pandemic year reading (pt.1)

A Pandemic Year in Books

Were you like me this year? At a certain point of the year you knew, that if you didn’t become infected and sick — or worse (you know the score) — you’d end up reading a lot more books than usual.

The activities I enjoyed most became potentially dangerous to my health. Museums shut down, concerts were cancelled, theaters shuttered, ballparks went players and cut-outs only, eating out at restaurants became a health hazard, if you were smart you cancelled your vacation — or modified it to day hikes out in the nearby national forests or parks. In short, life outside the home was radically altered. This was my cultural life this past year — outside of the home, anyway.

My last museum visit was to the PAMM in downtown Miami on February 24, 2020. The last movie theater I visited was the Tower Theater in Miami, and the last film I saw there was Corpus Christi (an excellent Polish import) on the same date. The next day February 25, 2020, was the last day I ate at a restaurant — Shorty’s Bar-B-Que, an oldie and a good one — and my last airplane flight was two days later, February 27, 2020 —when I flew back from a family visit to Miami (the last time I saw my extended family in the flesh) and arrived back at Logan Airport in Boston. The last concert I attended was Kronos Quartet at Zankel Hall at the Carnegie Hall complex in New York City on January 25, 2020. The last play I attended was Gloria: A Life on February 8, 2020 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.

I was supposed to see U.S. Girls on the first leg of their U.S. tour at The Dance (a club now permanently closed due to COVID-19) in New York City on February 18, 2020, but I sold the tickets as COVID-19 was starting to spread in the U.S. What followed was a slew of concert ticket reselling, e.g., Dry Cleaning in New York City on March 8, 2020, and a torrent of rescheduling and cancellations from Thom Yorke in Virginia on March 27, 2020 to Bikini Kill in Burlington,VT on November 24, 2020 — and a host of other shows we had tickets to: The Swans, Juana Molina, The Decemberists, Dead Can Dance, Billy Joel, Madness, Julia Wofe’s Anthracite Fields, They Might Be Giants, Stereolab, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were cancelled and refunded.

We cancelled our cross country vacation to San Diego. I cancelled a cross-Oregon bikepacking trip. Just like everyone else all our plans were dashed.

Yet we are thankful, and fortunate, to be unaffected by COVID-19 (health-wise). Both Pattie (my life-partner) and I are very thankful to be healthy and not have close family affected by COVID-19, although we both know people affected, and I have a cousin and aunt in Miami who were sick with COVID-19 and recovered.

Over the past 3-years I set out to read 100 books a year (2 books a week). I realized that as an English Literature and Creative Writing graduate there were so many classic (and not so classic) books yet to read — more than I’d ever be able to read in a lifetime — and so many books I’d leave unread. So I purposefully cut down on TV-viewing and general time-wasting. In 2017 I read 101 books; in 2018 I read 160 books; and in 2019 I read 147 books as per my page:

In March, when Massachusetts went into COVID-19 lockdown, I had a feeling I might read more books than ever before — the 160 I read in 2018.  (I’ll let you know if I did on Thursday) The intention was there, but admittedly I spent most of March glued to the TV taking in every bit of COVID-19 information available — nearly a dozen hours of TV daily. I managed to unglue myself from “the tube” in April.

Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Below I share with you what I read this year: by month, title, author, a very brief response to the book, the format of the book, and the date I finished the book.

I made very good use of the Boston Public Library e-book and audiobook collection. I also intended to read through, and minimize, my “tsundoku” pile (look it up) of 182 books, but I’ve finished only a fraction at this point — I kept on buying and checking out new books.

(Note: I often read 3-6 books simultaneously (sometimes more) — high school and college style — and that accounts for sometimes finishing fairly long books in such close temporal succession)

This is what I read this year.  This is Part 1, January- March:


Grand Union / Zadie Smith (2019)

short-story collection… some good, a few very good, a couple a’ clunkers… see fer’ yrself — thank u, ms. smith… / ebook, 01/01/20.

