I remember a prominent cultural commentator being asked decades ago if she had read Finnegan’s Wake. “I have so much to read first,” she said ruefully. “I still have to finish Proust in French.”
It seems like the ultimate New Year’s reading project for someone who wasn’t raised francophone. Ulysses can go to hell. Professionals venture into 3,000 pages written in a language that is not their own. It can only be rounded off a bit by assuming that everyone else at the table has read À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in English. The original, it seems, would eventually come to us all.
On the other hand, that class of the highly educated no doubt considers the New Year’s reading project unspeakably bourgeois. You know that kind of thing. Some people choose to give up alcohol. More than a few declare that they will finally tackle the Great Novel that, purchased a few years ago, scowled accusingly every time they approached the bookshelf. Moby Dick may be surrounded by dozens of broken backs, but the strikingly smooth spine on that book is the only thing you see. He stares ahead like Robert Walker in the tennis sequence from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. All the other heads wave back and forth with the throwing ball. Only one looks straight through your retina and into your brain.
Everything about the New Year’s Reading Project is suspect. Started in the same spirit that the neighbors bring to learning the cello or quitting smoking, the endeavor is perceived as a painstaking task that will “come in handy” in the end. If you were reading for fun, you wouldn’t lump it in with other resolutions like cleaning the mysterious dirt from a leaking cistern. There is an awful sense that literature is taking on a self-help quality. If I go through this painful experience, my mind will be hardened just as my body is sharpened after a week of running up boring hills. When this is all over, I can go back to Colleen Hoover or James Patterson or, better yet, nothing. Stupid reading.
And yet. There are worse ways to grope through the early gloom of another miserable year. It’s not like anyone became a worse person reading A Man Without Properties by Robert Musil. If you’re going to engage in a New Year’s reading project, it’s also a good idea to clarify the rules.
First, the novel in question should be appropriately long. It’s hard to put a precise lower limit on this, but I’m not saying anything shorter than 600 pages in a standard paperback. The volume should be heavy enough that when you throw it over your shoulder in frustration, there’s a reasonable risk of visible bruising to anyone behind. So George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (a paltry 542 pages in my Penguin edition) won’t do at all, but Middlemarch (896) by the same author is comfortably in the zone.
Second, the book should be able to withstand accusations of “difficulties.” Moby Dick has a lot of heartwarming action, but those long sections describing the biology and social habits of whales certainly land it in obscure territory. As they knuckle over the sub-clauses that intrude on endless, unbroken sentences, readers of Proust – whether in the original or in translation – will surely admit that the prose is not quite as fiery as PG Wodehouse. Dickens is too much like a good party. Middlemarch has enough moral introspection to qualify.
Third, the book should have a reputation. What’s the use of bragging about some cobblestone that has yet to establish itself as a challenging classic for the ages. Endless novels from the 19th century and earlier are waiting to eat the pre-Easter gloom: Tristram Shandy, The Brothers Karamazov, Clarissa. The rise of modernism and postmodernism in the last century provided a veritable arsenal of suitable candidates. Ulysses exists, for Irish readers, alone in a clear belt of guilt. But spiky Americans offer less chewy alternatives. If you can tolerate its popularity among avant-garde Brooklyn cheesemongers, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest hasn’t lost any of its 1,079 attempted pages since its publication in 1996. Less infected—and, hooray, harder! – are Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and the monumental The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Those guys really worked for the project.
Now you are ready. By wearing extra sweaters to compensate for your commitment to lower gas bills, stopping occasionally for the raw hemp seed your diet allows, not allowing yourself to curse at the density of paragraphs, you can chew your way to springtime literary righteousness. It worked for me. I have, of course, read all the books listed above. In the original in Dutch, Latin or French where appropriate. I shine with so much virtue that I don’t need lights on my bike. Happy New Year.