I love the retrospectives you see at this time of year. The glimpse behind, even as we plunge forward. The lists of births and deaths. The headlines, long forgotten, replaced by today’s latest. I am less intrigued by Hollywood headlines, but they do loom large in the grocery checkout line, hard to avoid despite the concerted effort.
What I like about these retrospective lists is their overall message. They tell us who we are now, and I can’t help but wonder what history will be saying about us in 20, 30, 50 years. So let’s take a look at ourselves through the books we read last year.
We are socially engaged. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, PML’s number-one circulated book this year, is an autobiographical account of growing up poor in America. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, our sixth most circulated biography, is one man’s account of growing up in apartheid South Africa during a time when his very existence, born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, was a crime.
We are inspired by individual accounts of courage. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (Number 2, Biography) is the story of a man who, in living in solitude in the Maine woods for nearly 30 years, chose his own solitary and challenging path. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Number 3, Biography) gives the very personal story of a doctor turned patient, faced with his impending death. And, who wouldn’t be inspired by Emma Gatewood, the great grandmother who walked the Appalachian Trail more than once? She became a positive voice for the trail and an inspiration to those who knew her. Read her story in Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery (Number 5, Biography).
We are not one-dimensional. With the exception of one book (Biography Hillbilly Elegy), our fiction titles are, by far, our most circulated, and they range in style. The hidden surprise was Louise Penny’s first installment of her Inspector Gamache series, Still Life (at Number 2 on PML’s fiction list) — a surprise because it’s not a new title, first published in 2005. Penny’s books were slow to catch on, it seems, but her loyal audience can’t get enough of her mystery series, now on its 13th title with Glass Houses, published in 2017. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Number 3, Fiction), deserves its spot among the favorites this year. Finally, two books among our top ten, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Number 7) and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead(Number 9), are worth reading for their unusual approach to storytelling. Each of those titles was chosen as a PML Book Group title.
Want the full list? Here it is. I hope it inspires you to explore some titles that may have passed you by the first time around.
- Andrew Carnegie Award
- Booker Prize
- Caldecott Medal
- Maine Literary Awards
- Maine Student Book Award
- National Book Award
- National Book Critics Circle Award
- Newbery Medal
- PEN/Faulkner Award
- Pulitzer Prize