My birthday was last weekend. It was fun; the weather on Saturday was just about perfect. And it marked an end to the Literary Year. Last year on my birthday, I decided to write a short review of every book I read for an entire year. Among the many goals was to answer a question: how many books do I read in a year? When I was twenty-five, I read sixty-seven books, start to finish, not counting novellas, short stories, magazine articles, and comic books. Good enough. But I had an ulterior motive in doing the Literary Year. I thought it would be interesting to know exactly how my reading habits broke down (a biography, two books of history, a dozen children’s books, a book on Nazism and the nature of evil, a book of film reviews, one book of miscellaneous non-fiction, a dozen crime or detective novels, fifteen or so books of science fiction and fantasy, a memoir, a book of food essays, and a handful of assorted miscellaneous fiction). But chiefly I wanted to push myself to read Gravity’s Rainbow.
Literary Year, in my original conception, would serve as a diary of what I was reading and my day-to-day reaction to it; this would have worked out fine for when I was reading GR, but it was difficult to imagine what I was going to write when I was reading shorter works:
Hour 2: The Continental Op just shot another guy and drank some whisky. He sure is tough. I wouldn’t want him mad at me. I wonder what kind of health benefits detectives get? I think I will go play with the cat now.
It might have been fun to do in a Paul Fordian playing-with-the-medium kind of way, but I’m not sure it would have been a kindness to my readers (and thanks to all eight of you). So the project would have to serve as a prod; I would announce my plans to read Gravity’s Rainbow, which I had started and stopped a half-dozen times, and then — like Kennedy announcing the space race, I’d be making a commitment in front of the eyes of the world! It’d be like the Long Bets Foundation, only wordier! I’d be defending my honor, like Newton challenging Leibniz over the creation of calculus! It’d be as captivating as the trial of Van Meegeren, as the world gathered round to see (and wager upon) my attempts to forge through a lengthy Pynchonian digression on the nature of the New Turkish Alphabet!
That didn’t quite happen either. Through laziness or cowardice, I never got around to explaining my goal. These just became a handful of short reviews, the kind any number of people do as well as me (see, for instance, Outside of a Dog, Jessamyn, The Library of Babel, Field Notes, and such and such). I couldn’t keep my reviews up with the pace of my reading; something (quite often another book) tended to crop up when I should have been getting my review done. Now that Gravity’s Rainbow has fallen, what’s next? Finnegans Wake? Rememberance of Things Past? War and Peace? None of these really call to me. And there’s the small matter that, conservatively estimating 20 minutes a pop, I spent almost an entire day of my life writing book reviews last year.
And yet I enjoyed writing them. They make me focus on clarity and succinctness, neither of which is my strong point. I can occasionally try to throw in a bon mot and make like a cut-rate Dorothy Parker. I have to think about what it is I like and dislike about a book, and the answers sometimes surprise me. If I’ve steered one person towards Pauline Kael or Richard Stark or Iain Banks or made someone think Gravity’s Rainbow sounds more approachable than she thought or even convinced someone that my taste is terrible and a dismissive review of The Invisible Circus means they would really enjoy it, I’ve done better than I would have hoped. I’m making a connection, even a tenuous one, to both the history of book critics, good and bad, and the vast population of biblophiles on the net. Perhaps I’ll abandon the idea of reviewing everything I write, but I won’t abandon the project. The Literary Year is over; long live the Literary Year. Thanks for reading.