2015 Reading Challenge: 4th Quarter Check-In a.k.a. The End

by E.B. Bartels

And so it is 2016, and time to tell you about the 4th and final quarter of my 2015 reading challenge and how the whole thing went. If you’ve been following me on GoodReads, you already know: I didn’t make it. On December 31st, I finished my 48th book, and even though I am currently in the middle of two other books, I didn’t complete reading them in time. I’m definitely blaming men for this, because I did read 50 books this year:

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… just two of the books I read over the summer I had to read for work, and both were by men (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin), so, therefore, if I hadn’t had to read those, I totally definitely would have made my goal, right?! Except, it did get a lot harder to keep up with my reading pace once I started teaching in September, and I did throw in a lot of plays and comics/graphic works as the year went on to try to make the 50. But my friend and colleague Dan Halperin sums it up best: he is a director and theatre teacher, and the week before any show goes up, when the whole production always feels like a complete mess and that opening night will be a disaster and what were we thinking it’s never going to come together in time, he says, “If we were ready to go right now, we wouldn’t be challenging ourselves enough.” It’s better to set the bar too high, and to always be striving for something greater, than to set the bar low, easily hit it, and then sit around twiddling your thumbs. So I’m glad I tried to read 50 books this year, even if I didn’t exactly make it, and I am going to try to read 50 more in 2016 as well. One year I will get there. And then I’ll shoot for 60 books.

Oh, and in case you have forgotten and have no idea what I’m going on about: My goal for 2015 was to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

So, what have I been reading since I last checked in? Why, let me tell you!  (And if you want to remember what I read the rest of the year, please see my 3rd Quarter Check-In, my 2nd Quarter Check-In, and my 1st Quarter Check-In posts.)

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38. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson: This was the book I was currently reading at the time of my 3rd Quarter Check-In and let me tell you it was goddamn excellent. Margo is the best, and I may be biased because she was my professor and one of my thesis readers, but she is really great, and this book is a brilliant blend of her personal history and cultural commentary, and she deftly moves back and forth between the two. Margo is so smart, and getting to sit inside her head for 250 pages and listen to her thoughts on race, gender, class, art, academia… it was incredible.

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39. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: Where were Mariko and Jillian Tamaki when I was in high school? This graphic novel is powerful stuff, and it should be read by teenage girls everywhere. It deals with all the complexities of friendship, crushes, trying to fit in but feeling that you don’t, isolation, angst, confusion, complicated student-teacher relationships… it’s so good! I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I read it months ago now.

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40. Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa: With all the yoga I’ve been doing the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been getting into mindfulness and meditation as well. We also teach a lot about mindfulness to the kids at the school where I work, and even if the kids haven’t bought into it yet, I drank the Kool-Aid. It’s amazing to feel how much your breath can control your mood and your heart rate, and reading this gorgeous book by Sakugawa was like one long meditation. Her illustrations are beautiful, and to sit and to breathe and to reflect on your relationship with the universe––it was so very calming. I fully expect to return to this book over and over for its meditative qualities. Plus, it’s pretty to look at.

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41. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki: From the same team that brought you Skim, this graphic novel is also about all the complexities and confusions that come with being an adolescent girl. This book features different characters from Skim, and this is a completely independent story and standalone work, but it feels a lot like a sequel––dealing with the same issues of sexuality and identity and friendship. Also, the whole summer vacation setting feels painfully nostalgic… the Tamaki women have got this graphic novel thing figured out. It’s a great book. Read it.

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42. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks: Dan Halperin recommended I read some Suzan-Lori Parks, and this play was fantastic. It’s about two black men who are brothers, whose father named them Lincoln and Booth “as a joke.” The older brother, Lincoln, works as a Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, and the younger brother, Booth, is an aspiring card shark. I don’t want to tell you much more, because I don’t want to give the story away, but it’s really, really, really good.

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43. To Be the Poet by Maxine Hong Kingston: I’ve been moving this little square hardcover book around with me for decades, and only this year did I finally stop and look at it. It was given to me as a gift, by someone, I forget who, who gave it to me when I was in middle or high school, back when I spent a lot of time talking dramatically about how I wanted to be a writer and composing pretentious, bad poems. I never actually read it, and assumed it was one of those gift books they sell at The Paper Store, with inspiring quotes by famous women or whatever. (Because I was such a literary snob in middle and high school.) Then after I read one million things by Maxine Hong Kingston this summer I paused and thought, wait a minute, I’ve seen a picture of that woman before… and I dug up this gem. It’s an interesting book––basically Kingston’s journals as she decides to transition from writing “long books” (prose) into poetry. At times it feels a little self-indulgent, to just decide I’m a poet now, okay? and then publish a whole book about it. But the writing exercises she takes herself through to compose poems, and the way she analyzes the difference between prose writers and poets, it’s all fascinating stuff, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. It made me think, oh, maybe I could also write a poem one day. And I guess that’s the whole point of her book, right?

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44. Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters: This is the second collected volume of the Lumberjanes comic series, and everything I said about volume one applies to this book as well: “File this under books that I wish had been around when I was a teenager. A thoroughly fun read, Lumberjanes follows a group of friends at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I loved that the graphic novel is all about friendship between girls and that it puts queer girls, girls of color, and not traditionally feminine girls at the center. (No sexy Wonder Woman outfits in this series!) The diversity of the characters shows the many ways there are to be a girl in the world, and each girl brings her own personality, style, background, talents, and flair to the group. Every adventure they have is only possible because of the power of their differences and their unity. I think this series perfectly executes the Audre Lorde mantra of how, in a group, our differences shouldn’t be divisive, but they should make us stronger.”

