Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

28 thoughts on “Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

  1. Absolutely agree that missed reading plans only means that other interesting possibilities have arisen. I went through a Maxwell kick about 20 years ago. Really time to re-read him. I’m sure he would seem like a totally different writer. In my memory, The Chateau is one of the great books.
    Thanks for writing so interestingly about Semprun this year. You’ve made me very keen to read him. And everyone seems to love Cusk: I need to check her out.
    Here’s to lots more reading in 2017!

  2. I’ve ordered the two Library of American editions of Maxwell’s work, and will work through chronologically until i feel the urge to move on.

    So pleased that I’ve inspired you to read Semprun. His writing has quickly come to mean very much to me. Cusk seems to polarise people, but Outline was terrific and I will certainly read others next year.

    Have a great year’s reading in 2017!

    • I write and teach a lot about Holocaust Literature, and it seems as though Semprun fits in there in an interesting way. I really need to rectify that omission. Let me know if you get to Maxwell’s stories. I’ve a hunch some of those could be great to teach, and when I went on that Maxwell kick I only read three or four of his novels.

      • Semprún is a Spanish ‘Red’ that was arrested while fighting for the French Resistance, so his perspective is somewhat different.

        In the Backlisted podcast, a number of Maxwell’s stories are mentioned. I do hope to get to them as I go chronologically through Maxwell’s oeuvre.

  3. I tend not to plan reading, preferring whim & chance. This year, eg, I finally read two novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett that had been on my shelves for years – she’s brilliant. I also seem to be reading far more fiction by women – have recently developed a passion for Virago Modern Classics. Hence Rosamond Lehmann. A box set of Beckett’s prose glowers at me from the shelf. Also Maxwell. Need to clear the backlog before buying more. Happy New Year, & keep up the good work.

  4. William Maxwell is excellent and I hope you enjoy him. I hope his books, which I need to re-read, bring you comfort.
    Rachel Cusk is coming to SF in February and I plan to live-tweet that. She is polarizing but in a way I like. Speaking of prickly characters, I can’t wait for new Yiyun Li either.
    As usual I wish I had more time to read but got 37 books in this year and hope to do even better next year. Thank you for your blog!

    • Thanks, Caille, for all our much appreciated interactions this year. I value your friendship highly.

      I’ll look forward to you live-tweeting Rachel Cusk’s visit.

  5. I started listening to Backlisted this year too, and my hold on So long, See You Tomorrow should be in next week. I discovered Jean Rhys because of them. They’re the best!

    • I often listen to their podcasts thinking, I’m not likely to be interested in this writer but will enjoy the conversation anyway. By the end, I’m convinced to dip into a body of work outside of my range of references.

  6. I will be interested to follow your reading as you open yourself to more “contemporary” works. You will notice that with reading in translation, a “new” book that is garnering attention can easily be 25-30 years old, like the Lewinter books I just wrote about. I do find that sticking close to smaller independent publishers increases the possibility that one will find something interesting.
    As for myself, I plan to continue writing critical reviews for publications in the new year but I am being very selective about the books I chose. Meanwhile I’m entertaining the idea of taking a more reflective approach to writing about books on my blog—inspired by your thoughtful approach. I also have some best laid reading plans brewing too and tomorrow (it’s still New Year’s Eve as I write this) I may pull them together into a post. And then probably fail to meet them, but it is fun to dream.

    • Thanks, Joe, for your thoughtful support and friendship. I’m so pleased you find some inspiration in what I write. You are in turn influencing my writing as I wonder about incorporating more of my life into my thoughts on books. Our associations and experiences colour a reading as much as a writers. I’ve also nearly always declined to write pieces for places other than Time’s Flow Stemmed, and wouldn’t have submitted pieces to The Scofield and the Seagull Book’s catalogue had it not been for your influence. I’m wondering if I should be more open about writing for other places.

    • I’ve read The Savage Detectives, which I love very much. Somehow I’ve never followed it up with further Bolzano books. I do intend to one day, and have several awaiting attention.

      • I think you might find Distant Start of interest. Given your interests, your sense of the tyranny of representation, you might find Cesar Aira to be another Latin American writer of interest. Enjoy your blog and the new reading directions it often leads me in.

        • Thanks for the suggestions. I am pleased that you enjoy my blog and that it inspires your reading. I had Distant Star, so perhaps one for later in the year. I tried Aira’s How I Became a Nun but didn’t particularly enjoy it, though I know many people that consider it a great book. I might try another.

  7. I tend not to plan too much as so much of my reading is driven by mood and frame of mind at the time. Like Simon, I’ve been reading more women recently,
    writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen. Anna Kavan was such a talent. I love her slipstream novel, Ice. Guilty is very good too. She pushes back against the reader’s expectations in surprising ways.

    Wishing you all the best for 2017.

    • Best wishes to you too, Jacqui. I’ve never stuck too much to my plans, but this year is more unplanned than normal. Anna Kavan is one of those writers I can’t binge on, the writing is too rich. I do intend to explore Rhys’ work this year, if that plan comes off.

  8. Serendipity is the soul of reading – which is why I like poking around library stacks… You never know what hidden treasures you might unearth.
    On a purely shallow note: is that your reading corner pictured above? Because, if it is, I am very envious!

    • I’m fortunate to have space in this house to devote one room to what we grandly call the library. It’s the first time I’ve had all my books in one room.

  9. There are always so many books that distract us from our plans that I’m going for a simple no-plan option this year. Look forward to hearing about your reading, and I agree with Marina that the reading nook looks glorious!

  10. Well, you have successfully managed to generate within me a desire to read a number of books I almost surely shall not make the time to read. So it goes.

    My plans for 2017 reach about as far as what is currently staring me in the face: Herodotus’ History (Grene, trans.), Homer’s Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.), the Library of America collections of American poetry, John Peck’s Cantilena, and some Lorrie Moore. And continue exploring Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies. Beyond that I suppose I shall try to work through some of the books accumulated on my poetry shelf.

    I don’t believe I have posted here before, so, also: hello, I enjoy following your blog, even though (or perhaps because) it comes at the cost of coming to want to read things I cannot.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment here. I’m so pleased that you enjoy following this blog, and to have been introduced to your fascinating blog, which I look forward to exploring further.

      I always wish to make more time for poetry, though in practise this usually means reading a different translation of The Iliad.

      • One can certainly do worse than reading new (to oneself) translations of the Iliad. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve still only read one: Fagles. And only one Odyssey, too (Lattimore). But yes, such is how it goes. My focus in reading has increasingly come to center around poetry, with the result that I was shocked to find, upon reviewing my year’s reading, that I had somehow read a mere three novels (Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop; Mann’s The Magic Mountain; Shelley’s Frankenstein) and no short story collections.

        I suspect that a good deal of my 2017 reading will be translations of Homer and Virgil, though I have no specific plans beyond Lombardo’s Odyssey as yet.

        I should add to my list Milton’s Paradise Lost. I am most at home writing in blank verse, and yet I have somehow never read it. If I have not done so by the year’s conclusion I think I shall have to consider the year a failure.

        • Ah yes, Milton’s Paradise Lost: I’ve picked it off the shelf a dozen times with the intention of reading from start to finish but I give way and turn to the well-thumbed best bits. I do love it and even claim to have read it occasionally, but one day I will explore from cover to cover.

          Logue’s Iliad was a high point of this year’s reading. Hardly a translation as he couldn’t read Greek, but a worthwhile account of his own, along similar lines to Alice Oswald’s Iliad.

          Any year in which one reads The Magic Mountain is a great year’s reading. I could probably reread that annually if there were not other distractions.

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