Literary Overambition

I love making New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure I am good at them, but I enjoy the tradition. Every year, I tend to set at least a small handful. Sometimes they're entirely private, sometimes I publicise them. I don't know that they ever tend to be that successfully realised, but to me that's part of the system. I like to think there's much that is useful to learn from how I fail to achieve them, and maybe that's some part of the benefit. Sometimes I pull them off with aplomb, and that always feels pretty good.

This year I set myself an extraordiary reading challenge. A couple of years ago, on some kind of whim, I think prompted by a positive review in either The Guardian, or Word Magazine (RIP), I purchased, and read Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland. This is an engaging biographical chronology of the English novel. It covers 294 novelists of significance in historical sequence. The format is readable, there's a 3-4 page potted biography of each author, and then a short summary. So you end up with a sort of illuminated canon starting in the seventeeth century, and leading you up to the roughly present day. The author choices are not always obvious, but neither are they deliberately obscure, and the tone is light, cheeky and erudite, and it works as an entertainment just as much as a reference piece, I unreservedly recommend it.

Part of the summary notes at the end of each chapter, suggests a Must Read Tome, for each writer. These themselves are not always the most obvious work, and carry a little paragraph of justification alongside the choice. So for 2017, in a fit of optimism, alongside a grab-bag of other self-improvement goals, I decreed I would attempt to read every MRT in sequence. Clearly this was an overreach going in. 294 books is approaching a novel a day, and I was unlikely to chew through all of them in the year, but I figured I could keep going with it and see how well I did.

We've passed the halfway mark now, and I'm happy to report it's going awfully. I have managed four books. The most recent one is not even half-finshed. I guess I kind of suck at this. I think there are a couple of mistakes I made on the surface. One I have already skirted around - it's too big a target. Factor into that the fact that I have relatively little spare time for reading fiction, and I also decided to take on a pile of other resolutions that demand daily hobby time (I'm teaching myself a foreign language! Badly!) and it's even more daunting a target. One book a month would be quite a feat, if I'm honest.

I think I might organised little potted reviews as I finish each book, to try and gee myself along a bit. Also, I made a resolution to do more blogging in 2017. That's right, does it show? Book reports seem like easy-reach fruit. Watch this space.

Perhaps the most egregious error though, was to fix myself to the chronology. Whilst this means that I am starting out firmly in the lands of the copyright expired public domain, which makes legal book aquistion very economical, it also means that I've front-loaded the material with tough going books. We start out with challenging archaic language, and structure, and this makes an already sluggish project a little more slower going. I don't believe in changing the rules midstream, however, and I intend to persist.

I thought I'd broken the back of the slightly-too-hard-to-read-comfortably years, when I got through to Defoe, but I hadn't taken into account another pitfall of the early romantic novel. Verbiage. After Defoe I get Samuel Richardson. And the MRT is Clarissa. That's nine fricking volumes of epistolary marriage plot. It might be the longest novel published in the English language. I've nearly finished book one, and it's taken me three months. I sincerely doubt I'll get through this bugger before 2018. It's fascinating, heady stuff though, I am enjoying it. Many tribulations, and archaic mores. A terrifying insight into the political lot of even the priviliged eighteenth century englishwomen. Also, much swoon.

Could this be a ten year project? I'm not quitting.

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