2006: A Year of Books (Part One)

2006 books read compilation of covers

For some reason I end up viewing past years as Year of…something. For example, 2005 was “The Year I Studied Japanese,” 2004 was “My Year of Shooting” (photos, mind you), 2003 was “The Year I Became a Father” (sub-head: “…and bought a Leica”), 2002 “The Year I Moved to Japan” (sub-head: “…and started a blog”), etcetera. It’s as if nothing else happened in those years but what they’ve become known for in my own mind. In part that is because in fact, not much else did happen. I have such a one-track mind, and am so bad at multi-tasking, that I end up focusing on just one thing to the exclusion of pretty much anything else.

So 2006 has formed itself in my mind as the year I read what for me was a lot of books. Actually, I think it became such for me even before the year was half over. I could tell that not only was I enjoying reading, and enjoying again my own language after feeling like I had done nothing but eat drink sleep Japanese the year before, but I started to see it as a challenge, to see if I could sustain my interest in books beyond the mere “good form” of a three or four-book run. I wanted to see if I could keep it up until the end of the year, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud that I did.

To recap (you can follow along at home here):

* I read 26 books, or about a book every two weeks, not bad considering that a) I didn’t read my first one until sometime in February; b) I pretty much only read on my commute to/from work; and c) I’m a notoriously slow reader.

* Of the 26, all but two were non-fiction. This is slightly embarrassing, I have to admit, and something I’m hoping to “correct” as it were in 2007 (see Part Two), but on the other hand, I can’t deny that at this point in my reading life, as opposed to say when I was in my 20’s, I just naturally seem to gravitate to the non-fiction side of the bookstore.

* I only read four Japan-related books all year, which is somewhat of a surprise given my reading interests in the past. Nothing really intentional here, although two things I’ve noticed about my reading (and general interest) is that 1) the longer I stay here, the more I find sustenance from abroad — and particularly from America — something I long for; and 2) with respect to fiction, having done read a bit of reading in Japanese (nothing too serious, mind you — still have a long way to go) I’m more aware of the different nuances of it and English, and it’s hard to feel I’m anywhere close to the original when I now read translations.

* Only two books by women. In the past I used to seek out female writers, now I can’t say I give it much thought either way. In fact it wasn’t until I started to write this post that I even noticed the disparity (unlike say the disparities between fiction/non-fiction or Japan-related/non-Japan-related, which I’ve been conscious of for some time). Not even sure it’s worth commenting on, and it’s not really something I feel I need to be conscious of or attempt to redress in my reading going forward. Who knows, maybe after all these years I’m finally getting in touch with my masculinity.

* From a genre perspective, in addition to the two novels, I read three out-and-out history books, three biographies, two memoirs, five sports books (three for soccer, two for baseball), six books of collected essays, and two au courant who-hasn’t-read-’em books. (I still cringe when I think that back in 1985 I thought The Breakfast Club was such a great, deep movie. I wonder if 20 years from now, folks will be similarly cringing about Freakonomics and The Tipping Point?)

* Regarding where I got my 26 books from, seven were bought at “foreign book sales” at various Tokyo bookstores (one of the great semi-secrets of how to maintain a good book library in Japan without getting murdered by one’s spouse); five were bought when I was vacationing in the States; eight were bought “full-price” at a couple of big bookstores in Tokyo (mainly Maruzen, my personal favorite); three were got via Amazon (two from the U.S. store, one from the Japanese); and as for the remaining three, one was a gift from my mother, another a loaner from someone at work, and the last a book bought used at Kitazawa in Kanda-Jimbocho.

Believe me, I’m as shocked as you that out of all the books I read last year, only one was purchased secondhand. (I did of course buy other books secondhand — though not many, I must admit. I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet). In my defense, there were zero used bookstores visited during the trip to the States, and really, Tokyo isn’t teeming with them either. The best known of these, which shall for the time being go unnamed, also happens to suffer from acute “used book store-itis,” which is closely related to “secondhand record store-itis” (cue up the High Fidelity dvd here), and thus has to be patronized at very spaced out intervals so that this particular customer can resist the urge to go postal.

