For three months earlier this year, I couldn’t read a thing. My attention span disappeared seemingly overnight, coinciding with the onset of the pandemic. Maybe they had something to do with one another, who knows? Instead of reading or working or, you know, going outside, I started to spend days on the sofa scrolling into eternity and hoping things would improve soon. Ha ha ha.
(And I’m a pessimist! Can you imagine? You’d think I’d know better than to ‘hope’ for ‘things’ to ‘improve’ by now.)
The longest thing I read for months was either 1) a doom-laden news article (I quickly gave up on reading those – shitty news tends to filter through regardless) or 2) capped at 480 characters. Until I accidentally-but-maybe-a-bit-on-purpose deactivated my Twitter account for good and went back to staring at the ceiling and wondering how I was going to replenish my supply of tea bags without leaving the house. Yes, it was all very dour and depressing but I was also able to simply stay safe and stay at home. So, swings and roundabouts.
In the end, it was Harry Potter that pulled me out of my reading rut. And even that makes me feel shitty, because buying the boxset of books for my Kindle put money in the pockets of both a raging transphobe and Jeff ‘snake in a skin suit’ Bezos. But guilt aside, rereading the series I’d first inhaled in my tweens and teens was akin to taking a shower after a sticky metro ride or putting on soft pyjamas and spending the day in bed. Refreshing, calming, reassuring.
I really can’t overstate how disconcerting it is for someone who usually reads close to 100 books a year to suddenly…stop reading altogether though. Incredibly freaky. And incredibly annoying. Do you know how many good books there are? I’ll never have time to read them all now! (Current 2020 book count: 110, at the time of writing. Like a solid quarter of those are Agatha Christie novels.)
But maybe that’s why I like to count the books I have read; as a reminder that it’s OK to take stock of what I’ve managed to do, instead of endlessly focusing on everything there is left to achieve. Imposing order on a world that feels like chaos uncontained is also deeply satisfying (if absolutely futile). No, it’s not to show off. Well, maybe a little bit. But reading really isn’t a competition, I promise.
(Have you guessed my star sign yet? If I tell you I have a dedicated spreadsheet to keep track of all the books I’ve read in any given year, will that give you more of an idea?)
Besides, I like setting myself goals and as each day blended seamlessly and painfully into the last over the last nine months, these challenge-setting tendencies became even more necessary. ‘Read every Poirot novel’, ‘watch every Emma Thompson film’, ‘make a Christmas advent calendar, but with films’. Do I finish them? Not usually. But this year has really been full of surprises. (Just a couple of obscure Emma Thompson titles to go!)
Prior to the collapse of society as we know it – so, the first three months of the year, give or take – I’d read 23 books. Of them, standouts included Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Mean by Myriam Gurba, Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, and Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan.
Months went by before the dam burst on my reading drought, prompted by a reread of every Harry Potter book. Some after came Motherwell by Deborah Orr, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence (skip the boring politics paragraphs; you know you’re only reading it for the smutty sex scenes), Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. The latter really opened the crime fiction floodgates and I’m so close to having read all of the Poirot novels at the time of writing this. Who knew? I do finish things sometimes.
And Latin America? I’ve always dipped in and out of Latin American literature, either in English or Spanish. But a switch flipped in me this year after reading (somewhat ironically, given I don’t write about male authors) Las batallas en el desierto by José Emilio Pacheco. You know what? Skip Paz and Rulfo and go straight to this book instead. So good. Such a weird, bite-sized delight.
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis, Cuaderno de faros by Jazmina Barrera, and After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel soon followed. Not to mention Obra negra by Gilma Luque, Alberca vacía by Isabel Zapata, and Quisiera quedarme quieta by Lilián López Camberos. Arelis Uribe’s Quiltras was fantastic from start to finish. I could go on.
But what few people realise is that LeyendoLatam was born out of a break-up and a need to get back to what made me feel like me – being insufferable about books and writing articles that none of my friends ever read. I desperately needed a distraction and I thought, you know what? Why not write about what I love most: Latin America and libros. So, here we are.
Books saved me from myself this year.* When everything else crumbled around me, they were a bolster. Hopefully they’ll continue to be so.
* So did my friends, but no one wants to read that soppy sentimental bullshit.
My Five Favourite (Latin American) Books of 2020
- Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis
- Quiltras by Arelis Uribe
- Casas vacías by Brenda Navarro
- Quisiera quedarme quieta by Lilián López Camberos
- Tsunami 1 + 2 by Various
Honourable mention goes to Las batallas en el desierto by José Emilio Pacheco.