In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.
In January 2010, as the decade began, I was halfway through the first year of an undergraduate degree in English Literature at McGill University and working part time in a chain bookstore on the South Shore of Montreal. The first book I finished that year was Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, which had won the Costa Prize and would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography later in 2010. I loved that book, but not as much as the first Athill book I read, which was Yesterday Morning. You’ll see many more Athill turn up on my lists from the decade; the memoir she wrote of her publishing years, Stet, appears later in the same year. Athill died in 2019.
Another comforting favourite that crops up a few times in 2010 is Jacques Poulin, a wonderful Québecois novelist who writes short, tender books full of melancholy readers and writers. I admire Poulin for his ability to write what is essentially the same book over and over again, digging ever deeper into similar themes and experiences.
The English novels early in the list–Waugh, Woolf, Orwell, Isherwood, Green and Greene–were all for a class in early 20th century literature. It was a great class and the professor who taught it would go on to become my undergraduate thesis advisor. This class was also my first introduction to Elizabeth Bowen, who soon became one of my favourite writers. The first story I read of hers was “The Dispossessed” and the first novel was To the North, which I’ve promised myself to reread since.
Apparently amid all the school reading, including a number of classical texts, I had time to read for pleasure. I remember buying Ian McEwan’s Solar as soon as it came out. I had loved Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday… and I was bitterly disappointed by his dark comedy about climate change. I also found time to read Wolf Hall, which had just come out the previous year, and loved it.
I know I read at length that summer, as G. and I prepared to spend a year abroad at the University of Bristol, in the UK. When I read 2666 it felt like everyone had been talking about it for the better part of two years. Overall the novel left me perplexed, although I quite liked it. There was a huge Bolaño craze in the early teens, with many of his stories and novels being republished posthumously, but now it feels like he’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. 2666 is the only book of his I read and I’ve always wanted to reread it to see if it still holds up now that the hype has passed.
Reading when I was twenty was a lot about catching up, getting around to books I thought one should read: Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Kafka, Capote, Updike. It felt a little like ticking names off a list. I recall reading Rabbit, Run at the anonymous office in Ottawa where one had to make an appointment to apply for our British visas, and the young employee who was registering my file making a comment about it. I can’t say I remember the novel particularly fondly.
One book that stood out for me that summer was my first David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which really shook me: an eminently readable literary page turner, with just the right pulpy hint of magic. I would go on to read most of Mitchell’s books, but now that I think about it I definitely picked up that one because I found the cover striking. Another favourite that summe was Laurence Cossé’s novel about writers and bookstores, Au Bon Roman (translated in English as The Novel Bookstore), which stunned me. It’s about two friends who open a bookstore that only sells great novels (no celebrity bios, no cookie-butter bestsellers), selected by an anonymous panel of writers. It starts off as a sort of thriller with some of the panelists getting attacked or threatened, but it’s also a love story with a very light touch. I reread it last year and still liked it, but found that it didn’t have quite the same impact the second time around. After I read it I bought copies for several people around me.
There are a few invisible lines between some of the books I read in 2010. I bought Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small after seeing it in the bargain bin at work, a serendipitous discovery of a book I didn’t even know existed (I had fallen hard for her collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris). The essay in that book about people who are more active at night (she calls them Night Owls) led me to Al Alvarez’s book Night (ordered used off the internet because it’s out of print), which in turn must’ve motivated me to buy his excellent book about writing, The Writer’s Voice. You can also see that I was indulging in my love for books about books: The Library at Night, Larry McMurtry’s Books, Attachements (which is about a woman who culls her library), Pourquoi Lire? (Why Read?). I still like books about books but ten years on I feel that there was something a bit performative about how eagerly I devoured them as a twenty-year-old. Was I in love with the idea of books more than I was with books themselves?
In the fall we moved to the UK, where I had fewer classes than in Canada and no job, which means more reading time. The streak of Henry James came from a class I had on that writer. I had previously read only a single short story by James, and being encouraged to read so many of his novels and stories in quick success–that sense of immersion into the work and life and voice of one writer–remains a highlight of my reading life.
Another flash of remembrance: reading The General in His Labyrinth, which I had first heard about from John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, alone in a hotel room near Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was stranded there because of a snowstorm on December 21, my flight to Montreal having been cancelled. From the hotel room window I watched the wind push around curtains of snow tinted orange by the sodium light. A strange way to end the year, and I had a strange book to accompany me. The next day I was able to get on a flight back home to Montreal.
The List: 2010
Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Homer, The Iliad
Homer, The Odyssey
Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto 1)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Eusebius, History of the Church
Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale
Ian McEwan, Solar
Elizabeth Bowen, To the North
Gerald Graff, Professing Literature
Henry Green, Party Going
Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small
Jacques Poulin, Chat Sauvage
Helen Garner, The Spare Room
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
Diana Athill, Stet
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Louise Warren, Attachements
Andrei Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu
Larry McMurtry, Books
John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse
Ian McEwan, The Innocent
Stefan Zweig, Voyage dans le passé
Annie Proulx, Close Range (audio)
Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions
Nancy Huston, Infrarouge
Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen blues
Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway
Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vol de nuit
John Updike, Rabbit, Run
Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Al Alvarez, Night
Laurence Cossé, Au Bon Roman
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Dominique Fortier, On the Proper Use of Stars
Alberto Manguel, With Borges
Henry James, Roderick Hudson
Henry James, The Europeans
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Henry James, The Ambassadors
Christopher Reid, A Scattering
Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice
A.S. Byatt, Possession
Simon Garfield, Just My Type
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth
Charles Dantzig, Pourquoi Lire?
Alberto Manguel, All Men Are Liars