2020 Goodreads Reading Stats

A Reader in the Time of Corona

When 2020 started, everyone was brimming with hope. But then unfortunate news started trickling in from various parts of the world. Australia was struggling to control wildfires. In my very own Philippines, Taal Volcano was on the cusp of a huge explosion. In the United States, legendary dribbler Kobe Bryant, his daughter and their companions perished because of a helicopter accident. Who’d have thought that these are just appetizers to what would be the year’s main course. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, an unknown virus is spreading like wildfire. Soon enough, the virus found its way to South Korea, then Iran, then Italy. It would take about two more months before it extends its tentacles to the Philippines but the outcome was the same – the entire country was put into a lockdown.

Over ten months have passed and the Philippines is still mostly in lockdown to stymie the spread of the invisible enemy. Whilst it has been a Herculean struggle, the lockdown did have some positive impact. Our once frenzied lives teeming with activities slowed down. In isolation, we got the chance to ruminate and go over our lives. It was a time to meditate. For devout readers like me, it was an opportunity to immerse in the books we’ve set aside because we were too busy to read them.

The Man Booker Prize and Regional Fiction

My 2020 reading journey started off decently. I had a bunch of 2019 books on my bookshelves, hence, I started with them. My first read for the year was one-half of the 2019 Man Booker Prize winners, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other; I’ve already read The Testaments in 2019. Despite Evaristo’s aversion to punctuation marks, Girl, Woman, Other was one of my best reads of 2020. It made me conclude that 2020 would not be that bad, at all. In succession, I read the other four 2020 Man Booker Prize shortlisted books – Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

An Orchestra of Minorities was also the commencement of a new journey. Before the year started, the idea of an African Literature month has enamored me. I’ve previously had Asian, European and even Japanese Literature months and the most logical choice was to pivot towards the African continent. Compared to other regional fiction, I barely immersed in African literature. Before 2020, my venture into African literature was limited to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okri’s The Famished Road, Mahfouz’s Miramar and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

It did not take long for an African Literary month to materialize as I dedicated February to reading purely works by African writers. Through these literary works that made me travel (virtually) from Egypt to Nigeria to Cameroon, a better picture of Africa was painted on my mind, one that is beyond images of arid deserts and barbarism. My African literary journey was, for the lack of better superlatives, beyond stellar. I was so impressed that many of them, such as Yaa Gyasi, Akwaeke Emezi and Ayobami Adebayo, ended up becoming some of my new favorite authors.

Riding the wave of the momentum I have gained in February, I embarked on a new literary journey in March. From Africa, my next literary journey was orchestrated by European writers, including three Nobel Laureates in Literature – Rudyard Kipling, Peter Handke, and Olga Tokarczuk. This journey also gave me classics in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Kipling’s Kim, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. Whilst March was an excellent reading month, it also ushered in the inevitable news of lockdown. COVID-19 has finally extended its unseen tentacles to the Philippines. It was just a matter of time before it finds its way in through the superfluous defense the Philippine government put in place to counter the virus.

The Year of the Asian Literature

Life will slow down but life still must go on despite the virus’ looming presence. Earlier in the year I signed up for about two reading challenges. One of these reading challenges is the Year of the Asian Literature reading challenge where the main objective is to read as many works written by Asian writers. To set a goal for the year, participants can choose from a set of five Asian representative animals. My initial goal was Philippine tarsier which equated to one to ten books. I later changed my goal to Indian cobra (11 to 20 books). I concluded the year and made it all the way to Malaysian tapir (21 to 30 books); I read 26 books written by Asians or writers with Asian origins in 2020.

badge_tarsier

My Year of Asian Literature already started in January with Shafak and Rushdie, but it wasn’t until in April did I fully soak in the works of Asian writers. April served me with works of Orhan Pamuk, Anchee Min, and two Filipino writers. Asian writers never run out of subjects to write about as they explored insurgency, fatherhood, religion, and history. This was the third year running that I had an Asian literature month. As always, Asian writers didn’t disappoint.

May was an extension of April although it was limited to Japanese writers. As I have mentioned before, Japanese writers have earned a fan in me for the diversity of their works. It is like a genre within a genre for in the ambit of Japanese literature are slice-of-life narratives, magical realist stories, historical novels, and even mystery fiction. What Japanese writers are capable of is certainly boundless and they keep pushing the boundaries. This was apparent in the books I’ve read in May. I even read a Japanese remake of the famed English classic, Wuthering Heights.

