Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Ahead to 2014

The end of Year 7. The beginning of Year 8. It doesn’t seem like eight years ago that I put together this decade-long plan of reading Great Books. Eight years ago I poured over each category time after time, adjusting, adding, subtracting, but mostly reordering. The process of deciding what book to put in what year made for quite a dilemma. On the one hand, I reassured myself that I was finally going to get to Euripides’ Electra, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, and Mann’s Magic Mountain: works I strongly desired to read but would probably never get to if I lived out the rest of my life picking up my next book solely based on my feeling at the moment I ended the previous one. Most people dislike the books their schools require them to read precisely because they’re required, but I never noticed any lost joy in books because a teacher had assigned them. I certainly didn’t like every book I had to read. But I often finished the ones I didn’t like glad that someone had made me read it; “the achieve of; the mastery of the thing” felt good, and I was happy to know about a classic book and to be able to say why I didn’t like it. In the 1990s, I started making myself one-year plans and found that my own assignments worked in the same way: the mere presence of a list motivated me to complete it, I enjoyed most of the books I’d assigned myself, and I felt other benefits from the few I didn’t care for as much. So as I approached the finish line of Mortimer Adler’s ten-year plan for the Britannica Great Books after just eleven years, I decided to put all my literary wishes and experience into one master regimen. It took many months of planning, but eight years ago today, I looked at my completed schedule with great satisfaction knowing that in 2014 (provided I stayed on course) I would finally read some Tertullian.

On the other hand, I asked myself, “Can I really wait?” (Will I reveal something pathological if I admit that I actually normally talk to myself in the second person? To be completely honest, I asked myself, “Can you really wait?” Oh, I’ve probably already revealed something I should have kept hidden by admitting that I talk to myself at all.) “Can you really wait until 2014 to read the Arabian Nights? Phantastes? The poetry of Keats?” But January 2007 came, and I had to commit to some order, or the project would never get off the ground. So I put off finishing the Koran for eight years and got started. But now, here it is. The faithful sun has risen in the east 2555 times, and I’m about to read Aristotle’s On the Soul at long last.

Of course I have some concerns about the coming twelvemonth. At some point around fifteen years ago, I started reading Husserl’s Crisis of Modern Science and gave up (not a frequent occurrence for me), despite having heard so many academics drive me crazy by saying how important Husserl was without being able to say anything specific and clear about what Husserl taught – except that everybody misunderstood it all. I know I’ll have to work extra hard at it, but I want to finish the book, if only so I can finally be one of the everybody that misunderstands it. So here comes Husserl and his Crisis, split up into two smaller segments in February and April. And as much as I love G. K. Chesterton, I’ve found his anti-Hun diatribes from the World War I era very tiresome, so I’m expecting a few frustrating days in November as I read his Illustrated London News columns from 1916. At least I’ve paired them with 1921 so I have some pumpkin pie to enjoy after the dry turkey.

Mostly, though, I’m just really excited about what’s coming up for me. I bought Malory’s Morte d’Arthur thirty years ago and loved the first third of it. Why has it taken me so long to get back to it? (“Yeah, why has it taken you so long to get back to it?”) I can already taste its delicious soup of fifth-century pseudo-history, high-medieval chivalry, late-medieval French vocabulary, and early-modern English spelling. I already feel 50% of the inspiration of reading Aquinas’s teaching on Love. I already feel 60% of the excitement of wandering once more into the winding, branching labyrinth that is the plot of Orlando Furioso. I already feel 70% of the intellectual satisfaction of starting Durant’s account of the Reformation. And I feel right now, this very moment, exactly 83.33...% of the warmth that The Last Chronicle of Barset will blanket me with in August.

On top of all those rewards, 2014 will be for me a rich year of rereading. Beowulf! Augustine’s Confessions! Moby Dick! Sense and Sensibility! The Greater Trumps! I simply couldn’t type the words without the exclamation marks. But above all, my favorite, my treasured, my beloved Tale of Two Cities. (The blessing here is far too sacred for a tawdry excess of punctuation.) Next to the Bible and a few silly textbooks I’ve taught from, it’s the book I’ve reread the most. I’ll have so much to say about it, I should begin writing the posts now.

At the end of this past August, I completed two-thirds of The Plan. At the end of this coming June I’ll reach the three-quarter mark. And by a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long reading agenda. (Does English have the word legenda? It should. Come to think of it, I’ll use the word right now and increase the size of the English vocabulary.) By a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long legenda. It’s starting to look as though I might actually finish this ten-year plan in ten years. On the other hand, I’m retiring from one job this coming August and starting another job that has yet to reveal itself. We’ll leave our home of twenty-five years for a new, as yet unknown city. (Ooh! Trollope in August will provide just the remedy for the stress of moving!) How much time and effort will the relocating process take from my reading? How busy will I be in the new job? The whole outcome hinges on Year 8.

And with that overly dramatic observation, I bid 2013 adieu and wish you a New Year full of Happy Reading.

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