I track all of the books I read over at Goodreads, which gives me some great base data to examine my reading each year. They make a fun “year in books” page to kick things off with:
That Goodreads page shows all of the books I read in 2017, from which you can also see my reviews of each book. (Fair warning: I write the reviews solely for my own reference, so they’re probably not that interesting to others.)
But of course, I’m not going to stop with a raw list… I want to know more.
A Tale of Two Tests
As my 2016 reading review showed, in 2016, my reading was pretty shaped by my coursework and my comprehensive exams. 2017 was all about my special fields exam, which I sat in December 2017. This is pretty obvious in the “motivation” for each book:
The difference between the content of these two exams is expressed pretty hilariously in a graph of the publication dates:
Can you guess what period of literature I specialize in…? That ONE SINGLE BOOK at 1900, in the 2017 list, looks so lonely! (It was The Making of a Marchioness, a delightful comfort-read.) Many of the “contemporary” books are secondary criticism, too, which are still basically about the 18th century. Graphs like this one show, I think, why I tell people that I don’t know anything at all about “recent” literature, i.e., literature post-1830.
I’d expected the exams to also produce an interesting pattern in when during the year I did the most reading, but that’s not quite what I found:
The exam definitely played a role, in 2017 — you can see me hurrying to finish a LOT of books in December! But what really surprised me was that gap of two months in February and March when I didn’t read a single thing. I finished a book Jan 21, and didn’t finish another until March 22. That’s the second-longest stretch of not-reading in my recorded history. (The longest is from Nov 26, 2012 to Feb 12, 2013, when a combination of personal and medical preoccupations kept me away from reading.) I had a minor surgery in early February, which apparently was less minor than I realised, as far as my reading habits are concerned!
The Actual Books
Although my special fields exam focused intensely on the 18thC, the general “demographics” of my reading didn’t change a lot from the previous year’s coursework-and-comps. This one’s just as embarrassing, for example:
One of my 2017 books was an edited collection by multiple authors, so I got excited that maybe I could count its authors’ race as “multi” — but no, as far as I could tell, every single author was white. Making these graphs two years in a row has really hit me in the face with the fact that my reading, and my research, is much whiter than I think it is. As I said last year: “Yikes.”
But I read plenty of writing by women:
The slight female bias there come from the fact that my academic reading is 50/50, and my pleasure reading favours women:
It does surprise me, somewhat, that I think of myself as a scholar who studies women’s writing, and intentionally finds women to place at the centre of my scholarship — and yet my “female-dominated” fields reading list was 50/50. But the fields list intended to, in part, familiarize me with The Canon of 18thC writers, which means a lot of mandatory men. I will be curious to see how these demographics are different for my diss-writing years, once I go through that data.
I also read a lot less drama for fields than for comps, even though I think of myself as someone who doesn’t buy into the pooh-poohing of 18thC drama:
Then again, perhaps seven plays is a respectable amount. Most of my drama and poetry reading occurs ends up the “multi” category, since each volume of, e.g., the Norton anthology only counts as one “book.” It read a lot of Wordsworth that didn’t give me a single ‘point’ in “poetry”!
In 2016, my favourite reading discoveries were Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (a lot of that Wikipedia page is by me) and Mary Leapor’s poetry, both of which I read for my comprehensive exams.
In 2017, I found many more new favourites: Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne (which should be read in print or at the very least a digital facsimile, not an ebook!); The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith; Elegiac Sonnets, by Charlotte Smith; A Simple Story, by Elizabeth Inchbald. Once I finally started reading Tristram Shandy I couldn’t believe I’d put it off for so long: it was funny, yet, but it also has a very endearing sentimental heart. And my fondness for The Vicar of Wakefield definitely proves that I am a sentimentalist at heart — I think a lot of contemporary readers would find Wakefield kind of unbearable, but although it was sometimes a bit unintentionally funny, in the end I found it touching and endearing.
I also enjoyed revisiting The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, and The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück, which has the honour of being the only non-18thC piece of literature that I really enjoyed. I can’t fully tell whether I enjoyed revisiting The Mysteries of Udolpho — I certainly admire the text more highly, upon returning to it, but the daily experience of worrying about Emily St. Aubert was a somewhat unpleasant companion. It even made me wonder if the 18thC naysayers were onto something, when they said Gothics inspire unhealthy anxiety in their readers — it took a long time to read Udolpho, and up until the very last page the book gave me a lot to fret about.
Looking Forward to 2018
At the end of 2017, after a cursory skim of this data, my number one goal was to increase the racial diversity of what I read. I also wanted to build up habits of reading for pleasure. Having seen this data in more depth now, I’m also curious to see if I was more female-focused with my 18thC reading after I was done with my fields exam and therefore no longer constrained by the 18thC “canon”. Tune in next time to find out how all that turned out!