Novel November

Twenty-Five Years of Reading

Part Two

by Michael Channing

Twenty-Five Years of Reading by Michael Channing

In part one, I ran the numbers on which authors, genres, and individual books I read the most. Now I want to look at years gone by and see if my reading habits happened to mirror the events of my life. And of course I want to work up a good nostalgia tingle.

Here's the full list, by the way, all (most) of the books I've read since 1992. Feel free to follow along with me.

Before we look at individual years, I want to first ask the question...

In What Year Did I Read the Most/Least Books?

In What Year Did I Read the Most/Least Books?

The year 2000 was my busiest year for reading. That's over a book a week. How did I do it? No, seriously, how did I do that? I'd like to do it again. I did read a lot of graphic novels and comic strip collections. Those do tend to be faster reads than prose books, but that's still a lot. This is where I began to intentionally instill a love for graphic novels into my soul. I sought out names of great writers: Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Will Eisner, Daniel Clowes. This is year I first read any of them. Brief Lives was the first Sandman collection I ever read and still my favorite, and once I read the first Bone collection, I was hooked. The two Eatman comics I actually bought as gifts for someone else, read them, then wrapped them to give. I was working at a theater at the time, and read in the projection booth. Life was simple then, and I had lots of time to read. That I was still able to get through as many prose novels as I did is still pretty astonishing.

This year, 2017, however, has my shortest read list ever. There's a good explanation for that. I'm a dad. Last year had the lowest count and this year is even lower. Being a new dad means giving up your time to the stranger you just invited to live in your home. Plus, my duties at work have been steadily growing, and I should be chilling with a book on my breaks, but I keep turning to Youtube to ease the grind. But now that I've discovered audio books, I'm sure that count will rise in 2018. If it doesn't, I will have to reassess my lifestyle, because that will mean I'm letting other things (I'm looking at you, supercomputer phone) eat the precious time that could be devoted to reading.

1992-1993

These were my junior and senior high school years. There are a lot of firsts here. My first time reading Lord of the Flies, Mostly Harmless, Something Wicked this Way Comes, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Johnny Got His Gun. The last are my favorite two books ever, and I first met them in '92 and '93. 1992 may have also been the first year I read The Dark Knight Returns, but I'm not sure. It certainly wasn't the last. I see a bunch of books I'd like to revisit again someday that I haven't read since. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Logan's Run, Canticle, several Stephen King books. Now that the movie remake has snaked its way into everyone's spine again, I definitely want to read It once more. I had a lot of time to read back then. That won't happen again.

The author Richard Armour shows up a lot in 1993. I remember finding a bunch of his books in the humor section of the library, just on happenstance. I read them all. He had a satirical take on everything from Shakespeare to world history. I remember him as being laugh-out-loud hysterical. A quick Google turns up a few great lines of his. “Beauty is only skin deep, and the world is full of thin-skinned people.” “That money talks, I'll not deny. I heard it once: it said 'Goodbye.'” I have no idea if his stuff will hold up today. But he was a favorite back then.

2000

So many graphic novels. This was the year I discovered Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Will Eisner. My first encounter with Understanding Comics, which blew my mind open and made me want to write comics. It seemed far too late for me to learn to draw, but I needed so badly to dip my hands into that amazing alchemy of words and pictures. I still do. This might have been the year I finally opened a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel. My friend Brian kept nettling me to do so, saying he was just as funny as Douglas Adams and as good as any “serious” fantasy writer. Glad I did.

2001-2002

Seeing some favorites appear for the second time in these years. Specifically Childhood's End, The Martian Chronicles, and Johnny Got His Gun. My love of graphic novels continues with a bunch of Eisner books. In one of these years I found a stack of Vonnegut books at a used bookstore. I love used bookstores. It's like wandering through a treasure vault with the knowledge that you get to take home one to five pieces of loot. How do you choose? Sometimes I would just go to one of my favorite shops and spend half a day or more strolling the aisles, sitting for hours on the floor just looking at the books, smelling the old paper, running my hand along the spines. Hard to find a better time.

2003-2004

Telling that Captains Outrageous appears again in '03, having just read it the first time in '02. It's still my favorite Hap and Leonard book. The ending is simply perfect and unforgettable.

2004 was the year I finally read the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny. I got them from the Science Fiction Book club as part of my initial required purchase. You got to pick five books for a buck, and these two volumes counted as one selection and had five novels in them, a deal no one could pass, but I kept them on my shelf untouched for years. Why, you fool, did you deprive yourself for so long?

This was also the first year I year Robert McCammon. My girlfriend in college tried to get me to read him, but I refused because I was the English major. I was the true nerd. I knew what was great. Turns out she knew also. She also knew I was a jerk. I do not make good decisions, do I?

