Every year, Goodreads.com offers its users the option to create a “Reading Challenge”. You decide how many books you want to read – the well-meaning but often misguided idealism of New Years resolution must surely be at play here – and the site will display a progress bar on the right side of your screen for the next 365 days, beginning 1st January, plainly visible every site visit. You’ll be told how many books behind schedule you are, or, if you’re particularly keen, how far ahead you’ve got.
Whether this tool is ingenious – Your own personal coach! A metric for quantifying engagement with literature! An easy way to be accountable to your goals! – or the worst idea ever is difficult to say. It’s relevant to note that Goodreads has a financial incentive to persuade its users to treat reading as a race to the finish line; the site was acquired by Amazon in 2013, self-proclaimed “world’s biggest bookstore”. But if the Goodreads Reading challenge is capitalistic bait, I don’t really mind – I took it.
I set my reading challenge for 100 books and finished 110. (In my defence, many of the books were short.) In any case – here are five of my favourites.
1. My Poets by Maureen McLane
“It was clear I was good at school—thus the scholarship to Oxford; not clear that I was a writer, or a poet. The very things that made me good at school—a talent for aligning with authority, or for knowing what it wanted; a capacity for self-estranging self-discipline; an ability to use anxiety as a fuel; an over-identification with established codes—were precisely the things that might render me not a writer, not a poet.”
McLane was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and a visiting lecturer in Trinity term of this year. My Poets is part memoir, part personal essay, and part literary criticism – the blending of these genres made me feel like I was taking a dive directly into her consciousness and intellectual life, rather than just reading something she wrote. It’s as if the gap between the reader’s understanding and the author’s experience is made perceptibly smaller. This book is a treat for anyone with a proclivity for poetry, especially the Romantics (one of McLane’s many areas of academic specialty.)
2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s still got it. When this book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, I quickly bought it and picked a sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon to start reading. After thirty pages, I slammed the book shut and said, “No, no, no, no, no!!!” Without giving anything away, something horrible happens at the beginning of this book. The way that Tartt teases the reader through the first chapter to this critical event sets the tone for the rest of the novel, and makes for a thrilling ride – its whopping 800 pages don’t feel as long as they actually are. I don’t know many books that are both compellingly readable and guided by an ethos of highbrow art and philosophy – but The Goldfinch is a great one. It’s hard to believe that anyone can read this book and dislike it (not that I’ve heard any complaints!).
3. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
The Opposite of Loneliness is a rich, soulful, and earnest collection of essays and short stories. Keegan writes about the beauty of being young, and the excitement and tribulations it can bring. There’s an essay describing the life of her first car like the life of a sibling, a short story describing the awkward grief of a college student whose hook-up partner suddenly dies, even a poignant essay written for Yale seniors describing her sense of community, the “opposite of loneliness”, she’s about to leave. “Of course, there are things we wish we’d done: our readings, that boy across the hall,” Keegan says cheekily. But still, her refrain rings true:
“We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.”
4. Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines
“The idea of addressing someone requires a great deal of force. You have to heave yourself up. Coeur de Lion, I suppose, addresses this question. It’s very, very difficult to address a person with your heart beating in your body. But people still write love letters to each other – letters of desperation, confusion or explanation. And that kind of transaction is, I feel, all we have left.” –Ariana Reines
Ariana Reines is a fierce and wild poet, unlike any other I’d read before this year. Coeur de Lion is a collection of poems addressed to a past lover; intimacy, the boundaries of privacy, sex, and love are themes all explored. She strikes a tone that’s simultaneously intellectual and taut with sexual tension; she can mention obscure German philosophy and use profanity in the same five-word line and get away with it. At first, the quirkiness of this can be a bit off-putting, but I quickly came to realise that Ariana Reines is a brave tour de force, writing a new kind of poetry for a new generation.
5. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”
Writer for the Arts and Literature section Rose Lyddon has an excellent piece published on this very essay collection. I stayed up until 4:30 AM one summer evening savouring every last sentence of this book. It is easily the best essay collection that has been published this year, and I’ve read enough of them to feel decently qualified enough to make such a claim. Jamison is an incisive and acutely intelligent writer who’s clearly out to catalogue the minutiae of human feeling, particularly (as the title points to) empathy. Devour this at the earliest opportunity, paying special attention to the first essay on empathy, “Pain Tours”, and, the essay with the best title ever, “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”.