On Reading and the Tournament of Books

I’ve started a new reading challenge: reading all the Tournament of Books 2022 books. I’ve done this twice in the past, in 2019 and in 2020, and it has been a great way to read contemporary fiction that is not necessarily on the best sellers list or the awards circuit. I would never have read “The Book of Broken Angels,” “Overstory,” “Milkman,” “My Sister, Serial Killer,” “So Lucky,” “America is Not the Heart,” “A Terrible Country,” “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Wolf Hall,” “A Mercy,” “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” “Nothing to See Here,” or “Girl, Woman, Other” if not for the Tournament of Books lists, and that would have been my loss. And while I generally like the list and particularly the way that books are pitched against each other, I tend to not like the judges’ commentary or choices, so I usually ignore them and create my own rankings. Why compare pairings of books in this way in the first place? It’s usually a way to gain some more insight into the books that I’m reading, which is why I keep the “tournament” aspect of it in mind when I log or review the books that I read.

The Tournament of Books logo for this year.

I read significantly less last year (2021) than I did in previous years, only partly because I got cancer. I allowed myself to get off the “maximum books per year” racetrack, and focused more on reading either books that interested me, or books that comforted me. Some of my reading plans went completely awry once I got sick – I was planning on reading the Tournament of Books Tournament of Tournament books (I still do, as they all seem fantastic), but I just couldn’t face the effort once I started chemotherapy. Books were a huge comfort and a necessary distraction for me during my hospitalization and treatments, but they weren’t literary fiction kind of books. I read cozy mysteries and fast paced sci-fi because that’s my reading equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes that’s what you need in a book, and that’s part of the magic of reading: there is a whole array of “comfort books” geared perfectly for your specific needs, if you only know what you’re looking for. 

I’ve talked to other people who have gone through chemotherapy (they tend to come out of the woodwork once you start treatments yourself), and even the avid readers among them stopped reading during treatments, and sometimes well after them. Chemo brain is a real thing, and it makes reading challenging, and oftentimes you want something a lot more attention grabbing than a book during treatments or while you’re recovering from surgery. That’s what streaming is for, and I thank Disney+’s “Loki” and “The Mandalorian” for helping me out during some really rough nights. But somehow books never lost their appeal to me, despite the lure of endless, easily consumable, entertaining content. This isn’t to condescend on “non-readers,” especially not my fellow cancer patients. It’s just to say that different minds are wired in different ways, and mine is wired in this specific way. Once I start reading I generally get carried away and have trouble putting the book down (unless it’s a truly terrible one). This was useful when I tried to forget that I was connected to 3-litres of poison that was dripping into my veins, although it was a little annoying to my long suffering family who were with me during treatments and often just wanted to talk. Sorry, guys. You deserved better.

Once the 2022 Tournament of Books list was published I decided to give it a go again this year, to challenge myself to read all eighteen books on the list. Unlike in previous years I’m being kind to myself and not trying to rush through all of them by the time the tournament judging begins in March. As I started reading before the brackets were published, and so started alphabetically, I read Mona Awad’s “All’s Well” first. It’s a very well intentioned book that completely fails on delivery for me, and I struggled to finish it. I almost gave up on the challenge entirely, except thankfully I decided to read the book that it’s up against, “The Trees” by Percival Everett before doing so and it is phenomenal. I’m almost done with it, and it is viciously funny, dark, thought provoking, and a fascinating and original read. Everything you hope for in a book, and all this in a book that I’ve never heard of before, from a writer I’ve never heard of before. This is exactly why I put myself up for this challenge in the first place.

My neuropathy is killing me in this weather, and this was a literal pain to write, so I will end here by saying: treat yourself to some book exploration this year, if you haven’t done so recently. You never know what gems you’ll find. 

8 thoughts on “On Reading and the Tournament of Books

  1. Daphna Kedmi

    In general, I don’t like reading challenges and tournaments. I don’t relate to their competitive aspects, to the artificial pairing, and in general, to the requirement that I spend my precious reading time on a list devised by someone I don’t know. Most of the books on my TBR list, that are not on the general radar, are books that I have discovered through various literary blogs that I follow.
    So how lucky am I that I can leech on to your participation in these tournaments, enrich my TBR list based on your positive reviews, and steer away from the ones you don’t like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. writingatlarge

      I agree with you when it comes to tournaments, but I find that the Tournament of Books list is a way to get myself to read pretty interesting and varied contemporary books that for the most part are very good. Even the mediocre books generally teach me something about what works in writing and what doesn’t.


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  4. jomatthews

    My mum, when she was undergoing Chemo, swore by audio books. She’d pop in her earphones and lose herself in new and favourite books. I used to read avidly but over the years I seem not able to concentrate much and haven’t read a book through for about a year or so now. The Trees sounds right up my street. At the moment I’m reading Piranes, which I’m finding to be an intriguing book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. writingatlarge

      Sorry for the late reply. Audio books sound like a great way to distract yourself during treatments. Is the book you’re referring to “Piranesi”? I haven’t been able to find Piranes, so I guess autocorrect or something like that might be at fault here.


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