Compared to 2015, this year was a relatively slow year. I decided to reduce the number of books that I wanted to read after it became clear to me just how much work I’d have to put in to finish my PhD dissertation.
Last year I wrote that I wanted half of the books I read in 2016 to be fiction. I also said that I didn’t want to buy any new books. I failed firmly and thoroughly on both goals. I only read nine works of fiction this year, and I bought many books. Part of the reason for less fiction was due to a realignment of my broader goals (less writing of fiction in my daily life and more writing of computer/programming code). Nevertheless, I want to be reading more fiction as a regular habit. I’ll probably set a Beeminder goal for 2017 to facilitate this.
Two works of fiction did stand out among the 76 (as of today) books I did manage to read. Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ was an unrelentingly miserable book. At 734 pages, it was also very long. It was a significant time investment, but the craft of the writing kept me reading. I avoided reading reviews when this came out, but was aware that many people were saying positive things. The events that take place in this book are traumatic, to say the least, and the author has been criticised for writing ‘torture porn’ by a number of readers. So take this or leave it. It’s incredibly powerful and beautifully written.
2016 was also my year to jump on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon. I read the first two volumes in a series of four. I enjoyed the first, ‘My Brilliant Friend’, more than the second, though that was perhaps on account of the pleasure on discovering a new writer (to me) who told engaging and emotionally satisfying stories. This book didn’t send me on a nostalgia-infused journey as it seems to have done with others, but it was certainly one of the books I savoured reading most this year. “Deliciously compelling,” I wrote immediately after finishing.
Cal Newport’s Deep Work was what spurred me to finish my PhD in an intense three-month period at the beginning of the year. I think anyone doing some kind of freelance work, or remote work, or work where you aren’t immediately / directly under the supervision of someone else would benefit from reading this book. Newport is occasionally a bit preachy, but don’t let that distract you from his important thoughts on quality of work and production. (Some related thoughts in an old blogpost here.)
Austin Kleon’s ‘Show Your Work’ (original blog here) is responsible for the uptick in posts on this blog. (I even have a Beeminder goal to keep me honest.) This was a quick but rich overview of ways in which sharing ideas, work and other moments where you learn something can be useful for both the author and his audience. Lots of practical ideas, most of which could be boiled down to what happens when you keep a blog regularly updated. Highly recommended to anyone who thinks for a living.
‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by W. Timothy Gallwey is my final pick, if only because I really need to absorb some of its lessons. Gallwey makes the point that conflict between competing ‘voices’ in our minds is often the source of self-sabotage. I wrote a longer summary here in case you want to learn more.
The year is 97% finished, and arbitrary as the passing of time is, I remain mindful of the fact that there aren’t that many days. I also have been trying to hold the paradox of things mattering (but at the same time not mattering) in my head.
So 2017: more fiction, (probably) more blogging, (certainly) more coding and maybe a return to Afghanistan-related topics.