Reading highlights for 2021

Regulars know that my annual Reading Highlights post is my version of a Top Reads post. It’s my way of sharing highlights from my reading year without actually ranking books or nominating a “best” which I just can’t do.

I don’t, as I say each year, set reading goals, but my “rules of thumb” include trying to reduce the TBR pile, increasing my reading of Indigenous authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. This year was another difficult one – of which COVID-19 was only a part. Consequently, once again, I didn’t make great inroads into these … but there were highlights.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, were, for the same obvious reasons as last year, mostly online – except that I seemed to attend fewer than last year. I don’t think it was that I was Zoomed-out so much as that times just didn’t seem to suit. However, those I attended were excellent:

  • Sydney Writers Festival: Live and Local: Many online festivals – some solely online, and some hybrid – were offered over the year, but I only attended a couple of sessions from the now well-established Sydney Writers Festival streamed series: one featuring Sarah Krasnostein in conversation with Maria Tumarkin, and the other Richard Flanagan with Laura Tingle.
  • F*ck Covid: An online literary affair: This event, organised by the ACT Writers Centre, was a mini-festival. It comprised two sessions, both convened by Nigel Featherstone: one featured established authors (Irma Gold and Mark Brandi) and the other, emerging authors (Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees). It was a most enjoyable and enlightening afternoon.
  • Stella: The Stella Prize is coming up for its 10th year – can you believe it – so they put on a little online celebratory event, Stella … 10 Years. It featured three previous winning or short-listed authors – Carrie Tiffany, Emily Bitto and Claire G. Coleman. It was brief, but I liked that the questions were a little different to the usual ones you get at a book launch.
  • Author interviews/book launches: With COVID-19 abounding, there weren’t many in-person book launches, but we did get to a couple: Irma Gold’s debut novel The breaking, and Omar Musa’s gorgeous book, Killernova.

Reading highlights

What follows here are highlights based on what I love about – or in my – reading.

So, I love …

  • reading First Nations Australian authors: Each year I try to ensure my reading diet includes First Nations authors, and this year I read quite a variety: Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson’s Cooee mittigar (picture book), Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler’s Black cockatoo (children’s/YA novel), Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (novel), Adam Thompson’s Born into this (short story collection), Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me and Cindy Solonec’s Debesa (memoirs).
  • it when my reading connects in some way: This year, for example, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer and Alison Croggon’s Monsters, both referenced the idea of living with uncertainty in a way that made me stop and think, but more interesting was the link between Krasnostein’s nonfiction book on believers and Helen Meany’s novelistic exploration of belief, truth and authenticity in Every day is Gertie Day.
  • reading essays: I read many this year, including three by George Orwell, as well as essay collections, like The best Australian science writing 2020, which is always a stimulating read.
  • Australian novels that address contemporary life and issues: Favourites this year include Irma Gold’s The breaking, Malcolm Knox’s satirical Bluebird, Helen Meany’s above named novel. Interestingly, there were not so many climate change dystopias in my reading this year.
  • reading short stories: I read some engaging collections this year, including one from Mumbai authorJayant Kaikini (No presents please) and some debut Australian collections, Marian Matta’s Life, bound, Margaret Hickey’s Rural dreams and First Nation’s Adam Thompson’s collection.
  • coming across writing that stray from the mould: I didn’t have any talking foetuses, skeletons or fossils, this year, but I did read a second-person book, Tsitisi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, which movingly captured its protagonist’s uncertainty. I also read Bernadine Evaristo’s syntactically different Girl, woman, other which looked off-putting with its almost completely absent punctuation but which, in fact, flowed beautifully. Loved it.
  • reading writers on other writers: I read some excellent commentary by writers on other writers this year: two books from the Writers on Writers series (Jensen’s warm but informative tribute to Kate Jennings and Stan Grant’s honest discussion of Thomas Keneally), and three essays from Belinda Castles’ Reading like an Australian writer.
  • reducing the “dreaded” TBR (which I define as books waiting for more than 12 months): I started off the year with a bang, reading four worth-waiting-for books in the first four months – Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl, Elizabeth Harrower’s The long prospect, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur – but I then fell in a heap. The result is that my TBR grew significantly over the year. Wah!
  • rereading loved books: I rarely find the opportunity to reread, but this year, I actually managed a few. There were classics by Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, but the one I want to highlight is Sara Dowse’s West Block. I’d been wanting to re-read it for some time, and was not disappointed as I loved reacquainting myself with its original approach and still-relevant content.

