The Year Reading Changed Forever — and Didn't

I need to talk about something important that happened in 2011 and to officially mark this year for posterity. The year 2011 was the year that my reading habits blew up. And not just me. I am part of the critical mass of humans who shifted from paper to paperless. I now read (or watch) almost everything on my iPad: books, blog posts, news articles, ebooks, webinar tutorials, you tube videos…And sometimes I read on my desktop computer or if I’m out and about, on my iPhone, and sometimes I listen to books on tape while driving solo. Oh, and I subscribe to a few podcasts,too. Bot books or news or information? Except for the occasional magazine at the doctor’s office, I don’t read much on paper anymore.

I am part of a sea wave of change — total digital disruption where e-readers and tablets and mobile phones have simply overtaken content delivered on paper. I know that puts paper publishers — and writers and readers — at risk of losing books and news on paper (and I want to talk more about what I think that means in another post).  But for now I'll just say this:

The experience is not the paper. And I am reading more than ever.

There’s been another change in my reading habits, too. Not only do I read more on screens, but sadly I also read less fiction. When the internet came along, my time and attention fragmented and I started leaning more to the nonfiction side of things.

No worries, though. 2012 will the year I get back to fiction. I'll keep reading to learn — that's just how I roll — but there's just nothing better than falling into a great story with characters you come to love and then arriving back to your own life changed some from the experience…

And then when you can tell share a good book with someone else? Love that!

So I'm going to read more fiction on my paperless devices in the coming year — and I'm going to share the best reads with you here (both fiction and nonfiction). But in the meantime, as a kind of kickoff, here are the four best novels I read last year.

If you haven't read them yet, get out your device of choice (paper or screen) and start reading! And let's talk about them! I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below...

A Visit From The Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan

The story is kind of a like a time machine. We meet two people in New York City working in the Music Recording industry– Sasha and her boss Bernie— and then we hop around the globe in no chronological order to meet them — separately — at different times in their lives.

We enter their worlds in each new time and place, get to know and reacquaint ourselves with other quirky characters, and In the end piece together the story of how easily we all self destruct and how much we all want to make it right. I loved this book, both for the characters and the ideas and also for the writer’s accomplished and inventive storytelling. I watch a lot of Top Chef with my foodie family and I think this book is a lot like a stellar dish by a creative chef: Egan takes the same ingredients any other writer might use (plot, point of view, dialogue, etc.) does some deconstruction magic and creates a whole new meal.

I read this book early in the year and now that I think about it — I’m going to read it again! It’s that good. (Update: I'm a little behind in the fiction world. Goon Squad won the Pulitzer in  April.)


Art of Racing the Rain

By Garth Stein

This is the story of a dog on a quest for a human soul and of a man with the soul of a true and loyal dog. And the dog — Enzo — tells the tale. I love a book told in first person and Enzo is definitely a person — an old soul as one reviewer put it — who tells us the story of his life with Denny, a race car driver. Through Enzo’s eyes we see how life is largely about keeping focus at high speed and velocity — like race car driving  — which is what Denny has to do as he negotiates some tight turns in his life.

In the end, Enzo shows us what it means to be human in all its tragic, funny, sweet and bitter forms. We are reminded that we humans have amazing gifts like opposable thumbs and the ability to speak words and — especially — the chance to stand upright as champions.

Am I laying it on too thick? Maybe. And maybe the plot does too, a little. But damn. Sometimes that’s what a good book does. I laughed, I cried. I thought a lot. Doesn’t get much better than that.


The Broken Tea Glass

By Emily Arsenault

Remember what it was like to work full time in an office for the first time? The stifling, meaningless paperwork, the adults resigned to a fate you could not bear to contemplate, the endless minutes around a slow clock?

You’d expect that this story of two young college graduates who work at the Samuelson Dictionary Company might bring back bad memories. But you’d be wrong. InThe Broken Tea Glass, we get thrown into a tantalizing literary puzzle as Billy Webb and his colleague Mona Minot find fragments of a former employee’s tragic story which she buried in the thousands of citation files in the company’s back room. And, as they piece together the story of the broken tea glass, we also get to assemble the past and its impact on the present and future of their lives.

A totally fun read with an academic bent — intellectual characters and an author who loves words — the lure of potential romance and all the “who dunnit-ness” of a good mystery. I can’t wait to read more by Arsenault!


The Marriage Plot

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Another literary, post college story, The Marriage Plot shares the lives of Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell as they leave Brown University in the 1980s and make their way into the world. Part love triangle, part spiritual quest, part literary analysis, it’s ultimately a book about the heart wrench of adulthood.

This is always my kind of book. It’s filled with memorable and heartbreaking scenes that take place in far flung places from Boston to India to New York to Italy. All three characters are lost and hopelessly caught in the web of their own romantic and intellectual passions as they navigate their way through their lives set against each other (and others), until, well, you’ll see. I for one did not predict the outcomes at all.

Yes, there are plenty of literary references and mention of 1980s culture, but that wasn’t the hook for me. I didn’t especially recognize the era (maybe because I lived in California at that time.) I did recognize the essential quest for love and self, though. That story is timeless.