A Look Back at Books read in 2011

Okay, so this retrospective on my 2011 year of reading is posted a little farther into January than is usual for such posts. Hopefully, there are some readers out there still interested in reading this type of post.

Subtracting out books I did not finish, I read 66 books this year. Of the 66 books read, three were re-reads and five were graphic novels. I don’t set goals for number of books to read in a year, but I did note that this was less than 2010 (which was 86 books). The lower number is probably due to the fact that I read six books that were each over 500 pages long. Long live the chunksters!

I didn’t apply a rigorous statistical analysis to my books read, but I did see that I was about even with male vs. female authors. In 2010, I definitely read more books by women than by men. However, I was more curious to see how I did with non-fiction vs. fiction reads. In 2010, I was surprised that I read only 17 nonfiction books compared to 68 fiction reads. The ratio was much more pleasing to me in 2011: I read 23 nonfiction books and 44 fiction books. (If you’re wondering why that adds up to 67 instead of 66, it’s because I threw in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul since I was more than half done with that book before I gave up on it.)

And now let’s get away from the numbers and down to the good stuff – the highlights and trends of my reading year.

Harrowing Nonfiction Reads:

I think of 2011 in some ways as the year of the harrowing nonfiction read. I read books about post-Katrina New Orleans (Zeitoun), Ebola virus (The Hot Zone), and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia (Safe Area Gorazde). Probably the top two harrowing nonfiction reads of the year were And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (the early years of AIDS in America) and We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (the 1994 Rwandan genocide). They were both such compelling works that really took me deeper into the details and facets of the incomprehensible tragedy they each describe.

Not-so-harrowing nonfiction

Other nonfiction reads deserving of mention: the juicy and addictive Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (about the 2008 U.S. presidential election), the thoughtful undercover project of Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, and the engaging, highly informative The Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach (about the BP oil spill).

Books older than myself

I have an informal goal to keep reading books older than myself, and I read about 13 that fit the bill in 2011. The top two of this fine category were Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens and Claudine at School by Colette.

Fantasy reads

Connie Willis’ absolutely fun timetravel romp To Say Nothing of the Dog was one of the first great reads of 2011 for me and the last book that I finished in 2011 was China Mieville’s inventive Un Lun Dun. I feel that my year was nicely bookended by these two wonderful books.

Not-so-great reads

Going back over my list of books read in 2011, a few titles stood out for me because I’d nearly forgotten that I’d read them: Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon, Georgette Heyer’s Frederica (sorry Heyer fans!) and a couple of others. On the flip side, I remember all too well, the slog that was Justin Cronin’s unnecessarily enormous The Passage.


I re-read three books this year and they were all superb and deserve a special shout-out. I hadn’t read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey since I was a teenager and had thought them to be okay books at the time. I loved both of them this time around. In addition, there was the excellent Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell which I’d read five years ago and thought one of my favorite books of the year back then. It was just as good this time too. The one flop in the re-read department was Eva Rice’s The Art of Keeping Secrets which I had found utterly charming several years ago, but just didn’t sparkle as much in my re-read and I put it away before I finished re-reading it.

And the winner is .Β  . .

There are a lot of worthy books that I’ve left off mentioning, but I’ll content myself with the fact that I gave them good reviews during 2011. It wasn’t hard, though, to think of the number one book that I read last year and that was:

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild [my original review here]

Bury the Chains is a beautiful example of how well history can be written. I especially marvel at how the author showed the flaws of revered heroes and still managed to deliver an inspirational historical figure in abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.


Filed under Year in Review

14 responses to “A Look Back at Books read in 2011

  1. Wow, Bury the Chains sounds like an impactful book, just from the title, so I can imagine how it must have been to read the actual book itself, too! Looks like a great year in non-fiction πŸ™‚

  2. Jason

    Nice year end post! You beat me with the number of books read, though I didn’t set a goal either this past year (ten books over 500 pages did occupy a lot of my time though).
    Is the male/female ratio really that important? I think authors of both sexes write excellent books, and I never think about whether the author is male or female before I pick up a book. My two favorite non-fiction books were both written by women (Nothing to Envy and Unbroken), but I certainly didn’t make a decision to read them because the authors were women; the subject and story-telling were more important factors for me.
    Of your top books, I have to thank you for highlighting The Unlikely Disciple — it was excellent and thought-provoking. Hope you enjoy great books this year, and I look forward to hearing what you think of my favorite fiction book from 2011.

  3. Aarti – Yeah, the nonfiction reads seemed to really define my year of reading in 2011. They were the ones that drew out some of the strongest emotions in me last year.

