I looked at and read more books in 2020 than I did in the entire decade 2010-2019. I didn’t keep count, but I averaged 1 book a day for the first half of the year, and then 2-3 a week since. I’m not proud. Most of it was virtually indistinguishable from broadcast television and the time spent reading was time I didn’t spend with my darling wife and therefore caused some tension in my marriage. Still, though, I did it.
After the Philosophy BA and Art History MA (2003-2008) and then reading Infinite Jest (which I should have a go at again), I just wanted to be done for awhile. And I was. I didn’t read much for a decade or more.
For several years, I spent most weekend mornings reading a few pages or a chapter of some book of theory or something. But then, in late 2019, I replaced those often dense books with fluff: I read one or two books each from some of the major pop fiction writers of the past 80 or 100 years. I pitted Zane Grey against Louis L’Amour (Grey all the way). I read one of the Grisham books, one of the Grafton books, a couple of Agatha Christie novels, a John LeCarre or three, the first couple of Xanth books (Piers Anthony), a Spencer novel each from Robert Parker and Ace Atkins, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. On and on. One offs in a variety of genres. (I read no romance, but did read one of those really horrible boilerplate men’s adventure series things… I don’t even recall the character’s name, let alone the author.)
I did this stupidly: I bought them all used from various Half Price Books locations, then returned them for minimal cash and bought some more.
I live next-door to a branch of the Irving Public Library. smh.
In mid December, 2019, when I finished The Bourne Identity, I wanted to finish the series and started off to the bookstore, but something clicked in me and I swung into the Library instead. From there, it was all downhill.
I read the other two Bourne books, the Dragon Tattoo books (translated), then hit upon James Patterson… Between January and June 2020, I averaged a book a day: I read all the Alex Cross books, in order; I read Jonathan Kellerman’s “Alex Delaware” series; I read the Bosch series; and as the Pandemic hit, I started in on (and finished) Patricia Cornwall’s “Kay Scarpetta” series. I took 9 library books to Mom’s in July and read them all in 6 days, then ordered the last of the Scarpetta books from the library and picked them up on my way home from Arkansas.
It became a sort of sickness, really, and I can’t name a favorite of any of these. The Patterson and Kellerman books got quite predictable quite quickly. The Kellerman, in particular, which all feature the killer in a sort of bit-part very near the beginning and by the 3rd or 4th book I realized it and could reliably name the killer at their first appearance. Plus, I didn’t much care for the Delaware character. In that regard, Patterson’s Cross series is superior. The Bosch books were better than both, and I sorta like Bosch, though that’s probably due to the Amazon show. The Scarpetta series was probably the best, though some bits in the overarching story were a bit too convoluted, in a sort of soap opera, cliffhangery way, though I feel like I’m being chauvinist to say that, as if the series by male authors have no soap opera aspects, but, really, the boyfriend fakes his death and the other boyfriend is the bad guy who killed the first boyfriend, and all of this revealed over 5 or 7 books? Well, maybe you understand.
Anyway. If you want a long series of… I don’t know what to call these. They’re not whodunits like proper mystery stories, but they’re not spy novels or adventure stories or thrillers or anything like that either, and they’re not general fiction. Mass market mystery/suspense series fiction? Anyway, I’d put Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series at the top, I guess, maybe tied with Michael Connelley’s Bosch (and other) series, though they’re all largely interchangeable. (Except the Delaware books. They’re the worst. Trust me.)
Sometime in February, after multiple recommendations, I checked out Rebecca Solnit’s A field guide to getting lost from the library, then bought and read River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and Wanderlust. Of these, if you’re interested in photography, read them all; if you’re interested in self improvement, A field guide…; if you just want a good history book with a wide ranging discussion of a rather narrow subject to sit with for a bit, River of Shadows or Wanderlust. Really, you can’t go wrong with any of them. They’re all excellent.
For photobooks and photo-related books, well, if you wanted a top 10 list or something, apologies. The Solnit books Wanderlust and A field guide… made me want to get outside with my camera, if that helps. I didn’t, not much anyway, but I wanted to…
The Atmosphere of Crime 1957, an expansion of a photo series Gordon Parks published in Life magazine, is on several best-of lists, and as a mass market thing is readily available. I haven’t spent enough time with it to comment, but what I recall of it is absolutely excellent and worth spending more time with.
I was most disappointed with the exhibition catalog from Dawoud Bey’s Portraits 1975-1995. I hoped for a large group of his polaroid multiples and got maybe a handful. So stick with his Aperture Photography Workshop book, which has nearly as many, and maybe learn something about portraits. It’s not the best of the series, but it’s still excellent (and if you’re unfamiliar with the series, do yourself a favor and buy or borrow them all).
I was most impressed with Bruce Gilden’s Subway reprint (from 2011, but still in print and I only acquired it in 2020). I’ve long hated Gilden’s work, but Subway was made before he really got into the work he’s known for these days, and it’s excellent.
But the photobook I enjoyed the most was Charlie Kirk‘s Katil Var. I preordered it in 2019, and looked forward to it for nearly two years, so maybe I’m biased, but it reminds me of classic photobooks and has a good sequence and pacing, and it’s incredible that Kirk still has copies available. Please go and help remedy that.
So that’s my 2020 reading saga. I doubt I’ll read that much in 2021. My wife has been much happier with me since I stopped spending 2-3 hours reading every evening, since I began sitting and watching Bake Off or whatever with her every evening instead. God willing, the books I read and look at in 2021 will be stimulating and beneficial to a greater extent than the
garbage stuff I read in 2020, and He alone knows.
I skipped the best of photobook lists this year, so if you have some favorites, please pass them on! And let’s stay safe, wear a mask, stay patient, and make it a great 2021!