My Decade in Reading

As people on Twitter and elsewhere divulge their picks for best books of the decade, I’ve been thinking about my own reading over those ten years. And then this tweet came along today:

Those of you who know me will instantly realize this won’t be my problem. In fact, I began to wonder if any of my favorite reads for the decade would even have been published in the past ten years. So what does a data nerd do? Crunch the numbers.

How many of my favorite reads were from the past decade?

Out of the 820 books I have read in the past decade, 152 rated a score of nine or ten on my ten-point scale. On my scale, nine is “Absolutely Loved It” and ten is “All-Time Favorite”. Out of those 152, only 19 of them (1%) were published in past ten years. Whoops. So what were my favorite reads over the past ten years? Scroll to the end to see the results.

Thanks to Nancy Pearl, the good outweighs the bad

Out of the 820 books I’ve read in the past decade, 461 of them were rated a seven or higher. Not only has Nancy Pearl pointed me in the direction of some of my favorite authors (Barbara Pym, Ward Just) and other beloved books, but her Rule of 50 has kept me from hanging out too long with books I’m not enjoying. This is the rule that says if you aren’t enjoying a book by page 50 feel empowered to move on. And for every year you are over the age of 50 you can subtract one page from that total. Even prior to turning 50 this year I modified this rule and feel fine setting books aside long before page 50 if they aren’t speaking to me. (In a Twitter exchange in the past year or so, Pearl herself has admitted that she no longer strictly follows her Rule of 50, life being too short, etc.

Women Win the Decade

Out of the 820 books I’ve read, 425 of them (52%) were by female authors. That is as it should be in my world. When you look at the 461 books I rated seven or higher, that lead goes up to 54% in favor of the women.

Bens didn’t do so well, Benjamins did much better.

The two books by Bens on my list only scored a measly 2/10. Ben Dolnick for At the Bottom of Everything and Ben Marcus for The Flame Alphabet.  On the other hand the two Benjamins on my list scored at the other end of the scale, each getting 8/10. Benjamin Tammuz for Minotaur and Benjamin Constant for Adolphe.

How many Erskines do you know?

I’ve never met an Erskine in real life, but in the past 10 years I’ve read books by two of them: the absolutely brilliant Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell and the kind of interesting, but ultimately tedious, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.

Leo Tolstoy and Lena Dunham are both Hogglestock Sevens

Just to give you an idea of how my rating scale works, both Lena Dunham and Leo Tolstoy rated 7/10 for their books Not That Kind of Girl and The Devil. My scale is purely about how much I enjoyed a book. It says nothing about literary merit. (No offense to Dunham, but I think she would admit she is no Tolstoy.)

My favorite reads actually published in the past decade

These are in order by author last name. You will notice that my choices are pretty orthodox. Not much in the way experimental or envelope pushing.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
American Romantic by Ward Just
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

My favorite reads of the decade

There is a lot that is missing from the following list of ten. First, I got rid of all my favorite authors (Sarton, Brookner, Atwood, Pym, Shute, etc.). Second, I didn’t include re-reads (I’m looking at you Howards End and Narcissus and Goldmund). Third, even though there were about 35 more books that have earned 10/10 in the past decade, I feel like these rise to the top because beyond enjoying them, they really delighted me or, in most cases, provided a real emotional connection. Fourth, I eliminated anything published in the past decade.

They are also all books that any fiction reader is likely to appreciate–might not be your cup of tea, but you won’t be upset having taken the time to read them. Again, in alpha order by author.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
Being Dead by Jim Crace
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing
Martin Eden by Jack London
Birds of America by Mary McCarthy
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

A belated summer in Maine

For whatever reason I didn’t get around to posting about the week we spent in Maine in August over my 50th birthday. This year we managed to rent a house that was on its own 4-acre island. We had our eye on this house when it was for sale a few years ago because the possibility of letting Lucy run around on four acres was so appealing. When it came up as a rental we didn’t hesitate for a second.

