I closed my eyes, I kept on swimming

My reading habits are a reflection of my interior life. An average year sees 80-plus books pass through it. But the past few years have been busier, more exhausting than usual. Where I normally begin reading as soon as I get home, and spend an hour or so with a book before sleep, I’ve found myself returning home later and too often so exhausted that I need someone to tell me a story rather than engaging it myself. (Thank God for This American Life and The Moth.)

And so, recent years have been down years for reading. In 2009, I read 62 books. With seven days to go, I’m only at 50 books for this year.

As we enter the last week of 2010, I’m reflecting on the 12 months that are drawing to an end and dreaming about what I hope to accomplish in the 12 ahead. Invariably, that look back includes a variety of lists: the concerts I attended, the funniest things people said, the books I’ve read, my favorite albums of the year. And though earlier this week I spent two hours on a blog entry about those albums (to be posted Dec. 31 on Birmingham Box Set), I’ve never made a list of the books I most enjoyed.

I read fewer books this year, but I revisited some great ones. Songbook by Nick Hornby, Here is New York by E.B. White, Looking for Alaska by John Green, When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron and See You in a Hundred Years by Logan Ward kept me company this fall. (I can’t tell you why–because I don’t know–but I particularly craved the company of familiar pages during the autumn.)

Three of the best books I read for the first time in 2010 came with similarly strong recommendations, at the hands of friends and family. I deliberated over which Billy Collins collection to purchase when he read at Hoover Library’s Southern Voices conference in February. I’d just finished Ballistics and The Trouble with Poetry, both of which I’d borrowed from the library, but felt I needed to own one of his books as a memento of the reading. (If you don’t think a poetry reading can bring you near to tears and make you laugh, you haven’t heard Collins.) My friend and book columnist Susan Swagler recommended Sailing Alone Around the Room. Collins’ carefully worded observations on everyday life kept me company for the better part of the year. Several of my favorite poems filled the final pages, which made this especially satisfying to complete.

The problem with slim books is sometimes they’re finished all too quickly, and that was the case with How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. I read this essay collection during the day after my birthday party, where I received it as a gift from the Donlon family. It immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It will be a book I turn to time and again, and I loved it so much that I gave my mother a copy for Christmas.

My sister gave me a copy of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose, because she wanted to know what I thought of it. Roose left Brown University for a semester to attend Liberty University, one of America’s most conservative Christian colleges. Though my college experience was in many ways different from what Roose experienced at Liberty–I attended Florida State, after all–some of his encounters reminded me of my own campus ministry experiences. Roose’s conclusions weren’t revolutionary. He learned that Liberty kids struggle with many of the same challenges as his friends back at Brown, and Roose found himself enjoying prayer so much that he continued the ritual when he returned to Brown. But those lessons were revolutionary to him. I’ve often wished I could tell my college-age self to take a more complete view of herself (primarily) and those around her. It seems that’s exactly what Roose’s experiment taught him.

William Zinsser’s account of his writing life was a simple pleasure. But it affected me so strongly that as soon as I completed Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher, I took out pen and paper and wrote him a thank-you note. (Perhaps because I hope to have so many stories to tell after a long career doing the same?) I was delighted, though not surprised, when a reply arrived in my mailbox weeks later.

I am surprised, however, to realize only one novel found its way to the books I most enjoyed in 2010. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin is a compelling depiction of New York’s art world, as seen through the experiences of a young art dealer and her art writer friend. Martin writes beautifully of the paintings and art objects that populate the story, and the plot itself was so engrossing that it made me late to work the morning I finished. I only had 20 pages to go, and I just had to complete them. It had been a long time since a book made me tardy.

Although the powers-that-be may prefer that I arrive at the office promptly at 8 a.m., I hope 2011 brings many more books that make me struggle to leave the house. I hope 2011 brings many more books, period. My to-read list grows and grows.

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