With only 26 books, a top 10 list seems silly, and frankly, not really doable anyway (I count only 15 unconditionally recommended books amongst my list). At any rate, here are some comments about some of the books I read:

* Best book of 2006 is a tie between Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place and Larry McMurtry’s biography (the word is used loosely) Crazy Horse. Both brilliantly written, in their own unique way. I’m not sure I could read a memoir/autobiography with as much introspection and vulnerability as Said’s that wasn’t also maudlin and overwrought, which Said’s most patently wasn’t. As well, I doubt there are many writers out there who could make an economically written, 150-page biography of someone with as little documented facts of their life as Crazy Horse had, seem more satisfying and more fulfilling than most tomes 4-times the length, than McMurtry.

The McMurtry biography is short precisely because he doesn’t attempt to engage in hagiography and extrapolation that colors so much of what has been written about American Indians. As he writes,

[…] I am not writing this book because I think I know what Crazy Horse did — much less what he thought — on more than a few occasions in his life; I’m writing it because I have some notions about what he meant to his people in his lifetime, and also what he has come to mean to generations of Sioux in our century and even our time.[…] The literature of Crazy Horse is about evenly divided between that produced by “writers” and that produced by “historians.” Neither, so far, have convinced many readers — and certainly not this reader — that they have an accurate grip on the deeds, much less on the soul, of the Sioux warrior we call Crazy Horse.

*Worst book — or perhaps better to say, most-waste-of-time book — would go to Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World (see my review). It wasn’t a badly written book, it was just a book that went so completely against the expectations of what I thought it would be about. Not Winchester’s fault I suppose (and to prove I’m fair, I did pick up his The River at the Center of the World at a book sale to give him another chance, although I see now that the Amazon reader reviews aren’t all that favorable so who knows if I’ll ever read it), though I do fault him for choosing to write so voluminously — and quite frankly, in such an arcane manner — about geology while giving short shrift to the much more interesting story of San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake.

* Funniest book of the year: Without a doubt, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country (published in America as I’m a Stranger Here Myself) was the funniest thing I read all year, and then some. It came as no surprise that Bryson’s book was funny. They all are. But something about Bryson’s short essays about the America he returned to after having lived in the UK for 20 years, essays that I dare say only an American could fully appreciate (and indeed, I specifically read this book the week before our trip to Kentucky and Texas in order to “prepare” for that journey back to the motherland), not just tickled the funny bone, but ripped it out for all to see. I had one memorable occasion when I was returning from a night out in Tokyo, not drunk by any means but a bit loosened up, shall we say, and attempting to read Bryson’s book on the train home. It was the essay about going to an American supermarket and stocking up on long-lost junk food (god-awful Count Chocula cereals, cheese whiz, breakfast pizza, etc.) while his (British) wife wasn’t looking, and I pretty much lost it right there on the train. I was laughing about as hard as anyone could without opening their mouth, my eyes were tearing up, I was sweating in a cold-sweat kind of way, and I could feel the woman across trying not to look at me. I’d never felt so deliriously embarrassed in all my life. Later, each time I tried to relate the story to my wife (Bryson’s story, not my own about the train), for I thought she could well sympathize with Bryson’s exasperated wife, I couldn’t get but two words into the story before I would break down with uncontrollable laughter.

* Most disappointing book of 2006: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. I was really excited about this one, having come across some excerpts printed in National Geographic, and I thought 32 essays about each of the 32 countries participating would be the perfect complement as I was anticipating the 2006 World Cup in Germany. (If there is a subhead to “A Year of Books,” it would probably be “…and watched all 64 games of the World Cup and generally became a major soccer fan.”) I tried like the devil to get it too, none of the local stores had it (eventually got it from Amazon Japan), and initially I was quite pleased, seeing as it comes with lots of facts and statistics about each participating country (both soccer- and otherwise), and generally useful statistics about things like per capita incomes and infant mortality rates which helped to put the sporting event into context. However, by and large a lot of the essays about each country seemed rather arbitrary, and while I wasn’t expecting and didn’t want essays specifically about soccer or a particular national team, a lot of the essays were just too far afield for me (like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) writing about the Swedish prison system). And there’s no escaping the offensive title, the thinking fan’s guide, as if any other guide on the subject of the World Cup is clearly meant for those fans who don’t think.

Anyway, perhaps that’s enough for 2006. In part two of this, I’ll take a look at some of my book-related resolutions for 2007.

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