We’ve never really been able to have an off-leash experience with Lucy outside of a few fenced yards. We were curious how she would act. Would she stick by us, would she disappear for hours at a time. Turns out she did both. She did stick by us and kept tabs on where we were and would come when we called or whistled. That is until she discovered that the island had squirrels. If we couldn’t find her and she wouldn’t come when we called, all we had to do was follow the sound of distressed squirrel and there we would find Lucy staring, waiting very patiently under a tree. And when that happened no treat in the world could entice her away. Proof that keeping her on leash for the last nine years was the right thing to do. It was an absolute delight to watch her being a free range dog. She loved every second of it.

I loved every second of it as well. Since it was my birthday week and we had invited friends to join us, including three teenagers, I decreed ahead of time the prohibition of audible electronic devices. My own intention was to unplug as much as possible so I also decreed that no one was allowed to bring up anything that they read in the news. We could talk about current events but I really didn’t want any kind of updates about anything others had read online. (Turns out this was the week the Cheeto tried to buy Greenland. I remained blissfully ignorant of the whole mess.)

The house itself was amazing. Lots of fun books all over the place to peruse. I had brought plenty of my own to read so I didn’t read any of their rather good fiction collection, but I did enjoy looking at some of the vintage non-fiction they had on science and engineering. Some of those books had been in the house a long time. And, as you will see below, they had the perfect spot for jigsaw puzzles.

The island was in a protective cove and not at all far from shore. It was only about a three-minute boat trip from the town landing. And at low tide one end of our island was only about 30 feet from shore. But it still felt plenty oceany with lobster boats and those fantastic Maine tides.

Lucy in her life jacket headed out to the island with our friend Sarah.
One of the many places for scoping out squirrels.
Lobster pot buoys.
One of about six bookcases in the house.
The perfect table for puzzles. Great view and tons of light, and fantastic breezes.
Lots of lovely flowers.
Pine forest at one end of the island.
Contemplating freedom.
Tide is about a third of the way out in this shot.
A little snack on a perfect summer day.
We took a giant pot lined with seaweed to get six giant lobster at this lobster pound.
The sound of the lobster boats checking their traps is lovely background noise and very evocative of Maine to me. A similar sound of a truck in front of my house does not elicit the same warm feeling.
Lucy doesn’t often snuggle up like this. A rare moment I am trying hard not to disrupt.
Can I help you?
Charring peppers for a chickpea salad.
Peaches for a cobbler and scallion for the chickpea salad.
With all the good food I made that week, hot dogs on the grill was probably my favorite meal. Of course I had also made a killer potato salad, but charred dogs on squishy white buns is one of the best things in life.
Another perfect day in Lucy paradise.
Pushed aside as puzzle mania sets in.
Yeah, it was like that.
So many great places for Lucy.
It’s a little blurry in this photo, but I am pretty sure it is A Reckoning by May Sarton. If you scroll down a few posts you can read all about that.
Lucy is in her life jacket but doesn’t really want to leave.
Lucy commenting on the insanely stupid wait for lobster rolls at Red’s in Wiscasset on the way home.

Stuck in the mud

Five rows and four columns to choose from.

Sometimes too much to choose from is just plain too much. With about 800 books in my TBR it is really hard sometimes to know what to move on to. When I go to the public library or bookstore, the choice rarely seems overwhelming. Most things I see I don’t want to read (which is a good thing, life is too short). But on my shelves at home, all the books have already passed through a screening process and landed on my shelves because, at least at some point, I wanted to read them.

So what do you do when you have too many good options to choose from? Especially when you have had a slow reading year (only 43 books so far) and suddenly feel the need to make a dent in all those unread books. It can kind of make your head spin. The other day when I needed to choose something to read, it wasn’t that nothing was speaking out to me, it was that everything was speaking to me.  I was in one of those moods where everything seemed fascinating. I tried to use a randomly generated number to choose the next book, but when I located the corresponding book on the shelf it just seemed too final.

That’s when a sort of madness set in. I wanted something short and I wanted something that had perhaps been languishing for a while on the shelf, or maybe an author I’d been meaning to get to. Or maybe dipping into a Persephone or NYRB Classic. Or maybe…I came up with the idea that I could choose one book from each shelf that would, when taken in total, help me scratch all of my itches. Obviously, I couldn’t read them all at once, but making a smaller set to choose from seemed like a worthy and possibly effective way of spending my time. Since I have 20 shelves of unread novels, this means I came up with a stack of 20 books to read. And as usual I wanted to read them all at once. Just somehow cram them into my brain. Eventually, however, I managed to cool my jets, pick one up (the Graham Greene) and actually start to read. It kind of started a mini-tsunami of reading, I finished the Greene, the Bronte, and the Laski. To keep up the momentum, I even brought nine of the 20 with me on my eight-day Thanksgiving Day trip. I just finished the Laski this morning so now I get to pick the next one…at least I only have seven to choose from instead of eight hundred.

