In Roald Dahl’s Car: “‘[My stories] can be pretty horrible. They don’t always end well; there’s often a twist in the tail. Actually, I think I’m writing funny stories, because they can be very comical. There’s such a narrow line between the macabre and laughter.’ I could sense him smiling as he said it.”

Every year, I set myself a goal of reading at least 52 books over the course of the year — an average of one a week. This year I made it to 62. Here’s a (not very) quick overview…

My 2019 reading stats from Goodreads

Non-fiction: More than last year, when I just read one, but this still isn’t a category I gravitate towards terribly much — and even when I do, there’s a good chance it’ll be related to geekery or fandom in some way, such as with Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series, or Randall Munroe’s How To, which is technically non-fiction, but very, very geeky non-fiction. Definitely the best of this year’s non-fiction was Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, a narrative of the sinking of the Lusitania (which I read while on a cruise ship for this year’s vacation, because that just seemed appropriate), but Art Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novel about his father’s experiences in the concentration camps of WWII was a very close second. (I’m also bemused that for someone who’s not really into military or World War stuff, my top non-fiction reads were both World War-related.)

Non-genre-fiction (where “genre” is shorthand — though, not very short, if you include this parenthetical — for science-fiction, fantasy, and horror): Not a single one this year.

Quality genre fiction: Arguably (depending on one’s definition of “quality”, at least) the majority of my reading, in large part because while this is already my general wheelhouse, this year I decided to read my way through all of the Best Novel Hugo Award winners. Over the course of the year I read 21 of the 75 winners (28%), and while many haven’t aged particularly well, and I’ve discovered that I am not a fan of early Heinlein, I’ve been enjoying the journey through classic SF and am looking forward to continuing with the project this year.

Of course, the year kicked off with reading this year’s Philip K. Dick Award nominees, which are always worth reading, even when individual nominees don’t work for me. This year, my personal favorites were Ian McDonald’s Time Was, Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards, and Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. As usual, my pick for the winner (Ambiguity Machines) didn’t get it, but the actual winner (Theory of Bastards) was well deserved.

Outside of award winners and nominees, I particularly enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or: Dodge in Hell…admittedly, not a huge surprise, as I’m a big fan of Stephenson’s work, and he’s currently the one author whose works I’ll pre-order in hardback to ensure I get them as soon as possible every time.

Fluff genre fiction: The rest. As usual, dominated by Star Trek novels, as that’s my “comfort food”, and is always good for a break between choices that, as has been happening with the Hugo winners, are either high-concept brain-stimulating SF, or so dated that they’re painful to read, however well they were received at the time. Outside of Trek, I did particularly enjoy Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series. I found the first four at Goodwill, and then tracked down the last two once I’d made it that far through the series. They’re a fun addition to the zombie zeitgeist, and are worth the read if they catch your eye at all.

Finally, some stats on my year’s reading, according to Goodreads:

Downtown Seattle Barnes & Noble to close January 18th: “When the downtown Barnes & Noble closes, there will officially be no bookstores in the downtown retail core. While there are quite a few bookshops in surrounding neighborhoods like the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne, this will be the first time in decades that shoppers won’t be able to browse the stacks of a bookstore without leaving downtown Seattle.”

No Love for White Gloves, or: the Cotton Menace: “Rare books, unlike many museum objects, are still used today in the same way that they would have been when they were new centuries ago – they’re held and opened, and their pages are turned. It would make sense that these historical objects should be handled with white gloves to keep them clean, right? WRONG! Well, mostly. But we’ll get to that part later.”

Well, this is interesting, and likely to ruffle a few feathers. Sometimes some feather-ruffling is necessary, though.

This year, Read Across America Day was preceded by the publication of a new study. Researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens examined 50 children’s books and 2,200 characters created over Theodore Seuss Geisel’s nearly 70-year career “to evaluate the claims that his children’s books are anti-racist.” Their findings were shocking.

I get it. You grew up on Dr. Seuss. I did too! It’s probably safe to assume that most people did and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But we have to recognize that two things can be true at the same time:

Dr. Seuss is a prolific children’s book author and global icon. And Dr. Seuss has a history of racial baggage that educators should understand when introducing his writing to their students.

I haven’t yet read the study discussed here (though I’ve downloaded it, and hope to find time to get to it before too long), but essentially, as good as Seuss’s work is, there are endemic problematic elements throughout his career. This isn’t presented as a condemnation, or a call to remove his work from our individual or collective libraries and consciousness, but rather to thoughtfully address those elements.

(Once again, I’ll point to “How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things”.)

An excellent example of what educators should do can be found in NEA and Read Across America Day’s response to this subject. When presented with this research from Ishikuza and Stephens, they made a choice to shift the focus of Read Across America Day from Dr. Seuss and his works to the diverse voices and experiences that help create America’s diverse democracy. You, too, can choose to bring a microphone to those voices that have historically been undermined and unheard.

Another thing you can do is actually read the report and research the claims yourself, with colleagues or students, and put them to the test as a community. Not only is the report informative about the text it studies; it also might expose you to blind spots you may not realize you have in regard to what voices you give power to in your practice and in the books you share with students.

As with any critical conversation, accept that there may not be a neat and clean conclusion. Critical conversations can range from illuminating and informative to a little tense and even upsetting. They can be difficult, but being prepared for them by doing this work internally before you bring it to your community of colleagues and learners will ensure you’re ready for wherever the conversation takes you.

