Forgive me fellow English majors and bibliophiles, for I have sinned. I’ve tried rereading old favorites, I tried reading a book a week, but nothing stuck. Maybe I’m still coping with post-English major burnout, or just burnout in general, but 2019 is the year I finished reading the fewest books in my life.
I have a handful of half finished book reviews sitting in my drafts, and rather than try to crank them all out weeks or even months after I read the books to do a proper review of each book (you can look up plot summaries for most of these if you’re feeling lazy), I’ll be going into why these books hooked me into finishing them instead of letting them drift into my incomplete pile. I’ll be rating them on a mostly subjective 1-5 scale that’s more about my gut feelings and love of emojis than anything else.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
I’ve been a Bitch Media subscriber for a while — and you should consider being one too, because we need media representation that isn’t led by startup bros trying to capitalize on and profit off of feminism (side eying you, Bustle). So when they started BitchReads, a monthly book club with a built in Slack discussion group, I was interested.
Before you read on, note that this book comes with a pile of trigger warnings: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse.
But if you can handle that, the essays contained within reveal what it’s like to live with serious mental illness. Wang was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, but not without years of bouncing between doctors, diagnoses, and being check into mental hospitals. While my own struggles with mental health haven’t been nearly as extreme, I felt a kinship with this Bay Area writer’s tales of fighting to appear high-functioning with the specter of mental illness hovering just out of sight, waiting to make a liar of you.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Internet fame — or infamy — is a strange thing. Going viral is not something you can plan. What you can control, however, is what happens afterward. That, more than the strange appearance of Gundam looking robots around the world, is what I took away from reading this book that came highly recommended by my friend Sequoia and was gifted to us for Christmas by my sister-in-law Chelsey.
April May, our plucky social media savvy protagonist, puts forward this taxonomy of fame that I think is spot on. Months after finishing the book, it’s still on my mind.
Tier 1: Popularity. You are a big deal in your high school or neighborhood. You have a peculiar vehicle that people around town recognize, you are a pastor at a medium-to-large church, you were once the star of the high school football team.
Tier 2: Notoriety. You are recognized and/or well-known within certain circles. Maybe you’re a preeminent lepidopterist whom all the other lepidopterists idolize. Or you could be the mayor or meteorologist in a medium-sized city. You might be one of the 1.1 million living people who has a Wikipedia page.
Tier 3: Working-Class Fame. A lot of people know who you are and they are distributed around the world. There’s a good chance that a stranger will approach you to say hi at the grocery store. You are a professional sports player, musician, author, actor, television host, or internet personality. You might still have to hustle to make a living, but your fame is your job. You’ll probably trend on Twitter if you die.
Tier 4: True Fame. You get recognized by fans enough that it is a legitimate burden. People take pictures of you without your permission, and no one would scoff if you called yourself a celebrity. When you start dating someone, you wouldn’t be surprised to read about it in magazines. You are a performer, politician, host, or actor whom the majority of people in your country would recognize. Your humanity is so degraded that people are legitimately surprised when they find out that you’re “just like them” because, sometimes, you buy food. You never have to worry about money again, but you do need a gate with an intercom on your driveway.
Tier 5: Divinity. You are known by every person in your world, and you are such a big deal that they no longer consider you a person. Your story is much larger than can be contained within any human lifetime, and your memory will continue long after your earthly form wastes away. You are a founding father of a nation, a creator of a religion, an emperor, or an idea. You are not currently alive.
Even if you don’t have the mixed blessing/curse of falling into May’s Taxonomy (I think I’m a Tier 2 quidditch person), if you’re reading this, you have some form of social media. You’ll start sorting all the people you see in your feed, whether or not you know them in real life, into these categories.
Now, I’m not here to decry social media as some sort of evil ruining us all — social media is literally my job and I’d like to keep earning my paycheck, thanks. But when April talks about herself and the April May™ that her followers expect, I think we can all relate to that. My Twitter self is ranty because that’s what works on the platform, my Instagram self is aspirational because Insta is a contest to see whose life is the coolest, my Facebook self is pretty bland because too many of my relatives follow me there, etc etc.
I’m not faking it on any of those platforms. I drink as much (and more) coffee and craft beer as you’ll see on my Instagram, I am that much of a Sharks fan in real life as I am on Twitter, and I am definitely more of a left wing feminist killjoy offline as I am on Twitter.
This is turning more into a rant about social media than the book itself, so I’ll rein myself in. If you’re looking for a mystery and the intersection of real life and social media fascinate you, you’ll love this book. It’s a bit twee at times, but Hank isn’t nearly as bad as his brother in that respect.
Choose Your Own Disaster by Dana Schwartz
I bought this for the title and for the cute cover way back during January’s trip to Seattle, but only got around to reading it in August.
Honestly, I was disappointed. That’s no necessarily the fault of the author. Choose Your Own Disaster is way more “a. a memoir” than “b. a personality quiz,” which is what I bought it for. I couldn’t relate much to the author, either.
She’s funny and the choose your own adventure format is cute, but I earned my English degree from a state school with an secondary education emphasis. My experience is nothing like the glamorous (to me, anyway) life and misadventures of budding writer attending a university with stronger name brand recognition than mine.
Fire & Blood and The World of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
These books fueled by brief audiobook phase earlier this year. I was enticed into joining Audible with a free book credit and used it to get Fire & Blood. I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire books since I was a freshman in high school back in 2000. I’ve grown bitter and doubtful that GRRM will ever finish the series, but I’ll take what scraps of content I can get.
Don’t get me started in the final season of Game of Thrones, though.
The book is a more in depth history of the first 300 years of the Targaryen dynasty than was previously known. Some of it is retreads of The World of Ice and Fire
So was reading (or listening to, whatever) The World of Ice and Fire after Fire and Blood a mistake? Not at all. It reads more like a history book, with all the biases you’d expect. Picking those apart was a feature for me, not a bug. It also covers a far vaster period of time, allowing you to take in the whole history of GRRM’s world.
But when I moved onto the audiobooks of the regular series, I wasn’t nearly as engaged.I also unsubscribed from Audible as part of my decision not to use Amazon anymore. I still “own” those books, but I don’t even have the app on my phone anymore, so accessing them is borderline impossible.
The Joy of Doing Just Enough by Jennifer McCartney
I bought this book in Richmond when I was there for the IQA Pan-American Games. I picked it up for some light plane reading… only to spend the flight back to California sleeping or on my phone.
Because it’s a sturdy little hardback, I tucked it into my purse this month so that I could read it on the go instead of defaulting to my phone. I started reading it to get through an afternoon at the DMV and wound up finishing it in 24 hours.
In a world full of self-help books that peddle ways to maximize your time, urge you to tap into your inner badass, and other #girlboss adjacent advice, this was a witty and necessary breath of fresh air for me. I tie my self-worth to my productivity and The Joy of Doing Just Enough countered that with humor instead of shaming.
Goals for next year
If I catch myself listlessly scrolling on the couch, my bookshelf is right there. I have quite the pile of unread books and a slightly smaller stack of incomplete reads. All but one of the books I read this year and most that I have yet to read are small enough to fit in my purse, so having one book in my bag will be another way to push myself to read more.
With those small changes to my routine in mind, my goal is to read 12 books next year. I know one book a month doesn’t sound like much, but I’m a big believer in setting small goals. Besides, it is double what I did in 2019. And if I can get another blog post each month reviewing what I’ve read, even better.