Happy New Year! You’ve popped corks, kissed a stranger, struggled to find a cab, and slept until noon in your party clothes. Now that you’ve shaved your tongue and sworn off eight-dollar bottles of pink sparkling wine, it’s time to get serious about setting some goals for 2015. As a Booklist reader, it seems likely that your resolution will encompass becoming not only a better person but also a better reader. So why not think big? After all, you have a whole year ahead of you. While you ponder just which author, book, shelf, or genre to tackle, here are some books to inspire your decision-making.
All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, by Amy Elizabeth Smith
Reading all six of Austen’s novels isn’t much of a challenge, and only a scholar or a pedant is going to tackle her poems, letters, and juvenilia. But literature professor Smith did something amazing by setting up Jane Austen reading groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile. How would readers in those countries relate to Pride and Prejudice—or would they? You’ll have to read her book to find out. But, in the meantime, you can plan your own hemisphere-spanning project with the cult author of your choosing.
Most resolutions center on self-improvement, and there’s not much room for improvement after you’ve become the smartest person in the world. Some people might pursue that goal at Harvard; others through self-designed curricula—if you’re Jacobs, you simply read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All of it. Is knowledge best gained in alphabetical order? That question is still yours to answer, as Jacobs basically uses the classic reference work as a way to organize his memoir.
My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Or maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to give one book a really close reading. There’s something appealing about really digging into a classic, exploring the author’s biography, scouring history for contextual clues, and scribbling all over the margins of the dog-eared copy you conspicuously flop open at the coffee shop. For Mead, George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a “masterwork of sympathetic philosophy”—and, if you’d like to have more to say about Eliot than “George’s real name was Mary,” maybe this will be a good choice for you, too. Or maybe Ulysses would be better. Or even Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. It’s up to you!
Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea
Or maybe you really do prefer the idea of stunt reading—an audaciously ambitious project that will cause your bibliophile friends’ reading glasses to slide off their noses as they stand slack-jawed in astonishment. While such enthusiasms may cause friends and family to question your sanity, it’s not like you won’t be smarter at the end of it. Shea, who really, really, really likes dictionaries, spent a year reading through all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Only a year, you ask? Follow in his footsteps, and you, too, will be able to bring water-cooler conversations to a screeching halt by dropping the latest in out-of-date terminology. The very idea, however, threatens to turn me into a hypergelast.
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
One person’s extreme may be another person’s extremely boring—after all, the GoPro video of Rose’s shuffle through a single shelf of the fabled New York Society Library would likely function as an effective sleep aid to even the most hardened insomniac. However! Haven’t you ever been tempted by some of those neglected books shelved next to the book you’re looking for? Imagine the discoveries you could make! The biggest question might be how to choose your shelf—but, if you’re an aspirational book buyer like me, you might just find that shelf in your very own library.
Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick
With all due respect to the estimable Mr. Philbrick and his National Book Award, I think I can answer this question: because Moby-Dick IS the Great American Novel. Yes, it’s probably tied with Ulysses (see how that book keeps coming up?) for honors in most people’s great-book-I-didn’t-finish category, but give yourself the time and space to tackle this quintessential American work and you will, hopefully, become captivated. And if you need a cheerleader urging you on, read Philbrick for all the reasons you should be reading.
Jacobs (yes, him again), definitely has a shtick. In this book, he spends a year attempting to observe the Bible’s 700-odd rules for righteous behavior. He lets his beard grow, prays a lot, and, perhaps most challenging, practices the purity laws (those who have read the Good Book may remember its authors’ obsession with their wives’ menstruation). We’re talking about reading, not behavior, but classic religious texts can be worth your while whether or not you’re a believer—after all, almost all of English literature is informed, in one way or another, by the Bible. I once read the King James Bible from cover to cover, and it was truly eye-opening.
The Year of Reading Proust, by Phyllis Rose
Rose (yes, her again) is another author who likes to organize her books around books. In this case, it was a desire to overcome an aversion to Proust—and she’s a literature professor! As she navigates the meandering streams and eddies of his novels, finding value in the observations of the confectionery-obsessed, bed-bound Frenchman, she reflects on her own life and even the nature of awareness itself. Rose is a writer worthy of her subject, but I’m going to guess that her subject’s writing remains more daunting than even Moby-Dick or Ulysses (yes, them again) to most readers. But e arly January is a time for thinking big: Do you have the literary grit to read Proust?
And what is my own reading resolution? As a recidivist resolver—I’m still in the middle of my latest, which is to read all the books by Peter Temple—I confess I was tempted to skip the whole thing this year. But what the hell: I’ll read Moby-Dick again.