2020, a year in books

2020! A year when I had more time than ever to read and an attention span that was shorter than ever before (see: pandemic and all that attendant anxiety). 36 books in a year is not nothing but it’s a lot fewer than I’ve managed in previous years. Still, there were some good ones. Here’s what I recommend (listed in the order in which I read them):

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion (love her forever)
  • Circe, Madeline Miller (third reread; not the last)
  • Walking Distance, Lizzy Stewart (just delightful)
  • So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo (really excellent)
  • Devotion, Patti Smith (love her forever, too)
  • The Dutch House, Ann Patchett (far and away the best book I read in 2020)

2018, a year in books

From everything I’ve read lately, I’ve learned that you’re either one of those people who sets goals or resolutions when a new year rolls in, or you aren’t. I am the former (whereas I used to be the latter). Lately I’ve been setting intentions rather than resolutions — they serve me well and allow me to interpret them differently as the year progresses and as my progress warrants. I realised this morning that one area where I haven’t set an intention in a number of years is reading. I read consistently so it’s probably a simple case of I know I’m going to read books this year and that’s enough.

That said, I do track what I read on Goodreads and, inevitably, I re-up on their annual reading challenge, committing to 52 books for the year. Still, I don’t consider that an actual intention because I don’t pay any attention to how close I’m getting to hitting my target. And maybe it’s just me but their interface doesn’t seem to do a lot to encourage you towards meeting your goal as the year progresses? Regardless, as I said, I always assume that I will read books this year, just like I know I’m going to, I don’t know, take showers, so there seems as little point in paying attention to how much I’m reading as there is in paying attention to how many showers I’ve taken. So I don’t. Which is why I found myself particularly surprised when I looked at my 2018 shelf on Goodreads on December 30th only to realise that, hey, 52 is exactly the number of books I read in 2018. Cool.

There’s quite a bit of research-related stuff on the list (I was on research leave for the first 5 months of 2018) and aaallll sorts of books about drawing and painting (pretty much all of which I would recommend, particularly Felix Scheinberger’s stuff). So in terms of fiction and general non-fiction, here’s what I’d recommend from my reading year (listed in the order in which I read them):

  • Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists, by Julia Rothman
  • The Mother of All Questions, by Rebecca Solnit
  • The Customer is Always Wrong, by Mimi Pond
  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown
  • The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui
  • Educated, by Tara Westover
  • Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, by Kelly Corrigan
  • You & a Bike & a Road, by Eleanor Davis
  • Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline
  • All the Sad Songs, by Summer Pierre
  • The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
  • An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
  • Heart Berries: A Memoir, by Terese Marie Mailhot
  • Becoming, by Michelle Obama
  • The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce
  • The Break, by Katherena Vermette
  • The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax
  • Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Noble
  • Calypso, by David Sedaris

Read well, friends.

July reads

A pretty light reading month, considering that one of these two books took about 2 days to get through, and the other was mostly pictures. We were traveling for 2 of the 4 weeks in July and I decided to keep it light and not pack a single deadtree book. Instead I downloaded about 6 titles on my ipad and convinced myself that I was Doing The Right Thing (limiting luggage, weight, &c.). The result? I didn’t read a single word during the whole trip, other than the few chapters of a book that I picked up at the Musee D’Orsay book shop (still reading it, it’s brilliant, more on that in next month’s post). Verdict? I am no longer a reader of e-books. A few years ago, that was all I read, but for some reason, that desire/inclination has left me entirely. Print books are my bag, I suppose.

The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, Mike Rohde
If you doodle incessantly when you take notes, you might already be a sketchnoter. I had no idea my visual note-taking style (all boxes, callouts, doodles, and arrows) had a name until I laid eyes on this book. It was sort of interesting to read a bit of the psychology behind why I’m drawn to visual note-taking, and this book even provided some ideas for how to get better at it. It’s good.

Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists, Julia Rothman and Vanessa Davis
As someone who has kept a sketchbook, on and off, for many years, I’ve always been drawn to other people’s sketchbooks — what do they use them for? How do they interact with the pages? Do they have the same anxiety I do about that first, blank page? Do they ever tear pages out? This lovely volume asks these sorts of questions of 44 artists and reproduces images from their sketchbooks. It’s a gorgeous book, and pawing through the pages, reading all about how these artists feel about their sketchbooks is a delightful treat. This is one I’ll keep returning to and enjoying for ages.