In addition to the Greene and the Laski, I brought Otsuka, Modiano, Johnson, Grumbach, Crace, Compton Burnett, and Bedford with me on my trip. I think the Modiano might be next.


The Book Thing Lives

Four years ago Frances of Nonsuch Book and I went to The Book Thing in Baltimore. It’s a place where all the used books are free. Yep. Free. We even recorded part of an episode of The Readers about our trip. You can see the results of that trip and a major library clean-up here.

A few years ago there was a fire there and we worried it would be no more. It came up in a discussion recently so I looked it up and lo and behold it is still operating. So since we hadn’t been there for a while we thought we would see what had accumulated in the meantime. It’s wonderful if you are a reader looking for older, not necessarily popular books. Which, as you know, sums me up perfectly.

You would be right if you thought I already owned all of those Pyms and Sartons. But some of these will be reading copies and others will be for people who say, I’ve never read The Magnificent Spinster…
Although I already own this book in another edition, I couldn’t pass this by because it matches one of my four copies of 84, Charing Cross Road.
Not long after I found the Hanff, I stumbled across this little guy by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the ‘Q’ from the title of the Hanff’s book. I’ve never actually seen a book by him so I had to get it.
I already had a much less interesting copy of this one.
I know nothing about Edith P. Begner, but with a subtitle like that how could I pass it up.
After a quick skim, the writing in this gay novel is about as good as the cover art.

Buried in Books

When I visited a friend in the Netherlands last month I returned to a shop that I had stumbled upon on a previous visit. I knew it had only a small English section but also knew it was bursting with books and that browsing that English section would be an adventure. Given how full the store was two years ago, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t still be there. But it was, and this time I wasn’t as shy about roaming…no that’s not right…tip-toeing my way into other parts of the store. Mainly just because I wasn’t ready to leave. It was worth it, there were plenty of English books tucked away here and there and I came across an atlas that was just the kind of thing I have been looking for lately.

A fairly modest stack of five books taken from the billions in the store. But given 90% were not in English, and I had limited space in my luggage, this seemed an okay haul. More on the stack further down this post.
That’s daylight over there.
A view of the English corner. I had to move that plastic bag full of New Yorkers from 2011 just so I could put both of my feet together.
There is a certain elegance to these swirling stacks.
Remember this view when you scroll onto the next photo.
The same view 20 years ago.
I’ve had mixed success with Rose Macaulay, but the premise of this books sounded too fascinating to pass up.
It is amazing what I don’t remember from being a history major. I guess since I focused on English history I shouldn’t feel too bad about that. Lately I’ve been hankering for an atlas that shows the ebbs and flows of various dynasties in “The West” over time. This was marked at 20 euros but without me saying a word about the price he gave it to me for nine. I would have happily paid 20. Maybe he wanted to make room for new stock.
I should mention that I found this atlas roaming free on one of the piles. If I hadn’t expanded my browsing beyond the English corner, I never would have found this gem.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the publisher’s information on the cover of a book before. Particularly with their address.
On my first trip to England at the precious age of 19, I went to 17 different cathedral cities. In the subsequent years I added at least another 10 cathedrals, minsters, and abbeys, and never once did I ever come across even the name of Beverly Minster.
One of my favorite cathedrals. The inside is just as eclectic as the outside.

When the show is so much better than the book

Regular readers of Hogglestock will know how much I disliked the book Catch-22. It was one of the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the 20th century and so I attempted to read it years ago when I was making my way through that list. I got about 250 pages in and wanted to throw the book across the room. But it was a library book, so I just returned it. It was a little too satirical and madcap. Like an Abbott and Costello routine meets the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh. But for whatever reason, I picked it up again in 2013 and managed to make my way to the end despite really, desperately, wanting to abandon it at almost the same exact point I had previously.

