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The 50 Book Project In Review and Reading Harder in 2015

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I meant to get to this sooner. I had the flu, so I didn’t. It was awful. I don’t recommend the flu. If you need to take a few days off from work, I highly recommend pretty much anything aside from the flu. Not ebola, though. I don’t recommend that. The flu is pretty bad, but ebola would definitely have been worse.

But I’m back! And I promised a reflection on my 2014 50 Book Project, so that is what you’re going to get. And I’m going to do it in the form of an interview, a self-interview, because that’s the sort of woman I am. Here goes.

So Rachael, what exactly was the 50 book project? Well, I would say that’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? It was a project where I would read (and blog about) at least 50 books over the course of 2014. I really didn’t want to do a whole lot more than 50, either, because I feel like if I’m averaging lots more than one book per week, I’m not challenging myself intellectually at all, and that’s not a good thing.

So was that what this was about? Challenging yourself intellectually? No, definitely not. I mean, it was in the back of my mind—I didn’t want to read fifty pulpy romances or something, you know? I wanted some balance. Some light silly stuff, sure, but I’m a Ravenclaw. I like to think. And I think you need to go back and forth. Read something heavy, or a few heavy things, and then read something lighter for a bit. Literary cleansing, we call it. Read The Diamond Age, a heavy, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, yes—but then pick up The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. Read 1Q84, but take a break halfway through to read The Office of Mercy.

You’re mentioning a lot of titles. What did you read this year? Oh, a list? I can do a list! I mean, it’ll be long, but I can do a list! I draw the line at linking to every post, though. That would be ridiculous.
1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
3. Runaway by Alice Munro
4. This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
5. Paper Towns by John Green
6. The Giver by Lois Lowry
7. 1Q84 vol. 1 by Haruki Murakami
8. 1Q84 vol. 2 by Haruki Murakami
9. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
10. The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian
11. 1Q84 vol. 3 by Haruki Murakami
12. Railsea by China Mieville
13. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
14. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
15. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
16. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
17. Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
18. Unsouled by Neal Shusterman
19. Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20. Lexicon by Max Barry
21. London Falling by Paul Cornell
22. Neuromancer by William Gibson
23. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith” (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling)
25. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
26. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress by Michael Scott
36. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
37. The Necromancer by Michael Scott
38. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
39. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
40. A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
41. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
42. The Warlock by Michael Scott
43. Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
44. Bathing the Lion by Johnathan Carroll
45. The Enchantress by Michael Scott
46. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
47. Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
48. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
49. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
50. Dawn by Octavia Butler
51. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
52. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

What exactly was the goal of the project, would you say? You know, I didn’t actually go into the year with a goal. It wasn’t a project I thought about a whole lot—I just decided to do it on the spur of the moment; there wasn’t a lot of time to come up with goals. Mostly, I wanted to remember what I read at the end of the year, because at the end of 2013 I really didn’t.

Did you do anything specific to help you remember your reading better? Blogging would be the obvious answer, but you can see I was kind of abysmal at that. I took notes. For the first time ever, for an entire year, I kept a notebook as I read. If I came across something that struck me, I’d write down my thought. If there was an absolutely wonderful quotation that I just had to remember later on, I wrote it down. If I had a question, or a prediction, or a bit of confusion, or if I finally figured out something—I wrote it all down. That started just as a way of helping me with blogging, but it was so much more valuable than that. Most of the stuff I wrote down didn’t get into the post, but flipping through my notebook, I can say, oh yeah, I loved that moment, that was on this page. Or, you know, I never did get an answer to that question! But I think just as big as the taking notes was how I was reading. For a few years, I’d been reading nearly exclusively on an e-reader (a nook). I really liked it, but it was amazing how mindless it was compared to actually holding a book. It’s like an entirely different activity. On an e-reader, your eyes don’t work the same way—even the e-ink kind, because that’s what I had. And there’s science backing me up now, which is wonderful. The full-body experience of reading an actual, paper book does a lot of good that no sort of device can do. You remember what you read better. Six minutes a day reduces stress by a whole lot and decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s, but not on an e-reader because your brain processes that differently. I started the slow switch back at some point in 2013 and this year I think I only read two e-books, and that was because they were parts of series that I had there and didn’t feel like entirely replacing. But when the next iteration comes out, I’ll just go to the library. Because even when I didn’t take notes when I was reading—when I got to the end of the book and realized I’d forgotten, usually because I was so wrapped up in whatever was going on in the story—I still could write down what I’d been thinking and feeling at different points in the book. When I got the end of something I read on my nook, I was kind of like, wait, what? It was like something that happened to me, or near me, rather than something that I consciously did and participated in. It was like the difference between freshly-ground pepper from a pepper mill and that pre-ground stuff they give you little packets of when you get fast food. All reading is not created equal.

