Reading N Books Per Year

For some reason, I found myself reading, which claims to help you read a single book a week. This idea was interesting to me, given that for the past 3 months I've been reading a book a week for a post-Ottoman Near East class I'm taking.

The premise setup in the commoncog article is that it's difficult to hit this reading goal, so I got curious on how far I've gotten. Since I've been tracking all my books through Goodreads since the start of 2017, I figured I'd dig up the numbers and take a trip down memory lane.

1. 2017

  • Books read: 35
  • Most impactful book: The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase
  • Book I marked read but don't recall reading: Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy
  • Favorite book: No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

2017 was my first year, and I'm going to be honest, had a lot of dud books. But overall the most impactful book I read in 2017 was The Field Study Handbook, which is a guide published by Jan Chipchase to run what he calls a "research studio". Now I don't do anything similar, but Jan seems to go to some pretty interesting places, and reading the book gave me quite a few mental models on how I should approach things. On a vapid level, it inspired me to try and be more curious about some far-flung places.

Now, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish I had completely forgotten about until I saw it on the Goodreads page. Ostensibly it's a collection of essays, but to be honest it was so completely forgettable that I can't even conjure up a single thing about the book.

No Good Men Among the Living is an objectively very good book. It touches on the US withdraw from Afghanistan, through the lens of a Taliban commander, and makes for a fascinating read. It's beautifully written to boot.

2. 2018

  • Books read: 58
  • Most impactful book: The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer by Mustafa Khalifa
  • Book I marked read but don't recall reading: …most of the books of this year
  • Favorite book: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

2018 was a weird year. I ended up cramming in 58 books, which honestly I thought was pretty impressive until I realized that I recall almost nothing from the vast majority of them.

The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer by Mustafa Khalifa definitely shines through. It's an incredible novel that covers a Syrian political prisoner who's locked up for 14 years without a trial named Musa. The book is one in the cottage industry of prison literature, but it's an autobiographical novel (Khalifa himself was imprisoned for thirteen years). The book is gripping, and frankly should be read by everyone.

Killing Commendatore (unlike The Shell) is definitely not one of Murakami's best works. It's weird (but not Hardboiled Wonderland weird), it's got a slight melancholy feel to it (but not like Colorless Tsukuru), and it's somewhat bounded in reality and fun (but not as fun as The Wind-up Bird Chronicles). Basically what I'm saying is that it's a Murkami book, and since I'll read anything the guy writes, I still liked it, but he's definitely written better books. However, given that I don't recall most of the books from this year, Killing Commendatore gets to be the favorite book.

3. 2019

  • Books read: 28
  • Most impactful book: Getting Things Done by David Allen
  • Book I marked read but don't recall reading: Literature from the "Axis of Evil": Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations by by Alane Mason (Creator), Samantha Schnee (Editor), Dedi Felman (Editor)
  • Favorite book: The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk

Possible due to 2019 being closer than 2018, I actually remembered most of the books I read in 2019. Notably, I read GTD in December after avoiding it for so long, and I'm a little ashamed to say that I've become one of those people that've adopted it. It's been tremendously helpful in getting my marbles together to coordinate between grad school, Arabic studying, and work.

Literature from the "Axis of Evil" had a provocative title when I picked it up in the NY Society Library, but I honestly can't recall reading anything from it. I do recall that some of the stories were interesting, but nothing specific.

The Great War for Civilization is a long book. Originally recommended to me by a friend when I was studying in Amman for the month, it ended up coming back with me from Amman to NY, where I ended up taking a month to finish it. Robert Fisk is definitely a crank now, but he's got some insane stories wrapped up in there. For example, he's got this story where Soviet soldiers hand him an orange as he's riding shotgun in communist Afghanistan and tell him to look for mujahideen. It's an immensely enjoyable read.

4. Lessons Learned

I don't really believe in passive reading anymore. This idea that you should squeeze in reading anywhere you can I think is simply wrong. In 2018 I was squeezing in reading at every possible moment, and all I got out of it was a nice big Goodreads number. At this point, I firmly believe in principled, serious reading. Take a pen, plot out specific times during the day for reading, and make it purposeful. Overall, I definitely wasn't as principled as I should've been in 2018, but given the pace I'm on for 2020, I see a lot of places to improve on my reading.

Posted: 2020-04-23
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