Fans of the novel Catch-22 seem to have been less than impressed by Hulu’s version. And TV critics seem to have found it less than perfect as well. But I thought it was great TV. And it did something that Heller’s novel  didn’t do for me: it made me laugh, and it moved me more than a little.

If you have six hours on your hands, put the Heller down and turn on the TV.


I had a delightful time ignoring social media for the month of August. I was completely off Twitter, FB, and Hogglestock from about July 27th until August 30th. There were a few moments where I got kind of jittery going through withdrawal. And there were more than a few moments on our trip to Maine for my 50th birthday that I wanted to share, but overall, it was really liberating to have it removed from my life. It was nice to reset my relationship with those platforms. Part of me would like to abandon them entirely, but there are too many people (like you!) that I don’t want to lose track of.

One of these days I will post more about our wonderful week in Maine for my 50th, but for now I  wanted to talk about May Sarton. Long time readers will know that I love May Sarton’s novels and memoirs and have written about her many times and evangelized about her when I co-hosted The Readers podcast. A few of Sarton’s novels, and memoirs for that matter, take place, at least partly in Maine, so it seemed appropriate that I take along at least one Sarton book.

I don’t recall if I read the blurb about A Reckoning beforehand or not. It’s the story of Laura Spelman, an 80-something woman who has terminal cancer in both lungs and decides to forgo treatment and try to meet death on her own terms. It could have been a really bad choice for someone turning 50, but so beautiful. Sad for sure, particularly as cancer seems to become more and more a subject of discussion among friends and family with each passing year, but so deeply life affirming and peaceful. I also found it unputdownable–but even that urge was rather serene and calming. Our house that week included friends and two 17-year olds and a 13-year old, games, puzzles, lots of food and Lucy. Rather than feel the usual vacation desire to hole up with the 13 books I brought with me, I found myself engaging with the ebb and flow of activity in the house. And then I would remember, oh right, I have A Reckoning to curl up with. It was like a dear friend I got to visit with when all the other hubbub died away.

It’s not a perfect book. I agree with some of the reviews on Goodreads that there was an aspect of the book that was somewhat not as well integrated as it could have been. But I was so taken with the beauty and emotion of the story, Laura’s life/death, and indeed Sarton herself, that I couldn’t begrudge any of it. It also greatly increased my already passionate connection with who I think May Sarton was. If there is one author, living or dead, who I could hug, it would be May Sarton.

As I was finishing up A Reckoning, I was also plotting our drive back to DC, via Troy, New York to visit a grad school friend. As I contemplated our possible routes, I vaguely remembered that Sarton’s grave had to either be in Maine or New Hampshire. As it happens, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire, which was rather conveniently on our way.

Nelson itself was a surprise to me. I knew it would be small, but I didn’t realize how small. Just a grass square surrounded by wood frame buildings and a church. And, except for the very nice woman in front of the church who directed us to the cemetery, the place was dead quiet late on a Friday afternoon. (Back in 2009 I came across a blogger who made a pilgrimage to Nelson. The post is still there, but sadly the pictures aren’t loading. But still worth a look here.)

We were due in Troy for dinner and still had about three hours to cover on the road, so I didn’t have much time for the visit. I had no flowers with me. Anyone who has read Sarton’s memoirs knows how important flowers were in her life. I had no stone to place on her grave, though there were a couple already placed there. I snapped a few photos and then was distracted by my carmates and my dog and the giant mosquitoes and started to head back to the car. And then I stopped dead in my tracks and realized I was letting something important slip through my fingers. I had gotten my photos for social media, but that’s all I had gotten. I went back to her grave. Withdrew from all of the stuff scrambling through my brain and let the deep quiet of Nelson take over, let the memory of the book I had just finished a day or two earlier seep into me, and had a moment to connect. It was brief, maybe only 15 seconds. I didn’t say anything, but as I touched the head of the Phoenix there was flash of emotion that was made up of love, gratitude, peace, humanity, desire, pity, despair, beauty, and hope. As if everything in life was concentrated in that one brief moment. In the end that 15 seconds was much more meaningful than a longer visit could have been. Anything longer and it would have started to turn into something artificial and contrived. No doubt, much like this post probably appears. But it was a moment. One for which I am deeply grateful.