Silver linings (play)books: How reading in these times has meant more than ever
A silver lining in the pandemic: More time to catch up on your reading
There's a bit of lore in our family about me and a box of cornflakes. My sister Lisa tells me when I had nothing handy to read when I was little, I would read the back of the box — and then the sides. Niacin, iron and a list of vitamins? Read all about it, many times over.
I'm always grateful I grew up in a family of readers. It no doubt had an influence on my career: when you're swimming in words as a kid, why not make them the tools you work with as a grownup?
This column, though, is not about writing. It's about reading. It's also about the pandemic, one particularly weird year, and one very big silver lining.
I'm going to remember 2020 for a lot of things — COVID-19 briefings, working from home, a blizzard with hurricane-force winds, and, yep, breaking my leg in January. It's a bit of a list.
But I will also remember all the books I read this year.
I've always been a reader, but this year felt like overdrive for a habit that has sustained me since I can remember anything. This year, I needed to immerse myself in books, and I had the time and circumstances to do it. After breaking my leg, I found myself on the couch for my waking hours (as well as some napping ones). More often than not, I was thumbing the pages of a book.
Books in your ears
Later, as I was becoming mobile again, I dove deep into audiobooks. I was never a big fan of them before, but something clicked this year, and it's all thanks to the public library — specifically an app called Libby. It's an easy-peasy app used by many libraries, effectively turning your library card into a digital powerhouse.
I felt that way, anyway, as I was out strengthening my leg and ankles, getting some fresh air, and enriching my brain, all at once.
By then, the pandemic was well underway, and we were all pretty isolated. With less socializing, I leaned on books. I read — and more often listened to — book after book after book this year. Scores of them. When I was recovering, I started with my favourite brain candy: spy novels and thrillers. By the end of the year, I had moved through all kinds of books: memoirs, history, classics, political stuff, things I remembered as a kid.
I couldn't get enough. I bought more books than in any other year I can remember, but much of what I read came from the library. If I ever needed proof of the value of our public libraries and what they do for engaged, healthy communities, this year delivered it.
For readers, this is the best time of year. A few days off, something hot to drink, a comfy chair — what more do you want?
With that in mind, here are some thoughts about books I've read this year, what I've loved, what I've learned, and what I'm grateful for.
It's hard to keep up with books from local authors, but I gave it a shot. Reading Michael Crummey's The Innocents was like a time machine, a direct trip to a recognizable place, but one set in a long-ago time. I caught up with books like Sharon Bala's The Boat People, and agree with the high praise it's received. One of my local favourites was Trudy Morgan-Cole's Most Anything You Please, a novel about a fictional corner store in the very real Rabbittown neighbourhood in St. John's.
I revisited Andy Jones's books about Jack, and his imaginative retellings of folk tales about that plucky young feller. Published locally by Running the Goat, the books themselves are gorgeous to hold, though the audio versions are a treat, too: they're read by Andy himself. There's something to be said about Andy Jones reading to you as you make breakfast. I played one of them a couple of times, back to back, I enjoyed it so much.
I got a jolt from Megan Gail Coles's Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, which is not light reading but sure is captivating. I've found newer writers, like Eva Crocker and Susie Taylor. As I write this (well, not literally), I'm reading Ananias, the debut by architect Jim Case, who researched his family history and found the best way to tell the tale was in the form of a novel.
I chuckled at Ed Riche's Bag of Hammers, a collection of columns he wrote for different publications. I spent an afternoon in Eastport this August with Rick Mercer's Final Report; last week, I read Alan Doyle's newest book, All Together Now, which he wrote during the pandemic when he could not be on the road. It's a collection of war stories, and — in a way — a love letter to the Duke of Duckworth, the legendary St. John's pub. (If you ever encounter him, I recommend telling him, "My nan loves your band.")
The ones that stick with you
I read a whack of stuff this year, but some books really resonated. Here are some of the ones that have meant a lot to me:
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Zora Neale Hurston died 60 years ago, so a new book from an icon of the Harlem Renaissance was unexpected. This is a collection of short stories Hurston published over years, given new life under one umbrella. In an era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, this book was remarkably timely.
Humankind: A Hopeful History. Cynicism seems rampant, but this year, how often did people express the desire to be kind? Rutger Bergman's research flips a prevailing narrative — that humans are selfish and will hurt each other if given any opportunity — and offers a much more hopeful way of looking at ourselves. I found it stirring.
Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mysteries. For years, my wife has been encouraging me to give Bradley's series of detective novels a try. This year, I got around to them — and could not get enough of the precocious English schoolgirl solving murders in early 1950s England (and, in one book, Toronto). There are 10 of them, and they're each a treat.
Sophie Hannah's Hercule Poirot novels. Agatha Christie finished off Poirot in Curtain, published not long before her death in 1976. It hasn't been the end of the Belgian detective, though. Christie's estate has commissioned Hannah to write new mysteries for him to solve, and this year, I read them all.
Is This a Thing? Think of it as Jerry Seinfeld's memoir, but told in joke form: it collects bits (or as his title suggests, "things") from a decades-long career in comedy, and when you read them together, a life's story emerges.
The Uncommon Reader. This might, symbolically, be my book of the year, because of what it's about. Alan Bennett's story about the love of reading involves an uncommon hero — Queen Elizabeth herself — whose life changes because of a library bus parked in a conspicuous place (that would be outside Buckingham Palace). Bennett, a comedy legend since Beyond the Fringe, published the book 13 years ago, but did it ever feel timely to me in a year when I needed books more than ever.