2005-2006

I got the the Calvin and Hobbes and Farside collections for Christmas in 2005. About fifty pounds of greatness.

I bought the full collection—minus the first volume, which I already had—of the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing from a comic book store. I ordered them all at once, and the clerk was surprised I was willing to drop that much money at one time, seemed like he was trying to talk me out of it.

2007-2008

Some standouts include Robert McCammon's Swan Song, a post apocalypse novel with a brutal opening in which the US and the USSR finally fire all of their nukes at once, and the world burns. You can't help but compare it to The Stand, but it holds its own and actually has a more varied cast and interstitial adventures. Lansdale delivered two great novels these two years, Sunset and Sawdust, a western that opens with a woman killing her husband as he tries to rape her, and Leather Maiden, a great mystery thriller that eventually ties into the Hap and Leonard universe. Stephen King, however, continues a long stretch of humdrum novels with Duma Key, an over-written book that, admittedly, doesn't drag as much as Tommyknockers, but not for lack of trying. The short story the novel grew from is so much better. King's alter-ego, Richard Bachman, wrote a novel before he died by choking on his own typewriter ribbon, and it actually turned out pretty good. Blaze was a turning point—or maybe Duma Key drained him of his mediocrity—because his output definitely took an upturn in the next few years.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is every bit as good as Oprah says it is and should be on anyone's top list of post-apocalyptic fiction. Do yourself a favor and read Mother, Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier. That book crawled under my skin and still lives there. It's sad and vast and heartbreaking, and you can't shake the chill it puts in your soul. I bounced off it and into a short story of my own, trying to capture the crisp, minimalist feel of it. That's the best compliment you can give a piece of fiction: It made me want to write.

Don't bother with 30 Days of Night, though. It often comes up when people discuss great graphic novels, but it's crap. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier was a weird one. After two great stories, this third installment is a mishmash of styles that I think is meant to fill us in on the background of some of the main characters and how the League was started in the first place, but it's mostly confusing, and the prose pieces are intentionally dense.

2009-2010

Some big life changes here. Break up, move from Florida back to Asheville, new job. Do my reading habits reflect those change-ups? Maybe so. Obviously I had lots of time to myself. I spent a good deal of it doing stand-up comedy. Born Standing Up is an obvious reflection of this renewed interest. Several books from this time were lent to me. Got a hold of Get in the Van from a fellow Rollins fan. For a long while I thought that book was impossible to find, but it turns out Rollins prints more all the time. Stephen King finally got his groove back with Under the Dome and Full Dark, No Stars. Tried a couple of Andrew Vachss on the recommendation of his best pal and champion Joe Lansdale. I actually don't remember much about those books. Didn't seem to leave much of a mark on me, but maybe I should try again. I revisited more Lansdale books, though. Probably the result of being back in Asheville, the town where I discovered him. I was deeply depressed on my return. It was a wonderful, artistic, weirdo town, and I didn't feel I deserved to be there. But the library will always take you back. I bought a couple of Fred Chappell books after hearing him read at Malaprops in Asheville. He's a resident of the area and a local favorite. If you ever get the opportunity to hear him read, take it.

2011-2012

My friend John recommended I read Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, both written by Brian K. Vaughan. Glad I did. John and I played Magic: the Gathering and did comedy together. We usually played right before comedy shows, sitting in the front row. As the show would start, we would finish our game then politely watch and listen, but inevitably we'd get flack from a comedian about how nerdy we were. Flack from someone so desperate for attention and approval they had to hijack the time of a dozen bar patrons and speak puns and dick jokes into a microphone on a Thursday. But, yeah, John and I were clearly the losers. Of course we were there to do the same thing. One time we were kicked out of the library for playing Magic. We didn't speak above a whisper, and we both checked out books. But clearly two guys passing playing cards back and forth were taking up precious space. Sometimes even the library doesn't want you. John moved to Texas about year after I met him. I miss him greatly. It's hard to stay in touch over long distances. It is for me, anyway. I've lost some good friends to distance and time.

Somewhere in these years I moved in with the woman who later became my wife. She and I have a love for the Peanuts comic strip, for Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I got 11/23/63 in the mail shortly after we moved into our first house. It's a good book, but the memory that will forever be attached to it is the sight of it on our dining room table. My wife is a history buff, so the front and back covers of that book with its dual presentations of histories that were and could have been were intriguing to her. She's not a fan of Stephen King, though, so she hasn't read it.

Three books from this time period are about comedians. My mom gave me Comedy on the Edge, and I lent it to a friend who hasn't given it back. I miss doing comedy.

I bought several of these titles at a big used book sale that our city does every year. Went with my girlfriend, now wife. I like how having things can remind of the event of obtaining them. Gives them extra worth and weight.

2013-2014

My wife bought me Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday and Me of Little Faith, making them important books in my collection.

I read the whole Hitchhiker's series in quick succession in 2014, along with a great biography of Douglas Adams. Seriously, sometimes I miss him so much it hurts. He was a genius. And his daughter was so young when she lost him. Damn.

Reread Alan Moore's Swamp Thing issues in 2013. Such a great combination of horror and emotion, adventure and romance. Moore took a little-known, sub-par “superhero” comic and turned it into a masterpiece of storytelling that you cannot predict on your first read through.

Lansdale had some great books in these years, All the Earth Thrown to the Sky, The Thicket, The Ape Man's Brother. I recommend The Thicket especially. It's a wonderful western with great characters and real suspense leading up to a nail-biter of an ending, told from the perspective of a young boy. The way Lansdale writes it, you really do feel as if the boy is telling you his story, rather than a grown man in the present straining to sound period-retro.

Stephen King's Revival was just okay. It felt like a short story padded to novel length. A lot of filler to kill time to the ending, but the ending was pretty great. Doctor Sleep, though an unnecessary sequel to The Shining, was kick-ass all the way through.

2015-2016

The Underwater Welder and When David Lost His Voice both knocked me down breathless. The first is about the fear of becoming a dad, which I was in full grip of at the time, and the second is about losing someone slowly to cancer, which my wife and I went through a few years before. They both stir the waters and bring to the surface emotions you might not have known were down there. They linger in the mind.

A friend of mine wrote Ruthless, and I've been jealous ever since. But she did the hard work, and has the talent. I did do the hard work of writing two books, but the talent wasn't there to light them on fire. One day. One day soon.

I hope my daughter will read Fender Lizards some day. It's a good book about a young girl dealing with a harsh life. My daughter won't have it so hard, but everyone has some difficulties on their path. This book is a good guide post for the journey.

I recommend 99 Ways to Tell a Story to any writer of any medium. It takes a one page comic story ( a bland one at that) and tells it 99 different ways. It's an exercise in stretching your imagination, in looking at your own craft in different ways and solving problems using all the tools at your disposal. The key lesson is not to become set in your ways. Don't let your art become routine.

2017

I've reviewed just about all the books I read this year. I didn't review Another Chance to Get It Right for Novel November because it's not a novel. Hard to say just what it is. It sort of looks like an illustrated story collection, but several of the pieces are reports on the author's actual experiences as a champion for children's rights. Others are philosophical contemplations. Vachss seems to have the bona-fides when it comes to standing up for kids. He's a lawyer who only represents children. He trains dogs to act as comfort animals for abused kids. He's been a social worker and and labor organizer. He even worked in Biafra. So he's a trustworthy source for advice on how to give our kids a good life. But he makes you work for it. Many of the pieces in this book have open-ended morals, and it's up to the reader to turn the story over in your mind and meditate on the meaning. I'll have to revisit it later to see if I can pull more from it.

Well that's 25 years of reading, or 19 depending how you view it. There are a lot of books on this list I don't remember. There's the Eric Idle book I had forgotten even existed. But many I have loved and been loved by, escaped into and been sheltered by, been challenged by and taken inspiration from. Many books I've owned from my youth, discovered in bookstores, taken as gifts from those I've loved (and loved them more for giving me books), bought with money earned from my sweat and pain and sometimes tears and frustration (you give up hours of time in this world to purchase years of life in make believe realms), carried in boxes from home to home, lovingly packed and unpacked and given respectful places on their shelves, treasured for decades as the minor miracles they are.

The numbers involved in this project are interesting but ultimately unimportant. What matters are the emotional experiences that come with reading. Books are safe. Even if the bad guy wins or the first-person narrator gets killed, the threat and danger is at a level I determine. And of course the glories of a triumphant story are mine and mine alone. This world does offer some greatness. A hug from my wife at the end of a dark day. My daughter's laughter. Executing the excrement with my friends. But I'll want at times to slip the thin and bleeding skin I was born into and flex muscles I never had, lift my weary eyes to alien skies, loose my stumbling tongue and finally give the perfect reply to a pointed insult, be useful at last to someone other than myself. Between the pages of a book, there are other worlds than these.

old timey typewriter

A Fond Look Back on Some Books


foolscap Home       Podcast       Essays       Poems       Songs       Videos       Stories       Images foolscap

Vestigial
now available for purchase or download
.
Vestigial by Michael Channing

January 2, 2018