As another chapter opens in this book of life, I’m looking for new surprises, new plot twists, meeting new characters, and also some level of comfort, love, and joy. As someone who writes about books for a living, I’m expecting the same of the books I read this year.
Yet reading professionally often takes the pleasure out of reading. Many times I find myself rushing through these stacks of advance review copies—I write 3-5 reviews a week for Publishers Weekly on topics ranging from literary memoir and literary biography, religion, film, cooking and food, sports, and literary criticism—to meet deadlines. I just ran through 900 pages of a new biography of Toscanini, for example (Harvey Sachs, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience. Liveright/Norton; out in June). It’s an excellent book, and Sachs is a lively writer; his 900 pages rarely bore the reader. However, I’ll very likely never go back to the book to read it at a more leisurely pace since the next books—Julio Cortázar’s Literature Class, Berkeley 1980 (New Directions, March) and Adam Kirsch’s The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century (Columbia Global Reports, April)—await my roving eyes. Of course, this is not to mention Mike Nesmith’s new memoir, John Oates’ new memoir, or Jessi Colter’s new memoir, among many others, for this column.
My professional reading life, as it does for many others, has had a way of interrupting my life of reading for pleasure, so that I read far less for pleasure these days than perhaps I once did (though working on a graduate degree during the heyday of literary theory also left its mark; apart from the classes in American literature or comparative literature I taught in those years, in which we actually read carefully novels and poetry, I spent days lost in the labyrinth of the then-popular deconstruction or the labored writings of Marxist theorists). Now, this is not to say that I don’t read for pleasure, but rather that, first, the demands of reading professionally require different ways of looking at books than readings for pleasure; and, second, reading professionally doesn’t leave as much time to read for pleasure. This also means that as I riffle the first few pages of this new chapter of life, I’ve been thinking about how better to balance my professional reading with the reading I do for pleasure.
One way of trying to achieve this balance is to make a few reading resolutions. Now, everyone resolves to read a certain number of books a year, but that won’t be one of my resolutions. I already read about 300 books a year, many for review, and I’ve never thought that there is any magic in setting a numerical goal of books to be read. It’s sort of like resolving to lose 30 pounds in the year; you might achieve that goal, but if you haven’t changed your approach to diet, then those 30 pounds will return. My resolutions—and I may or may not be able to keep this resolve—focus more on approach and method and less on quantity, though there may be one exception.
Re-read, re-read, re-read: I’ve come to the stage in life at which I’ve accumulated roughly 7,000 or so volumes. Many of these titles I cherish, but I have not returned to them in years. I have enough books to keep me reading until I die—which may be, perhaps, like poet James Dickey, who died in his rocker with stacks of books all around him—without ever buying any new ones (though I am afraid to say that hasn’t stopped me from buying a few new here and there). Several years ago, I used to make a reading list every New Year’s Day; looking back on those lists, many titles appeared year after year: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I do try to re-read at least every five years and, given the current political climate, this is a good time to re-read); Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund (though the last time I re-read this book, I realized that it perfectly captured my life when I first read it at 23, but at 55 it merely entertained); May Sarton, A Small Room (I recently did re-read this and while it lacked the power of my first reading of it almost 30 years ago, Sarton’s writing never fails to be a pleasure to read). I have not yet made a list for this year, but I do want to re-read James Baldwin and Albert Murray and Gil Scott-Heron; I plan to re-read one of my favorite books—Orrin Pilkey’s The Beaches Are Moving (my first career was marine biology), which is one of the very best accounts of the changing character of America’s shorelines and the ways that development has hastened such changes; I plan to re-read some of the liberation theology that shaped me in that part of my life, and I look forward to re-reading a little Daniel Berrigan.
Divest, divest, divest: This will be the most difficult resolution for me to keep—sort of like losing those 30 pounds. I have 7,000 or so books; I’ve reached a point where the number of years left to me can no longer match the number of books I can read in a year. So, this year, I’ll do my best to pare down my collection to the books to which I will return again and again to re-read. I’m not sure what criteria I’ll use to reduce the number of titles in my library. When I was a reference librarian in a public library, I would “weed” my part of the collection using circulation statistics; so, maybe I toss all those books I haven’t looked at in the past ten years—anybody want some books on literary theory? Or, maybe I simply take all the boxes of books I haven’t opened since the last move to the sale bin or the donation table? After all, if I have only 100-200 books in my collection, then I’ll do more re-reading.
Read fewer long books: This will be a challenge, but there’s only so much time left to read, and I don’t want to waste it on overly long miasmic messes like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or any of Jonathan Franzen’s novels or Thomas Pynchon’s latest. I doubt seriously I’m going back to pick up where I left off in Joyce’s Ulysses, though since I did a set of notes for a published volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy—one of Joyce’s sources—I will likely go back to it. There will be long music memoirs coming out this year, no doubt, but even those could be much shorter than the author or the fans think they should be. For pleasure, though, I won’t read books longer than 400 pages unless there is some very compelling reason to do so.
Read more poetry and short stories: Melancholy though it is, the poem that keeps coming back to me in these days is William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” I read more novels and nonfiction than poetry these days, and I need the balance that a good poem or a good short story brings to my reading life.
As I sit here listening to Caroline Spence’s beautiful new album and thinking about this new year, I realize what I do every year about this time—and, hell, every day of the year for that matter—there is too much good music, and too little time, and there are too many good books, and too little time.