That got, uh, pretty off-topic. Yeah, it did. I’m not sorry.

Getting back to things then. Even if you didn’t go in with a goal in mind, what were the outcomes of your project? I certainly chose my books differently. I think part of that is, again, part of the switch back to paper books (yes, I’ll shut up about it now), but also the public aspect. I was always a little shocked when I got an email saying that someone started following my blog. I certainly never intended for this to be read by anyone else. I just figured, a record would be nice, and why not make it public? But I think that may have pushed me to choose different books that I otherwise would have. Nothing too over the top, but I had this thing in the back of my mind, like, well I don’t want to have twelve posts in a row of the same author, that would get really boring if anyone’s reading it. Things like that. So I read more diversely in that sense. When I loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I could easily have run to the bookstore and bought everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote. In the past, I might have. But I didn’t. Keeping a record also helped with diversity in other ways. When it got to December, I looked at the list of everything I’d read so far, and while it wasn’t 100% white men, there were a lot of them. So I dedicated most of the month (aside from book club books) to reading books not by white men. I finally picked up The Valley of Amazement, which I’d been meaning to read for ages. I read Alif the Unseen, which was by a Muslim-American woman. I finally got around to reading Octavia Butler, and oh my god I was missing out. But normally at the end of a year, I don’t have the opportunity to look back and say, wow, lots of white dudes here, let’s get some variety in.

What was your favorite book this year? Ahhhh, favorite? Don’t make me choose! (I think Neil Gaiman said it best: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.”) I think the best book I read this year was Bathing the Lion. There were other books that made me look at my rating system and say, huh, maybe I should add an extra star. But that’s the one that made me add the damn star. Despite that, I don’t know that it was my favorite. The top tier, though, would be that, 1Q84, A Wild Sheep Chase, the MaddAddam series, The Golem and the Jinni, The Round House, The Diamond Age, Alif the Unseen, Dawn, and Lexicon. And even now I’m super paranoid that I’m leaving something out. I couldn’t even narrow it down to ten.

Six stars, so…the winner, I think?

That’s ridiculous. How about your least favorite? NEUROMANCER. Fuck that book.

Wow. Okay. So. Moving on. Were there any unexpected outcomes? I didn’t re-read anything all year! That was weird for me. When I originally made the rules, I built in stipulations for re-reading, because I just assumed I would. But it felt like cheating, so I never did. Of course, as soon as it was January 1st, 2015, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and read the entire Harry Potter series in 11 days. It had been a few years, and I missed my Hogwarts friends.

Were there any downsides to your project? Yes! Yes, absolutely. Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, but nothing is all good. The biggest downside was the number, just the fact of there being a number, and how that affected my choices. After I read 1Q84, and that took so long, and I counted it as three books—I mean, I think it was part two that took me over two weeks to get through. Like, it took me over a month to read that book. Those three books. However we’re talking about it. So after that, I was hesitant to take on another really big book. I’d keep walking by The Infinite Jest at work and think, I’d love to read that someday but if I take that on now I’ll never get to 50. And without the number there, maybe I would have picked it up and maybe I wouldn’t have, who knows? It’s on my ‘books I’d like to read someday’ list, but I don’t know if it ever would have gotten to the ‘book I’m going to read next’ point in the last year. Or if it ever will. I mean, I know I won’t read all I’d like to in my life. Some books will just stay on that ‘someday’ list forever. But I wasn’t going to start anything huge in 2014 when I had a goal.