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45. Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? by Liz Prince: I read the rest of Liz Prince’s comics partially because I was in the process of interviewing her for my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column (her interview goes up on January 13th! stay tuned!), but also because she’s funny and great. This little collection of comics was refreshing because so many books are about all the ways love can go wrong (Romeo and Juliet, every book ever written, etc.) and these comics focused on all the things that are just plain wonderful about being in love––those goofy silly moments when you completely let your guard down in front of another person. Sure, those moments can be a little sappy at times, but why does everything have to be all angst and sadness? If you want to read about Prince’s depressing single times, read her book Alone Forever. 

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46. Delayed Replays by Liz Prince: This collection of Liz Prince comics is about day-to-day shenanigans that she and her friends and family get up to. Again, just as with Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? it’s about those little funny things that happen every day. It’s charming, and it made me chuckle, plus I loved the fact that it is a nonfiction comic––real life is rich with so many great moments, why not preserve them? For more about writing comics about real life, read my Non-Fiction by Non-Men interview with Liz Prince!

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47. Presto Agitato: A Dictionary of Modern Movement by Elizabeth Schmuhl: This book of prose poems was written by another one of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA gang, my buddy Tuck’s friend Elizabeth Schmuhl. Just as with Sarah Xerta (see 2nd Quarter Check-In), I had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this spring, and Sarah and Elizabeth have even collaborated together. I was especially excited to read Presto Agitato, though, because when I edited Catch & Release, the online publication of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, I was lucky enough to get to publish a few excerpts of this book. But that experience was nothing in comparison to the experience of holding this beautiful slim volume in my hands, taking in the gorgeous formatting and illustrations and translucent paper (great work, Zoo Cake Press!), and reading Elizabeth’s fantastic poems. Her book is really unlike anything I’ve ever read before, it’s not just a book, but a whole experience, and, don’t worry, Elizabeth, I am working on my dance response to your definitions.

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48. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad: I will have a review of this book up on The Rumpus in a month or so! You can read all my thoughts about it then.

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49. BONUS BOOK: The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen: This is one of the two books I am currently reading. This book is required reading for the faculty at my school this year as part of our professional development, and I can’t tell you much about it yet, as I just started it, but so far, I really like how Jensen incorporates her own experience as a mother of teenagers into her writing about research about teenage brains. I’m a sucker for writers who fold a personal story into a historical, cultural, scientific, academic, whatever commentary. (See: Negroland, for example.)

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50. BONUS BOOK: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock: This is the other book I am currently reading. I picked it up after it was highly recommended by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. Always trust Ann and Aminatou. They know what’s up, and this book is excellent. Mock is the queen of writing both in childhood moments and reflecting back on those moments as an adult. The way she analyzes gender, identity, sexuality, love, family relationships, and sexual abuse, is so good. It’s not an easy read, because Mock hasn’t had an easy life, but it’s an important book to read. As she herself says, her life was hard, but she is one of the ones that “got out.” Reading Redefining Realness, it’s important to remember all the transwomen who have not been able to achieve the sort of life that Janet Mock has now. As soon as I’m done writing this post, I am going to go curl up with her memoir again.

Now, the part you’ve all been waiting for! The statistics breakdown!

In 2015, for my reading challenge, I read…

  • 48 books total.
  • 50% (24/48) of them were written by women of color.
  • 18.75% (9/48) of them were written by (out, or as far as I know) LGBTQ women.
  • 39 different writers (there were several repeat offenders, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Audre Lorde, Liz Prince).

And even though I didn’t make my goal of reading 50 books by women, I did learn two really valuable things from this past year:

  1. YOU HAVE TO MAKE TIME. You have to make time to read. This may seem pretty obvious, but reading isn’t something that just happens. This isn’t 19th century Imperial Russia, where all anyone had to do was sit around and sip vodka and read Tolstoy. There are a lot of things out there that can steal your attention away from reading these days (i.e. The Internet), and it’s super easy to crawl into bed at night after work and think, “I’m too tired to read,” and then play Two Dots on your phone for a half an hour instead. That way, days and days, even weeks can go by, without me reading a whole book, and because I had the goal to complete 50 books this year, I found myself more aware of all the times that I could be reading that I wasn’t, and I would stop myself, and quit playing Two Dots (even though it’s so addictive), and open up my book. I hope I continue to keep that mindfulness of “I could be reading right now” throughout 2016 and the rest of my life.
  2. YOU HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION. Since I had the goal to read 50 books by women this year, with a majority of those books by women of color (and also LGBTQ women), I found this year made me become aware of what and who I was reading. As I said in my 2nd Quarter Check-In post, it’s so easy to fall into default recommendations or to just pick up the books you have lying around, and, when you stop and look, more often than not, those books are by white men. I have a ton, a ton, a TON of books in my apartment (seriously, I bet they actually weigh a ton in total), and when I would spend some time reading the books by women that I had accumulated in my collection, I would suddenly realize that I had read three books in a row by white women. Spending a year trying to focus on almost exclusively reading books by women, specifically women of color, woke me up and made me start to think about the people behind the names on the covers, and I hope that I can hold onto that awareness throughout 2016 and the rest of my life as well.

So, this ends my 2015 reading challenge, but as I said in my 3rd Quarter Check-In post, just because it’s January doesn’t mean I’m going to go back to reading only books by white men all the time (though I have been thinking about finally finishing War and Peace after seeing Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 at the American Repertory Theatre last week). My apartment was flooded with books by women this year, and I have plenty of other wonderful books by ladies to read––these are the ones by my bed alone!

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Making sure to read books by women––and books by all underrepresented groups: people of color, LGBTQ people––is going to be a life goal of mine, and an on-going, never-ending process. Happy New Year!

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