The adventures, thoughts, and general scrawlings of a classical pianist

2023 in Books

Me, unknowingly snapped by Stephanie aka @cozyreadingclub, at Warwick’s in San Diego.

It’s silly but when you read a lot, it kind of becomes a part of your identity. (I know I said this exact same thing last year, but it just means I’m consistent.) I’d be meeting a new person at some social event and a mutual friend would introduce me by saying enthusiastically, “This is Sharon, she reads A LOT! Like hundreds of books a year!” (I do not read hundreds, plural, of books a year.) At one point I was set up on a blind friends-date with someone in the book industry purely on the basis that I read more than the average person. (As far as blind dates go, that was actually a fairly winning bet: turns out I can talk about books for an entire dinner, which made it one of my more successful social experiments.)

Because I am apparently Lady Reads-a-lot, a bunch of friends checked in with me at the end of 2023 to ask how many books I’d read, and I started to become very, very sheepish and embarrassed, because 2023 turned out to be the year I read the least number of books ever since I started tracking such things.

Open Books in Chicago, which I browsed with PG.

I read a scant 55 books last year. FIFTY-FIVE. That’s barely more than a book a week! Revoke my title and confiscate my lands, I’m basically illiterate now.

Part of that was because last year happened to be the busiest of my career so far: I premiered a new piano concerto, made a couple of studio recordings, did a little investigative journalism (you can read the piece here), did a fellowship for which I won a prize, and taped an episode of This American Life that ended up never airing. (Busy doesn’t always mean successful.)

Me at a used bookshop in Boston (whose name I unfortunately did not record); this was a day before I was to premiere the piano concerto and so we all (PW, JAB) thought it was very funny for me to find a book with instructions on playing with musical expression.

Part of why I only read 55 books, though, is that my relationship with reading has changed. It used to be that I could read basically anything: any genre, any subject, even any quality, good or bad, and I’d plow through it all like an undiscerning rat eating garbage.

Now, though, books just hit different. It used to be pretty rare for me to not finish a book—and usually that was because the writing was so bad that I couldn’t stand it— but now I give up on books all the time. Sometimes it’s because the writing is bad, but more often than not it’s just that the book isn’t doing it for me or the vibe is wrong for the headspace I’m in at the moment. Having read, at this point, hundreds of books in the past few years alone, I’m also less impressed by plot twists or character tropes or themes that I’ve already experienced before.

Steph and I think this is hilarious.

And now that I’ve got several published (and soon-to-be published) pieces under my belt, I know what it’s like to build and tinker with structure, to go back and forth with an editor on flow and word choice, which means I can’t unsee the backend process now when I read a book or article. It’s like looking at a beautiful person and just seeing their skeleton. Enjoying books is harder for me than it used to be, which sounds bleak and ominous, but is basically just what happened to me with music.

When I was younger, it was basically guaranteed that you could bring me to any classical performance and I would love it. It didn’t matter if it was a student recital or a world-class orchestra; I’d thrill at the texture of the sound, I’d get psyched up at a new thing I’d never heard before, and I’d feel that rush of dopamine at the climax of each piece.

After 2.5 decades of classical training, though, the last segment of which was extremely intense, it’s just harder for me to enjoy music, because 1) I process so much more than a casual listener and I was actively trained to listen extremely critically and analyze the mechanics of what’s going on, 2) I’ve heard most of the standard canonic repertoire already, so a lot of the novelty is gone, and 3) I’ve heard such staggeringly great performances that my personal threshold for feeling things is now impossibly high. Basically, I’m Shania Twain now.

So yeah, it seems I’m intent on going through my life slowly ruining everything that once brought me joy.

Three Lives and Co. in New York, where I went on my own but struck up a delightful conversation with a fellow customer about the works of Kazuo Ishiguro.

That being said, reading is still critical to my mental wellbeing; I’ve noticed that if I go for a while without reading, I start to feel antsy and unbalanced and my ability to focus starts to flicker. So I’ve learned to pay more attention to how I’m feeling and what kind of book I’m craving at any given point.

You know how they say that you crave certain foods if your body needs different things? Like how you yearn for buttery, creamy things if your body needs more fat, how you dream of cruciferous vegetables if your gut needs fiber, that kind of thing? I have no idea if that’s actually true—that’s just what they say, and I actually have no idea who “they” is here. Let’s just say that’s true.

I’ve noticed the same thing with my mind; there are times I just want to learn something real bad, which means it’s time for a thorough non-fiction book about something, and other times the thought of another non-fiction book makes me want to scream, and I just want to get lost in a story I can’t put down, at which point I need fiction, stat. Sometimes I can’t bear to live in the present day so I need something historical, other times I want the formulaic structure of a world where things make sense and problems are solved, which means either a romance or a crime novel, etc.

