In 2018, I wrote about how it's important to step out of your comfort zone in your reading habits. It lets you explore sensitivities that expand your sense of the world and the people who live in it. It was a lesson I didn't quite expect despite the fact that the benefits of stepping out of our comfort zone are widely celebrated in the business and leadership literature. (Harvard Business Review, for example)
I have always looked at reading as a way to learn, to understand, and to experience a life un-lived. I've been to space. I've had power—and been completely powerless. I've been a scientist, a reporter, and a rat catcher. I've lived in the future and the past. Throughout all these travels, I am constantly reminded of the absolute certainty that my experience isn't representative. My sensibility isn't anyone else's standard. Empathy is something we can work to develop by immersing ourselves in alternative perspectives. It can help us to truly see someone else.
The Year of Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
In 2019, I read books from authors I'd never heard of and whose experience I felt privileged to share. When I wasn't reading, I watched tv that starred leading characters that were outside my own limited perspective. In many cases, these are now authors and shows I have come to savor: I watch or read then with attention and intent, rather than skimming through or letting them "play in the background." Shows like Black-ish (Network) and East Los (Hulu) I feel grateful to be able to experience.
"When you read .. some really amazing things happen in your brain. Reading changes you both intellectually and emotionally. We experience what life hasn't allowed us." (LitHub, 2018)
In 2019, I also stepped up the non-fiction reading I did in 2018 and read one non-fiction book every month. I can't say it's improved my relationship with non-fiction. NF remains difficult for me to pick up instinctively because NF isn't people; it's things. It's not the life unlived; it's hard-earned knowledge of a different sort. But that was the plan for 2019 and I stuck to it as uncomfortable as it felt every time I started a new month.
And so, 2019 became the year of doing what was difficult, of forcing myself out of my comfort zone. It turned out to be an incredible year.
I set my Reading Challenge Goal at 96 books: 12 non fiction and 84 (7 books x 12 months) fiction. Knowing that I struggle with non-fiction, I figured I wouldn't be able to keep up my fiction reading pace of previous years.
As it turned out, the grand total for 2019 was higher than 2018. I read 234 (244% of goal)
The increased count absolutely impacted my delay in writing up this year's reading challenge.
Unlike 2017, it's only taken me 3 months to write this post instead of 7 and part of that is absolutely due to my rushing into 2020 with a load of unread fiction that had been stacking up.
2019 Memorable Reads
How I love thee, Story Bundle. Most of these came from one of their themed packs.
- Exile, Lisa M. Bradley. Science Fiction.
I almost never post reviews on Goodreads. When you read as many books as I do, it's impossible. It would take way too long to do. It's why I do this annual write up. This book was an exception. I was compelled to write a review because of the effect it had on me. It is not an easy book: It pushes you away while refusing to let you out of its grip. I haven't gotten over it yet and I don't know if I ever will.
- Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke, Fiction.
Attica Locke has become one of those authors whose books I buy as soon as they're written. I didn't even know I was waiting for this book until it showed up in my feed. I hadn't expected the previous book to turn into a series but I am so very, very grateful it did. She's one of the an incredible writers I feel privileged to read. Try this book or literally any one of her other books. I read five of them in 2019.
- Al-Kabar, Lee French. Fantasy.
This is the first fantasy I've read with a female lead set in the middle east. You'd almost think it was typical for the genre but it's absolutely unique in its perspective.
- Shadow Moon (Huntress/FBI Thrillers #6), Alexandra Sokoloff. Mystery.
This was another book I felt compelled to review on Goodreads. You'll also notice that I have Sokoloff in the Non-Fiction list below. She's an excellent writer and story teller and I've written about her books before. This book came out in 2018 and I avoided it for a long time. It's not that I didn't want to read it right away, rather I find I have to work up to her books. They're amazing, scary, and very, very real and you carry the psychic load of this book for weeks after reading one. This one is possibly the best yet: it's full of power.
Fun fact: This book had me reading about the Interstate Highway System for several days after finishing this book.
- Chosen, K.F. Breene
Amazon recommended this book to me several years ago. At the time, I looked at the summary and the reviews and decided it just wasn't for me. In 2019, my mother bought the book and then shared it with me. I couldn't have been more wrong about it or Breene. I've since read everything she's written. Her characters are smart, strong, capable women.
- Specters in the Storm, Pauline Baird Jones.
Funny, smart, and weird. This book shoves itself up to the forefront of my mind fairly frequently and I go looking for a sequel. It's never there, but I keep looking.
- Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space, David Thomas Moore, Editor.
