Reading the 20th Century

February 27, 2014 @ 4:42 pm | Filed under:

Paperwhites by Rilla

Something Sherry mentioned in the comments reminded me of this post I’d left sitting in drafts all month. Instead of a booknote today (since all I’ve read is a chapter of Howards End), I’ll toss the draft up. I was saving it until I had time to say something intelligent about the three 1963 books, but now I can shove it into these quickie notes I’m doing and be excused from coming up with something insightful.


I read about the Century of Books project at Alex in Leeds—a reading project in which you endeavor to read a book written in every year of a particular century. Ideally you would assign yourself a time frame for completing the mission, but I’ve learned that deadlines are deadly to my recreational pursuits—too many deadlines swirling around my working life. I love, however, the idea of tracking the publication dates of my reading: another layer of interest to add to my favorite activity.

And so I borrowed Alex’s template and created a 20th-century list for myself, and plugged in last year’s titles. Right off the bat I discovered that my reading is skewed far more toward 21st-century titles than I might have guessed. (Over a third of my 2013 total.) I do read a lot of new books, I suppose, via NetGalley and other advance review copies. I just hadn’t thought about how that means new publications dominate my reading pile, elbowing older books to the lower, dustier shelves.

I logged fourteen 20th-century books in 2013 (well, counting this month*). Several were rereads—the children’s books especially, my read-alouds with Rilla. (I’m counting middle-grade and above, but not picture books. I can’t keep count of picture books. A dozen a week, at least.) Most surprising to me was the discovery that of those fourteen titles, three were published in the same year—1963.**

1) Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which caught my attention when Betty Draper read it in her bathtub. It was republished an as ebook by Open Road last year, and I snapped it up. (Set in the 30s.)

2) The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. (Set in 1945, with a 1963 framing story.)

3) The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. (Contemporary with its writing.)

All so striking, and so very different! All books that stick with you and affect how you think of other books, and the outside world. I will try to come back to this when I have more time and muster some actual analysis. There’s an essay in these three books rubbing shoulders, to be sure. I haven’t the brain for it now.

*”This month” was early January. Total in late February is twenty 20th-century books.

**And now there’s 1962’s Underfoot in Show Business right alongside these, capturing yet another vivid and totally distinctive world. (The striving of Broadway hopefuls in the 30s and 40s, mostly.)

***I made a 19th-Century page as well, but there’s nothing there yet. Not a single 19th-century book for 2013-present? Actually I do have a number of late 1800s titles I’ve used as reference for my current novel, but for some reason I never seem to include research books in my annual booklogs. That makes no sense at all. I’ve read them, haven’t I?


Oh, and I did read three picture books with the littles this morning. The Ultimate Book of Vehicles and two other interactive books from Chronicle, who have been spoiling me with review copies lately. Vehicles became Huck’s instant Favorite Thing Ever (it’s a giant pop-up with excavators scooping and crane operators climbing to the top, and he fell instantly in love, as Scott’s tweet attests.


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5 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Ellie says:

    Lissa! I am loving all of this book chattery! 🙂 Thank you!

    I read oodles of books this month, some thanks to you, and so gave you a friendly shout-out in my FebruaryBookLog, as is only proper. 🙂

    The Scent of Water has to be on my top 100 novels, but then I think, 100 isn’t enough, so it would have to be, Top 100 List that Actually Exceeds 100 ….

  2. Karen in SC says:

    You have Jane and Prudence at 1999…wasn’t that first published in 1953?

    I think Scent of Water is in my top 10.

  3. Christine M says:

    Just discovered that you can sort by this through Goodreads – because I was about to make a list and now I don’t have to. My reading skews early 20th century lately because I read a lot of out-of-copyright books on my Nook.

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Karen, thanks! My copy must have been a reprint. This makes much more sense—it was my first Pym and I was surprised by the relatively recent pub date, as I’d had the impression she was more mid-century! Should’ve checked Wikipedia. 🙂

    Christine, fun! Off to play at GoodReads now.

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ellie, I love all the crossover in our book lists. 🙂 I think you had five books there that I’ve read pretty recently (the Hanff trio obviously) and another, Wormwood Forest, that I’m currently reading (and which of course we both heard about from Jenn). And you’ve got me really wanting to add Field Notes from a Catastrophe to my list.

    I’m probably about to duplicate this comment on your page. 😉