Monday, December 5, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE VANITY OF READING LISTS
I had my 60th birthday last weekend, and I suddenly remembered something foolish I did twenty years ago, when I was forty.
I headed up a page with the words “Books I Must Read Before I am 60” and wrote a list of all the great and formidable books I intended to read.
At the age of 40, I apparently thought that I would be well into my dotage by the age of 60, probably dribbling and incontinent and certainly beyond the powers of reading and reasoning. So I had to read these books before I was too old and feeble-minded.
I don’t have the same perspective now, of course. I’m still chipper and alert, even if considerably fatter and greyer, and I’m hoping I’ve got another twenty years or so of reading and reasoning ahead of me. Time enough to read the classics.
Looking at the list now, I smugly pat myself on the back because I have gobbled up at least part of it, as I said I should. I have read Don Quixote in a couple of translations (having no Spanish). I have read all the novels and satires of Henry Fielding. I haven’t yet managed the four Everyman volumes of Richardson’s Clarissa, but I have read the two Everyman volumes of his Pamela. Most of the novels of George Meredith and George Gissing, George Moore and George Eliot are under my belt. I’ve polished off most of Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine in English translations and a few in the original French and I’ve read half of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series in French. I’ve read Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution too.
So I could twitter on, doubtless to the immense irritation of anyone who reads this. But I am more abashed than elated at my rediscovery of my old list, as it reminds me of all the things I still haven’t got around to.
Sorry, but I’ve still not read Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I can plead that I have read his Crime and Punishment, Notes from the House of the Dead and The Idiot, but I know this doesn’t make up for the unread masterpiece. Likewise, I never got to the end of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Something interrupted me in mid-reading and I never got back to it, despite having read War and Peace, Resurrection and the Master and Man parables. Then – and I’m very sorry about this – I’ve never read either Moby Dick or The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Obtusely, Little Dorrit remains the only Dickens I’ve never cracked, even if it and the other books mentioned here all take up space on my shelves. As for books that aren’t on my shelves, William Faulkner remains foreign territory to me and so do many modernists who are often touted to me as essential reading.
There are actually more of the Unread than of the Read on my old list.
This would once have been a source of some embarrassment and annoyance to me, but I think my attitude is subtly changing.
Often in my life I’ve had to answer in the negative when somebody asked me if I had read a certain well-known book. Now, I know that whoever my interlocutor may be, there will be some books I have read that he or she hasn’t. I’ve read only the much-anthologised bits of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. If I have to admit that I’ve never made it through the whole thing, I can nevertheless declare that I have made it through all of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. And, believe me, for formidability, opacity of language and obscurity of historical reference, there is little to beat The Ring and the Book. Truly a teeth-gritting endurance feat for which I deserve a medal.
More to the point, all reading programmes have the habit of breaking down. I read many books for study and for review. When and if I read purely for pleasure, choices tend to be serendipitous, and one thing leads to another, rather than following a prescribed order. An interesting-looking book is plucked from the library shelf. It leads to other books by the same author or on a similar theme. The mapped-out route is forgotten in the face of new discoveries.
Then there’s that matter of sheer abundance. You can’t read everything, even if you’re an avid reader. Go into a library or good bookshop and, if you’re susceptible to such feelings, be overwhelmed by how much there is. You’ll never experience every book that has been highly praised or canonised. No point in making reading a treadmill, with classic titles as the steps. When you pool your partial reading experience with other people’s partial reading experiences, you can make an interesting conversation out of recommendations and warnings.
Or at least so I now rationalise to myself.
I do suggest a therapeutic measure for residual feelings of guilt about Great Books Unread.
Write out a list of the five books you think you should have read by now, but haven’t. Post it on Reid’s Reader underneath this rant. No commentary is needed. But collectively, and if you sign your own name, we will all feel a lot better when we publicly expiate our sins of omission.