by Hugh Gilmore
Back in January I stated in this column that I’d read 100 books this year, despite all the distractions of modern society. I’ve been working away at it and wanted to let you know how it’s going.
I confess I should have reported back to you at the halfway point in June, but this summer has made me slothful where writing is concerned. There’s no sunshine in my downstairs office, for one thing. But since the weather this weekend has been been cloudy and gloomy, it’s not much bother to come down here and tell you about my reading quest.
My plan for the project is simple: 12 months to read 100 books. That averages to eight-plus books a month – two-a-week – plus four others thrown in. I keep a dedicated blank book for my reading record, noting the date I finished, the title, the author and the format of the book (e.g., Kindle, print book purchased, print book from Free Library, print book got through the used book business I own and operate, Kindle borrowed).
I also write a few sentences about most of the books, sometimes just enough to help me remember if I suspect the title alone won’t jog my future memory, other times when I have a strong reaction to the book. And I mean “strong” enough to compel me, since an arthritic wrist makes all writing, even a signature, sharply painful.
I was tempted (as a writer) to hold off on telling you how I’m doing this year and tease you along to the last paragraph, for a last-sentence reveal, but it’s not some great suspenseful journey I’ve undertaken. My limited space would be better spent commenting on some of the books I’ve read, in case – like most readers – you are looking for reading suggestions. Call it a belated Beach Read Suggestion List.
So here’s the total: so far I’ve read 63. Not bad, but not as much as many other, more dedicated, readers. On the other hand, according to the Pew Research Center for 2015, the average American male reads nine books a year. Women about 14. My list includes a number of 500-pagers and a like number of 90-page Kindle Singles, so the total probably averages out to 63 typical 275-to-300-page reads.
Here are some of the books I enjoyed: “Preparation for the Next Life” (2014) by Atticus Lish (fiction). I couldn’t wait to get back to this story each time I had to put it down. It’s a gripping, seedy love story set in the grimy world of recent immigrants. A young Marine veteran escaping the PTSD of having served (not particularly valiantly) in Iraq falls in love with a Chinese girl who works in a food court. The book is remarkable for its intimate knowledge of back-alley survival, mostly in contemporary New York. Touching, moving, compelling.
“Now and at the Hour of our Death,” (2015) by Susana Moreira Marques (nonfiction). I devoted an entire column on June 1 to this book, calling it the single most touching and inspiring book I’ve read in years. The author, a journalist, follows a hospice team on their rounds in a remote Portuguese village. It is a tale of life and love, dying and philosophy, never far from being at the center of all that is beautiful about humans and the precious gift of life.
“So you’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” (1915) by Jon Ronson (nonfiction). I’ll read anything by Jon Ronson. He’s the epitome of geek participatory journalism and his subjects are always fringe people and often quite weird. In this book he observes and interviews people who have publicly been shamed by the Internet, Twitter and the news media for doing something dishonest or stupid. His mind works fast and his wit even faster, but he always pushes forward in his pursuits. If you don’t like this book, try “The Psychopath Test : A Journey through the Madness Industry” (2011).
“Consequence: A Memoir,” by Eric Fair (nonfiction), is a first-person account of a religiously inclined man from Bethlehem, Pa., who wants to be a cop, but doesn’t get taken because of a weak heart. He joins the army, goes to Arabic-language training school, leaves the Army, works for a private military contractor, goes to Iraq, becomes an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and Fellujah, tortures captives, comes home, tries Princeton Theological Seminary, and writes this book about his battles with conscience and the government. The book is recent (April, 2016) and the author is currently making the controversial-book rounds. I was mesmerized by the book but felt in the end that the author put only a few of his dirty toes in the water. One senses there is much more untold than told. (Possibly because, as happens so often, war crimes trials prosecute the operatives rather than the bosses of their outfits.)
Those have been my big, significant books so far. I also read several about the pioneers of the Oregon Trail, food and cooking (try “Real Food, Fake Food” (2016) by Larry Olmsted, novels by Shirley Jackson (“Hangsaman,” 1951), Deborah Levy (“Swimming Home,” 2011), Juan Pablo Villalobos (“Down the Rabbit Hole,” 2011), and a great Hollywood-backstage book: “The Dudes Abide: The Coen Brothers and the Making of ‘The Big Lebowski,’” 2014, by Alex Belth. This last one sent me back to the movie again (not as good as I tried to remember it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Coen Brothers literally have no sense of humor … but that’s for another time).
Please do remember that movies may be fun, but a steady diet makes your brain a passive organ. Only books and reading can keep your brain muscular – and hence keep your truest spirit and soul alive. It’s never too late to take the 100-Book pledge. No excuses, everyone has the time.
Hugh is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” a tale of growing up, despite it all. Also available in paperback.