by James Clear, 2018
With all of the attention I’ve been giving the topics of focus, productivity, and habit-building, the next natural step in my progression was to read what has recently become the preeminent book on these topics: Atomic Habits. This book has gotten a lot of praise since it was published, and it’s for good reason. Clear distills habit-building down from setting lofty goals and using numerous tracker apps to the most simple of actions: creating systems. He diverges from previous notions on the topic to denounce the effectiveness of striving for specific aims. For Clear, it is the systems that we all need to focus on, for that is what will truly allow us to achieve those imposing objectives we’ve been conditioned to set for ourselves.
by James Baldwin, 1956
Giovanni’s Room is one of the seminal works of black literature, not only because it details the disparity between black experience abroad and in the US at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect, but also because it depicts the not often recounted intersection of race and sexuality. Our protagonist is David, a young man who has shirked his father’s desire for him to attend college and has gone to France to find himself. During this time, he becomes engaged to his girlfriend, Hella, but she takes a trip to Spain to ponder whether she really wants to get married. It is in her absence that David enters a gay bar with his friend Jacques and strikes up a conversation with the bartender, Giovanni. The meeting will prove to have consequences neither of them will forget.
by James Baldwin, 1955
This first collection of Baldwin’s nonfiction comprises ten essays that were previously published in various magazines. While I was looking forward to some of the fierce sermonizing that Baldwin delivered in The First Next Time, I was a bit disappointed to find that these essays seem to be a bit unconnected, as if Baldwin were just beginning to find his steps as a writer and determine what it was he wanted to say, which, essentially, is exactly what this is. Even so, Baldwin still offers undeniable criticism of the country and the “conundrum of color,” which, despite what many continue to believe, he asserts is the inheritance of every American, regardless of whether they are black or white. “This horror has so welded past and present that it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to speak of it as occurring, as it were, in time,” he writes in the preface to the 1984 edition. More than 30 years later, these words continue to be true, and his early essays give readers the chance to witness a writer just starting to develop a voice that would resonate through time to reach us today.
by Steve Brezenoff, 2019
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a middle grade mystery
I had no idea what to expect when I selected The Case of the Empty Crates for this task. I only know that when I opened Libby one day, I saw a brown-skinned girl in a hijab gracing the cover of this middle-grade mystery and I thought, that’s not something you see every day. I was 100% judging this book by its cover, and I had to read it. This series focuses on a group of four friends–Amal, Clementine, Raining, and Wilson– from diverse backgrounds who all have interests in the sciences and the arts. Amal Farah is our protagonist , and she’s a huge fan of the Capitol City Air and Space Museum, where her father, Dr. Farah, is the head archivist. In fact, all of the gang’s parents work at one of the museums in Capitol City, making this the perfect hangout spot to indulge their curiosities. On this day, the museum has received a generous donation to help build a new wing that will display antique European telescopes. In exchange for the donation, the new benefactor only wishes to be placed on staff. However, the group realizes that something strange is afoot when the crates shipping the telescopes are all empty, and it’s up to them to figure out what’s going on.
by Brian K. Vaughn & Pia Guerra, 2004
Volume 3 of the series finds Yorick, his monkey Ampersand, Special Agent 355, and Dr. Allison Mann still on their trek to California to get to Dr. Mann’s backup laboratory and find her notes on the genetic research that might explain the sudden disappearance of every living being with a Y chromosome. When the group jumps aboard a Kansas-bound train, they are surprised by the presence of another interloper, the Russian Natalya who claims to be on her own search for the world’s last man. However, she doesn’t mean Yorick. A space capsule orbits the Earth, inside of which the three-person crew, consisting of one woman and two men, weigh their odds of returning to the planet beset by this unknown plague. The truth is that, eventually, they will have no choice but to return, as their Soyuz capsule is suffering from mechanical failures. What will happen to the two men aboard is a mystery, but Natalya is counting on the months of absence from the Earth to triple the male population.
by Zadie Smith, 2020
The year 2020 was one for the history books for all the wrong reasons. With the ink on those pages barely dry, Zadie Smith had already come to shine her critical eye on the layers of wrongdoing that plagued our world and our nation. In some ways, it seems premature to publish a book of essays on an ongoing crisis–I would love to hear what she has to say about the election, the January 6 events in Washington, and Trump’s subsequent impeachment–but the essays work well to capture an emotion about a specific moment in time. They don’t get the benefit of a year or five of reflection. They are raw and express what many of us are feeling right now about this strange amalgamation of the ravages of a novel virus and the eruption of centuries-old civil unrest that has been brewing since the country’s inception. Though the essays are personal in nature, there is much to be gleaned from Smith’s words.
by James Baldwin, 1952
I was wholly prepared for James Baldwin’s critique of race in America in his first novel; what I was not expecting was his savage take on gender oppression. It’s possible that I’m bringing my 21st century feminism to my reading of the text, but it’s hard to ignore Baldwin’s staunch observations of the additional oppression black women experience in America. With a religious service as a background, Baldwin presents a family beset by common hardships made all the more difficult through the intersections of race and gender. It is a stirring portrait of a community for which not much has changed with the passage of time.
Once again, it was tough to decide whether or not I was going to continue with the Read Harder Challenge this year. Upon first glance at the tasks, there didn’t seem to be many that piqued my interest. I had a hard time finishing last year, due partly to my general difficulty reading and partly to being somewhat disinterested when I set out more than half of my reading schedule for the entire year. I was disappointed with some of my reads and would have rather spent that time on more engaging texts. However, as in years past, I remember the purpose of the Read Harder Challenge: to go beyond one’s reading comfort zone, expand one’s knowledge, and encourage oneself to read books that might otherwise lay untouched. Truth be told, some of my most underwhelming reads were ones that I was really looking forward to (see: Frankenstein in Baghdad and The Dry), so I can’t blame the Challenge for forcing me to read books that I would not already be interested in. On the other hand, the Challenge is responsible for getting me to pick up some great books that might otherwise have stayed closed (see: Ensayo sobre la lucidez and The Round House). So, without ado, I embark on the Reader Harder Challenge for the sixth year in a row, but this year, I’m allowing myself some caveats. Read below to see what I’ve put on my docket for 2021.
by Barack Obama, 2020
narrated by the author
With the world as it…is (picture me gesturing around vaguely with my hands)…I didn’t feel comfortable getting on a plane to see my parents for Christmas this year. I knew seeing them at all was a risk, but as I spend most of my time indoors and my only exposure to the outside world is during my runs and grocery trips, both of which I try to do when fewer people are out, not because of fears of the contagion, but because that’s just me being my introverted self, I felt pretty okay about assuming that risk, just not the risk of going to an airport and spending three hours in a narrow metal tube with a bunch of other people’s respiratory droplets. Thus, I rented a car and embarked on what would be my very first solo cross-country road trip, a drive of 20 hours over two days. Luckily, the question of how to entertain myself during that time was easily solved: with the release of his memoir in November, I would let the dulcet tones of Barack Obama guide me on my journey to the Midwest. Clocking in at 29 hours, it gave me enough fodder to cover the better part of my trip there and back (with the Hamilton soundtrack providing tunes for much of the rest). It was a perfectly executed plan.
I’m a bit late with this wrap-up, as I didn’t do much posting during the year and have been woefully behind, but I did manage to rally my efforts and complete the Read Harder Challenge at the very end of 2020. As is often the case, I’m glad that I pushed myself to finish, as I might not have read some of the books that I ended up loving. However constrained I may sometimes feel by the Challenge, that’s always been a positive aspect. Here’s what I read last year for each task: