2021 – A Reading Year in Review

The first days of the New Year are a time for reflection. We look back on the year that has been and look towards the year that has opened. We might take stock of the state of our health, family life and working prospects. We might identify some new life or career goals. Or perhaps we have even decided to make a complete break with the past. For readers, it’s the time when we reflect on the reading year that has passed and start to think about our reading goals for the new year. 

At the end of 2020 I had decided to take a simpler approach to reading in 2021. 2020 was, after all, a year all of itself. Apart from setting a goal for the Goodreads Challenge I only committed to one other challenge which was the Gaia Reading Challenge hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies. Themed challenges can be quite helpful in encouraging us to read outside our usual fare and there is no shortage of good books being written about  nature, the environment and, of course, climate change. Last year I did read more books for Gaia than I actually got around to reviewing (some are still waiting in the To Be Written pile), but I think my favourite book for the year was Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty.  If you are a keen naturalist or just enjoy getting out in the big outdoors, you might like to consider the Gaia Reading Challenge. It’s not at all onerous and Sharon brings some excellent titles to our attention. This year I am hoping to be a little more diligent in actually writing reviews and posting them for the Gaia Challenge.

In 2021 my goal for the Goodreads Reading Challenge was 100 books. I have only been on Goodreads for a few years but every year my goal in the Reading Challenge has risen just a little. I try to be realistic, after all there still is family and life and I have also been studying too, which comes with its own reading challenges.  For the first time I actually met that goal with a few months to spare, so in the end I actually read 132 books. But we all know that it’s not the number of books that counts, but the enjoyment and enrichment we gain from the reading experience. For 2022 I am keeping the goal at 100 books. By the looks of it this year is already shaping up to be Covid, Covid and more Covid, so there’s already enough stress looming on the horizon without adding to it unnecessarily. 

One of the bonuses of the Goodreads Challenge is the neat little visual display of your reading achievements for the year. Until recently I have never really kept any consistent records of what I have read, when I read it and what I thought of it. Sometimes I would get enthused enough to keep a reading log but it was pretty hit and miss, being rather more miss than hit.  But I have been inspired by book bloggers like Lisa from ANZ Litlovers and Annabel from Annabookbel to take a far more serious approach to the collecting of reading statistics.  I just use a simple spread sheet to collect data about the book, author, genre, form, year of publication and so on, but it has been a very interesting exercise. It helps me to see who and what I have been reading, identify any gaps and notice any developing trends. 

In recent years there’s been a lot written about the gender balance in publishing, reviewing and award circles, so it’s something I have started to take particular notice of in my own reading. I don’t usually specifically pick books on the basis of an author’s gender. If it sounds interesting, I’ll read it or at least give it a go, whoever wrote it.  But I do just keep tabs on it. Sometimes when I decide to binge on a series then it might swing one way or the other, but it usually seems to come back into balance and  overall it seems I am generally pretty balanced when it comes to gender. Two years ago the guys had a narrow lead, but in 2021 the girls hit the front. 

You might wonder whether gender really matters, but you can never underestimate the influence that an author’s background has on their worldview and the choices they make when writing. On occasions I have come across female characters written by a male author, which have been to my mind nothing more than “wishful thinking!”. The cultural heritage of an author can be equally important. It can be quite easy to gravitate towards authors who share our cultural background and I guess it probably is natural, when we are English speakers, that most of our reading will come from the English speaking world. But it is equally good to challenge ourselves to read outside our cultural experience, so collecting data about authors cultural heritage and texts that have been translated can be quite enlightening or sobering. Reading for cultural diversity has been a work in progress so I was pleasantly surprised to see that by the end of 2021 I had managed to read something from almost every region of the world. 

Identifying an author’s cultural background can be a bit tricky these days. I find the classics are easy. Most classic authors didn’t travel too far from home. They wrote in their native language and set their stories in the place they knew best – home. These days people are very mobile. Dislocation and migration have seen people move all over the world, sometimes as young children and sometimes as adults. The culture someone grows up in may be different to the culture in their family home. From a literary point of view, it leads to an incredible range of diverse stories and points of view. From a data collection standpoint, it can be a quite a challenge. I suppose the thing that really matters is that we seek out voices and stories that are not our own.

 This year I am really looking to zone in on reading about disability. Representation has been such a hot topic of late and with good reason, but accurate and positive representations of disability still lag far behind. Many people with disabilities have grown up never seeing themselves on television or the big screen, or as major characters on the page. There is still a long way to go to showing the acceptance of disability as just another part of the mainstream. 

I’ll be hoping to read some memoirs and biographies and some nonfiction, but I am also looking for fiction that features disability. I am especially looking for some accurate and positive representations that are integral to the plot and not just tick a box. If you come across any, please let me know. Sometimes you can find them in places least expected. 