And then there were the little misses!

  • The one that got away: I was astonished to discover, when writing my Reading Group favourites post, that I had missed reviewing our first book of the year, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I realised why – the meeting was a week after my Dad died – but I can’t believe that I wasn’t even aware that I hadn’t reviewed it. Such is the discombobulation wrought by grief.
  • The one I started but have not (yet) finished: I started reading Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella winner, See what you made me do, on my Kindle, very early in the year. It’s a good read, but I only read it when I’m out and about about, and there’s been less out-and-abouting this year, meaning that at the end of the year, it remains unfinished.

These are just some of 2021’s highlights. I wish I could name them all.

Some stats …

As for actual stats, I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences and like to keep an eye on what I’m doing to keep me honest to myself! So, how did I go?

I like …

  • to read fiction most: 62% of my reading was fiction (short stories and novels) which is less than recent years, albeit only just less than last year’s 63%. Around 75% is my rule of thumb, plucked out of thin air I admit, but, the fact is, there’s some great non-fiction around so, well, I read a bit more of it this year!
  • to give precedence to women: 65% of the works I read this year were by women which is better than last year’s aberrant 80%, and more like what I think is a fair thing! This includes collaborations with male writers and editors.
  • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 27% of this year’s reading was NOT by Australian writers, which is close enough to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
  • to read older books: 25% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than last year, and closer to the longer-term average of around 30%. I will try to lift this a bit more.
  • to support new releases: 25% of this year’s reads were published in 2021, which is similar to last year. I think this is fair!

Overall, it was a great reading year in terms of quality reads, but not so great in terms of quantity. As in 2020, my personal circumstances, in addition to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, meant I did less self-directed reading than I would have liked and that was a bit frustrating. Here’s hoping for a better 2022, for all of us.

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be both thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

I wish you all an excellent 2022, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

What were your 2021 reading or literary highlights?

43 thoughts on “Reading highlights for 2021

  1. I am always curious about the books I read each year, and I am fascinated to see stats from other people. I wonder if there is an easy way of doing this. I do, of course, see stats from Goodreads, but they are not as detailed as these are.

    • Thanks, Deb, I keep a spreadsheet record of my reading, and analyse my data from that. I have a few more “fields”, like form, original publication year, personal rating, but mostly I just look and work out what sticks out for the year, and do some counts and calculations. It takes a few hours I suppose, but over a few days!

  2. A wonderful round-up Sue, and certainly a challenging year to stay focused on reading aspirations (or even reviews! I’m currently about 12 books behind in reviews – oops!) Wishing you a very happy 2022 with lots of fantastic books and hopefully some in-person literary events (though I am enjoying being able to stream events at my leisure!).

    • Thanks Angharad. 12 books behind! I’m impressed that you can still write reviews. I start to lose the plot (literally and metaphorically!) if I leave it too long. Of course, you have youth on your side!!

      I know what you mean about streaming, theoretically anyhow, because somehow if I don’t actually “attend” an even, in person or online, I don’t seem to find time to slot it in later. I like knowing the option is there though.

  3. Measured in any of books, time, pages, or time/page, I read more philosophy than anything else this year, with perhaps a bias towards Husserl and his heirs and critics (Stein, Lauer, Derrida). After that, and going by number of books, fiction, then a tie between history and memoir. I read only one work of criticism, Speaking of Beauty by Denis Donoghue, but it was one of the best-written of the books.

  4. Great recap of the year. I was glad to see your mention of essays. That’s something I want to include in my reading next year as well. Happy new year, and wish you some great reading next year as well🙂🎆✨

    • What? Then don’t read the reports of those who REALLY read a lot!! I’m a minnow in the pond! But, thanks – you know what I’m going to say – for being here in my court. Always love hearing from you M-R.

      • The hardest thing to take in is that YOU HAVE A LIFE, as well as doing all this reading, ST. 🙂
        Perhaps you’re running at 18 frames a second ? – I don’t believe you’d speed up to 12 fps ..

        • Haha, M-R …

          A online reading group friend years ago had a tag line that went something like, “some people say life‘s the thing, but I prefer reading”. It always made me laugh.

  5. One of the highlights for me during the pandemic (and, oddly, there have been a few) is that I attended SO many only readings and discussions with authors. I have a new favorite book store, Charis, located in Georgia, which is a feminist bookstore that functions as a safe place and community hub for LGBTQ people (there is a teen trans group that meets weekly, and a new one for adults), and every time I read their accessibility statement, I swoon. They started doing author events digitally because of covid, and now they are going to keep doing it. I’m so grateful!

