Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 in Review: Books

This is part 2 of the 2013 in Review series of posts. Click here for part 1.

I read 23 complete books in 2013, a total of 7,246 pages. (Thanks to Goodreads for providing me these data.) This doesn’t include children’s books (which I don’t keep track of), partially-read books, or scriptural texts such as the Bible. I’m sufficiently pleased with the numbers, not that numbers are the point of it all. Here’s a quick overview of what I read in 2013.

Of the 23 books I read, 12 were non-fiction. That’s a pretty even split, which perhaps is a good thing. Of the 12 non-fiction books I read, 11 were about Mormonism. That’s nowhere near an even split, but I still think it’s a good thing. 2013 was in many ways an epic year for me in terms of studying and coming to appreciate (and/or question) my own religious background. I expect this trend to continue in 2014. Of the 11 fiction books I read, 3 were by Mormon authors and touched at least lightly on the LDS faith. So, yes, I was rather … focused, let’s say … in 2013. It’s worth noting that not one of the books I read in 2013 was a proper philosophy text, which is odd considering I’m currently working on a PhD in philosophy. Oops.

Dominating my reading list in 2013 was Denver C. Snuffer, a Utah-based attorney who has written numerous texts on Mormonism. I don’t wish to focus too much on Snuffer’s works here. I read his first three books early in 2013 and found them incredibly rewarding. They were important reads to me, but not books I would quickly recommend to others, and not for the sake of being “good reads.” My enjoyment of them and the value I found in them had nothing to do with how well-written the books are (which, to be honest, is not very). Snuffer’s works are for a very particular audience within an already narrow niche. I think that’s all that needs to be said about their content, although I will say that Snuffer’s books were for me among the most gratifying reads of 2013.

My favorite non-fiction read (excluding Snuffer) was The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman. Bowman offers a very easy-to-approach history of the LDS Church, starting with founder Joseph Smith and proceeding through the early 2010s. It’s fascinating to see the ways in which certain practices, policies, doctrines, and beliefs have fallen in and out of favor with the church over the years, whether it’s the result of church leadership or the influence of popular culture. One interesting observation is that, collectively speaking, church members have become increasingly conservative since the mid-1900s, contrary to what many readers (myself included) might suppose. As a case in point, the same survey was given to BYU students in 1935 and again in 1973 with surprisingly different results. Compared to students in the 1970s, students in the 1930s were more likely to embrace the theory of evolution, less likely to believe the church is led by revelation, and far, far, far less likely to value obedience over personal autonomy. Bowman’s book is absorbing from beginning to end, and it’s one I wish more members of the LDS Church would read.

At the top of my fiction reading list for 2013 is A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck. Although Peck is a professor at BYU and touches on Mormonism in his book, by no means should A Short Stay in Hell be limited to an LDS audience. Indeed, the book begins with the main character Soren’s arrival in Hell, where he is quickly informed that Mormonism, the religion he had embraced in mortality, is not the one true religion. (It is Zoroastrianism, in case you’re wondering.) Consigned to a temporary Hell, Soren provides readers with a haunting glimpse at just how infinite a finite period of time can be, a truth conveyed with remarkable force considering the brevity of Peck’s novella. I wrote a review for this book here, so I won’t continue to praise it. Instead, I will just encourage you to cough up $10 for a paperback (or a mere $3 for the Kindle version) and read the book yourself.

Peck reappeared on my 2013 reading list with The Scholar of Moab, a bizarre mystery of sorts that touches on everything from Mormonism to two-headed cowboys to alien abduction. A myriad of characters inhabit The Scholar of Moab, most of them telling their tales by way of journal entries or personal correspondence. I found it a recommendable read, despite its being a mixed bag. When I enjoyed the novel, I thought it was great. When I didn’t, I was somewhat bored. The chapters revolve through the cast of characters, so with some regularity, I was presented with a voice that just didn’t resonate with me. Fortunately, the book is also full of gems like this [misspellings and grammatical errors included]:
It is hard to explain but you go through life with a set of things that sort of form a bed for all the other things your head is full of to rest on. Stuff like when you get up in the morning the sun is going to be there shining down on you. That the cliffs that surround Moab were going to be red & not pea-green like the grass growing between the bricks that run the path up to your trailer. Some things get real comfy cozy in your head & you expect them to be there so much that you forget they are there. In fact they are pretty much Invisible. Its just not things that you can see & touch like the sun & the color of cliffs. Some things are apart of you that you can never see until all of the sudden something comes & wants to rearrange the whole shebang.
Peck and Snuffer aren’t the only authors with multiple selections on my 2013 list. J. K. Rowling graced the list twice, first with The Casual Vacancy and then again with The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The latter is a much easier book to get into—it’s a rather straightforward private detective story—but the former, a decidedly more political tale, is by far the superior of the two. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend either of these books, but they have convinced me to stick with Rowling for her post-Harry Potter writing career.

I guess this list wouldn’t be complete without embarrassing myself a little bit. For some unknown reason, I read two books aimed primarily at adolescent females. First was Thumped by Megan McCafferty. Then came Dare Me by Megan Abbott. Both books were closer to crap than not, which I don’t think can be blamed entirely on their genre (nor on the coincidental fact that both books were written by someone named Megan). These two books are undoubtedly the worst books I read during the last 12 months. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson.

The penultimate book I read in 2013 was Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a brand new sequel to King’s 1977 classic The Shining. I haven’t read a Stephen King book in years, but of the handful that I’ve read, The Shining was among my favorites. Thus, I figured I’d give Doctor Sleep a shot. I can’t say that I was disappointed, in large part because I didn’t know what to expect. Despite the fact that the book’s central character is the adult version of Danny Torrance, the main boy in The Shining, and despite the frequent allusions to The Shining, the sequel manages to feel quite detached from its predecessor. To a surprising degree, the two books seem to have little to do with each other. They don’t even feel like they belong to the same genre. The Shining was a full-on supernatural horror story. Doctor Sleep features supernatural elements and sinister characters, but it lacks anything that truly qualifies as spooky. This doesn’t come across as a failure on King’s part so much as a move in a different direction. Whether or not it was his aim, King has crafted an independent enough story that it can probably be read without much detriment by those who have never even heard of The Shining. It was an easy and casual read, and for that I enjoyed it.

I’m happy to report that most of the books I read in 2013 were quite good or better. I can’t describe them all, but I’ll list a few of my favorites that have not yet been discussed:

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons edited by Robert A. Rees
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl and Fiona Givens

And now you should have yourself a fine little reading list for 2014! The end!

No comments:

Post a Comment