Kathy Acker / Blood and Guts in High School (1984)

reread… third time around and it continues to reveal more of itself — doubtless i’ll b back in another decade for another spin… / paperback, 01/02/20.

And the Hippos Were Being Boiled in Their Tanks / Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs (1945/2008)

surprising and pleasant anachronism saved from the floorboards of time, a hard-boiled few hours o’ pre-beat sensations… / e-book, 01/03/30.

Big Sur / Jack Kerouac (1962)

yea for the sea — yay for auspicious walden-like weeks turning delirium madness — yeah for insanity of mind and some o’ the most memorable paranoiac-critical moments committed to the page (that i’ve crossed in a good long while, anyway)… yes, i say — “o’ harbinger of death…” / e-book, 01/04/20.

Endgame / Samuel Beckett (1957)

“old stancher! no… yes… no… yes… yes!

i turn aside, reflect. i write no more.” / paperback, 01/06/20.

Miami / Joan Didion (1987)

febrile, insightful, and picayune all at once… a bit of nostalgia for the old hometown (i left in ‘89) and a stark reminder of why i left. / hardcover, 01/07/20.

How Music Works / David Byrne (2012)

should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in music, very well researched and written. / hardcover, 01/08/20.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters / Paul Maher Jr. (2011)

some great interviews and writing here from disparate sources, but also lots of repetition… lots of repetition… lots of repetition… lots of repetition… lots of repetition… lots of repetition… lots of repetition… / e-book, 01/11/20.

The Minuteman: The Forgotten Legacy of Nat Arno and the Fight Against Newark’s Nazis / Greg Donahue (2020)

short audible audiobook… resonances of philip roth’s (fictional) plot against america… seems like the perfect nonfiction analog to that… three cheers for kicking nazi’s asses! / audible original audiobook, 01/12/20.

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll / Casey Rae (2019)

interesting factoids abound… the strength of the book is the subject… the achilles is the writing… one for burroughs completists… / hardcover, 01/16/20.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming / David Wallace – Wells (2019)

relentlessly grim, but this needs to be understood by all… pass the morphine drip… a must read! / e-book, 01/17/20.

Your Writing Coach / Jurgen Wolff (2004)

ah… oh… meh… eh… hmm… one must love books about the act of writing to read so many of them… eeees ok…with caveats on the author’s particular focus on the pecuniary… / e-book, 01/19/20.

The Chairs / Eugene Ionesco (1951)

all ye need to know… “Perhaps it’s because the further one goes, the deeper one sinks. It’s because the earth keeps turning around, around, around, around…” / e-book, 01/20/20.

It Burns / Marc Fennell (2019)

odd little audio book… full of sound and fury… ultimately signifying nothing… but fascinating nonetheless… / audible original audiobook, 01/22/20.

Basic Illustrated Bike Touring and Bikepacking / Justin Lichter & Justin Kline (2015)

basic guide intended for the neophyte… / paperback, 01/29/20.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays / Albert Camus (1955)

re-read… a life-long touchstone… a good way to begin each decade, over the last 3 decades… my fifth time thru this book… faceted and always revealing something new… / paperback, 01/31/20.


Unexpected Stories / Octavia Butler (2014)

ok… “a necessary being” being the better of the two… “childfinder” felt rushed and somehow incomplete… a nice posthumous find… / e-book, 02/03/20.

The Best Small Fictions 2017 / Tara Lynn Marsh

great flashes here.. another tsundoku down… / paperback, 02/08/20.

Magical Negro / Morgan Parker (2019)

fierce… fiercer… fiercest… “white propaganda is a stutter of imagination…” / paperback, 02/11/20.

Poetry / October 2019 (2019)

ok… naoko fujimoto’s quaterfold “lake michigan” alone is worth the price of admission to this poetry anthology… / paperback, 02/12/20.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy / Ta-Neishi Coates (2017)

difficult and necessary tonic… so well written, from an author willing to constantly reconsider and grow… a must read… / hardcover, 02/14/20.

