For years I've kept a list in the back of my diary of books I've read (recently I've started adding my media diet too). That's how I know that I read 37 books in 2019 and, weirdly, it'll be exactly 37 by the end of 2020. There's consistent pacing for you.
This is a massive jump up from my reading levels of a few years ago. Working from home since 2009 has meant no commute which has also meant no book time since reading is all about the habit.
But then I discovered bath time reading (and also rejoined my local library, which has been fantastic for even the latest books). Reading is now part of my end-of-night routine, involving either a long soak with a good book – or a short soak with a dull book. Anyway, the result is that I'm back to getting through a book every 9.86 days, on average.
Everyone's taste in books is different but here are my top three books of the past year in case any take your fancy. Some are available to borrow.
1. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
William Finnegan's Pulitzer prize-winning surf autobiography covers the golden era of surfing (60s, 70s and 80s), from his childhood spent in California and Hawaii then travelling and discovering surf breaks around Asia, the South Pacific, Europe and Africa that are now world-famous. How someone can write about waves for 400 pages and keep each one fresh is quite astounding but he did go on to a career as a journalist and is now a staff writer at The New Yorker so he has the word chops.
Out of all the places Finnegan surfed, San Francisco's cold wild waters and Madeira's mid-ocean, round-island currents are the one that stand out as he comes to the edge of his surfing capabilities.
I'll also remember this book as a much-needed escape during the first coronavirus lockdown. It was a birthday gift from Pete, and is currently on loan to a friend, but tap me up if you want to borrow it at some point.
2. Suite Venetienne
Sophie Calle is more than an artist. She is like the bastard modern lovechild of journalism, multimedia and the kind of quirky ideas that you want to see played out (almost story pitches to an editor). She then lives these ideas out and processes them into artistic, often autobiographical outcomes. She is the only artist where I've had to queue to get to her books because other women were in the way discussing how much they loved her show. This was at the Photographer's Gallery in 2017 when she was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Prize.
Ina very French way, she took up art aged 27 or so because she was bored. She started following people as artistic explorations – and this culminated in Suite Venetienne, her first 'artist's book', published in 1988.
In it she meets a man at a party in her home city of Paris and decides to follow him to Venice. The book is a diary log of detection, surveillance and photography of and around her target (prey?). I like how it turns the power dynamic of a male-female stalking around – in her feminine world she doesn't actually want to meet him but have a sort of affair with him in her head. She is a thinking woman and perhaps he is the crumpet although the book isn't really about him while being all about him.
I also like what happens when you act on a crazy idea that takes you on a personal journey – it was an apt start to her art career (she is now in nearly 70). All her books are great but this one is a strangely poetic ride.
3. Fleischman is in Trouble
If I had to pick a fiction book this year, Taffy Brodesser-Akner's book is probably the one. Not because of all the plaudits it received but because of its initially confusing but later clever little inserts of unrest in the narration that changes, well, everything – even the whole nature of the novel you thought you were reading.
You follow the story of the main character – a fortysometing man whose marriage has fallen apart through no seeming fault of his own and is now sinking and swimming in the shock modern world of sex-in-your-face dating. Meanwhile his wife has run off somewhere – a yoga retreat upstate – and he has been left holding the baby (two kids). But who is really telling this story and why?
Clever, smart and a bit of a sleeper until the end – much like another favourite book of mine 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' which I hated until the last 100 pages.
No spoilers. I've already said too much.
Bonus best bath books of 2019
If none of the above takes your fancy, 2019 was an even better year for books. I'd highly recommend:
Educated by Tara Westover – the most incredible memoir of an escape from a batshit crazy family through the power of education.
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman – a travel autobiography that's funny and honest about the world of backpacking and torrid affairs abroad.
The Salt Path by Raynor Wynn – what happens to a middle-age couple when they go bankrupt, receive a terminal illness diagnosis and decide to walk the SW Coastal Path together on benefits.
Honourable mentions for Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (about women and desire), Circe by Madeleine Miller (a female perspective on the Ancient Greek gods and co) and The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley (a compendium of cool shit you can drop into your walk conversations and sound like a wise old ancient).