2015: My Year in Books

In 2015, I read 105 books, consisting of a total of 30,038 pages (I stopped reading two of these books before finishing them; the page total does not account for this).

The average (mean) books read per month was 8.75, and the average (mean) per week was 2.02.

Of these, 75 were fiction (including children’s books), 8 were memoirs, and the remaining 22 were other nonfiction.

I read 3 books from my Cavalcade of Classics list during 2015. To date, I’ve read ~20% of the 89 classics on my list. If I’m going to read all of them by 2017, I’ll need to average nearly 7 classics per month from here on out. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this just isn’t going to happen.

So many of the books I read this year were awesome, but my favorites were probably Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

I am currently reading The Histories by Herodotus (not ready to give this one up yet even though I’ve been reading it since March 2015) and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, which is one of five books my spouse got for me from the library for Christmas. The other four books are Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, No Time to Lose by Pema Chodron, Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li. I’ve also got one whole shelf of books I’ve acquired over the years that I hope to finally read and clear out. I vow not to enter any ARC giveaways until this shelf is empty. (And of course, there are those seven classics a month I need to read, and I’m stupidly busy with volunteer work until May, and did I mention that I homeschool my kids? 2016 does not look good for reading. *sigh*)

Below is the book list for 2015, by the month I finished each book. Read More

The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem

In The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, author Julie Norem compares defensive pessimism—a strategy for managing existing anxiety by identifying and addressing possible negative outcomes before undertaking an endeavor—with its counterpart, strategic optimism—a strategy used by people with low baseline levels of anxiety to relax before a big event and avoid triggering anxious feelings. Both strategies, Norem contends, can optimize performance for different personalities in different situations. Each strategy has its own risks and benefits, and the secret is knowing which is the right fit for each of us in any particular circumstance.

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for more than four years, since I read David Rakoff’s Half Empty, which references Norem’s research. Reading about defensive pessimism, I could easily identify situations in which I instinctively and successfully use this strategy, like when preparing for a road trip or putting together homeschool curricula for my kids. I could also identify situations in which I instead engage in avoidance and self-handicapping rather than risk feeling the full force of my anxiety, like in the case of the unfinished novel I’ve been thinking about daily but not writing on since 2010.

Thinking of defensive pessimism, avoidance, and self-handicapping as different responses to anxiety has caused a welcome shift in my thinking. I spent an evening this week listing in my journal all of the negatives about working on my novel, and then wrote out potential ways that I could manage the anxiety around these so that I can actually write down the scenes that play out in my mind. So far, I’ve not actually sat down to write on the novel, but I consider this a positive move in that direction. At the very least, when I schedule a morning writing session and then ignore my alarm and then don’t have enough time to write before the kids and I need to begin our lessons, I can identify this as avoidance. (Putting a name on it has to have some value, right?)

Despite its potential helpfulness in making progress on my personal goals, there are two things that keep me from loving this book. First, it’s too long for the amount of information it includes. This isn’t as extreme as in other self-helpy books I’ve read, but I think I could have gotten the basic idea in about half the number of words. Second, it brought up so many tangential issues that I sometimes couldn’t figure out how they fit in with the defensive pessimism/strategic optimism duality Norem presents. As helpful as it was to read about avoidance and self-handicapping as ways to avoid feeling their existing anxiety, it wasn’t clear how they fit. Are there corresponding negative ways of avoiding anxiety that temperamentally non-anxious people use if they’re not using strategic optimism? Or do the negatives for them come in when their strategic optimism tips into the non-strategic version?

I think the book would have been stronger had Norem maintained a tighter focus and left some of the other stuff out, but I did enjoy it, and I’m glad that I picked it up finally.

This was another of the titles from my 2015 TBR Challenge list. Check out the link for the complete list, and feel free to cheer me on in the comments. Some of the books have been great, but others—well, let’s just say that I understand now why some of these have been on my to-read list for so long. I’ll have to write a separate post exploring why I have so many self-help type books on my TBR list.

Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

I borrowed this book from my friend Melanie ages ago (about three years ago, I think). I started it right away after I borrowed it, and while I appreciated the Kabat-Zinns’ perspective, the book didn’t really hold my interest. I’d been through those difficult early years with my kids, and while the suggestions were good, I didn’t really need them anymore. It felt like old news. But there was enough there that I didn’t want to give the book back to Melanie unread, so I put it on my TBR Challenge list for 2015—and actually read it.

This time the book spoke to me, probably because I started 2015 with a view toward more mindful living, which, because I have young children, is essentially the same as mindful parenting. Apparently right now is the right time for me to be reading this book.

In the months after my first child was born, I used to pick up the La Leche League staple The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, not because I needed help with breastfeeding—I’d paid the lactation consultants for that and was finally nursing nearly pain-free after six weeks—but because the tone was so supportive. I would dip in after my daughter had nursed herself to sleep but wasn’t ready to latch off yet, and the words would wrap around me. I would feel, for a few minutes, like I wasn’t alone.

Reading Everyday Blessings this month, I was reminded of that feeling of embrace. Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn provide an open and honest look at the challenges and benefits of being present with our children. They don’t offer anything I didn’t already know, but they did offer reassurance. Here were people who had engaged in the same type of parenting to which I aspire, who tried and failed and tried again, over and over, and not only lived to tell the tale, but reaped benefits even from their imperfect parenting. This is comforting to me because, as much as I hope for perfection, there’s no such thing as perfect parenting. I will always make mistakes; I will always have regrets. There will always be times when I’m confused and have no idea how to proceed, but I’ll have to proceed anyway because that’s my job. Everyday Blessings reminds me that this is okay. This is just another part of the process.

Even with all of these warm fuzzies, I found myself dreading the last section, “Darkness and Light,” about the loss and grief inherent in parenting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there after being buoyed gently along on the rest of the book, but it turned out that this section pulled everything together well. Here is where they talked about their own fears and failures, and as much as I don’t like looking at those in my own life, it was helpful to see them presented so gently. Practicing empathy for the parenting mistakes of those who share my parenting intentions helps me have more empathy for my own shortcomings.

Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I gave this one the old college try, but it’s just not working for me. I actually think it’s a fine book with some really insightful gems, like the excellent and succinct description of Buddhism in the “Dharma” chapter and this passage about individual experience:

“Since awareness at first blush seems to be a subjective experience, it is hard for us not to think that we are the subject, the thinker, the feeler, the seer, the doer and as such, the very center of the universe, the very center of the field of our awareness. Perceiving thus, we take everything in the universe, or at least our universe, quite personally.” (169)

That passage in particular has caused a small but significant shift in how I look at the world.

The trouble is that Kabat-Zinn uses an awful lot of words. There’s a lot to read between the gems, and I find myself getting…bored. Perhaps part of this is because I’ve already read Full Catastrophe Living, and I’ve not found much that’s particularly new in Coming to Our Senses. Or it could just be that I’m not in a nonfiction mood or that I really just want to “do” mindfulness rather than read about it right now. Whatever it is, I’m going to read the section on “Healing the Body Politic,” and maybe jump here and there, but when I go to the library day after tomorrow, I’m going to be taking this one back, no matter how much I’ve left unread.

Other reviewers (on Goodreads) recommend reading this book as a series of essays. I can see how taking it in smaller chunks might work; I just didn’t want to give it quite that much time.

For a more condensed look at mindfulness, I would actually recommend The Mindful Way Through Depression (co-written by Kabat-Zinn, Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Segal). It’s intended for those suffering from chronic or recurrent depression, but I think anyone could benefit from the insights and techniques in the book.

The crappiest part of not finishing this book is that it’s the first I’ve tried to read from my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list. Well, I guess this just means I’ll have to read one of my alternates. I’ve got some great alternates, so I’m okay with that.