Editor's note: this post got away from us, slightly, and, therefore, is presented in two versions. The body text of the blog post is provided below. The (hopefully far more fun) version is available as a downloadable (and more or less printable PDF, at least, printable, if you skip the cover page, though, to be fair, at the time of publication, I have not actually tried printing a copy, so, if you try, please, report back with your experience and/or suggestions for improvement, which will be addressed after a vacation I'm about to go on in a matter of hours, which may or may not take me directly into the heart of Irene, which is awesome, yeah) here:
Late last year, I decided the only way I could ever work through my ever-growing TBR pile would be to tackle it in strict chunks. Like, line ’em up, knock ’em down piles, projects, whatever you want to call them. Looking at my stacks of books, both physical and virtual, I realized there were a lot of long books on there, both physically and spiritually. Books I wanted to read or re-read but which I knew could easily get put off for months or years at a time, which fact I knew because it was exactly what I had done with most of them.
Flash forward almost eight months, and I’ve just begun reading the last book on that pile. Like Callie Miller, who has spent the last I don’t know how long re-reading all of Haruki Murakami’s novels, I’m:
...floundering a bit on many fronts. I don’t really want it to end. I very much want it to end. I probably should have written about each book as I completed it. I should have taken academic-style notes. I’m glad I didn’t do anything of the sort.
There is so much to say about all of these books I’ve read this year. And I kick myself a little bit for not saying more about them, until I give myself an actual break and realize that, hey, I’ve been working a day job and going to school and starting to develop these like professional-level design career plans and, oh yeah, taking on a freelance-type project here and there. If I haven’t been as active a blogger in the last few years, it’s not because I haven’t wanted to write more about books. I have. Badly. But at the end of the day, the day has to end, whether or not you’ve accomplished the thousand items on your to-do list for the entire year.
So here we are, with about 900 pages between me and the end of both Against the Day and my big crazy stupid ambitious reading project for the year, and me wondering if the question about a project like this is, what exactly from it did you learn, are you learning?
And I think one of my stated or unstated goals was to learn to be more wholly focused on the book I’m reading right now and spend less time looking forward to the book that follows. Frankly, it’s a lesson I’m still grappling with, knowing how much I both want to continue enjoying a book like Against the Day for years at a time while also hurrying up through it right now today to finish it so I can get to the short short short and also hopefully fast books that I have lined up after it. It’s a pseudopainful paradox, the dual calls placed by literature to our eyes and minds, one call from the page in front of us, one from the pages that follow. But lining up all these sorts of books in a row does serve as a refreshing sort of antidote to that latter call, a recognition that, for someone with some role to play in the modern world of books, really, it’s okay to just check out for a while and actually go read some other stuff, whatever the current buzz might be.
What an exercise like this does not teach is the patience to get through a terrible book for the sake of saying you got through a terrible book. It does teach patience with books that aren’t easy going; I had put The Recognitions on this reading list for the year because I knew I needed to read it at least once, but now, having read it, having pushed through it, having understood maybe a quarter of it, I can safely say it’s going back onto some re-read project list down the line in a couple years maybe, because, huh wait what the huh wha wha wha? Parts of it were insanely awesome and parts of it might have been awesome if I knew what was going on and other parts were words on pages that went in one eyeball and out the other, but at least I read it, essentially, and saw enough in it to know I want to go back to it someday, armed with more coffee and a willingness to tackle something complex and difficult in a meaningfully focused quasi-academic way. Unlike Giles Goat-Boy, which I am not ashamed to admit I gave up on after about a hundred fifty pages, because I hate allegory. There are books you push through because they feel worth it, like exercise, which is horrible but good for you, I guess, and then books you just say no to, because, let’s face it, flabbo, you’re just no marathon runner, and your time on this earth is brief.
On a more specific note, one nice surprise to come from this project was that I learned that it is possible to enjoy War and Peace completely, without reservation, as a novel of ideas and characters, story and mood, and that most all of the baggage associated with the title “War and Peace” is bullshit, and worth ignoring, but that, you know, if you don’t make it through the book, that’s okay, too, so long as you do or do not make it through the book with clear eyes and full hearts.
