What I learned from analysing my 2019 reading highlights

Image by bdungeon76 used via CC License

My favourite books of the year all stand out for their exceptional writing, their ability to draw me in to the world they create or explore, the way they haunt me after I read them (that can be in a positive or negative way) and the desire I have to tell everyone I come across about them in detail. They are the books that make me want to pick up another book in the hopes of finding the same magic again. So why, when I read so much in the crime genre, are so few in my favourite reads of the year?

A good crime book can certainly do all of the above, but often they don’t. Often I enjoy them as I’m reading or listening, but once a crime book is finished I may not remember much about it. Does this mean it isn’t good? In my case I’d argue it’s still been worth reading because it serves its purpose. It helps me to unwind and relax. It gives me pleasure as I’m reading. It offers me escapism when my brain isn’t up to anything particularly challenging (a state I find myself in pretty frequently thanks to my ME/CFS).

I read as many books as I do per year because I use different books for different purposes at different times. Some I read in audiobook format to wind down at night, some I read in paperback to take me away from screens, some genres I read to help encourage me out of a reading rut, sometimes I switch to a different genre/format/style to cleanse my palate from the last book I read. I don’t believe in good/bad genres or formats. I think we should read what we want to, whatever serves our purpose at that particular point in time.

The book that bought me the purest joy this year was Red, White and Royal Blue. I texted people insisting they start reading it immediately before I’d even finished it. I laughed out loud and I couldn’t put it down. Some people think adults shouldn’t read YA. Some people would think the very lightness and fun of this book make it less worthy than some of the books I included in my highlights that are considered capital-L-Literature. That’s ridiculous. Sometimes we need lightness and laughter. That’s no less worthy than books that make us question our place in the natural world (which A Constant Hum did for me this year), or educate us on something we haven’t previously known (as Dark Emu did for me this year).

We shouldn’t focus purely on how many books we read per year, or on how many award-winning books we read, or how many were considered High Literature. We should aim to have a varied diet of books. Read widely across genres, authors, countries of origin and perspectives. Use books to meet your needs. And don’t let anyone judge your books by their covers.

2019 Reading Summary

This was a blockbuster year of reading for me. Over 100 books across most genres. But as we all know, it’s not how many you read that matters, it is whether you managed to find books that made your heart sing or kept you up late into the night or left an indelible impression on you. I definitely felt like this was a good year for me in finding some exceptional reads.

Highlights of 2019:

Australian fiction: Rain Birds by Harriet McKnight, A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop, Wintering by Krissy Kneen, Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woolett, The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey.

YA/MG: How to Make a Movie in Twelve Days by Fiona Hardy, Sick Bay by Nova Weetman, Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Sophia and the Corner Park Clubhouse by Davina Bell, The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble.

Fiction: The Plotters by Kim Un-su, Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Non-fiction: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Only by Caroline Baum.

Notably, of the many, many crime books I read in 2019 I only added one to my highlights of the year (Sarah Bailey). I listen to a crime novel audiobook to fall asleep to nearly every night, but if it is a particularly good book I quickly switch to listening to it during the day so I can give it my full attention (or probably more accurately, so that it doesn’t keep me up at night!). You’d think that, statistically, reading more crime novels would mean it would feature more in my highlights. Does the fact it doesn’t mean I have higher standards for what makes a notable crime novel, or does it indicate I’m losing interest in the genre? A little of the former, probably, but not the latter.

We read different books for different reasons. For me, a good crime book is one that keeps me wanting to turn the pages and find out whodunnit. It also needs engaging characters, a setting that I enjoy and when it comes to audiobooks, a good narrator. I use crime books to unwind before sleep. The predictability of the genre is a big part of its appeal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the books that fit in the genre also fit my criteria for what makes a good book. A good crime book needs to stand out from others in the genre, yes, but it also needs to fulfil my (rather nebulous) criteria for what makes a good book in general. I’m going to write a follow up post about this very thing and what it made me realise.