This year, my wife and I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,189 miles from Northern Georgia to Northern Maine. Before setting out, I had this Huckleberry Finn-esque vision of what this would be like. It was cold when we started mid-February, so I imagined sitting around the fire huddled over our soups, then bundling up in our sleeping bags with a headlamp, reading and writing until we got tired. Come summer, I imagined lazy, two-hour lunch breaks and naptimes, sitting on a rock or fallen log or ledge overlooking some incredible vista or waterfall, reading a book, snacking on trail mix. Allow me to burst the bubble of whoever may also, quite sensibly, have this image. Walking two thousand miles is work. A fifteen mile day leaves you so exhausted that the setting-up-camp routine is the closest you get to decompression. Comically for an environment dominated by young men, sunset is affectionately referred to as “hiker midnight,” when eyes get droopy and nearly everyone turns in for bed. We enjoyed maybe six campfires the whole trip: time-consuming, wasteful, unnecessary. All the spare time I never have in my regular life, I thought I’d have out on the trail, and devour books prodigiously. It doesn’t happen. By the middle of Virginia, I had even let my journal lapse, thinking that forced, uninspired entries aren’t worth it. I read nine books in six months, dismal. Once I got home in August, I read fifteen more through the end of the year.
I started with Deliverance, a good choice, I thought, hiking through the woods of North Georgia, where the book is set. Fortunately, we heard no banjo music. I reread Ender’s Game, a good ol’ standby and one of my all-time favorites. I found Galileo’s Daughter, Girl with the Pearl Earring and Secrets of the Fire King on hostel bookshelves, swapping them out and carrying them with me. I bought The Sixth Extinction in Connecticut, and when we reached Williamstown, Massachusetts for a day of rest, I flipped to the bio page and realized I was reading this Pulitzer-prize-winning author’s book in her own hometown! Most people stuck to smartphones out on trail, so to the extent they read anything, it was ebooks, audiobooks, and cached internet articles. I left the tech at home and actually carried my journals and 1-2 books with me, a fact that, if you do any long distance hiking, should certainly shock you. Yes, for the love of books, I always had an extra few pounds of paper on my back.
Stats: 70/30 Male/Female authors (19 vs 8), 8885 pages (296/book), 12 days/book
Best Book of the Year: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri — So good, I read it twice, once on trail, once back at home when I could dog-ear, highlight, and take notes in it. The language (even translated) is luscious and simple. This is a masterful author at the top of her game bearing her soul.
Worst Book: Unabomber Manifesto by Ted Kasycinski — Yes, I thought I’d have a peek inside this kook’s head. He’s a kook.
Most Overrated: March by Geraldine Brooks — I only made it through the first two chapters, so it’s not an objective opinion, but this Pulitzer-prize winner didn’t grab me. (Runner-up: The Grapes of Wrath)
Best-Timed Read: Deliverance by James Dickey — Don’t pre-judge. This is a poet trying his hand at prose, absolutely nailing the language and taking you on a breathtaking thriller ride to the edge of survival.
Pinker Award: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert — Handily takes this coveted spot as the clearest science book that will change your worldview, in this case, about humans’ impact on the biosphere. Runner-up: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan — I’ve had this author on my radar for a while now, and he lives up to every expectation. While you’re at it, search his name on Netflix and check out some great documentaries he’s narrated!
Click on the icons below to read my individual reviews on Goodreads. (Copied from my 2017 Reading Challenge.)