I guess some people, who are not readers, might shake their heads at those of us who set reading goals and join reading challenges but literature is such a fundamental part of who we are as readers and as humans. So it was disappointing to read of the rejection of literary research proposals by our federal acting minister for education. According to Stuart Robert, they did not “demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest.”  Of course the most interesting thing is that all the proposals rejected came from the humanities. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After the horrendous fee hikes for humanities students imposed by our federal gov last year it is clear that the humanities is not just underrated but utterly devalued by our current leadership. We know as readers that literature is about more than just books. It represents life. Our lives, our times, our stories. That’s why representation is so important and the study of that literature is equally important. It is through literary research that we see the relationship between the historical and political events of our time and the impact they have on our communities and our lived experience as expressed through our literature. As Julieanne Lamond, senior lecturer in English at the Australian National University says,

“This shows a wilful ignorance of the value that literature and its study provide to Australia’s society, culture and economy. It is an affront to the principle of independence that should underpin research funding in a democracy. It disregards the expertise and time of the thousands of scholars involved in the process of writing and assessing these applications.”

 You can read more about this here.

So what is on the reading horizon for you this year? Do you set reading goals? Do you have a favourite go-to author when all is dark and gloomy?

Happy Reading in 2022

16 thoughts on “2021 – A Reading Year in Review

  1. Your post made me think about dictatorial governments who lock up their writers because they wish to discourage free thought and potential criticism. Given we live in a democracy and such action would cause chaotic dissent, is defunding and uni fee hikes the way that the “free” world achieves the same outcome?
    Good luck with your reading challenge. My reading is so eclectic. Random recommendations or loans. Reading fellow authors’ output. Whatever happens across my desk next. According to mainstream publishers, memoir is not selling at the moment. Might be why we are seeing so many celebrity memoirs – they are a sure thing. Anything you can do to reverse the trend would be gratefully appreciated by many emerging authors, I’m sure.

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    • Interesting thing is that the fee hikes have not dissuaded students from the humanities. They’ll come out with huge debts, of course. Home ownership will be out of the question. But at the end of the day, who wants to pay for a course they are not interested in or have no aptitude for, just because it is cheaper. How does one gov minister decide what is in the national interest, or perhaps it’s more of a case of government interest. We can’t have researchers studying the impact of asylum seeker or climate change policies in contemporary Australian literature, can we? Interesting point about memoir. I can’t say that celebrity memoir particularly appeals to me. I’m more interested in the stories of ordinary people and those who have made a contribution. But I will try my best Gwen!

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  2. Very interesting post Karen. I have been keeping a spreadsheet of my reading since the 1990s, and love to look at my “record” each year. I have been woeful in recent years at reading from regions around the world because I’ve been accepting too many Australian review copies. I don’t really make specific reading goals, except to read more from the TBR, but this year it is also to get the review copy pile down and reduce its size. I would like to read more Japanese literature (though I have read a bit, but I like it), more from Africa, and more Indigenous works from different countries.

    Re women, I actually do sort of actively look to read women, and have since the 1980s. This is because so often women speak to my experiences or experiences I care about, or talk about them in a way that appeals to me. This is not to say that there aren’t many male authors I like, but I am not completely neutral in my choice.

    I hadn’t seen that report about the rejection of literary research proposals. Very disappointing, and you write very well about the issue and the importance of literature and thus literary research to us.

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    • Thanks, I quite like Japanese literature too. I think my first was a book by Yoko Ogawa about a professor who had lost his short term memory. I find there’s a simplicity, sometimes, about Japanese literature. I don’t know whether that emanates from their more minimalist lifestyle. One of the reasons that I try to be more balanced in regards to gender is that I have often heard criticism directed at men for only reading male authors, and I think that if we wish to encourage men to branch out into female authors, then we need to do the same. I’ve also long recognised that my reading preferences often seem to differ from most women. I don’t know why that is, except that I don’t like romance and I dislike anything that is, dare I say, “soppy.” But I adore Hannah Kent. Her prose is just exquisite. Reaching gender parity has actually been an achievement for me, helped by the fact that I think women are being published across a wider spectrum of genre than maybe they used to be. Guess I’m just different that way.The report was published on The Conversation. I am a regular reader of The Conversation – they publish some great articles by academics.

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  3. I don’t care for numbers as I don’t believe reading should become a competitive sport. Having said that a Reading Challenge does, as you say, encourage one to read outside of their favoured genre. I am in the middle of several reading challenges and I don’t care how long they take. It’s about broadening the reading experience. The challenges include reading books from other cultures, my latest foray into the Gaia nature Challenge, books from TheBooks That Made Us ABC television series, and a challenge by a friend who runs a Little Community Library.
    Happy reading whatever your selections may be !

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  4. “Identifying an author’s cultural background can be a bit tricky these days”. Yes, I think that’s very true. Who’s to say what has the greatest influence” birthplace, origin of parents, places/of education, workplaces, travel…I just do the best I can to categorise my authors but am always open to being corrected…

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    • Yes, there are so many influences in one’s life and they are always changing and evolving. What may be influential in early adulthood may not be later in life. Makes humans such fascinating creatures. The same goes for readers too, how the eclectic mix of culture, experience, education and so on influences and develops our reading choices.

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  5. Those are impressive reading goals and I really like the idea of reading voices different to our own. I always used to start the year with a bit of a list that I would mentally tick off through the year, it included reading in translation and reading at least one classic. It is easy to just read voices that just reflect our own world view and experience and miss the opportunity to experience something rich and different. Happy reading Karen.

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