Some thoughts on a year’s worth of reading.

It’s September, again, suddenly, and that means that it’s been a year and a little bit since I first started thinking about creating this blog, and almost exactly a year since I published my first post. When I started this blog, I did so simply because I wanted an outlet, an impetus, a venue, for writing about reading. After four years of essays on “meaningful disagreements,” of writing for a few hasty hours on novels, plays and poems read just as quickly, I wanted to assure myself of two things: that I wouldn’t stop writing about reading, and that I would continue to hold myself accountable, in writing, to some kind of “audience” other than myself.

Leaving college, I was aware that my relationship to reading would have to change substantially, and I was also aware that our world’s relationship to reading was changing as well, in ways which were both drastic and rapid. So I also wanted to create a space in which to reflect on the act and the art of reading, and its importance in my life, and, as I see it, to life, in general.

I think, in terms of these goals, that I’ve both succeeded and failed, which is totally possible and allowable as there’s no method for “grading” this kind of work, beyond the (admittedly high but wildly unpredictable) standards set by my own intuitions. Luckily for me (and perhaps not so luckily for you) my intuitions are open to contradiction.

This year is the first one since I was very young where almost all of my reading choices were purely personal. There were no syllabi, beyond the ones I set for myself (not a one of which I completed, by the way), and no “required reading,” only the requirement of reading, and of writing about it. Looking back on what I’ve read, it’s been (in fits and spurts) a really wonderful year. I returned to many of my favorite writers, and read their works again, or read new works of theirs for the first time. I read Woolf’s Orlando in London, reread nearly all of Salinger, read Dickinson all over the place, poured over Vonnegut and McCullers. Of late, I’ve been spending a great deal of time with King Lear. I rediscovered Shelley (Percy), Milton, and Cather.

There were also some dazzling new discoveries—James Baldwin, Milan Kundera, Dostoevsky, Annie Dillard, Charles Lamb—and some discoveries equal parts dazzling and sad (Jane Bowles, Rachel Wetzsteon). I’ve read Alice Munro, Philip Larkin and Joan Didion, and Maile Meloy, all for the first time, and found them all to be writers of great wisdom, compassion and skill.

Thanks to starting this blog, I went through a period of reading a great many other blogs and online periodicals, from most of which I gleaned very little, but some of whom I return to regularly, and by whom I am singularly and continually impressed. Elizabeth Bachner’s features on Bookslut, Susan Schorn’s Bitchslap: A Column about Women and Fighting, on McSweeney’s, and the book reviews of Litlove from Tales from the Reading Room, are the three that most immediately come to mind.

There have been some thoroughly enjoyable mornings, evenings, and afternoons worth of reading (Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, John Updike’s precise and touching poetry, a collection of short stories by Claire Wigfall). And there have been numerous books I failed, for some reason or other, to make it all the way through (Clarissa, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Beautiful and Damned). And some I’ve just quit on, because there are only so many books I’ll get to read in this life, and however unworthily, these ones didn’t make the cut.

For the sake of knowing of what The Art of Reading really consists, I thought about going back to reread my old posts, but I haven’t done that, in part because I’m not sure I want to make the time to reread my own writing when I could be reading something better, and in part because part of me (and not just in relation to this blog, but elsewhere in my writing life) is deeply hesitant to return to my old writing, because I don’t know what exactly I’ll find there. At the very least, I know I’d have to confront my rampart and irrational abuse of the comma (not to mention–ha!–the parenthetical…). And at the worst, I’d have to see so many shortcomings, so many places where I could have articulated something better, or could have articulated something better.

Glancing through a hastily drawn up and incomplete list of titles I’ve read in the past year though, it’s funny for me to see the way many of the books that really impressed me the first time through, fall away when I look back, from a distance, on what I’ve read. This allows me to think, rather happily, that first impressions aren’t always the most important. And maybe first years aren’t the most important, either.

A lot of the reading that has meant the most to me hasn’t made an appearance on this blog, or made only an elliptical one, because for me reading is often intensely personal, and I can be intensely private. Maybe it’s enough to say—though it wouldn’t surprise me if this was obvious—that I still find, even without the structure of classes and the pestering of professors who demand that you turn to literature with questions, and seek answers, that when I am most troubled, most confused and most alone, books speak to me. They don’t always give me the answers I am looking for, nor do I always understand what it is they have to say, but more often than not I find at least solace and usually much more in the writings of others, and in the act of writing myself.

I even occasionally get a message like “What are you doing trying to find this out in a book? Call a friend, you idiot, leave your apartment, get out of your head, and pay attention to the world.” And many of the lapses in this blog over the past year have been due to me doing exactly that: getting out of my head (as much as possible for someone like me, anyways) and seeing the world. So that’s a blessing.

Recently I got a job that just immerses me in books and introduces me daily to new things to read, and new readers to talk to about their favorite books and favorite writers. And that means there’s so much I’m looking forward to, reading-wise (Everything is Illuminated, Master and Margarita, maybe a rereading of Lolita, more Iris Murdoch, and—here’s hoping—more contemporary writing). The next twelve months should be good ones, at least as far as reading is concerned. Beyond that, though, at the moment I’m quite uncertain about what the next year holds for me. And in this respect at least, this blog, at it’s one year anniversary, is offering me something in return for all the writing I’ve poured into it: it’s offering me the established and continued promise of a space in which to write about reading. And that feels to me, right now, like no small thing.

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One thought on “Some thoughts on a year’s worth of reading.

  1. Margaret, I always enjoy reading your posts and I almost never comment, but I do have to tell you that you have already found your mythical “voice” and it is quite pleasing to the ear and the mind’s eye. I know it is thick, and I know your reading list is long, but I really enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, events seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who is usually cast as a villain. She won the pulitzer for it, or maybe it was the booker prize, can’t remember, and must run now. Keep writing. You are delightful.

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