My Year (in books)

January was dark. In January I spent the days looking for the light and counting the clock ticking a minute more of daylight for days on end. In January Olivia and I read Her Body and Other Parties, pulling it apart thread by thread on her bedroom floor. We marvelled at her terrifying articulation of femininity and her warping of form. In January I (re)read Too Much and Not the Mood. I read Plath, and Ali Smith. Hera Lindsay Bird. Ocean Vuong and his Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I looked up and couldn’t see the night’s exit wounds – those suns so far away, stars that are lost in the polluted haze of this overpopulated planet.

February was a fleeting five days that found me back home: Aotearoa New Zealand. February was a shock of summer in the midst of the bleak British winter. It was flights and feelings and ephemera. In February it was poetry that kept me there – Chris Tse, Nina Powles, Tayi Tibble, Ashleigh Young.

March was when the winter was supposed to be wrapped up. But in March I had to wrap up for it snowed again. I spent the afternoons watching the sun’s haze through the falling snow. I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, revisited an early Ali, and read my first Cusk.

The early days of April were spent in Paris. I bought Patti Smith’s M Train at Shakespeare and Co. and read it on the banks of the Seine. It was in Paris that I felt the first tendrils of spring. In April I read outside for the first time this year and watched the sun turn my skin from winter white to the glow of a promising summer. I obsessed over Madeline Miller’s Circe and read it in one slick sundrenched day, the new hardback bent and warped in the heat, and my damp hands made imprints on the pages – puckered them like petals and smudged the ink.

In May I read Kayombo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. In May I found a tree with pink and white blossoms (both!) – a limb of pink froth spliced onto the trunk of white. I reread The Children’s Book and felt the magic deepen once more. In May I flew to Iceland. I swam in natural hot springs, watched the iceberg floes, and saw the sun set at midnight. In May I listed to Kanye’s Ye on repeat and read Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under with obsessive fervour. I thought about the ties between youth and language and class and remembered how much I love being a teacher.

June was a whirl of parties and jazz and fireworks and sequins and getting drunk and staying up all night. It was the beginning of the relentless heatwave and I could feel the heat humming off the buildings in the dark (but it was never quite dark, instead, just a fleeting blue hour before sunrise). In June, Hanny and Ryan came for a visit, and it felt like a film as we picnicked on the river and squinted in the sun. We looked for the full moon as we walked home across the fields, and there it was – hanging gold and low in the blue summer’s night. I read snippets of essays and poems and letters. I didn’t have much time for reading in June.

In July I read and read and read: Crudo, The Pisces, Weight, Girl meets Boy, Territory of Light, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. In the golden hour of a July evening we cycled out to the path that Ali Smith describes in How to be both – ‘It was a DNA structure after all, a sclupture of one, and it marked the start of a cycle trail you could follow for two miles along the little different coloured rectangles painted on the tarmac, each standing for one of the 10,257 components there are in a single human gene.’ – And, like George, I cycled the length of the single gene. Unlike George, I was not grieving, I was joyous with the sense of strangeness that came from stepping into one of my favourite books. There were rabbits and bees and the soft hush of wind through the grass. It was only us there, with our bikes and our bells and we yelled to one another over the rush of the train as it passed, and watched the glow of the sun flick through each frame, silhouetting the strangers within.

August‘s sticky heat of summer meant every day spent by the river, reading between dips as I dried. I read the new Murakami and Motherhood. I thought it would give me answers. It didn’t. I read The Silence of the Girls and Poūkahangatus. To the River, Hot Milk, Transit, and Soho. I read The Water Cure twice in two days, and Normal People in a morning’s moment. I read so much the pages and words blurred into one another. I sucked out the last of the summer splendour and was joyously ignorant of September’s sorrow

In September my lung collapsed. It was the beginning of the breathlessness. I spent the days in bed, too weak to hold heavy books so I read poetry and essays and short sharp books that kept me afloat.

In October I was was in the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It coincided with an exhibition inspired by her work at The Fitz and I reread A Room of One’s Own, Orlando, The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and her Diaries. I hunted down a copy of the letters between Vita and Virginia. I marked my books with ink and felt like she was speaking to my very self, across time. For timelessness, and the ability to capture it in writing was a constant preoccupation for her, and I’ve never read anything like it. In October’s twilight I flew to Japan and prayed my lung wouldn’t collapse. It didn’t. I gorged myself on light and food and found solace in the nation’s quiet. I picked up books by Japanese authors and they were the thread of my travels (read on planes and trains and in waiting rooms and in the hazy light of a jet-lagged dawn).

November brought the breathlessness again as my lung failed once more. I peered at the sickle silver moon on the way to the emergency room and felt the boredom of illness descend. In November I read Black Leopard, Red Wolf in waiting rooms and in the silent realms of insomnia – its heavy heft propped on pillows or side-tables. I got lost in the world of the book and haven’t managed to find my way out again.

In December I walked into a hairdressers and had forty three centimeters chopped off. It was a spontaneously moody decision and a reminder of the things I can control when everything else seems to fall to shit. In December I read Madness Rack and Honey, The Lonely City, and I am I am I am. In December I probably read too many books about death while spending hours in hospital waiting rooms. In December I picked up This Little Art which had sat quietly on the shelf for a year and read it in a day. It told me that books had a time and a place, and that the power of a book rests in the mind of the reader. On the winter solstice I read Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater and found a form I’d thought impossible. In December a third (fourth?) collapsed lung meant I couldn’t fly to Rome. Flying, it seems, is for the fully inflated. I felt frustrated with my body’s perpetual failure. We spent the holidays in Western Wales instead. The rocks and sand and sea were blue and gold and reminded me of home. I read Woolf and Énard and Ali Smith’s Winter. As futile as it seems, I spent the last day of December reading, for these pages mark my life. In December I wrote this while drunk and remembered how fucking joyous my life is despite too many hours spent waiting for my flesh to knit itself together.

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