Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Resolving to read

Image courtesy of Ian Kahn at

Like most people, every year at this time I make a bunch of New Year’s resolutions. I don’t think of them as hard and fast commitments to myself but more like rules to live by, reminders that I can do better. There are some old perennials that re-occur every year - lose 10lbs, stop screaming at other drivers in traffic, and cope better with stress. But to leaven the Calvinist self-improvement tone (and just because it’s fun), I always include a New Year’s resolution about what I want to read in the coming year. 

Last year I resolved to fill two large gaps in my reading experience and knock out James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Ahem. What was I thinking? Not much leavening there, I can tell you. I ploughed my way through The Magic Mountain, marveling all the while at how Mann managed to take a simple story of a hypochondriac  who chooses to live like an invalid at a Swiss sanatorium and make it last for over 700 pages. Don’t get me wrong – I love long books, but not when the story in question could be told in less than half the time. Mann himself originally intended the book to be a novella – I rest my case. There are some tour-de-force passages in the book and even some that are downright funny, but I was soon bogged down again in the author’s ruminations on the mysterious concept of time or in long, abstruse debates between the characters on religion, politics, and philosophy. I read it to the end but wouldn’t mind having all that time back to spend more wisely. 

As for Ulysses, I’ll admit I didn’t even crack it open until a couple of weeks ago, on the principle that starting it in 2010 was still consonant with my resolution. I sailed through the first few pages, enjoying the banter between the three young men squatting in the Martello Tower outside Dublin. But then I hit Stephen Dedalus’s first internal stream of consciousness monologue. Now I consider myself a pretty well-educated, well-read kind of a gal, but I was in totally uncharted waters here. And not necessarily in a good way. I remembered Virginia Woolf’s waspish comment that Ulysses put her in mind of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. She also called the book "a memorable catastrophe." Talk about a two-faced compliment. But I will persevere a bit longer and may even switch to listening to it on audio which friends tell me makes it a little easier to follow.  

All of which is to say that I’m not going to be so hard on myself in 2011. Here’s my list so far - the only two Dickens novels I’ve never read – Barnaby Rudge and (believe it or not) A Tale of Two Cities – Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet about the last days of the British Empire in India, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. As I said, I do like long books and that hasn’t changed despite my experiences of 2010.

So is anybody else making any reading resolutions this year? 


  1. Fiona - "Sword of Honor" trilogy is both good fun and a quick read. I love Evelyn Waugh so much I actually learned to pronounce his name correctly. Alan

  2. Fiona, I will have to follow your synopsis of these large tomes. Im afraid that Im a bit of a short story lover, thought I love the classics like Dickens, Bronte, George Eliot and of course Jane Austen. I would like to read the recent publication of Mark Twains letters, apparently had to wait 100 years before they could be published?! I do love his work.

  3. Thanks for the tip about Sword of Honour, Alan. I'm reading a bio of Evelyn Wawwww right now as it happens! And Wendy, I'm ashamed to say I've read very little Twain - just Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Maybe I should add him to my 2011 list..

  4. I'm a pretty big procrastinator when it comes to reading my own books, but someones elses I can knock out in a few days lol. In 2011 I would like 2 finish reading confessions of an Invisible Illuminati by Eli Rook

  5. Fiona congratulations on reading the Magic Mountain. Have started twice that’s it. Never make new years resolutions, but have been reading Henry James.The Ambassadors a year or two ago and now The Golden Bowl, both for our book group, well some people are using I pads. Both those novels are "transatlantic" about Americans in England in long sinuous sentences with clauses interrupting the flow of his sentences all over the page.