At the time of this writing, I have a beard and I’m finishing up The Colossus of New York. It’s the last book I’ll read this year, which started off innocently enough in January, but by winter became something of a maddening ascetic bender. This is what I learned from reading 15,000 pages in 2011.
My memory is awful. The first book I read in 2011 was War and Peace, mostly because it’s War and Peace, but also because of perspective: clearing its 1,300 pages would, for the rest of my reading life, make reading anything else seem doable. So I began my year at my grandfather’s desk that he made with his own hands while the wind blew outside my bedroom window, working through Tolstoy’s epic.
It took me about three weeks to finish it, and now, 11 months later, I remember very little. I remember Pierre and Andrei, their differences in background and ideals, and I remember Napoleon scheming outside his tent in the early morning as he loses the war right before our eyes. But not much else. The spiritual discussion somewhere around 700 pages in between Pierre and Andrei was the book’s highlight for me, but I can’t for the life of me retain the details of the discussion. I’m not going to dwell on my bad memory because it’s honestly too depressing, but since I’m stuck with my brain, I’ll look at the bright side: when reading, I learned to latch on tighter to the parts of a book that are meaningful to me.
There’s no way I can remember all the parts of a book, especially not a book as dense and densely populated as War and Peace, but I can focus on the parts I found most enjoyable and commit them to memory. I can remember the feeling a particular section inspired in me, and really, that’s more important than remembering the Rostov family tree.
Setting a reading goal is good. In January, I figured 2011 would be just like every other year in reading for me, that is, I’d read “as much as I could.” But by February 3rd, I’d just finished Jesus’ Son, my fifth book of the year. The seeds of a scheme began to sprout: what if I read 50 books this year? I could do it. Four books a month, with two months of five. A little less than a book a week. It seemed like a good, respectable number.
And so the year progressed, the calendar prodding me when I’d get behind. The goal was most valuable because it powered me through the books that were a slog for me, and it kept me focused. If I didn’t have some sort of goal in mind, I might still be in the halfway purgatory of Under the Volcano, warring with myself and with Malcolm Lowry’s specter. He would tell me that he’d written an important book, a book that his friends liked, and his friends were the Modern Library. And I’d say yes, Malcolm, I understand that but frankly, you’re driving me crazy and even though I know your book has a killer last sentence, I already know that sentence because it’s so famous, so really, I don’t even have the ending to look forward to.
But the point is, the goal kept me from dwelling on my insanity while mired in a book I didn’t like, and I only have a few eye twitches these days, a small and acceptable leftover from the month I spent trying to vanquish Lowry. And because the goal finally pushed me past a book I didn’t like, I was able to move on to the next book, which happened to be Disgrace, one of the very best books I read this year. And just like that, I was rejuvenated.
At its best, my reading this year looked like this: falling into a book and forgetting everything else, finishing it and moving on to the next before I had an outside commitment intrude. I read more this year than I have at any other time in my life, and the goal has established a new mentality for me–from now on, I’m going to have a hard time spending a down moment without a book open in front of me.
Setting a reading goal may not be so good. I’m sorry, but I may have gotten out of control. As fall started and the end of the tunnel began to get closer, I started doing something I should’ve never done: use math. I thought, I’m ahead of pace, I can do five books this month, and next month has thirty-one days, so what if I could do six books?
What started as 50 books became 52 books (a book a week!) became 53 books became 55 books became 15,000 pages.
Which leads me to Goodreads.
For those of you who don’t know, Goodreads is a way to keep track of all your books. I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful record keeper and it has beautiful, strokable hair and a way to preserve your reading history and it pushed me to read more and I love it. And I hate it. I hate its inherent smugness, the way it always implies, but never has the strength to just say: “You can always read more.” It weakened me from the inside, convinced me there was something wrong with me, that the bar could always be higher. “Why aren’t you reading more?” And, at my worst, it turned me into a Number Muncher.
I began to quantify books, picking them for their length in order to shoehorn them into my 2011 collection. I began to check page numbers incessantly, quickly subtracting them from the page total, which was, by now, the first thing I’d check when I opened a book. Somewhere around November, I saw that I was within shooting range of 15,000 pages for the year (Goodreads made sure I knew). By December, I was figuring out how many pages I needed to read per day to get to 15,000 by the end of the year. It goes without saying that I’d already calculated my average book length for the year (273 pages) and my average number of pages per day (41).
Is my poor memory with books related to the fact that I became, at times, a reading robot? Yes, it probably is. Books should be an accomplishment, and when you finish one, you should be proud of it; that’s why we have bookshelves. A book is a bound bundle of mental stimulation and transportation, and when you close it, if you’re reading a really good one, you should feel like you’re coming up for air, waking up from a really good dream. Anything that compromises the possibility of that feeling should be minimized, if not outright eradicated.
That’s why, in 2012, I’m still going to use Goodreads, because I want to know what book was open on my desk at certain points of my life. I know that I was reading Fools of Fortune when I started my job, and I know that I read Bartleby, the Scrivener one morning in October in my room with the lights off because it was so bright outside. But I’m not going to keep track of how many books I read this year, I’m not going to look at how many pages I’ve read, until the last few days of the year. It’ll be a surprise. And though I’m not going to set a goal for this year, I’m still glad I had one year in which I read “as much as I could,” and pushed myself to find out what that really meant for me.
The books I read this year, in the order I read them:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov
How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
Home Land by Sam Lipsyte
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
The Watcher by Charles Maclean
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Natasha by David Bezmozgis
Lucinella by Lore Segal
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Light in August by William Faulkner
Fools of Fortune by William Trevor
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Old School by Tobias Wolff
The Zurau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky
The End of Alice by A.M. Homes
The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
How the Two Ivans Quarrelled by Nikolai Gogol
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
Drive by James Sallis
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska by Michael D’Orso
Cain by Jose Saramago
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
The Whore of Akron by Scott Raab
Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead