This blog is a record of my project – as yet unstructured and open-ended – to read classic works of literature that I either haven’t gotten around to reading, or have forgotten since reading in college.
Like most English Lit graduates, I carry around a Guilt List of Great Works that I know I should get around to reading. Some of them have been attempted and swiftly abandoned for being dense and impenetrable (I’ve never managed more than a few pages of James Joyces’ Ulysses without wanting to fall asleep). Some were persevered with manfully and even half-finished (Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady). Then there are others that I have some memory of reading when younger but I now can’t remember a thing about (most of Dickens, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, all the non-sexy bits of Lady Chatterley’s Lover). While I often give away books that I’ve finished, I always keep the Not-Reads and the Abandoned. They live on bookshelves that I had custom-built in my living room, staring at me reproachfully as evidence of my failure, though these days it’s mostly my cleaner Adriana who looks at or handles them. Every year, usually at Christmastime, when the world slows down to a hush for a moment, I get them off my shelves, greeting them bashfully like friends I haven’t sent Christmas cards to, and construct ambitious reading lists for the new year ahead. This year, I say to myself, I will finally tackle Volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time, or make a bigger dent in Infinite Jest, or burn through War and Peace. It never happens, of course – life and work, family, love affairs, travel, my own two-steps-forward-three-steps-back attempts to write a novel, and good old fashioned sloth all get in the way.
So why start this masochistic cycle again? Partially it’s a part of getting older. I’m now 43, and aware (as one usually isn’t in one’s 20s) that life isn’t infinite. I currently read around 25 books a year, so assuming that I live until I’m 76 (the average age of death for men in the UK) I have another 33 years left, which equates to around 825 books. Put bluntly, I’d like them to be good ones, or at least worth my while.
I’m also old enough to appreciate that most “classic” novels, even those that are hard-going or not easily relatable to modern times, reward the reader in some degree, and not just the smug satisfaction of knowing you’ve finished. Harold Bloom once observed that all we learn from great literature is that humans are beset by suffering and that we all must die. While not exactly comforting, it gestures in the direction that I’d like this project to go – to observe what is constant about the state of being alive, and to know what we have in common with ancestors who didn’t own iTunes and had to make their own soap. I don’t intend this to be an exhaustive exercise – some self-conscious trash and popular fiction will inevitably work its way into my reading time – but I like to think I’m setting myself a course that I can navigate by, even if I don’t always reach my destination.
Speaking of Bloom, the title of my blog is borrowed from a 1994 Time magazine article (now sadly behind a paywall) about his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. In the book and the article, Bloom lays out his views of the Must-Reads of Western literature, with the arrogance and breathtaking confidence that only a straight white American male can manage. His pronouncements were inevitably denounced by critics as being too white, too male, too elitist and not sufficiently cognisant of works by Asian and African writers, as did his infamous denunciation of the work of Sylvia Plath as “the poetry of resentment”. Still, at least the old rogue has read a thing or two – unlike another straight white American male currently running America, who’s said repeatedly that he doesn’t bother reading books.
I hope that you enjoy reading my reviews, and I welcome all feedback, whether brickbats or bouquets. In my next blog post, I’ll set out my proposed reading list, with reflections on how it was compiled.
I am really excited about your project, John, perhaps because you are doing the hard work I am too lazy to do. But also because your commentary will be enlightening and entertaining. I look forward to following your progress.
I love this project.