Between the World and Me / Ta-Neishi Coates (2015)

wow… speechless… saddened… amazed… / e-book, 02/16/20.

The Ducthman & The Slave / LeRoi Jones (1971)

amazing that after nearly 60 years these 2 short plays not only seem more relevant but also retain their power to shock… astounding and uncomfortable… necessary discomforts without palatable resolutions.. / paperback, 02/17/20.

Malcolm and Me / Ishmael Reed (2020)

short memoir of a time and place in reed’s life with malcolm x as the unifying figure… deals with much more than malcolm… / audible original audiobook, 02/18/20.

Elements of Fiction / Walter Mosley (2020)

an immensely disappointing read… i’m such a fan of this year you write your novel, truly one of the top five books i’ve ever read about writing, and i like to read ‘em all… this read like what trying to juggle bags of gel must feel like… potboiler set-piece examples… trying, dull, storylines as paradigms… there’s no heat here for me outside of pages 105-108, and very little that resonates for me… so happy to see others are getting something from this monograph… i’m thoroughly perplexed and unhappy that I didn’t enjoy it… and this really dragged for me for such a short book… / hardcover, 02/20/20.

The Bear / Andrew Krivac (2020)

slight and pleasant enough post-apocalyptic fantasia… if one removes the greatest threat from the post-apocalypse — other humans and their brutal determinism — one is left with this “edenic” allegory… has a slight y.a. feel for my sensibility… well written… okay enough… / e-book, 02/22/20.

Friday Black / Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018)

great imaginative collection… standouts: “lark street,” “finklestein 5,” “friday black,” “light spitter,” & “zimmer land,”… love the absurdism… love some of the “fresh” speculative fiction turns… look forward to anything new by adjei-brenyah… good stuff… / paperback, 02/24/20.

True Grit / Charles Portis (1968)

surprisingly, unexpectedly, good… looking forward to reading more portis (unfortunately posthumously) after a belated start… / e-book, 02/26/20).


The Flu of 1918: Millions of Dead Worldwide! / Jessica Rudolph (2010)

topical… historical… wash your hands… / e-book, 03/01/20.

Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History (2018)

interesting enough… full o’ factoids about the 1918 pandemic… and much more recent stuff like the tamiflu scam… topical enough… / e-book, 03/03/20.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention / Manning Marable (2011)

an exhaustive dive into the life of malcolm x and beyond… goes further than haley’s the autobiography... way beyond… captures the heroic rise and the conflicting/conflicted impulses of x… very well researched… good scholarship… / e-book, 03/06/20.

Crisis in the Red Zone / Richard Preston (2019)

i couldn’t put this down after starting… so well researched and written… and even more gripping than the hot zone with the continual cross cutting and temporal jumps… masterful nonfiction like all of preston’s nonfiction books thus far… / hardcover, 03/09/20.

Native Son / Richard Wright (1940)

taut and well written first 2/3’s (“fear” & “flight”)… overly didactic and heavy handed last 1/3 (“fate”)… still powerful, important & seminal… still shocks today… prescient… a necessary foundation for ellison & baldwin to follow & fine tune… / paperback, 03/12/20.

Cane / Jean Toomer (1923)

re-read… read this as an undergrad years ago… still a classic at seamlessly marrying poetry and prose… the height in my mind of harlem renaissance writing… / paperback, 03/15/20.

“Underneath the particular image in question, the particular short story or musical composition, we’re looking for a source of hope.”

— Barry Lopez / “On the Art of Living Well”

About istsfor manity

i'm a truncated word-person looking for an assemblage of extracted teeth in a tent full of mosquitoes (and currently writing a novel without writing a novel word) and pulling nothing but the difficult out of the top hat while the bunny munches grass in the hallway. you might say: i’m thee asynchronous voice over in search of a film....
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