    • Thanks Melanie. I think many organisations (etc) have realised that digital/online is an important service, because it reaches physically remote people and those with accessibility issues. It’s been interesting to see here, who has gone online or hybrid, and who seemed to want to return to face-to-face only. An organisation for which I’m secretary has decided that we will continue with some online events, as well as, hopefully, return to some physical ones. Both have so much to offer, don’t they?

      • I’ve noticed one key difference in how the online events are handled. One organization doesn’t allow anyone to join by microphone or video, which cuts down on the random internet flashers, etc. I’ve noticed some authors pause to say, “Is anyone really watching this??” with a sense of isolation. However, another group has you join with no mic nor camera but opens the chat, so you can write as the event goes along, and authors can look if they want.

        • Interesting observations Melanie. I have seen both of those … and went to an art opening that didn’t try controls and had a terrible zoom bomber. I’ve never seen authors wondering if anyone was watching though … at least not that they’ve voiced. I can’t seem to manage listening and chatting at the same time, though that’s partly because I’m usually taking notes for my blog!

  6. Thanks, WG, for all your reviews and the care you take with them. Needless to say, i’m in awe with how much you read and the insights you convey to us. And how can I thank you enough for your comments about West Block. Hard to believe that it’s a year away from a half a century since I wrote it. It wasn’t my idea to republish – that was Jen McDonald’s and what a terrific job she did with it. I told her that even in the new edtion I wouldn’t change a word, even though like any experience author I could see things I would change, but it was best to stick with the record. It was who I was, but as you say, there was much that was prescient. I’m also grateful for what you say about the approach. At the time, as i recall, it was met with some bewilderment, the structure being ‘original’ then, but not at all now. To be honest, it wasn’t even original then – as I’ve said ad nauseam to rows of rolling eyeballs my inspiration was John Dos Passos, who to my mind wrote one of the classics of American literature. USA, his masterpiece, is a novel about society. Unlike the normal template for literary fiction, its focus is not on the individual, but on a galaxy of individuals that made up the American polity. The high and the low, the rich and the poor, the male and the female, through the lens of the anonymous narrator. At this perilous time it needs to be resurrected, read and savoured. Again, WG, thank you. And a Happy New Year to you – and to all of us.

    • Lovely as always to hear from you Sara.

      I thought quite a bit about the word “original” because it wasn’t literally right, I knew, but you WERE original in how and where you applied that narrative approach, so I decided to leave it for want of a better word. I’m so glad Jen McDonald suggesting republishing it. I did still have my old copy so could have reread it any time, but the new edition provided the impetus.

      I’m looking forward to seeing your new writing endeavour, if you do decide to publish it, but in the meantime, do keep well and all the best for 2022.

      • Oops – my maths as off as always. Not half a century, but more like 40, when WB came out. Still, it was a long time ago.

        • Haha, Sara … I did start a little at that, but didn’t check as I felt you would know!! Still 40 is very near 50, though perhaps 40-year-olds wouldn’t like to think so.

  7. I like your definition of a TBR… I might adopt something similiar as I’m never quite sure whether to include books I’ve just bought or whether to wait for a few months to pass.

    Congratulations on a wonderful reading year. I hope 2022 is a good one for you too.

    • Thanks kimbofo.

      Re TBR, logically of course, every book you have in your reading piles (physically or electronically) is your TBR, but I felt that I had to have a definition that encompassed the issue of a backlog. Otherwise a TBR challenge makes no sense to me. You can buy a book, read it, and say you’ve read a TBR book!? Personally, I want a measure that encourages me to tackle the backlog.

  8. We don’t seem to have read too many books in common WG. Good thing you sent me Born into This, and that you prompted me to pick up West Block (see, I got it right this time, but West really has been hijacked by Wing in my head at least). I’ve also been following up some criticism by Sara Dowse for AWW Gen 4 Week

  9. A lovely way to do this! I did a top 18 this year but nothing tippy-top among those, just can’t rank them like that. I keep stats just to see how I’m doing, nothing forced, although I suppose if I’d noted I’d only read books by White men or something for months I might have a look at what I was doing.

    My big highlight of these two years has been the chance to interact with like-minded people around the whole world through their blogs and mine – such a privilege to have that big window outwards when my life has become constrained and inward!

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