I like to consider May instead of January as the beginning of the new year because of Philip Larkin’s “Trees”:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief…
…Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
It seems especially fitting this year since I’ve reached a turning point of sorts in my treatment this month, and in addition to that we moved to a house in which the view from my bedroom window is green and leafy.
The new year is a good time to take stock of things that are important to you, which is why it seemed like a nice idea to write about the state of my reading habits c. 2013 (I find writing things down is a good way of taking stock). If you’re bored by now and don’t plan to read further I’ll summarise it for you here: it’s a total mess.
When I was young and books were treasured objects, I read every book I could get my hands on. By which I mean I finished every book I could get my hands on. As I got older and realized that for every book I read there were millions of others that weren’t being read, I started to abandon books that didn’t absorb me quickly enough for fear of losing out on something better. Then, once I discovered the internet allowed me to read several publications whose print versions I didn’t have access to, every book I owned not only had to compete with other books for my attention but also with blogs, ‘longreads’ from said publications, and more recently Twitter, where I get to read all the above accompanied by the criticism and commentary of journalists, academics and writers I admire.
Which is why this struck a chord with me (and thousands of others like me, it seems):
I therefore decided to catalogue a few items from my bookshelf that have fallen a victim to tsundoku as well as the likelihood of my finishing them this year on a scale of 0 to 10 (there are many, many more, this is only a representative sample):
The Rest Is Noise-Listening To The Twentieth Century by Alex Ross
Status: I bought this in 2009 and read the first chapter. I read the first chapter again in early 2013. I read nothing of it in the intervening years.
Likelihood of finishing it this year: 5. My source of motivation is a desire to learn about jazz so I can challenge people who claim to know about jazz.
The Last Life by Claire Messud
Status: I bought this because I loved The Emperor’s Children, and it must have been in 2011. There’s a bookmark in the middle of chapter 3.
Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0. I found myself caring very little about the fortunes of languid, unhappy French people. I’ll probably donate it to Oxfam.
The Argumentative Indian-Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity by Amartya Sen
Status: I’ve had this book since 2006. I know I’ve read the first 12 pages because I’ve underlined passages in them (e.g. “…if we go back all the way to ancient India, some of the most celebrated dialogues have involved women, with the sharpest questionings often coming from women interlocutors.” I was a feminist before I knew it.) Then the underlining stops abruptly and is never resumed.
Likelihood of finishing it this year: 6. I need to finish this so I can sound really knowledgeable and make new friends easily.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings-A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson
Status: I bought this in December 2012. It is unread. I just can’t find a time of the day suited to reading about Barrel Sponges and the Phylogenetic Tree of Life. The reason I bought this book, really, is because it is one of the most beautiful arrangements of cardboard, ink, glue and paper I’ve ever seen.
I love looking at this book but haven’t been able to summon enough interest in what it has to say. It is my trophy book.
Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0. I could at least try reading a chapter every couple of months, though.
How To Read And Why by Harold Bloom
Status: Well this is ironic. I’ve had this since 2011. I remember reading a critical analysis of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album in the first chapter and realizing the stupidity of doing that without ever having read Turgenev, so I stopped.
Likelihood of finishing it this year: 0, but this book isn’t meant to be finished in one go anyway. I could use it as a guide to great literature for the rest of my life, provided I don’t keep putting off reading great literature.
You’ll notice that this list contains a disproportionate number of non-fiction entries. This isn’t because I procrastinate more when it comes to non-fiction than fiction but because my reading habits started to skew heavily towards non-fiction as I got older. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is a utilitarian benefit you get from reading works of history and culture, while the benefits of reading fiction are not so tangible. Fiction is read above all for pleasure, and doing things for pleasure alone increasingly seems like a decadence I can’t afford when there’s so much to do and to accomplish right now.
The second, less obvious, reason is that fiction is a lot more work. You’d think it would be the opposite, that worthy tomes full of facts and figures require more brainpower than a novel, but facts and figures offer the reader a sense of comfort and security-a sense of being in control-that literature does not. Literature demands patience and a quiet acceptance of the fact that full clarity is elusive and hard-won, and I find that my adult brain is terrified of existing in a state of half-comprehension for long periods of time. Not understanding things right away feels like failure, so I’d rather avoid those things altogether. This never used to bother me when I was younger-I read Doctor Zhivago at thirteen in an idyllic haze of not-knowingness, whereas if I pick it up now I’m sure I’ll start to worry right away about whether my interpretation of the book is the correct interpretation and whether I need to know more about Russian history before truly being able to ‘get’ the book and so on.
So my reading resolution for the new year is to slowly and methodically tackle my burgeoning collection of tsundoku-ed non-fiction and try and regain that sense of blissful abandon while reading fiction, which is the whole point of reading it in the first place. Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.