When I was six years old, I skipped a year of school.
Though I was never personally consulted on this decision, the reason given to me in later years was, because, in the words of my parents, “your teacher said you had read all the books in the pre-school library. So they suggested you should leave early”.
So, with all those Enid Blyton and Roger Red Hat books behind me, by the time I reached adolescence, I graduated to more challenging reading fare: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and then at university on to James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and other authors that have remained the high watermarks of literary genius to me ever since.
Last year, early in 2016, I started to feel a kind of guilt. It’s a guilt commonly experienced by any insatiable reader of literary fiction. I call it “The Missing Classics” guilt.
My Reading Challenge (And Failure) Of 2016
Every reader can think of certain books they just should have read.
For me, it was the Big Epics: those doorstop-sized novels that are constantly featured in lists of the “Greatest Books Of All Time”. You know the usual suspects: Ulysses, Moby Dick, War And Peace, Middlemarch, In Search Of Lost Time, Infinite Jest, The Brothers Karamazov…and many more.
What do these books all have in common?
They are long. Very long. Dense, rich, literary tomes whose covers are frequently adorned with adjectives like “life-changing”, “masterpiece”, or “novel of the century”.
So last year, I embarked on my own reading mission: To read ALL the big epics that were currently conspicuous gaps in my inner literary catalogue.
Out of my list of ten of these books, I read roughly five: Gravity’s Rainbow (900+ pages), The Brothers Karamazov (800+ pages), Moby Dick (700+ pages), The Fountainhead (700+ pages), and about 300 pages of War And Peace. [However, my total score is actually now a 6 out of 10, since I had already read Ulysses (900+ pages) as a graduate student at university].
Still left on my reading list are: War And Peace (the rest of it), In Search Of Lost Time, Middlemarch, and Infinite Jest. A combined total of roughly another 4,000 pages.
So what happened?
I usually read around 50-60 books a year. So why wasn’t I able to just set these 10 or so classics aside and read them one-by-one over 2016?
Well, unfortunately, as I learnt, reading too methodically is a bloody slog.
Not that reading big classics isn’t a rewarding experience. Many of them contain the best prose ever set down in the English language, wonderfully memorable characters, and moments that leave you breathless at their lyricism and psychological insight into the human condition.
But reading these epics one after another, after another, after another? It gets tiresome.
Reading big classics cannot really be said to be “fun” – not in the way that Guardians of The Galaxy or playing video games or eating pizza and drinking beer are fun. It can be rewarding, insightful, mind-expanding, and inspire a great sense of accomplishment – but fun is certainly not the right word.
And although reading can often be more about intellectual stimulation and the subtle cognitive satisfaction that comes from the absorption of new ideas and delighting original use of language, it does have to be “just fun” sometimes. At least for me it does.
Reading too many classics all at once is like eating your vegetables and nothing else. Once you’ve finished one big, dense novel, the knowledge that you have to immediately dive into another epic casts of characters, new locations, and page after page of description, is enough to arouse a dreaded sense of “reading fatigue”.
In fact, attempting to binge-read all of these classics actually slowed my reading pace considerably in 2016.
The cumulative effect of reading three or four enormous tomes in a row makes you eventually see reading as a chore.
Then you walk into a bookshop and see lots of other gleaming, bitesize 200 page books you want to breeze through – or a little book about science or a new non-fiction bestseller that you want to devour, but you know that you can’t grab them because your shackled to your commitment to reading “Big Epics”, which you’re now a bit fed up with, so you end up reading nothing at all.
Ambitious reading lists…Yes or No?
The desire to read more books, or read bigger books, or to read more “serious” books, is just like any other goal.
To read books that go against your natural appetites for simple treats requires motivation, just like going to the gym or getting yourself to work on a big creative project. The problem is when you pile on the obligation so heavily that it begins to feel like a slog, leading to burnout and forcing you to forget why you enjoyed it in the first place.
For example, although about 80% of my fiction reading is serious literary fiction, I realized years ago that to sustain myself I need to throw in something breezy and fun (e.g. the odd Stephen King book, or a YA novel, or a Jeeves and Wooster story, or something comic like John Niven’s Kill Your Friends).
The more I keep variety, the better I can sustain my interest and joy in the act of reading. And actually reading what I want makes me read at a much faster pace and get through many more books per year.
So, was it foolish to set myself the ambitious task of reading The Great Epics in the first place?
I don’t think so.
One thing I’ve learnt in life is that some goals are more than worth setting even if you only half achieve them.
If I hadn’t made a reading goal at all, or set down the list of Big Epics I wanted to cross off my list, I would have probably never naturally come around to them without that extra surge of motivation.
The mistake was that I tried to force-feed myself a dozen or so 800+ page books one after the other in a hurried attempt to knock them all out in one year. While I have no doubt that these books will be polished off my list fairly soon (I have about 4 more to go), I can do it at a sensible pace where I can actually sustain my enjoyment and motivation for reading.
So…am I against reading goals? No.
Write down whatever your list is of difficult, serious, or just enormous books that you want to read before you’re 30/40/50/dead etc.
Then feed them in once every 4-5 books. Soon enough they’ll get done, but you won’t resent them when they come along because the rest of the time you can just choose whatever takes your fancy.
So eat your vegetables. But also eat your protein, some snacks, and a sugary dessert or two along the way. Consistency is the key, not speed.