The raucous year that was 2016 is almost over. I graduated college and now find myself in China. Unable to escape domestic news, I helplessly watched the upsetting political upset of Trump, the unrest in American society—I’m struck by what appears a general loss of direction. We’re moving forward, but it’s as if all of us are being bulldozed together with no one driving the damn thing. That should be a feeling confined to individuals, fresh college graduates or young people in general who are making it up as they go along; but now, an entire society can’t work together to decide the best path forward, and so the bulldozer continues its steady trampling. The only cries heard debate the best way to be trampled comfortably!
But I digress.
2016 is almost over, and for the first time, I will conduct a Selfies…with Books! retrospective look, not just for this year, but to the beginning of my campaign. My first post is dated February 8, 2015 and it recommends The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. I have made 35 other posts, showing 40 books, since then bearing the #selfieswithbooks insignia, with Gary Jennings’ Aztec being the last of this year, the year of Our Lord two thousand and sixteen, to borrow the writing style of one of the characters in the book. I have gone through three phones in the past two years, the great HTC One, the marvelous Sony Xperia Z3, and the too-oftentimes awful LG G4, the phone I’m currently tolerating.
I couldn’t consider myself a strong reader before college. The only things I read in Elementary School were The Adventure of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey and Bible stories, both of which heavily relied on illustrations, not language. I mocked descriptive language whenever I would pick up a novel; I considered it unnecessary and obstructive—Captain Underpants continued his story from panel to panel, and similarly, God was pleased with Abel, but not with Cain, so Cain slayed Abel and God abolished Cain: The End. To their credit, if I hadn’t read even those sparse-in-details Bible stories, I likely would have gone without reading anything at all besides captions on the TV screen, which was by no means a negligible amount of reading, but still heavily reliant on images.
I would read assigned books in Middle School, like Tom Sawyer and The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I would do so begrudgingly, and sometimes not at all, choosing instead to rely on Cliffnotes or classmates for information. First, the length of anything over ten pages intimidated me, as that’s how long Bible stories usually were, and even half of those were taken up by pictures, so you can imagine how a novel looked to someone with no history of reading them. Second, these books were rife with the descriptive language I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate, which made the task of reading them seem esoteric—books just weren’t for me because I couldn’t understand the appeal. We’re all too familiar with the ignorant jeers of someone who doesn’t know the first thing about what they ridicule. That was me throughout Middle School.
It wasn’t until tenth grade, in Ms. Oliva’s English class, that I found the book that would finally spark my interest in reading. Native Son by Richard Wright opened my eyes to the possibility of what could be written and, in effect, read. The book contained violence, racism, sex and alcohol, and I was drawn to it only because of a juvenile interest in such matters, not because I understood every historical or societal significance. Regardless of that knowledge deficiency, the book provided me with a sense of maturity, one that said, “Yes, you are drawn to the scandal, but you are also old enough, now, to be exposed to these things and to think of them, from now on.” Until reading Native Son I simply didn’t know such things were allowed to be written and read.
From then on, my interest in reading was unlike anything in my past years. While I had accepted and appreciated descriptive language, my annoyance now rested on the apparently purposeful use of symbolism and metaphor, which was a common complaint made by my peers. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, these were books I wanted to read only for the story, not for what everything might mean. I thought, fine, if the characters and events and objects are supposed to have meaning beyond themselves, then I should be the one to decide that meaning, not be given an answer and tested on it. By the end of 11th grade, however, I had come to also appreciate symbolism and metaphor, especially once I began writing for my own pleasure, and all the other methods employed by authors to add punch to their writing and engage readers.
Despite my newfound appreciation for reading, I never strayed from assigned books while in high school. Reading, I convinced myself, took too much time. I said this while I invested 150 hours in Pokemon Diamond for the Nintendo DS, and 100 hours playing Halo 3 online, and 20 to 30 hours apiece finishing a number of Role Playing Games, like Oblivion, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Fable, and many, many more. This wasn’t hypocrisy on my part. While I appreciated reading, I didn’t yet enjoy doing it for its own sake, and the act of reading to finish a book really felt like a larger commitment of time than everything previously mentioned.
In one hour, I can read about thirty pages. If it wasn’t for Kindle’s ability to quantify the amount of time it will probably take you to finish a book based on your reading speed, I never would have known my reading speed. Before reading Aztec, the longest book I had finished was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which is around 700 pages. Now that I have finished Aztec’s 1038 pages, I am no longer intimidated by books of similar length, since I now know how long it will take me to read them, provided I can stay focused, which is my current battle with reading. All of this is to say, I think I can call myself a reader, but I’m not yet comfortable with calling myself an avid reader, yet. My library outpaces my attention, and sometimes my patience, but I’m no longer intimidated by the expanding shelves.
These are the books that kicked off Selfies…with Books! in 2015. Quite a few were read for school; they were either assigned or helped me complete a research project, but none were technical or dense enough to warrant omission.
- The Solitude of Prime Numbers: Paolo Giordano
- About a Mountain: John D’Agata
- A Thousand Splendid Suns: Khaled Hosseini
- The Rational Optimist: Matt Ridley
- The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand
- Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation: Simon LeVay
- Angle of Repose: William Stegner
- Spook: Mary Roach
- H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction: H.P. Lovecraft (go figure)
- A Canticle for Leibowitz: Walter M. Miller Jr.
- Washington Square: Henry James
- The Beast in the Jungle: Henry James
- The Post–American World: Fareed Zakaria
- Ender’s Game: Orson Scott Card
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity: Katherine Boo
- The Communist Manifesto: Friedrich Engels
- The Antichrist: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
- Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy: Christopher Hayes
- The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—And Reality: Chris Mooney
- Life of Galileo: Bertolt Brecht
- Waiting for Godot: Samuel Beckett
- Antigone: Sophocles
- City of Lies: Ramita Navai
- Theories of International Relations and Zombies: Daniel W. Drezner
- The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century: Robert B. Marks
- Global Environmental Institutions: Elizabeth R. DeSombre (Don’t actually read this)
- Natural Resource Policymaking in Developing Countries: Environment, Economic Growth, and Income Distribution: William L. Ascher (highly academic, but very well written)
- The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap: Matt Taibi
- What if? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been: Robert Cowley (editor)
These are the books included this year, in 2016. Most are finished, some are not.
- Siddhartha: Hermann Hesse
- A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Karen Armstrong (in progress)
- A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (in progress)
- A Walk Across the Sun: Corban Addison
- The Tiger’s Wife: Tea Obreht (in progress)
- The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury
- Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northrup
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty: Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
- Turn of the Screw & The Aspern Papers: Henry James
- Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury
- Aztec: Gary Jennings
That’s it for this year. I have several tantalizing options for the next: The Alchemist, 1984, Love in a Time of Cholera, my time still to go in China is replete with literary options, many by native authors or authors from nearby nations. At last I can say I’ve found my love for reading. This project encourages me to continue sharing books and taking pictures, and I hope that my current library has something that grabs your attention.
Happy new year.