Two years in (a few) books

What I read in 2018, and what I’m planning to read next

Six years ago I discovered The Greatest Books, and loved it immediately.

I am one to be easily overwhelmed by choice, volume and variety — in general. I also love books, and have a quasi-irrational belief in the importance of reading. It is estimated that the total number of books ever published is around 130 million. Undoubtedly literature, in the form of essays or fiction, has had a huge influence in human history and development. Some books are clearly better than others — better crafted, more insightful, funnier, deeper.

I’ll leave for other posts two related issues: how I decide what to read next, and how I read. For now, I just want to share the past year, and the year ahead.

2018

In 2018 I pledged to read 12 books, and I fell short of accomplishing this goal. In part, that is because I spent more than half of the year reading (my girlfriend would say studying) James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (here I wrote about my experience with it). Also, I’m a very slow reader in general (more about that in a future article).

These are the seven books I read last year, in chronological order:

1. Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” ★★★☆☆

Since I watched (and loved) “Arrival”, I was very curious to read the short story that inspired the film. Also, three of my sci-fi-knowledgeable friends wholeheartedly recommended the work of Ted Chiang. So when Gabi (who is one of those friends) moved to a new apartment and had to discard some books, and I saw this one staring at me from the cardboard box, I picked it up. I liked the book — with caveats. I wrote a somewhat detailed review on Goodreads.

2. Homer’s “Odyssey” ★★☆☆☆

I had read the “Iliad” already, and this one was next. Partly because it’s one of the most important classics, partly because it was necessary preparation before tackling “Ulysses” at some point. I found it a bit boring (the “Iliad” is more entertaining).

3. Manuel Chaves Nogales’ “A sangre y fuego: Héroes, bestias y mártires de España” ★★★☆☆

A recommendation by my father (who I think has read everything, or almost everything, by or about this author). Short stories about the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) based on real events and on what the author himself witnessed. Chaves Nogales was a very lucid freethinker, and it is moving to see this dark episode of our History through his eyes.

4. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” ★★★★★

A museum of a novel. Probably the most important novel of the 20th century, and an experience that everyone should have. I’ll stop here: read my review on Goodreads if you’re interested in how exactly it affected me.

5. Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” (vol. 1) ★★★★★

I bought the first volume of “Akira” online in London, more than twelve years ago. My past self says that I did read it and liked it back then, but I actually had no memory of that! A few years later, in Granada, my brother found a coloured edition of all six books (in Spanish) for a very good price, and bought them all. When I was studying my MA in Japanese Cultural Studies in London I based several essays on classics of manga and anime such as “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell”, but for some reason I had not read all of “Akira” at the time. Last year, and perhaps because I had just finished “Ulysses” (such a dense and profound novel), I thought that it was finally the time to indulge in “Akira”. I knew already that I would love it, and the first volume did not disappoint. It’s amazing to read it twenty-six (twenty-six!) years after it debuted in Japan, and to find it so bold and fresh — and so influential: so many films that I had watched owe so much to Otomo’s work…

6. Guy Delisle’s “Shenzhen” ★★☆☆☆

This was a gift from a couple of friends of mine. I had been wanting to read Delisle because of “Pyongyang”, which I had browsed in bookshops several times. Perhaps “Pyongyang” delivers, but I found “Shenzhen” a bit disappointing. Click above and read my review for details, if you want.

7. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (complete) ★★★★★

“Maus” was one of those gifts that one buys for someone else, but also expects to enjoy some day… I bought it for my girlfriend, and she liked a lot. No wonder. It’s deeply moving, brutally honest, and so witty in its literary devices. I’m so glad I finally read it. Both my girlfriend and I already have friends and relatives in mind to whom we are eager to lend the book this year.

2019

These are some books that I plan to read this year:

Gorka Garmendia Pérez’s “Benahoare o la sonrisa de Idaira”

Last year, I was very surprised to learn that a recent acquaintance of mine, Gorka Garmendia, had written and published not just one but two novels. In October, I attended the presentation of the most recent one, “Benahoare o la sonrisa de Idaira”. Then I ordered the book online and started reading it on the last-but-one day of the year. It will be the first book I finish in 2019. So far, I’m enjoying it and finding it very well researched, and written with much attention to detail.

Fernando Sdrigotti’s “Tríptico”

This is another book by a friend of mine: Fernando Sdrigotti. Fernando very kindly gave me (and other friends) a physical copy of his first book, “Tríptico”back in 2008. It is with great remorse that I confess that I have not read it yet (and Fernando will learn that now, when he reads these lines). My mundane excuses: I was very busy in London back then (first working full-time and studying a short course, then working full-time and studying an MA at the University of London); and in later years I never found the time to set aside a few hours to read an amateur writer (nice a chap as he is), having so many amazing recommendations and classics and gifts and recent purchases to read. Although we have very little contact since I left London, I like and appreciate Fernando. Last year, perhaps prompted by the publication of “Benahoare…” (see above), I decided I would read Fernando’s book at last. On the one hand, it is the least one can do to return the gift of a book, especially one written by the person who is giving it to you. On the other hand, I am curious to learn more about Fernando indirectly, through his work. Stay tuned to read my review of it!

Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

For a long time I have been planning to start reading the Russian classics. I hesitated between “War and Peace”, “The Brothers Karamazov” (Jordan Peterson talks a lot about this novel) and “Crime and Punishment”. In the end, I’ll go for Tolstoy’s simply because it’s the one that ranks higher in The Greatest Books — and in fact makes it into the “top 10” of fiction, as #7. As with “Ulysses”, I will approach this book with a lot of respect, patience and excitement. I can’t wait to open it!

Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” (vol. 2)

I want to read all of “Akira” (six volumes) soon. “Akira” is very entertaining, and it is also a great break between heavier reads. So this year I’ll read #2 in the series.

…and I should stop here. I know that if I read “War and Peace”, even in my mother tongue (Spanish), it will take me many months. So it’s likely that this year I’ll read even fewer books than last year. Perhaps as few as four or five!

But. If I manage to squeeze one or two more books, these are serious candidates:

Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way”

The reason to dip my toe into Proust’s masterpiece this or next year is: how could I not. “In Search of Lost Time” (seven volumes!) is very likely the best work of fiction in human literature, ever. Or maybe it isn’t (after all, this is not an exact science). In any case, it is consistently at the very top of serious lists of classics, and if I aspire to read all seven volumes before I die, I should start now.

Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”

“La Divina Commedia” closes the “top 10” of the best works of fiction of all time, and I try to read at least a bit in Italian from time to time to keep my Italian skills moderately sharp (last one was Macchiavelli’s “Il Principe”). So I have two good reasons to tackle this one soon.