Why I Am Suspending “52 Weeks of Literature” (For Now)

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If you’ve been following this blog loyally (not likely), you’ve realized by now that of the fifty books I pledged to read at the beginning of this year, at a point when I should be over halfway done, I’ve only reviewed ten. I’ve read sixteen. Clearly, this isn’t working. One of my motivations in crafting this project—besides getting through some books that I’d been interested in but were hesitant to commit the time to, for some reason—was to see how it would feel to trace a year through literature. Turns out, life is tracing my year for me; I’ve relocated to Philadelphia for a two-year job, and that in itself is an ambitious undertaking. Not to mention, this presidential election is driving me off the wall; nothing short of American democracy and progressivism is at stake. Am I letting politics and current events discourage me from one of my favorite pastimes? I don’t think so. There may well be more important things to write about on this blog over the next hundred days than literature and cinema for their own sakes. So I’ve fallen behind, and let’s face it, it’s not very possible to trace a year in your life through novels if you’re taking an extended hiatus from novels at any point during it, even if you’re impelled to make up for it by reading two novels a week (!) in the year’s back half.

The biggest reason I think my fifty-books endeavor has not succeeded, really, is that it just isn’t compatible with the way I ingest art. The best works of art to me aren’t the ones I fall in love with instantly; those peak early and pale in hindsight. The best art to me is the Stravinsky shit. When you first experience it, your reaction is “WTF?!” and it sticks in your mind, and you think about it more and realize that there might be something in there you missed the first time, so you give it a second chance, then a third…and that’s when the magic happens. Such was my experience with Portishead’s Dummy, The Cocteau Twins’ Heaven Or Las Vegas, and Slint’s Spiderland, albums that I am today never not in the mood to listen to. A good virgin learns to adapt, and a worthy underdog will always gain respect. The way that extends to literature is, the first time I pick up a classic novel, it is not uncommon for me to read a few chapters, fail to see what the fuss is, put it down, and maybe return to it X years later and finish it with a fresh perspective. Indeed, I’ve had some measured success this year with novels I’d previously started without finishing. The real difficulty came with the novels I hadn’t started and couldn’t sustain interest in after breaking the ice and seeing the fish beneath.

There’s a caveat to all this. Maybe my first impressions are right. Balzac? I was ten pages into Père Goriot and not feeling it, when I read Nabokov—in a footnote to his translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, no less—slamming the French titan as “overrated” and “vulgar,” and confirming my suspicions. Adichie? One chapter into Americanah, I read an amateur online critique of the novel as (to paraphrase) an overlong Ph.D. essay, and I was inclined to agree, and regretted that I hadn’t gone with Half of a Yellow Sun. Jostein Gaarder and Väinö Linna? Either they’re simple to a fault or they suffer in translation. There’s a difference between a novel that has merit and a novel that people say has merit. The more you become a bookworm and a film buff, the more you realize that the Great Western Canon is infected by political interests, radical zeitgeists, academic egos, inscrutable media obsessions, and insidious prejudices—especially against women, people of color, LGBTQIA persons, neuro-atypical persons, and anyone else “othered” at some point. The Canon can’t be trusted; one has to look beyond it, and trust his/her instincts as to whether the back blurb promises a good yarn. No work of art, no matter how canonical, is above critical reevaluation, for better or worse. I pray that no work of art I may create and disseminate in the future will be an exception to this rule.

As a result of this, the novels I was interested in in late December form a list very distinct from the novels I’m interested in seven months later. I’ve dived headlong into the New York Review Books Classics and Pushkin Press imprints and could well read everything therein. I’ve discovered Larry Woiwode, the Poet Laureate of North Dakota; Tahmima Anam, a new bearer of Bangladesh’s great literary tradition; and some of the lesser-known yet still provocative works of Yukio Mishima. I am spoiled rotten when it comes to all manners of the arts, and if I’m going to commit to a fixed list of books for a year, clearly, I ought to be more innovative. My approach to literature itself—by which I mean, my methods of curating literature—needs some serious reevaluation, something independent from the interference of critics and pedants. Thus, for the time being, I’m discontinuing my fifty-books project. Maybe I’ll try again next year, with a theme—all female authors, for instance. Maybe I’ll do another 30 or 31 Days of Cinema soon to add some more pep to this blog. (Of course that’s an easier project—bear in mind, I haven’t done that with a theme, yet.) If there is a particular demand from my readers for me to read and review a book on the original list, I’ll oblige, but I doubt that’ll happen. Right now, this blog is very much a public diary, a place for me to brood and muse. Here’s what I’ll tell you in regards to my old list: you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Halldór Laxness’ The Atom Station. Man, that book kicked my ass.

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Why I Am Suspending “52 Weeks of Literature” (For Now)

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