A Year of Reading

Still being in my younger and more impressionable years, I came to realization that I wasn't as well-read as I thought. For the past few years, partly inspired by Art Garfunkel, an unlikely bibliophile,  I have been keeping track of the books that I have read. In 2012, I read 53 books -  an average of about a book a week.  Sounds like a lot of reading. Yet, I did not like what I saw - quantity, but not quality. Too much non-fiction, and much of it pop non-fiction consisting of easy-breezy reads. Of all books that I read, only 15 books were what I consider must-read classics. While you may not always get it at first, the classics are classics for a reason. Yet, there is an argument for reading the canon, to remember advice from T.S. Eliot who said this about poems: "the only thing one needs to judge the merit of poems is to read other poems." 
To read better, one needs to read more books.

Where to begin? So, I turned to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's excellent "How to Read"; needless to say, 'a classic' itself. Their advice in a nutshell is to read books that expand your mind.  Books that are complex.  Such books change you as a person. They change the way you experience and perceive life. A book that does all that is a 'great' book. The classics are good examples of that. They are hard to read, because they make demands on the reader. Consequently, the rewards are much greater. 

So, in 2013  I tried to change this as consciously is I could.  I looked at lists - GuardianModern Library, including the intimidating Adler-Van Doren list.  But, you could really start anywhere, as long as you start. So based on availability and interest, I set off. 

To make no bones about my ambitions, I started with Ulysses and tried to read it in a day. I had begun and attempted to read it since I was about 18 and never made it past the first few pages. In Joycean vein - I "tightened my scrotum" and got to work trying to read the story of a day in a day. Technically in 24 hours, if not in one sitting. Though, according to Adler and Van Doren, you should try to read all books in one sitting. I surprised myself. It took a little over 12 hours to make it to the end. I thought earlier that I would be more ecstatic than Molly Bloom's final "yes".  Yet, surprisingly I was less concerned with being 'that-person-who-has-read-Ulysses-cover-to-cover' than being the person who had a great experience of reading Ulysses. I enjoyed the humor, the wordplay, the virtuosity, and simply the extraordinary story of an ordinary day in Dublin.  It was indeed the toughest read of the year. Intimidating for sure, but it is puzzling that the book isn't more read. Did I get it all? No. Was it worth it? Yes.

It has been a very, rich and rewarding experience. For a whole year, I was in the company of the greats - Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Woolf, Proust, Homer, Tolstoy, Flaubert. It made me aware of the considerable gifts of contemporary authors such as Barnes and Coetzee. The advantage of reading them so closely one after another made them stand out more in relief and despite stylistic differences the greatness of the writing always shines through. It wasn't fast reading. It was delightful, and as Harold Bloom says, "you don't read great books, they read you". Nothing could be truer. And again, it was much more than that. Often, I had to stop to take a breath to take in what I had just read. The profound psychological insight, the lovely turn of phrase, the ring of the perfectly metaphor, and above all the creation of an entire world from brief strokes.

My goal was to read better in 2013. So, did I succeed? Yes, if I was checking off a grocery list of items to be read. But, the funny thing is that books change you, they refine you. The process changed my definition of what 'reading better' was.  The chief one was what it meant to have 'read a book'. I wasn't sure any more. It certainly was not making a collection of feathers to stick in my cap. That was to miss the point, not to mention the waste of all that time.

Over the years, I have been somewhat proud that I never re-read books. I have a good memory. But, I have been again missing the point. A timely correction was provided by a certain V. Nabokov, who, by the prevailing academic wisdom at the time, was not allowed to lecture an American literature because he lacked a PhD, but allowed to lecture on European literature.  He writes in the 'Introduction' to the excellent and bizarrely hard-to-obtain Lectures on Literature that books can never be read, only re-read. Great books are a work of art and have to be approached in the manner of a painting. So, the first reading is only an initial glimpse. It's only in the second, or third reading that one can appreciate the full beauty. It's like the eye darting from aspect of the picture to another after we make our first glance at it. We have to look at it closely and from afar.

So, what's in store for 2014? Not to let go of the ambitious side of me, but one aim would be to finish Proust's In Search of Lost Time. To call it a goal makes it sound like getting through something unpleasant. If you take to it, Proust is very addicting. The Way by Swann's was so delicious and enjoyable that I cannot wait to get started on Vol II. There is no dearth of other classics that I wish to explore - Dostoevsky, Conrad, Beckett, Bellow, James, Ellison. The other would be to simply re-read some books. As Flaubert wrote: "What a scholar one might be if one knew well some half a dozen books."
Books from 2012-2013 to re-read:

Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Way by Swann's - Marcel Proust; Lydia Davis (trans)
A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Light in August - William Faulkner
Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy
Stories / Kafka
Lectures On Literature / Vladimir Nabokov
Madame Bovary / Gustave Flaubert
The Periodic Table / Primo Levi
The Odyssey / Homer; Richard Lattimore (trans)
Ulysses / James Joyce

The Story of Art / Ernst Gombrich
The Inferno / Dante Alighieri; John Ciardi (trans)
The Complete Poems / Philip Larkin; Archie Burnett (ed)
Half-Finished Heaven / Tomas Transtromer
Poor Economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty / Banerjee, Abhijit V.
Thinking, Fast and Slow / Kahneman, Daniel


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Rachaita H said...

Okay, you actually read a lot!
How about reading these http://www.indiabookstore.net/bookish/five-great-short-stories-can-read-right-now/ next?

hirak said...

@Rachaita Thanks for your suggestion. I haven't read any of those except the obvious Hemingway 'short'.

BattlingtheNafs said...

Excellent post, and I understand what you mean about reading better. Books definitely change you and move you in a certain way. Have you read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov? This is the standout book for me this summer. If you have read it, I'd love to hear what you think of it!

hirak said...

Read Lolita a long time ago. Did enjoy it tremendously then. Should read it again for making a more informed comment.
Great books don't change, we do and that can make all the difference.

chandru nadi said...
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