Before this project began, the idea of re-reading books seemed silly, optimistic at best, what, again, with all the new stuff and un-read old stuff that has yet to be tackled. As I come to the end of this project I realize now that I could spend the rest of my life reading only the books I’ve read up to this point in my life because it’s not really re-reading when you’re a completely different person than you were when you first read the book.
Which about sums up my experience with Infinite Jest, a book I am so very glad I have finally re-read, and which about I can mainly say that it is, in fact, well worth re-reading, and that, surprisingly, and despite what certain recent Internet debates might have you think, style is the least interesting thing about the book we could be talking about, and that if you haven’t read the book since sometime before September 12, 2008, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re in a healthy enough place mentally before you pick it up again. Which you should do, someday, whenever is right for you because, really, it’s still an awesome book.
Following up Infinite Jest was probably a fool’s task for any book on the list, which may have helped contribute to the re-downfall of Giles Goat-Boy, but the next full book I read, the one I just finished last week, was probably one of the other most pleasant surprises on the list.
I put Warlock on here not because it was absurdly long but because I sort of worried it would feel like it would feel absurdly long. I am no genre snob, I grew up on the stuff and I look forward to reading more of it, but something about the idea of reading a western sort of chafed the wrong way. Like, I don’t know, I’ve never read or watched any westerns ever, I think; I guess the closest I’ve ever come would be the gunslinging action in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which, I know, come on, right? But I mean the book’s a NYRB book and those guys and gals consistently put out awesome books and plus it got the nod from Grace Krilanovich and Thomas Pynchon so why not right? Turns out it’s one of the best books. Engaging and enjoyable and the style is perfect and there’s a good reason why the back cover copy drops casual mention of the fact that it was published at the height of the McCarthy era in America; ah social paranoia, yes! Good times. All of which is still perfectly relevant to our modern society. And plus gun fights and a lot of whisky and also whoring and honor and cold-blooded murder and references to the yellowness of bellies, which, all, basically, are, like, the ingredients of anything that is awesome at all, right? Which is to say: go, go read this book, because I loved it and I want you to love it too.
It timed out well for me, too, the spot it took in the year. One of my favorite things when reading a stack of seemingly unrelated books is when one book talks to the book that preceded it, when a theme gets picked up and mutated in some new way, when some weird connective thread lays across their separate pages like some bit of spider silk. When immersed in these long books that kind of connectivity is both there and not there. I mean, obviously, reading Life and Fate right after War and Peace, connections out the ears, but without sitting down with the pencil and the notes and the time by the bucketload, hard to really lay it all out, because there’s so much. But then what of connections between the other books I read this year? Hard to say; so much gets lost when pulling one author’s all-eclipsing sky down and replacing it with another. And plus all the other nonsense going on in life. But then here I am about to lift back up out of these cross-country treks and it’s like Thomas Pynchon and Oakley Hall got together one day and decided to work together to remind me that it’s all the same journey, which, okay, cheesy, but, still, you know? What I’m saying is Against the Day, in its way, picks up almost exactly where Warlock left off. It’s spooky and weird and not impossible that it was planned that way. And also mostly just exciting and awesome and weird and it raises more questions than can be answered or even asked in one blog post.
And so what then? Long books are long, right? And sometimes they’re awesome and it’s worth reading a bunch now and then because you get this flow going and you get an author doing things to your head for a while or maybe for a week if you’re reading particular fast or are on vacation or just unusually focused; nothing too deep. But, oh, there is depth, depth of experience that can never really translate to a discussion or an explanation, which fact is what we all dance wildly around in our blog posts and our reviews, the fact that reading a book isn’t like how we say it is but exactly how we feel it is. All of this imperfection serves to amplify and confuse and enlighten and strengthen the experience, sure, but. It goes back around in a somewhat forced and self-aware-ly circular way to what Callie said in my quote up top: academic notes are fine, but this time, I’m glad I didn’t take them. But, you know, maybe, after all, we can still talk about it, a little bit, at least. Maybe. Sort of. Kind of.