The Year In Reading

In the last couple years, I've been working around two long-term reading goals: reading all of Emile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart, and reading all of Javier Márias' novels. The two emerged slowly and accidentally. Picking up a novel and liking it naturally leads to looking for another novel by the same author, but since I read by mood and time of year, and with some variation of time period and author nationality/gender, the initial stages are slow. I was probably five novels into Zola's series before it seemed practical and of interest. At the end of this year, I'm in good standing with each goal: nine into Zola, at a steady rate of three a year now, and having completed all of Márias except a couple on the border of juvenilia and the newest, not yet translated to English.

Having a plan of reading suits my habits quite well. As a reader I like to constantly be reading. But as a person who likes to vary what I'm reading, I fall into periods of indecision several times a year, not entirely sure what the next thing to read should be. The plan gives me a fallback option that will be at least somewhat well received: both authors write with varying quality, being human, but neither the style nor the structure pose any significant problems anymore. They'll get me back reading.

This year, I added Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Sometime in January I found a review of the series that made it sound as though it touched subjects of interest and was considered by many serious readers to be difficult to master. The latter of these is, of course, a siren song to me. Three-quarters of the way through, I've found it to be rather the opposite. Powell's habit is to begin each novel with new supporting characters and a context not necessarily made clear, but many years of Russian novel reading have taught me the art of waiting a hundred pages for everything to sort itself out, especially on names. (A well-written novel will eventually make clear who the important people are, and allow you the means to track them.) Little tends to happen in the novels--though the World War II ones have been comparatively action-packed--and I suspect this is their most significant obstacle for most readers. It is not the accumulation of small detail, which is the mode of the novel at the moment, but the big structural parallels and recurrences that make the series s gripping. (I have been personally most tickled by the war novels' continued references to Balzac's Lost Illusions, never referred to by name, rather as "that book with the long digressions about how to manage interest on a loan given the state of printing technology in the early 19th century," a description I can only describe as dead on.)

For the coming year, I am thinking of adding a goal or two. It seems time to tackle Henry James and Proust. I had a good, though unfinished, experience with The Turn of the Screw in 2013, and the authors I like to read so often make reference and homage to James and Proust as influences. I do, however, suspect that it makes sense to set a more modest goal for next year, so I may just return to the mature novels of Dostoevsky--The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Idiot, The Adolescent, House of the Dead, and maybe Notes From Underground. It would have the advantage of being a list I have almost entirely already read, a few of which I have come to think I perhaps read too quickly the first time, unlikely to be an issue this time around. George Eliot also beckons, and a return to Elizabeth Taylor, but these are perhaps better saved for other years.

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