Most of my spreadsheets are ghost towns. Long-term financial goals. Short-term to-do lists. Exercise regimens. All are abandoned shortly after they’re created, varicolored time capsules full of bygone resolutions that quickly felt like homework.
But I take my yearly reading spreadsheet pretty seriously. There’s a tab for books I own but haven’t read, tabs for books I want to read (fiction and non), another for authors I’d like to read more of. The most important tab keeps track of books I’ve read that year. My 2022 list is blank now, but I’ll get some sort of quiet satisfaction from adding a title every time I finish a book. Why? Because I have Book Goals.
Consciously, I tell myself I want to read 40 a year. Subconsciously, I shoot for 52. Deep down at some Inception sublevel, I know I could do 100 if I quit Reddit.
It’s a blessing and a curse that there’s a subreddit for everything; of course there’s an r/52Books in which people afflicted with Book Goals post screenshots of their gains. It’s pretty low-key and encouraging. One Redditor did 104 in 2021. Another hit 117. I don’t know how you can hold down a job while consuming every Neal Stephenson novel in a year, but somebody did.
I can’t exactly recommend Book Goals. Once you have them, you might find yourself plowing through a Karl Ove Knausgaard audiobook at double speed while cleaning out your fridge. Or you’ll stick with a snooty historical novel long after it bored your brains out just so you can add another line to your ledger.
But if you want to up your reading game, maybe Book Goals are for you. Here’s how I do it. Yep, audiobooks and graphic novels count. Same with novellas and chapbooks. Get a few books going at once if you can; maybe a thriller for your lunch break and a literary drama on your nightstand. Use audiobooks for the hard stuff — heavy nonfiction tomes on systemic racism, climate change, Neanderthal toolmaking, and such. Borrow from the library. Borrow from friends. Be mindful of summer slowdowns and winter restlessnesses. Give up on bad books. Make reading part of your daily routine, but give yourself a break when you need it. Set a modest Book Goal because this is supposed to feel good.
Here are some new books to kick off your year (and maybe your spreadsheet).
‘How High We Go in the Dark,’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Like pretty much all of the pandemic-centric fiction published in the last couple years, How High We Go in the Dark was dreamed up long before the emergence of COVID-19. And so this lovely, strange epic — which includes such macabre absurdities as a disease that transforms lungs into livers and hearts into brains, and euthanasia parks in which sick children are treated to one last day of rides and sweets before being put down — only rarely resembles the world as we now know it. Nonetheless, the novel is moving in its own gently unhinged way. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s tender humor bestows a kind of weary acceptance on the time-skipping, world-tilting story, even as things get darker and weirder. It’s not going to end well, but you’ll enjoy then ride. (William Morrow, $27.99, Jan. 18)
‘You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays,’ by Zora Neale Hurston
In her lifetime, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) sought to center Black American culture not only via its peaks — and she was one such pinnacle; see Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, and more — but also its everyday: language, folklore, religious expression, music, and so on. It’s all art and worthy of praise, she asserts in this new collection of career-spanning essays, some of which are previously unpublished or not seen in print in 60 years or more. Hurston’s prose is often scholarly and frequently passionate, but at times it’s her sharp wit that steals the show: “It is thrilling to think — to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep.” Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West. (Amistad, $29.99, Jan. 18)
‘God: An Anatomy,’ by Francesca Stavrakopoulou
In standard-issue Judeo-Christian teaching, popular deity God is often described in word and deed, but we rarely get a good look at Him. Intrigued, Francesca Stavrakopoulou (a professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at Exeter) pored over the ancient texts and discovered some surprisingly detailed descriptions of the Lord’s feet, face, genitals, you name it. “The God revealed in this book is the deity as his ancient worshippers saw him,” she writes. “A supersized, muscle-bound, good-looking god, with supra-human powers, earthly passions, and a penchant for the fantastic and the monstrous.” There was a time when an insolent book like God: An Anatomy, written by an avowed atheist like Stavrakopoulou, would find itself banned or burned. Now we’re too enlightened and less well-read, and perhaps overdue for a smiting. (Knopf, $35, Jan. 25)
‘Goliath,’ by Tochi Onyebuchi
A kind of rapture has taken place before the start of Tochi Onyebuchi’s new novel, except it’s only the affluent who’ve left Earth, and everybody else — already poor, marginalized, and voiceless — is damned to live on a ruined, radioactive planet. (Actually, it’s worse than that; the rich are always swinging by to pillage the place, sometimes ripping up houses and hauling them off to their fancy space colonies.) Told from multiple perspectives, Goliath is a story of righteous survival in a picked-over world marred by ugliness and violence. Onyebuchi just took home a Hugo award for 2020′s Riot Baby, and it looks like he’s got another winner in this brainy, brawny sci-fi story that uses futuristic concepts to comment on 2022/eternal issues of class, disenfranchisement, and cold, hard capitalism. (Tor, $26.99, Jan. 25)
‘The Devil House,’ by John Darnielle
Have you seen the loneliness of the midlist true crime writer? Astute enough to know what sells, but perhaps a bit too empathetic of his killers and victims for airport bookshop appeal, Gage Chandler writes lucidly about lesser-known horrors. At the start this mesmerizing new novel by John Darnielle (also the front man of rock group the Mountain Goats), Chandler moves into a house where multiple murders took place decades ago, when it was a shuttered porno shop, and aims to exhume the true story, if that’s possible. Like his protagonist, Darnielle wrings every ounce of humanity and suspense out of his characters but never drifts into the meditative or meandering. True crime fans will squirm in the building tension, and delight when things finally go bad. You want blood? You got it. (MCD, $28, Jan. 25)
‘Where the Wild Gigs Were: A Trip Through America’s Legendary Underground Music Venues,’ edited by Tim Hinely
Dagger zine founder Hinely assembles a rogues gallery of music peeps from across the country to create a kind of oral history of sacred, profane, bygone rock clubs (including Philly spots like Revival, Khyber Pass, Astrocade, etc.). Lots of great old punk pics and fliers, too. (HoZac, $26.50, out now)
‘The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election,’ by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague
Journalists Mark Bowden (The Atlantic, ex-Inky) and Matthew Teague (Esquire) assemble an exhaustively researched account of The Big Lie as it marched from one battleground state to another, losing baseless court cases all the while. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $28, Jan. 4)
‘Lost & Found,’ by Kathryn Schulz
The Pulitzer-Prize winning New Yorker staffer gets personal, writing about meeting her wife, losing her father, and more in this thoughtful, uplifting memoir. (Random House, $27, Jan. 11)
‘Olga Dies Dreaming,’ by Xochitl Gonzalez
Hulu has already gobbled up the rights to this debut novel about two prominent Nuyorican siblings forced to reckon with family secrets while a devastating hurricane looms in the distance (Flatiron Books, $27.99, Jan. 11)
‘Worn: A People’s History of Clothing,’ by Sofi Thanhauser
An engaging rundown of the ways humanity has strived to cover its collective butt, and the political, social, and environmental ripples that follow suit. (Pantheon, $30, Jan. 25)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Sunday Inquirer.