So you won’t be doing a project like this again? I don’t think I’ll be doing this specific project again, but I did like having a project. It introduced a level of mindfulness into my reading habits that wasn’t there before, and I don’t want to lose that. But I don’t think it’ll just be number goals in the future. I’m really excited for what I’m doing this year, in fact.

And what’s that? Yes! Time for the Reveal! In 2015, I’m participating in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. It’s 24 categories and you’ve got to read one book from each over the course of the year. Or you could allow some overlap, cross out a few categories with one book—listen to a young adult audiobook by a Native American author who’s the opposite gender as you and you’ve got four down at once. I’m really only planning on counting one category for each book, though.

What are the categories? Well, you can read all about it over on Book Riot, but here they are:
1. A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25.
2. A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65.
3. A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people).
4. A book published by an indie press.
5. A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ.
6. A book by a person whose gender is different from your own.
7. A book that takes place in Asia.
8. A book by an author from Africa.
9. A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.).
10. A microhistory.
11. A YA novel.
12. A sci-fi novel.
13. A romance novel.
14. A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade.
15. A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairy tale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.).
16. An audiobook.
17. A collection of poetry.
18. A book that someone else has recommended to you.
19. A book that was originally published in another language.
20. A graphic novel, a graphic memoir, or a collection of comics of any kind.
21. A book you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over).
22. A book published before 1850.
23. A book published this year.
24. A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”).
That’s them, copied directly from Book Riot’s site. It’s an exciting challenge, and one that I think will push me in ways that my 50 Book Project didn’t, while also giving me a lot of leeway both in the categories and to read my own stuff on the side.

What are you most looking forward to in this challenge? Both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have short story collections coming out this year. I can’t wait for those. Really, at least half the categories will be covered by stuff I would have read anyway, so I’m looking forward to getting to each category and looking around my shelves and my TBR list and seeing what’s there that fits.

What do you expect to be the most difficult? 1. A romance novel, because I have this preconceived idea of what romance novels are and fully expect to absolutely hate it. I’m all for love stories happening in books, but I like them to be side plots. I’m just not a very romantic person. 2. A self-improvement book. I mean, how could I possibly improve on this? (*Indicates all of self.*) But in all seriousness, I’m sure there are some great ones out there, but I know there’s also a whole lot of crap and I have no idea how to go about wading through that crap to find something worth reading. 3. An audiobook. I don’t like noise! I’m going to have to develop a strategy for this one, because it’s really the exact type of noise that I most dislike. I don’t like when I can hear a voice but can’t see someone. I feel like I’m missing key details. Facial expressions, body language. I’m sure it’ll be different listening to a book—there’ll be description when it’s important. But I don’t like disembodied voices. I don’t like the phone, I don’t like talk radio, and I have a hard time imagining that audiobooks will be any different. I’m also not great at listening to someone talk while I do something, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get away with multitasking. We’ll see.

Will you be blogging this project? Hah. Yes. I’m not good at the blogging part, but I like it. I won’t be blogging everything I read this year, but I do plan to blog the Read Harder challenge. 24 posts seems manageable.

So one last question, then: What are you tackling first? I already tackled it! That’s how bad at blogging I am. I just finished #18, a book recommended by someone else: eaarth by Bill McKibben, recommended and given to me by my dad. (And yes, I started with #18. I’m not going in order. They aren’t actually numbered on the Book Riot site, so I think that’s fine.)

Okay, that’s all for this post. Which is good, because this is literally on the sixth page in the Word document I’m writing it in. Sorry. I’ll be back soon to talk about eaarth. Hopefully soon. You know. Soon-ish.

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