You don’t have to burn your favorite Thing One shirt or get rid of all of your Dr. Seuss books or cut Green Eggs and Ham from your diet (unless you just really want to). However, we all need to be willing to explore the things that shape the young minds of our students—and be willing to change our own minds when presented with new truths, even if they might not always be comfortable to process.

EDIT: I just came across this article, and I have to admit, I definitely see elements of the classism and elitism being called out here in what I wrote a few days ago (I think I missed out on sliding into racism, thankfully).

[Ellen] Oh says, “There is an overemphasis on the words ‘spark joy’ without understanding what [Kondo] really means by it. Tokimeki doesn’t actually mean joy. It means throb, excitement, palpitation. Just this basic understanding annihilates Schofield’s argument that books should not only spark joy but challenge and perturb us. Tokimeki would imply that if a book that challenges and perturbs us also gives us a positive reaction, then why wouldn’t you keep it?”

“The backlash has focused on everything from [Kondo’s] poor English to making fun of the terms she [uses],” Oh says. “We have seen so many memes making fun of the concept of ‘sparking joy’ and it reminds me in many ways of people deliberately misunderstanding and making fun of my parents’ broken English.”

There is also, Oh says, a certain amount of privilege that has come into play in the book-tidying discussion.

“Classism, elitism, the privilege of having a big house with a lot of storage? I don’t know what the rationale is for the backlash but I do know that it comes from a place of privilege,” Oh says. “Elitism in that if you don’t have lots of books you can’t possibly be very smart. And financial classism because I remember being young and poor and owning less than ten books. It was why the library was my sanctuary.”

I’ve always been fortunate enough to have the money — mine, or from my family — to have the luxury of a large book collection. True, I do much of my book shopping at Goodwill and other used book stores, but I also tend not to think twice about dropping the money on new releases by favorite authors or for personal projects like reading all of each year’s P.K. Dick nominees. I’ve also always been able to devote space to storing my book collection, whether on shelves in whatever home I’m in at the time, or keeping a storage unit with boxes of books when in transition.

Unquestionably, these are things that many people cannot afford to do, and I should recognize when my privilege allows me to scoff at those who prioritize things other than books (including those who simply don’t prioritize physical books, but prefer electronic books on their Kindles or tablets, which admittedly do offer notable space and at times financial benefits over physical book collections).

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Once again, I’ve read through all of the nominated works for this year’s Philip K. Dick Awards. Made it with two weeks to spare this time.

Here are my thoughts on each of the nominated books, in order from my least favorite to my personal favorite and pick for the award (if I got a vote, which I don’t, and I’ve yet to pick a winner, so perhaps it’s best not to put too much stock in my opinion…). A strong slate this year, there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t enjoy at least a little bit.

  • The Book of Etta, by Meg Elison: Much as with the first book in this series, it’s well written and realized, but simply isn’t my thing. Post-apocalyptic fiction tends towards the dark, dismal, and dreary, and these are no exception. I can recognize that they’re well written, and can see why they resonate for many people…just not for me. Because of that, I can’t really give a more thorough review.

  • Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds: Space pirates, hidden treasure, scheming and swashbuckling — and while I didn’t dislike reading it, it never entirely grabbed me, either. I think for me, it’s just that while I recognize the conceit of “adventure on the high seas IN SPACE” as an attractive one for many, it’s simply never particularly caught my interest. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not much into “adventure on the high seas IN WATER” tales and the switch to “…IN SPACE” isn’t enough to make it work for me, or if I just find the conceit itself a little…well, silly. Not that solar sails and the like aren’t scientifically sound, but the overly-literal application of the idea always feels a bit far-fetched. Anyway — the book isn’t bad, it just isn’t for me.

  • The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt: Enjoyable space adventure, with lots of amusingly clever writing and fun ideas for alien cultures, particularly the primary alien life and how they interface with humanity. Liked reading it, and appreciated the diversity of characters both human and alien. Doesn’t nudge its way to the top of this year’s PKD nominee stack, but that’s not at all a knock against this book, this is just proving to be a strong selection this year.

  • After the Flare, by Deji Bryce Olukotun: The first book, Nigerians in Space, was interesting, but was almost more of a spy thriller, barely touching on SF. This is not only more of an SF story, but is also a stronger book. A few of the characters carry over from the first book, but the plots aren’t directly connected, and reading the first isn’t at all necessary to enjoy this one. With both books, I greatly enjoyed the African setting and the blending of SF tropes with African history and culture. A strong start to my PK Dick Award reading this year.

  • Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn: I’ve mentioned in past years that I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories; as such, they generally don’t rate very high for me, even when I know that they’re good, well-written stories. This is a rare exception – apparently, the trick is to place the time period a good few decades after civilization falls over, so that the story isn’t overshadowed by the depressing turbulence and chaos of most post-apocalyptic tales. Here, there are distant remnants of the world as it was, but the world has survived, society has rebuilt (to a point, at least), and our characters can have their adventures and solve their mysteries in the world they know. The look at the society that emerges, and how it builds on what fell in the past, attempting to use the lessons of the collapse of the past to keep a stable present, worked very well for me.

  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells: A quick and very enjoyable read about a cranky, antisocial security android who just wants to watch their shows, but has all these annoying humans to take care of. Quick moving and darkly humorous, it felt like a SFictional take on the autism spectrum (said as a neurotypical who is entirely guessing, and could be far off base with that).

  • Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty: Something of an SF take on a locked room mystery – the cloned crew of a generation ship wakes up to find the corpses of their previous bodies – with fascinating questions of the ethics of workable cloning and the concepts of selfhood and the soul in such a world. Very much enjoyed this one.