I am not usually a reader of short stories. When I read, I prefer total immersion and short stories rarely go long enough for me to achieve that feeling. This book came as part of an Alternative Worlds themed Story Bundle and as both a Sherlock Holmes and alternate world fan I couldn't resist. Holmes is a carnie working a mud show, he's a friend of Andy Warhol, a Wild West frontiersman, and crosses paths with Elvis Presley. What's not to like? That bundle had a lot of others but I didn't get to them in 2019.
- Titan, Wizard, Demon (3 book series), John Varley. Science Fiction.
Turns out when you read outside your comfort zone, your comfort zone pushes back. I've read these many times over the years and, oddly enough, it turns out my brother and his wife also re-read these in 2019. They're a lot of fun and it was nice to see some old friends.
2019 Non-Fiction List
In no particular order...
- Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough.
In the 1970s there were years when every day a bomb went off in a major city in America. One of the things that stands out about this book is that although the violence that threatened everyday life was higher than it is today, the police did not have nearly, not nearly, the same armament that they do today. It's a jarring juxtaposition that makes you rethink what we're allowing our police and military forces have in their possession in 2020.
- Story Structure Basics: How to write better books by learning from the movies (Screenwriting Tricks For Authors), Alexandra Sokoloff.
This was perhaps one of the most unexpectedly amazing books I've read in years. There's a lot here for anyone who wants to be able to tell a good story. It also has a ton for movie fans. She dissects Groundhog Day, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and others. You'll never watch those movies the same way again. And your presentations will be 100% better, too.
- The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Deborah Blum.
Next to Sokoloff's book, this was probably my favorite. If you're a watcher of procedural cop shows, especially those like CSI, this book is for you. This story of the world's first chemical detectives details how the forensic industry and toxicology science came to be.
- Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher After 25 Years' Experience, Ike Matthews. (Public Domain @ Project Gutenberg)
Written in 1898 (not a typo), this book is exactly what it says it is. Real life stories and practical advice about dealing with rats. I know now that if you have rats you should never use traps and never employ a mongoose.
- Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom, Katherine Eban.
You'll never buy another generic prescription or over-the-counter, store brand drug again. And you'll frantically clean them out of your entire house after you read it.
- Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Jessica Bruder .
The author is careful to compassionately describe the growing house-less population in America but it doesn't forestall the disturbing facts of the situation that haunt you after the book is done. There is horror here and we're failing a growing segment of our neighbors and communities.
- The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Jon Ronson.
How do you spot one and where can they be found? The halls of power. And it's not that easy.
- Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, George Lakoff, UC Berkeley.
This was not an easy read, but it was probably as enlightening as any book I've read in years. Both sides think they're arguing logic to each other. The problem is, our logic maps don't match. Neither side is more moral than the other. It's the priorities that define our morality are different. If you want to understand people who are not like you, this is essential reading in 2020.
- Propaganda, Edward L. Bernays.
Originally written in 1928, Bernays attempted to raise ethical issues in the fledgling, formal public relations and marketing industry. A lot of what he has to say reverberates with us in 2020 as we figure out how to live in a world with superbly created fake videos, identify fake news, and ignore instinct when faced with Russian trolls.
- Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, Frans de Waal.
This is about chimps. We have more in common with them than you think and a lot of the behaviors you think are learned through their exposure to us? Well, they aren't. Many are common to us both.
- Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas, Recipes and Processes, Containing Ten Thousand Selected Household and Workshop Formulas, Recipes, Processes and Moneymaking Methods for the Practical Use of Manufacturers, Mechanics, Housekeepers and Home Workers.
When people with two jobs are struggling to make ends meet and have budgets that are tighter than ever, this very old book is a small consolation. It has a lot of information about how to do things for yourself and is interesting to browse through.
- Portugal and Germany, Rick Steves.
In December 2019, I was asked to speak at the Arbortext User Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. It was a great experience that expanded into a wonderful vacation. Rick Steves is my go-to when learning about somewhere new.
A Side-effect of my 2019 Challenge
This was the first year that I couldn't vote in the Goodreads Choice Awards. It's not that I don't have a Goodreads account or that I missed the voting deadline, it's that none of the books I read in 2019 were on their list.
I don't know if that's because the books that were outside my comfort zone were also the same books that are outside a lot of other people's comfort zones or what. Regardless, I found it interesting that I was so disconnected from the 2019 Best Books list. It's never been that way before.
Despite that, it turns out several of the books I read in 2019 were read by a lot of other people. Over 100K other people added the Psychopath Test to their lists in 2019. No one but me added the Rat-catcher book (their loss). And at least one of the books I read "Carnival: A Lou Thorne Thriller" (#4 in the series) by former Techcomm professor and LGTBQ author Kory Shrum, was listed among the highest rated books on Goodreads with an average 4.8 star rating.
So, while I can't draw any conclusions, I find these side-effects of my 2019 Reading Challenge interesting.