23 Dec 2013

Literary Monogamy

For as long as I can recall I’ve had a propensity for starting more books than I finish, and for having more books in progress than I could sensibly manage at once. With other long-form media I tend to be fairly faithful to one offering at a time: I rarely have more than one narrative video game in progress, and whilst Elizabeth and I are adherents of the box-set as a manner of watching television we tend to stick to one show at a time. With books, however, I tend to wander.

Perhaps it comes from having spent five years as a literature student. In that time I was bound to a relatively strict reading regimen, within which texts were selected for me and had to be finished by a certain date. Fruitful seminar discussion, the delivering of presentations, and the writing of essay papers all depended on the timely completion of reading assignments, and whilst reading around the subject was encouraged, there was nevertheless a very definite structure of what to read and when to read it.

Conversely, there was another element to literary study that wasn’t all rigorous working to a reading list. Particularly within my postgraduate study the research and composition of longer critical pieces called for the development of a certain set of skills: the ability to parse information from multiple, diverse sources and draw parallels and comparisons between them whilst building a coherent argument of one’s own. I loved this part - the collecting of tangentially related texts, coming to a greater understanding of how the art and the arguments hung together. Paintings mentioned in poems that were referred to in journal articles about novels. I can see some of that reflected in my natural inclination to start one book and then reach for another. Before leaving for New York recently I decided to (re-)read some novels set in the city. I managed Teju Cole’s Open City, about half of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., 30 pages of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, and part of DeLillo’s Falling Man… the rest of the time was spent reading sections of Leo Hollis’s Cities are Good For You, and dipping into Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories. One book sparked off an interest in another, and reading each opened a new window onto the ones that came before and after.

In-and-of-itself this kind of scattershot approach to text selection is not an inherently bad thing; the only real shame of it is that I manage to see so few books through to the end. I have lost track of the number of novels, non-fiction books, and collections of short stories I have started in the last year, but I would guess that the number I have completed is in single digits. Reading for pleasure - or perhaps I should say ‘casual reading’, since reading for class was often also pleasurable - can (and perhaps should) be approached with a different mindset to reading for study. With no goal other than the completion of the text perhaps there is an argument to be made for giving oneself over to the book at hand and expending less energy on trying to understand its place within the larger literary universe. I’ve decided to put this idea to the test by resolving to read just one book at a time for a while. I think it might be interesting to see how my reading habits change, and whether I get something different from the texts when they’re read in isolation.

To test my newfound resolve the first novel I’ve decided upon is Haruki Murakami’s three-volume, 928-page opus 1Q84. It may seem counterintuitive to make the first hurdle a particularly high one, but looked at a different way 1Q84 is a proposition so solid and implacable that it provides the perfect object to which to anchor myself. To make it through a 200 page novel without deviating into infidelity might be a fluke; if I can get straight through to the end of 1Q84 it’ll be something of an accomplishment.

As of the time of writing I am making good progress (volume 2, page 617 to be exact), and I have every hope that I’m going to make it to the end uninterrupted. I have, I should admit, already begun to daydream about what to start next. Before this new regime came into play I purchased a copy of JJ Abrams & Dave Dorst’s S. (2013) whilst waiting for a flight at JFK, and read the first 40 or so pages. That book is calling me back, though I have my reservations: at 472 pages it’s another fairly substantial commitment, plus the various convoluted machinations of the narrative and structure mean it requires close reading. Also, since the book is in some ways a celebration of the printed word it really needs to be read in paper form to be properly appreciated, and that would cut out nighttime iPad reading which is when I tend to make substantial progress. All of which is the kind of problem I don’t mind having!

Right now, once I’m done with the Murakami, I like the idea of powering through something thin in a day or two and really trying to hit my stride. I’d like to finish more books in 2014, which in my case is a very different thing to ‘reading more’ - it just means more consistently finishing what I start.