I’m an avid book reader. I read slowly, and at the end of the year, like this one, I’m usually disappointed with my reading list. Disappointment lies not only with the numbers, a paltry 11 for 2009, but in the quality.
There is seemingly little I can do about the number. I not only read slowly but tend to take notes for future reference. I devote at least a few notebook pages to every book. If something strikes my fancy, I jot down the subject and page number. I also draw diagrams and maps. I also spend a lot of time writing and reading magazines and newspapers. But probably the biggest distraction is the Internet. I gobble up great amounts of time by numerous daily visits to my email, the stock market, paying bills, research, etc. But, really, numbers are not that important to me. Quality is what counts.
The quality of my book-reading this years is on the low end of average. Here, in chronological order, is my 2009 list:
Clouds by Aristophanes, Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence, Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, The Whole Truth by David Baldacci, The Mother Sea by Dominique Fernandez, The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (volume 1) by Edward Gibbon and Equal Danger by Sciascia again.
This is a list only an esoteric could love. I myself could punch a thousand holes into it. For instance I spent far too much time on Italian books in preparation for a trip to Rome and Sicily. The Italian reads did have a good side. They introduced me to the pithy novels of Sciascia and his sobering views of the Mafia.
Also, I have this irrational idea that I must venture into the world of bestsellers ever so often. I rationalize I need to know what my neighbors are reading. Nine times out of ten I’m disappointed. In the case of Baldacci, it was a grand waste. There is a reason book covers highlight bestselling authors names and put their titles in small print. That should be my first signal to move on to something else. Snobbish perhaps. It’s the way I am.
While I’m glad I got through them, the two classics on my list, Clouds and Decline and Fall, were tough reads and I struggled with them. Gibbon in particular was troublesome, though I’m very interested in the Roman Empire. He writes long, convoluted sentences, and you must pay strict attention to structure. Subject and verb often live far apart.
I am not a masochist. I began a classical-book reading program several years ago. It is based on a list compiled in the appendix of “How to Read a Book,” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. I can not hope to complete every book on that list in my lifetime. Choices, better ones, must be made.
The best book I read this year was Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, the author’s account of a train and bus trip he made with his wife, Frieda, in 1921 through the heartland of the Italian island. This is not some noble description of an English snob traveling in style, dealing with peasants from a safe distance. Lawrence and Frieda speak fluent Italian and immerse themselves in the unique culture. In one of the book’s most memorable segments, the two travelers, hungry and cold and tired, sit impatiently in a dirty hut with a clutch of Sardinians, awaiting a shepherd to butcher and cook a goat for supper. It is Frieda who comes across as the tougher one. She admonishes Lawrence for complaining about a filthy hotel room in Sorgono. “Why don’t you take it as it comes?” she said. “It’s all life.” Anthony Burgess was right on when he called Sea and Sardinia “a small miracle of a book.”
My hopes are high for better reading in 2010. As usual, I’m plying through several books at a time. Some I toss aside and never complete. But I know I will finish at least a couple of the books I’ve started: The Savage Detectives, fiction by the late Roberto Bolano, volume 2 (of 6) of Decline and Fall and Ulysses Found by the historian Ernle Bradford. A book a month is my goal.