This entry is inspired by (or a blatant rip-off of!) my friend Ellen’s wonderful blog at http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/another-year-in-reading/ about the books she read in 2009 which made a particular impact on her. It is also a personal celebration of the fact that I am now able to do this fairly easily since switching to a new blog provider with excellent search facilities, and more importantly the fact that I am now (by my standards anyway!) a regular blogger.
In fact as far as mysteries go I have been producing a Top 5 (or 10) for the past couple of years (see http://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/mysteries-of-the-year-2009/ for 2009) : this would be impossible to do as far as books as a whole are concerned, as comparisons would be not only invidious but absurd. Instead I will provide a few broad categories and sometimes mention authors rather specific books.
The year began with my managing, because I was ill for a substantial period, to read another volume of Proust – this time number 4, Sodom and Gomorrah. The problem with my reading of Proust (as of Dorothy Richardson whose Pilgrimage it is also an ambition to finish before I die) is that, for me, one has to give oneself up to it and immerse oneself. My normal reading practice, when well, is bitty – above all a few chapters before sleep. This is not, for me, a suitable approach to Proust. However, in any year in which I have managed to take time out to read him I think he is pretty guaranteed to appear in a list like this. My discovery of the year was undoubtedly Turgenev, with whom I am continuing: Fathers and Sons made a deep impression. Trollope’s complete Short Stories – a project which will not end until the middle of this year – are proving fascinating. I must also mention a couple of mysteries both of which I have described as masterpieces (a very rare accolade for contemporary mysteries from me – certainly very rare for anyone other than Reginald Hill!) : James Ellroy’s Blood’s A Rover and Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon.
I am afraid I have not strayed beyond Byron and Crabbe but both continue to delight and intrigue.
Reading 17thC drama for the ECW list one playwright (Wycherley) and one play (The Plain Dealer) really stood out by miles for me; a massive satire. Apart from this I have been really enjoying the work of Caryl Churchill who sometimes perplexes and sometimes delights but is never less than fascinating: for me A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was a personal favourite but that is probably because the subject matter (17thC English revolutionaries) so appeals.
Two books stood out. Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant study The Roots of Romanticism and Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts. I still have unfinished blog entries on both of these books because I find them so dense, so packed with ideas and thus so difficult to write about. It was Herzen who was the revelation as I am familiar with Berlin. And of course it was through Berlin that I came to Herzen. Herzen is one of those, relatively uncommon, writers whom I find personally appealing; someone in whose company I want to spend time. My discovery of Herzen was undoubtedly the most important for me in 2009 (and it is through Herzen that I have turned to 19thC Russian literature and discovered Turgenev – the links go on and on to ever new vistas with never any end in sight – a fact that both daunts and inspires). The best biography I read was Jenny Uglow‘s study of Thomas Bewick – Nature’s Engraver.