When I started reading seriously at the age of 16 (give or take), I had read few books that qualified as serious literature and had an unfocused desire to have read them all. Thus I made a lot of plans: read all of my library's list of classic literature (a pretty good list, it must be said), read all of Shakespeare, read all of Charles Dickens, read the Great Books, read the Harvard Classics, read all of Balzac, read all of Dostoevsky. There were many lists and many goals because I was composing them abstractly, attempting to bind the actions of a person who did not yet exist, and on the erroneous assumption than my as-yet-undeveloped taste would remain the same. As it turns out, I do not respond well to Shakespeare or drama in general; my problems with Dickens are well-covered here; lists and collections tend to be put together by a group of people, and so represent the collected reading experience of many rather than any realistic program of reading for one person.

The goals that have persisted in spite of this tend to be more limited in scope. No one's juvenilia is any good: the dream of reading all of an author's work died hard at Auden's and Dostoevsky's: the latter's early novels and stories are fine but no better than other novels of the period. One might as well go read a minor, but mature, George Eliot, since the young man whose novels I would be plodding through was not yet Dostoevsky in the relevant sense. The lesson would have applied to Bolaño, but the juvenile and the unfinished is sometimes better than his early prose work--The Third Reich is superior to The Skating Rink by any measure, and the desire to snap things up when published made it harder to also listen to critical judgments of each work. Left to me is moving through the mature work of authors I like in a systematic way: Cesar Aira, Javier Marias, Emile Zola, George Eliot, Mario Vargas Llosa, Dostoevsky, others certainly forgotten at the moment. A novel or two by each every year, a handful of new books that seem interesting, a handful of older novels that have come to me by recommendation. Round out with a re-reading or two of an old favorite, a re-visitation of an author previously dismissed, and that's a year.

In that planning, and eventually setting up a working equilibrium, I never quite anticipated that I might reach any of those goals. I have one major Dostoevsky novel left (The Adolescent), only two more by Marias, though with the hope that he keeps writing, one last Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon) and so it goes further down the list. I'd like to keep up with Flaubert, but I suspect there are only two or three novels of his left that are worth the effort, and the same applies to many others. This was brought home for me after finishing Zola's Belly of Paris, which is now the eighth of the Rougon-Macquart that I've read. If I maintain my non-stressful pace of two or three a year, I will be done in four years. He has other novels and there are other writers, but there will simply be nothing else there. It will have been read. The pattern repeats down the line, and my graduate education crossed off a significant portion of my list. I wanted to have read the major developments in western thought on these topics, and I have: I can pursue this down to increasingly minor figures, or find something else to do with my time.

I'm beginning to grasp something of the second lives that I've seen in many of the serious adult readers I've known, a shift that seems to happen in middle age, a plausible response to the "what now?" that comes from matching as many youthful reading goals as might have been established. I suspect my own long and fruitful excursion into Latin American literature is a first sign of this, as a way of varying and responding to the limitations of the 19th-century realist novel that I first found so captivating.

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