June in books

Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling your Creative Career, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens (audio)
Henson’s approach to money is probably what appealed to me most about this book. According to Stevens, the accumulation of money and wealth was never Henson’s goal — his goal was to just make art. Henson saw the accumulation of money as merely that thing that fueled his ability to continue to make his art. With that as her central theme, Stevens tells ten lessons about Henson’s approach to running a business that is based on art and creativity. This is definitely more of a business book than it is one about art/creativity, making it not quite what I expected, but there’s still plenty here to enjoy and learn from.

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, Sharon Louden (editor)
The latest contender for my favourite read this year, this is a wonderful collection of essays by 40 working artists. The essays deal with all the joys, pains, complexities, and trivialities of being a working artist, covering everything from how to actually get the work done, the creative process, creative blocks, and the usual self-doubt that goes with being an artist, to juggling relationships and family, money, gallery representation, and being a part of a creative community. There’s a lot to celebrate in these essays, but also a lot of plain talk around things like money and how to earn enough of it to live on and sustain a career (I didn’t count but it certainly seemed like most of the 40 artists featured spoke of having second jobs to supplement the income they earned from their fine art practice). These 40 essays are filled with passion for creativity and artistic practices, with a generous dose of reality tossed in. It’s a really excellent read.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
It occurred to me recently that with all the books I’ve been reading on creativity, I should reread this one because it’s been about twenty years since I last read it and it’s such a classic. This book is a brilliant exposition on what it takes to be a female writer, written with tongue often very firmly planted in cheek. Let this serve as a reminder to myself to not wait another twenty years to read it again.

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis (audio)
The Rise is a collection of stories and anecdotes held together quite loosely by the thematic thread of creativity. Lewis has a fairly readable prose style that I enjoyed, but it almost seemed like she was trying to tackle too much with this book.

All non-fiction, all the time

Not a single word of fiction in all of May. And I’m okay with that.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, Twyla Tharp (audio)
Most of the titles I’ve read on creativity have been by writers and visual artists, so I was keen to hear the perspective of a performance artist. Good news: good creative habits are common across all the arts! There are some interesting perspectives here, as well as a bunch of useful exercises. The three-star rating comes down to the narrator, who way over-dramatised unfortunately.

The Creative Life: True Tales of Inspiration, Julia Cameron (audio)
This book was not at all what I expected. Cameron is the author of The Artist’s Way, that seminal text about creativity and the creative process, and I guess I expected something similar here. Instead, The Creative Life is a series of vignettes about Cameron’s life as an artist and a teacher. Once I got past my expectations and settled into the narrative, I enjoyed it.

Hello, New York: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Five Boroughs, Julia Rothman
Part memoir, part travel guide, this is a stunning look at the five boroughs of New York, told in gorgeous illustrations and lovely personal narratives by one of my illustrator-heroes. If you’ve ever wanted to explore NY’s little-known treasures and off-the-beaten-path highlights, this book is for you.

Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words, Wendy MacNaughton
MacNaughton is probably one of my favourite illustrators and San Francisco is easily one of my favourite cities, so this book was a total treat.

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt (audio)
Such a lovely book! One of Truitt’s main struggles is the struggle between the competing roles in her life: her role as mother and her role as artist. She is positively lyrical when talking about that tension and how she navigates it on a daily basis. I listened to the audio version of this, which was delightfully narrated by Truitt herself, but I’ve decided I need to get myself a print copy because this is a book I’ll read again for sure.

Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
A quick little read that was the perfect followup to Pressfield’s The War of Art. Do the Work is a manifesto about the challenges of resistance and all the forms it takes.  That self-doubt you have about your yourself and your abilities? That’s resistance! That thing that prevents you from starting whatever it is you really want to start (a piece of art, a company, weight loss, whatever)? Also resistance! That thing that seizes you right at the end of a project and prevents you from completing it? You guessed it, resistance! Resistance sucks and this book is all about how you can get through/over/past it to just do the work you want and need to do. I enjoyed it.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
I dipped into this book over the course of the month and thoroughly enjoyed it every time. All sorts of habits, rituals, routines, and practices that I couldn’t help but think must have been super fun to research.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat (audio)
I wasn’t familiar with Danticat’s work prior to reading this series of essays but now I’m super stoked to dig into her fiction. This is a really wonderful collection of stories, most about Haiti or Danticat’s Haitian relatives, told with a lot of compassion.