Your Favorite Reading Experience of 2014

December 16, 2014

Every week Barnes and Noble emails out a newsletter called Review that almost always features tidbits that catch my interest. This week’s edition included a piece entitled “Words of the Year: The Best Things They Read in 2014.”

The question they posed to their panel of dozens was an interesting one: not, “What was this year’s best book?” or, “What was the best book you read this year?” but, “What was your favorite reading experience of 2014?”

Most of the respondents did what you’d expect them to do, and described their favorite books of the year. Most — but not all. Literary critic Tom LeClair’s favorite reading experience came from reading something that wasn’t a book at all:

“An email accepting my novel Lincoln’s Billy for publication in April 2015.”

For North Carolina novelist Sarah Addison Allen, it was a text message:

“‘I’m texting exclamation point I almost tripped on a cat come over I still have birthday cake.’ There’s action, food, mystery, even punctuation. My favorite reading experience this year: my mom’s first text.”

For me, it was spending a week prone and weak, under the covers, sick as a dog.

Sicker, actually, since our intrepid poodle Ben was fine the whole week. Not Ana, though. We were both exhausted from a long and difficult 2013, and our bodies both used the excuse nearest at hand (“I know, we’ll have the flu!”) to hurl us both onto our backs and out of circulation.

We took turns dragging ourselves out to the kitchen every so often, just long enough to brew fresh tea or make plain toast, and then drag our catch back with us into the Lair of Darkness and Hibernation to share.

We also read — dawn till dusk and beyond. All week long.

It was awesome.

The book Ana read during Recuperation Week was Night Film, the 600-page monster of a thriller by wunderkind Marisa Pessl that was the talk of New York City when it came out in 2013. We’d had the book for a while — a thick, heavy hardcover with a scattering throughout of odd graphics and intricately created “reproductions” of police reports, diaries, newspaper clippings, Internet posts, and such — but she hadn’t had the chance, or perhaps the audacity, to crack its cover. She loved it.

For my part, I also finally tackled a book I’d been meaning to read for a while: Kate Atkinson’s stunning first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I’d read her four novels featuring detective Jackson Brodie, and loved them. I knew by reputation that Behind the Scenes was something quite different.

It was.

Sick or not, no novel has ever moved me so strongly. The moment I finished it, I blew my nose, turned back to page one and read the entire thing over again, word for word.

Its final few sentences echoed in my brain for months afterward.

Last month, I read the entire thing again, for the third time, and loved it even more.

It has become the absolute, #1, top favorite novel of any I’ve read in my lifetime thus far.

I got so much more from it on the second (and later third) reading that over the year I found myself returning to books I’ve loved, one by one, and rereading them, including:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman’s beautiful and gently terrifying evocation of what it’s like to be a seven-year-old child;
  • 11/22/63, Stephen King’s masterful ode to the transcending power of love, disguised as a time-travel fantasy based on the idea of going back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination;
  • and John Irving’s breathtaking novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, which says more about the role divine intention plays (or, for the agnostics among us, may play) in our lives than anything else I’ve ever read, and was my #1 favorite novel of all time until Behind the Scenes appeared on my bed table.

A few months after The Great 2014 Contagious Read-In I was invited to participate in a new website called HugDug, a Seth Godin project, by contributing book reviews. I reviewed Ocean at the End of the Lane, 11/22/63, (you can read that review here), The Enemy (my favorite of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series), and The Black-Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black’s magnificent addition to Raymond Chandler’s classic Philip Marlowe series.

The next review I was going to write was going to be for Behind the Scenes at the Museum — but alas, by summer’s end HugDug closed its doors. I loved writing those reviews, and was sad when they went away.

Thus, an early New Year’s resolution: During 2015, I will find a new forum for those reviews — and I will use it to explain just exactly what it is that has me so in love with that particular book of Kate Atkinson’s … and many more.

Meanwhile, I have a question for you:

What was your favorite reading experience in 2014?



  1. Mark Given

    My favorite reading experience … relaxing on a small cruise ship balcony, smothered in a pleasant Atlantic Ocean breeze, reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Good Times … hope you’re doing great, my friend!

    • John David Mann

      Thanks, Mark. I’ve heard good things about Duhigg’s book. Going on the list!

  2. Laura Steward

    That is a tough one, John. Just yesterday something jumped to the top: an email saying, “Your audio book has been accepted for publication.” Others are, Golfing with God, by Roland Merullo, and any email you send me!

    • John David Mann

      Nice! Brandon is working right now on the Among Heroes audiobook … can’t wait! Tell me about Golfing with God: what did you love about it? I’d not heard of Merullo, but a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me I should have. My age, lives in Western Mass, writes parables … hey! Is he me?

  3. James Justice

    You sold me on Kate Atkinson’s book. I’ll have to check it out. So far, I’d have to go with FOR THE DEAD, the latest entry in Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok. His characters have become my friends and family. It’s like getting a letter from home. For non-fiction, I’ll go with A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL, by Ben Macintyre, with an afterword by John Le Carre. Great Cold War stuff! Happy Holidays!

    • John David Mann

      Fantastic! Thanks, James — I’d heard good things about the Philby story: it goes on the list! Didn’t know about the Poke Rafferty books, but your tip on Laurence Shames certainly was a good one. So, Tim Hallinan? On the list!

      One note on Behind the Scenes: the book intersperses the main narrative with sections Atkinson calls “footnotes,” which are really full-fledged chapters unto themselves, each of which delves back into some family backstory. The Footnotes are not sequential but jump all over. While I was reading the first time, I actually kept a pad of paper by my side and assembled a timeline/family tree, just to help me keep all the relationships and generations straight. It’s a helluva multi-generational saga!


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