I remember a few decades ago a prominent cultural commentator was asked if he had read Finnegans Wake. “I have so much more to read first,” he said regretfully. “I have yet to finish Proust in French.”
It feels like the ultimate New Year’s reading project for someone who didn’t grow up francophonically. Ulysses can go to hell. Professionals embark on 3,000 pages written in a language that is not their own. One can only suggest to a chapeau that everyone else around the table has read À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in English. The original, it would seem, would come to all of us eventually.
Furthermore, that intellectual class no doubt regards the New Year’s Reading Project as unspeakably bourgeois. You know the sort of thing. Some people choose to give up alcohol. Not a few declare that they will finally face the Great Novel which, purchased years before, scowled accusingly every time they approached the bookstore. Moby Dick may be surrounded by dozens of broken spines, but the significantly smooth spine of that volume is all you see. Look ahead like Robert Walker in the tennis sequence from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. All other heads move back and forth with the darting ball. Only one looks straight through your retina and into your brain.
Everything about the New Year’s reading project is suspect. Undertaken in the same spirit as neighbors learning to play the cello or giving up smoking, the undertaking is seen as an arduous task that will ultimately ‘do you good’. If you were reading for fun you wouldn’t classify it with other purposes like cleaning mysterious grime from the leaking tank. There is a horrific feeling that literature is taking on the self-help quality. If I can get through this painful experience, my mind will strengthen just as my body sharpens after a week of running up boring hills. When this is all over, I can go back to Colleen Hoover or James Patterson or better yet, nothing. Stupid reading.
It’s still. There are worse ways to grope through the initial darkness of another miserable year. It’s not like someone becomes a worst person reading The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. If you’re going to embark on a New Year’s reading project, it’s good to clarify the rules.
[ Yes, you should feel bad for not finishing (insert classic novel here) ]
First, the novel in question should be suitably long. It’s hard to put a precise lower limit on this, but I’m not saying anything less than 600 pages in a standard paperback. The volume should be heavy enough that, when it’s blown by the wind over your shoulder in frustration, there’s a reasonable risk that someone behind it will suffer visible bruising. So, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (an unimpressive 542 pages in my Penguin edition) won’t fare at all, but Middlemarch (896) by the same author is comfortably in the zone.
Second, the book should be able to stand up to charges of “difficulty.” Moby Dick has plenty of hearty action, but those lengthy sections detailing the biology and social habits of whales definitely take it into abstruse territory. As they knuckle down on sub-clauses that intrude into endless, unbroken sentences, readers of Proust – in the original or in translation – will surely admit that the prose doesn’t quite sound like PG Wodehouse. Dickens is too funny. Middlemarch has enough moral insight to qualify.
Third, the book should have a reputation. What’s the point of bragging about a paving stone that has yet to establish itself as an inspiring classic for the ages. Endless novels from the 19th century and earlier wait to devour the pre-Easter gloom: Tristram Shandy, The Brothers Karamazov, Clarissa. The rise of modernism and postmodernism over the past century has provided a veritable arsenal of suitable candidates. Ulysses exists, for Irish readers, only in a distinct cordon of guilt. But the pointy-headed Americans offer less chewy alternatives. If you can tolerate its popularity among Brooklyn’s avant-garde cheesemakers, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest hasn’t lost a single of its 1,079 tough pages since publication in 1996. Less tainted and, hurray, harder! – are Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and the monumental The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Those guys were actually working on the project.
[ Bloomsday: If you haven’t read ‘Ulysses’ yet, then start here ]
Now you’re good to go. By donning extra sweaters to offset your commitment to lower fuel bills, occasionally pausing for the raw hemp seeds your diet permits, without allowing yourself to curse at paragraph density, you can chew your way to springtime literary righteousness. . It worked for me. Of course I have read all the books mentioned above. In the original Dutch, Latin or French, if applicable. I shine with so much virtue that I don’t need lights on my bicycle. Happy New Year.