    Jason – The male/female ratio isn’t something I think much about, no. I just was curious when I was tallying up to see how it all shook out. I don’t consciously choose my reading based on if the author is male or female. I just thought it was interesting that it just so happened it was about equal this past year. As I said in my post, I was more curious about my balance of nonfiction vs. fiction reads. Speaking of nonfiction, I’m so glad you enjoyed The Unlikely Disciple! I hope to read Nothing to Envy this coming year. And I liked Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit, so Unbroken has been on my radar too. And your favorite fiction read – I assume you mean Buddenbrooks, right?

    • Jason

      Yup — it was Buddenbrooks. The male/female ratio question was based more on many book blog year-end posts I’ve read over the past couple of years. Like you, I prefer the fiction/non-fiction stat, since it is always a reminder to me of how much non-fiction I’m keeping in my diet.

  4. I love reading retrospectives of reading. I don’t ever plan to read The Passage! I read Northanger Abbey last year and really enjoyed how witty it was.

  5. Your harrowing reads are intriguing me. The Rwandan one was already on my radar, but the others are new to me. I somehow managed to avoid reading anything like that in 2011, but will try to get hold of some in 2012. I hope they don’t give me too many nightmares.

  6. I thought The Unlikely Disciple was great. I read it after reading both of A. J. Jacobs’ books (The Know-it-All and The Year of Living Biblically), and all three were recommended by my boyfriend, who loved them. I’m not a big non-fiction reader myself, but I liked these because the style was really engaging and witty.

    What would you recommend for someone who’s not really into non-fiction but might be interested in getting into it? I don’t think I’ve read 23 non-fiction books in my life, let alone in a year!

    • Bridget, your post makes me so happy because I get to try and convert you to reading more nonfiction! πŸ™‚ Narrative nonfiction is the way to go, because it’s nonfiction that reads like a story. And because you liked Roose and Jacobs’ books, you will probably like other books where the author went out and ‘did something’ and then wrote about it. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is a hilarious tale of the author’s attempt at hiking the Appalachian trail. I noticed from your blog that you like Stephen King, which I’ll take to mean that you probably like suspenseful tales. I recommend Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman, which is the author recounting an unpredictable, at times scary trip that she took with a college friend to China, back when it was first opened to backpackers. I’ll admit I have a soft spot for travel narratives, but other narrative nonfiction includes memoirs (Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle is a great one) and true crime, among others. I’ve found that some of my favorite nonfiction is written by journalists who are exploring a slice of the world unfamiliar to them. Anyway, long post, but I hope you do decide to explore more in nonfiction. It has got its hits and misses just like fiction, but there’s a lot of good stuff there.

      • I actually had to read The Glass Castle my freshman year of college–each year they pick a book and give it to all the freshmen at orientation, and then the author comes to speak at convocation about a week into first semester. I wasn’t a huge fan of that one, but maybe I’ll like it better once I’m removed from the “OMG it’s the day before classes start and I haven’t read this book yet” mindset, hahaha. I still have my copy somewhere. And I’ll definitely take a look at those others you suggested, they sound good πŸ™‚ Glad my post could make you happy! My only real non-fiction experience is stuff like Roose and Jacobs or things like Stephen Pinker (linguistics/psychology), David Crystal (linguistics), and whoever wrote “This is Your Brain on Music.” So semi-educational, I guess?

  7. Good job reading so many chunksters! I didn’t read very many long books last year, but I’m hoping to change that this year.

  8. sam – The sad thing about The Passage is, that despite the slog, I still kind of want to know what happens to the characters. Maybe I’ll just find someone’s synopsis of the sequel (after its release this year) so that I can find out what happens without the investment of time required in actually reading it. πŸ™‚

    Jackie – You do read a fair amount of harrowing fiction, if memory serves, but yeah, there is a different effect when its nonfiction and thus really happened or is currently happening.

    Kim – As book bloggers, chunksters are a challenge in that we can’t post reviews as often, especially if one is mostly a one-book-at-a-time reader, which I have been lately.

  9. Bridget – You should check out the nonfiction favorites of Eva at A Striped Armchair (she loves nonfiction books about language as well) and Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness reviews a lot of nonfiction. Mental Foodie is another frequent nonfiction reader that comes to mind.

  10. Wonderful post, Christy! 66 books is awesome – Congratulations! The nonfiction books you have read are all amazing. I have added some of them to my ‘TBR’ list. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the Georgette Heyer novel that you read. You are the first person I know who didn’t like a Heyer novel. Wonderful to know that ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’ were better when you re-read them. I hope to read these two books some day. Hope you have a wonderful reading year in 2012 too!

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