What Makes a Good Reading Year?

Has it been a good reading year?
Yes, I would say so.
Has it been a good year? No, it has been terrible.
Here’s what we know:  a good year and a good reading year are not often synchronous.

The months go by so fast! I hate to turn the pages of the calendar.  I wish we’d had more golden reading days in August. Couldn’t we  shorten December and transfer the days back? And wouldn’t it be more fun to celebrate the New Year on the Summer Solstice?  Why January?

I am always restless on New Year’s Day.   The only entertainment option, since we see all the independent films over Christmas, is to go to the office supply superstore and fill our cart with Planners, storage boxes, file folders, and calculators. But the reading in 2018 got off to a fun start.  The first book I finished was Laura Lee Smith’s The Ice House, a compulsively readable novel (now in paperback) about a likable small-town couple who have a literal “meltdown” when their ice factory in Florida is investigated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).  Smith is  a bit like Richard Russo, only lighter.

I enjoyed my January reading, but it was not striking.   Fast forward to the beginning of March and my reading life accelerated. During a wintry trip to London I was confined to the hotel room for long hours: there were only two or three inches of snow, but no one  in London had a shovel! And I didn’t have boots.  The British Library and Trafalgar Square were cordoned off like a crime scene.

Snow falls in Trafalgar Square in London, February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

I idled in coffeehouses and museums. And then I read and read.  When I wasn’t fending off addicts—one banged on my door in the middle of the night at the cheap hotel in an iffy neighborhood, so I had to move—I read Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, The London Scene, A Common Reader, and On Being Ill; Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books, and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Good God! That’s a reading record.  The snow melted on the last day of the trip—of course.

Back home, I binged on Russian literature.  I devoured Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, one of those novels which critics name-drop but no common reader ever reads. I was utterly entranced by this complex political novel about radicals who experiment with co-ops and free love.  (You can read my post about it at Mirabile Dictu.)  The politics reminded me of America in the 1960s and ’70s.

From Chernyshevsky I moved on to  Dostoevsky’s The Demons, the only novel I’ve ever enjoyed by Dostoevsky.  Dostoevsky loathed Turgenev, and in this fast-paced novel about the residents of a provincial town infiltrated by nihilists, he makes scathing references to Turgenev’s work.   Dostoesky’s demonic nihilists are nothing like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

In late spring I began to reread Horace in the original Latin, and though his best work is incomparably gorgeous, this reading confirmed my opinion that he is a pompous misogynist.  You haven’t lived till you’ve read him on middle-aged women who sweat and stink, and make him impotent.  As for his obsequiousness to Augustus, he is a Roman Uriah Heep.  And when he writes in Ode 3.30, “I have made a monument more lasting than bronze,” it makes me miss Catullus, who humorously, if not sincerely,  refers to his own poems as nugae, nonsense or trifles.

And then I reread Ovid, a far more daring poet than Horace, and the one you’d prefer to talk to at a party. He was  banished from Rome (which I like to pronounce  banish-ud!) because of carmen et error, a poem and an error.  If you haven’t read Ovid, I recommend Metamorphoses.

The summer sped by with a binge on  P. G. Wodehouse, Trollope, Elizabeth von Arnim, Steinbeck, Olivia Manning, and Patricia Moyes. The fall was devoted to Stanley Middleton, Kristin Lavransdatter, Queen Lucia, Bleak House, and Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time. I am pretending I didn’t read Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit!

I also read a 1979 book,  Reinventing Anarchy:  What Are Anarchists Thinking Now?, in memory of a friend I knew in my counter-culture teens. She and her parents moved away and lived in a collective; I was invited to go along, but I declined.   Reinventing Anarchy did help me remember the idealism of those times.

Overall, it has been a rich reading year. You can read most of my 2018  posts  at Mirabile Dictu, my blog of six years, but, as you know if you’re here, I recently moved to Thornfield Hall.  With the exception of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have enjoyed most of the books I’ve read this year. I hope your reading year has been as happy.

9 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Reading Year?”

  1. Here our New Year dates from the winter solstice when, however minimally, the days start to lengthen. So I can look back at last year from the new and ask how good a reading year it was and the answer is not particularly good at all. For the most part this was because I turned my life upside down by moving house. Even though I had planned to do this it was still totally traumatic and so much of my reading time was given over to re-reading old favourites so that I had some comfort somewhere in my world. This year isn’t looking much better at the moment because I have a lot of hospital time on the horizon and again that will need existing friends to see me through. I shall just have to hope that all those writers who publish as part of a series come up with new works.

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    1. Moving IS traumatic! Nonetheless, you’ve written all those lovely reviews at your blog so you managed to read quite a lot. At the hospital I’ve found collections of comic strips helpful, and of course mysteries.

      Sent from my iPad

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  2. I like your way of summarizing your reading year. Sometimes I do a review of my year during the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas Day to Epiphany, and that includes looking back at the books I read. I’d say that every year is a good reading year for me, the flavor and character of my reading just fluctuates with changing interests and life events. It would be interesting to try to put it all into a narrative.

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  3. Glad to find someone else who’s read “What is to be Done?” I think it’s sadly underread. I was told at length in grad school about how absolutely unreadable it was, and was surprised to find myself enjoying it immensely when I did read it. I’m sure its bad reputation has nothing to do with its feminist message.

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    1. I absolutely adored it! We’re in the same club here. It’s SO hard to tell about the writing in translation. Michael Katz wasn’t smooth, but it was readable and fascinating. I do think people would like it in translation, though natch I have no idea about the original.

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