Historical Fiction, and the Migrant Narrative

For the nth year running, historical fiction was my most read genre in 2020. Whilst I read a lot of historical fiction, its presence was not as prominent as it did in 2019. For instance, works referencing World War II was not pronounced. I think the most direct references were found in Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. I still managed to read a healthy amount of historical fiction such as Anchee Min’s Empress Orchid, Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

One prevalent subject in 2020 is the migrant narrative and the search for the quintessence of the American Dream. These seminal and timely subjects were explored extensively in works like Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man, and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. Each gave its own interesting and dynamic take on the subject. Coming-of-age novels also made their presence felt in 2020.

New Books, and the Translated Text

2020 is a year like no other, in ways more than one. I’ve prided myself in being a backlist type of reader. In fact, it was only in 2018 that I started reading “new” books, or books that were read and published in the same year. It was also the same year that I started doing the Top 10 Books I Look Forward to List. I have always preferred the assurance and comfort of backlist reads over the hype and blurb of “new” books. As one blogger has noted, new books tend to ride on the hype. But then again, 2020 was a year like no other.

Surprisingly, I read a healthy dose of new works; it was very uncharacteristic of me. In total, I have read about 25 new books, three of which are English translations. Ironically, it wasn’t until July that I had my first “new” book, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa. It was one of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To and justly so. It explores the concept of “grooming”, a subject, that although prevalent, is rarely tackled in literature.

However, my journey with “new” books was rather mixed. It was a rather inconsistent journey. There were brilliant novels like Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing, and Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. There were also those that barely made an impression on me such as Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, and Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face. But maybe the underdevelopment of some of these “new” books is because many of them are debut novels. There were debut novels that shone like Abi Dare’s The Girl With the Louding Voice but there were also those that fell short like Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers.

Despite the disappointment in some of the books I’ve read in 2020, many books taught me new things. For what is reading without learning something new. I learned about grooming, which involves sexual predators and pedophiles. Then there is the sociological concept of “passing”, which is defined as the ability to successfully cross over from one culture, race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and/or disability to another. In All My Mother’s Lovers, I first learned about polyamory. Polyamory pertains to the practice of having an intimate relationship with more than one partner, with each partner giving his or her consent. Reading never runs out of wonders.

Apart from the number of new books, 2020 was also characterized by the number of translated texts I have read. In total, I read about 25 novels translated from a bevy of languages such as Korean, Japanese, Turkish, Swedish, German, and even Icelandic. This is the most translated novels I have read in a year. It wasn’t always easy dealing with translated text, but they all gave intimate insights into each country’s culture and people.

2020, A Momentous Year

2020, despite the new challenges we had to face, ended up as a landmark of a reading year. It is the year I read the most “new” books. It is characterized by the number of translated novels I have read. My regional literature journeys brought me to different parts of the world. In this time of the Corona, one need not physically go out to travel for books have the capacity to transport us to different places. Books and literature are peripatetic.

On many fronts, 2020 was a momentous year. I again managed to finish my 2020 Top 20 Reading List. I completed all the books I listed for my Backlist Reading Challenge. I have more than aced my Year of the Asian Literature Reading Challenge. On top of all of these achievements, 2020 is the year I have read the most books. At the start of the year, I had a very modest goal of 50 books. Owing to the lockdown, I ended the year with a whopping total of 93 books. This tally is a book higher than my 2016 reading tally, my previous best. 2020 certainly exceeded my expectations.

2021 in Perspective

COVID-19 has become ubiquitous. It is claiming as many victims as it can. There is still a lot of us don’t know about it. Despite the development of vaccines to combat the invisible enemy, the future remains largely drawn in uncertainty. However, one thing is certain. Hope still springs eternal. One day, we can get over this adversity. As I have written last year, “we can never be sure of the final destination, but it is sure lurking over the horizon.” Yes, there are still a lot of uncertainties in 2021 but there is a silver lining amidst all of this brouhaha.

I started 2020 brimming with hope. There were a lot of goals I wanted to achieve, and I am happy I made good of these goals and then some more. In 2021, I want to ride the wave of this momentum. There are still a lot of goals I want to achieve and books I want to read. There are still worlds I want to explore. I made huge strides in the past two years and in 2021, I am looking forward to breaking even more barriers.

Here’s a toast to an amazing, healthy, and safe 2021! I am looking forward to another great reading journey! I hope all my fellow bookworms will have the same, too. Happy reading!