Anyway. All of that is to say that my approach to reading is different these days, and from the outside it just looks like I read less, but there’s a lot more to it. Because I’m getting better at knowing myself and finding books I need in the moment, I overall enjoy reading in a different way than when I was mowing through 3-5 books a week.

The Rizzoli Bookstore in New York.

My 2023 Book Log

I reviewed each one of these books over on my book Instagram, @readingwithsharon. I have not yet reviewed any books for 2024—at this point I’m going back and forth on whether or not I want to keep assigning myself homework.

  1. Angela Garbes / Essential Labor 
  2. Tina Brown / The Palace Papers 
  3. Elaine Hsieh Chou / Disorientation
  4. Gu Byeong-mo / The Old Woman with the Knife
  5. Ali Smith / Companion Piece
  6. Harini Nagendra / The Bangalore Detectives Club 
  7. Ashley Poston / The Dead Romantics 
  8. Mary Beard / SPQR 
  9. Hua Hsu / Stay True 
  10. Jennifer Ryan / The Kitchen Front 
  11. Bonnie Garmus / Lessons in Chemistry 
  12. Ovid / The Erotic Poems 
  13. Maggie O’Farrell / The Marriage Portrait 
  14. Barbara Ehrenreich / Dancing in the Streets 
  15. Judy Blume / Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing 
  16. Helen DeWitt / Some Trick 
  17. Kazuo Ishiguro / The Buried Giant
  18. Claire-Louise Bennett / Checkout 19 
  19. Joanna Quinn / The Whalebone Theatre 
  20. Helen DeWitt / The English Understand Wool 
  21. Ling Ma / Bliss Montage
  22. R.F. Kuang / Babel 
  23. Dennis Duncan / Index, a History of the 
  24. Nedra Tawwab / Set Boundaries, Find Peace 
  25. Gabrielle Zevin / Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow 
  26. Alexandra Petri / Alexandra Petri’s US History 
  27. India Holton / The Secret Service of Tea and Treason 
  28. Ed Yong / An Immense World 
  29. Greg Jenner / Dead Famous 
  30. Kate Beaton / Ducks 
  31. Annie Ernaux / A Girl’s Story 
  32. K Patrick / Mrs. S
  33. Maggie Bullock / The Kingdom of Prep 
  34. Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone / This Is How You Lose the Time War 
  35. Shehan Karunatilaka / The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida 
  36. Melissa Broder / The Pisces
  37. India Holton / The League of Gentlewomen Witches 
  38. Jenny Xie / Holding Pattern 
  39. Natashia Deon / The Perishing 
  40. Shelley Parker-Chan / He Who Drowned the World 
  41. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah / Chain Gang All-Stars 
  42. Aja Raden / The Truth About Lies 
  43. Ken Liu / Broken Stars 
  44. Natalie Haynes / Stone Blind
  45. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor / Incredibly Alice
  46. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor / Alice on Board
  47. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor / Now I’ll Tell You Everything 
  48. Sarah Brown / The Hidden Language of Cats 
  49. Maggie O’Farrell / Hamnet 
  50. Kazuo Ishiguro / A Pale View of Hills 
  51. David Graeber / Bullshit Jobs 
  52. Mai Nguyen / Sunshine Nails 
  53. Dodie Smith / I Capture the Castle 
  54. Isaac Asimov / The Gods Themselves 
  55. Jesse Q. Sutanto / Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers 

Previous Book Logs

2022 in Books
2021 in Books
2020 in Books
2019 in Books

Quick Shout-Out to Bookstores

A sign at Strand Books in New York.

As you might have figured out from all the photos I plopped into this post, I love bookstores! In 2023 I got to travel a bunch for both leisure and Career Things, and while every new city has endless attractions to offer, I will always find a local bookstore in which to while away an hour (or two). No matter how little or how much I read, indie bookstores are always comforting places to be: there’s often a strong sense of community, the curation is thought-provoking, and the people are lovely.

It’s a weird point of pride for me that I don’t buy books (physical or digital) from Amazon, and haven’t for years; whenever I purchase books, I want my dollars (however few) to go to the lovely people who read, curate, and work to make books available to everyone, and organize events supporting and promoting authors. A lot of indie bookstores have online stores, and if you need a more comprehensive supply or faster shipping there’s always Bookshop.org, which supports indie bookstores.

So shout-out to the independent bookshops of the world! Please support them! That is all.

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