2017 Year in Reading

Dec 11, 2017 | 6 minutes read

Tags: reading, books

(Note: This post was rescued from Medium, where it first appeared. It is here for archival purposes.)

My goal for 2017 was to read 12 sacred/epic texts at the pace of one a month. The selection of texts was based on a combination of familiarity with source material and a slight stretch beyond the familiar into stories that, at least for me, were not as familiar. Before I began compiling the list, for instance, I had a good handle on Greek and Roman mythology, as well as some of the Northern European stories. I had not, however, heard of Shahnameh, and I had only tangential awareness of Mahabharata, having read around it, roughly speaking. Similarly, while I knew the major contours of Norse mythology, I had never read any of the Icelandic Sagas, many of which deal more with the day to day live of the Norse and Icelanders than they do with anything divine. Along the way, I had also committed myself to reading War and Peace at the pace of one chapter per day, a pace I am happy to report I have more or less met (I occasionally play catch-up, but am still right on track to finish).

That was the plan, anyway. As all plans are wont to do, this one hit its snags. Some of those snags ended up being time-based, in that some works took me longer than I anticipated. Others were interest-based, in that some of the works turned out to be less interesting than I had anticipated. One work in particular was undone by its toxic undercurrent (discussion below). Before I talk about the failure points for the year, let's take a moment and delve into some of my favorites.

Hands down, my favorite epic read of the year was Shahnameh. The scale and scope of the stories are epic in ways that pointedly defy Homer. While I stand by my main quibbles, I admit they are pretty insignificant overall. What Ferdowsi offered was a national creation myth that traced the lineage of pre-Islamic Iran from the beginning of time through the succeeding generations. The result is a rich tapestry woven together from tales of love and war, rising and falling fortunes, heredity and succession, power and evil, and the dangers of revenge. The stories are endlessly delightful, if ahistorical, and well worth your time.

Mahabharata is currently in second place, but is an easy tie for first. It's only second place now because I am still reading it. It's a tie for first place for the same reason that Shahnameh was a favorite: its scope and scale again provide a rich narrative that, while perhaps lacking in depth of individual character development (possibly the only apology I will offer Homer), marches across generations. And if Mahabharata lacks in character development, I can potentially appeal to its abridgment as a means of explanation: the Critical Edition in its full scholarly heft numbers 19 volumes, which even I must admit is more than I can read in a month. The stories in just the first portion I've read so far offer up topics that are hard to find elsewhere, including a transexual transformation, lots of gods or godlike beings incarnating as humans after being born of humans (sometimes as the result of a curse), powerful yogic magics, and a guy disguising himself as a deer only to curse the hunter (a king) who shot and killed him. I know that, buried in this abridgment, there are lessons and morals, but I can't yet get past the action.

New Reads

This year I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, Aeneid, The Prose Edda, and The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale (still reading, in fact). These I had not read before. Each has something to recommend it, and while I was transfixed by Gilgamesh's quest for immortality and Aeneas's many sorrows, I find my interests drawn toward the stories in The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale. Prosaic is an apt, if understated, descriptor. What we get in Laxardal are the day to day accounts of the people of a particular part of Iceland, a valley that appears to be on the West coast, if Google Maps is any indication. And yet this saga is no less important in terms of national character than the other two national epics on my list, Shahnameh and Mahabharata. It establishes the similitude of Icelandic lords and ladies with those of other lands, and describes Icelandic laws and customs in terms of property, trade, inheritance, marriage, divorce, and even raiding and vengeance. It is a fascinating set of stories.


Among this year's selection were some works I had already read, in full or in part, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf. In light of the project, these offered up a few new insights, but didn't sparkle as much, even though I came to appreciate the elegiac elegance of Beowulf. I hope to seek out a few other translations of this work in particular to see what else I can glean. Misses

A combination of factors caused me to push Mabinogion off the list, so it will remain only partially read for now.

The only work I consciously put down was Metamorphoses. It's not Ovid's fault that the stories he had collected detailed the acts of rapacious monsters. Or maybe it is, in that way that societies are vaguely complicit in the worst sins of their members. When there are so many stories today of sexual assaults, I'm not sure claims of historical value are capable of outweighing their presence in an ancient work, especially not in the quantity with which they occur. I absolutely understand that Jupiter was pretty much known for this behavior, but the stories themselves treat it with a casual dismissal, and I decided there were probably better things to read.

Now, I suppose I am guilty of judging ancestors on modern terms, but in looking at other works that are as old or older, divine rape isn't exactly a normal feature. These characters were particularly fond of the act when their contemporaries seemed, at least in their official narratives, to avoid it. The one thing I will say about this comparison, however, is that I am well aware that dynamics of sex and power in the ancient world intersected in complicated ways that largely favored the men, and ancient epics are indeed full of misogynies. That said, only in the Greek and Roman mythologies do we find rape itself as an instrument expressly communicated in words.

Other Books

I only took on a few supplemental books this year:


What's in store for next year? So far the plan is to return to modern works, with a heavy emphasis on science fiction. Lined up are:

  • The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
  • Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Remembrance of Earth's Past (trilogy) by Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, and Joel Martinsen
  • Long Earth (5 books) by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
  • 2/3 of the Empire Games set by Charlie Stross
  • Terra Ignota (trilogy) by Ada Palmer

There's also my growing slush pile and a load of books I have on various wishlists. Some of them I may even get to.