.

Ian Watt

31 Dec 2021

Header Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

2021 – A year of reading
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