A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.


The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

Ancient Wisdom

A Time to Keep Silence comprises three slim essays, this morning’s reading with a pot of tea. I read them once, replenished my tea, and read them again, more carefully, paying closer attention to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s use of language. With a good dictionary to hand I was able to look up scapulars and giaour and encomium. With Leigh Fermor I always discover fascinating new words.

As I read of Leigh Fermor’s monastery life, from the muffled footfall of the Abbey of St. Wandrille to the austere asceticism of La Grande Trappe, finally to the eerie riddles posed by the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, for a few hours I shared Leigh Fermor’s discovery of tranquility.

These essays end with Leigh Fermor referring to St. Basil of Caesarea, but the excerpt could so easily apply to the writer of this special book:

There is a mood of humanity and simplicity in his writings, an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still. And, while the daylight vanishes from these northern hayfields, it is a similar blessing, an ancient wisdom exorcising the memory of conflict and bloodshed of the intervening centuries, that brings its message of tranquility to quieten the mind and compose the spirit.

2009: Some Favourite Books

 

This is the first year I maintained a list of the books that I read (more on that in a 10 days time). Keeping a record of what I have read has been fascinating. It is an exercise I shall certainly continue. Of my reading this year the following stand out as a top 10 of those I enjoyed most and will certainly reread:

  1. Thomas Mann – The Magic Mountain
  2. Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory
  3. Jane Austen – Emma
  4. Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts
  5. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
  6. Roberto Bolaño – The Savage Detectives
  7. Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
  8. Sara Maitland – A Book of Silence
  9. John Berger – Here is Where We Meet
  10. Gabriel Josipovici – After & Making Mistakes

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.