Friday, December 17, 2010

The Wuthering Expectations Lifetime Reading Plan

Wuthering Expectations will be on Christmas vacation for a while.  All of next week, and then a little more.  Before I forget, Merry Christmas!

A vacation shoulld allow me to salt away some reading for the long winter, to store some books for future blogging.  I’m not sure it ever works that way.  Last Christmas, and on the plane to and from Morocco, I checked off some solid Humiliations – The Mayor of Casterbridge, a handful of Ibsen plays, The Saga of the Volsungs – and revisited The Warden.  I never wrote about any of them.  So why did I bother?  No, no - thank goodness – I’m not always reading for the dang blog.

I recently started in on Les Misérables, not, with its ludicrous bulk, the most bloggable of books, although please see how C. B. James wisely breaks it into pieces, which is presumably also how one reads it, a word or line at a time, not all at once.  I’m less than a tenth of the way in, and there’s this scene – no, never mind.  Into the freezer.  It’ll still be good when I thaw it out in May.

Joseph Epstein, in “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan” (from Once around the Block, 1987), advises a worried student to “have some time-tested and officially great book going at all times – Gibbon, perhaps, or Cervantes – alongside which you can read less thumpingly significant books.”  Victor Hugo will fill that slot for the next four or six or eight months, unless I put it aside at some point, which would be wise, if unlikely.  It’s amazing how the Big Books fall into place over time.  Read one or two or three a year, and eventually one feels almost educated, or would, if it were not for all of the other books one has learned about along the way.

Here is Epstein's actual advice to the anxious young reader, nervous about the holes in his education: “to read no junky books, to haunt used-book stores, and to let one book lead him to another… there is no systematic way to go about it, no list, key to the kingdom of the educated.”  The reader will have to decide for herself what “junky” means.  I would add, whatever one is reading, try to read it well.

I read more systematically than Epstein.  I have my lists, list after list, and sometimes follow them.  The Scottish Reading Challenge was meant, in part, to free me from the lists – you decide what I’m reading – although it began with three lists!  Try this, try that.  Read widely, even when reading narrowly.

I’m reading a book right now that was suggested to me a day or two ago by someone about to launch her own Lifetime Reading Plan.  Best of luck!  The book, by the way, is Dear Darkness (2008) by youthful poet Kevin Young, and is sprinkled with poems about food – “Ode to Pork,” “Ode to Grits,” “Ode to Boudin”:

You are the chewing gum
of God. You are the reason
I know that skin
is only that, holds
more than it meets.

Is that “meat” pun excellent or execrable?  A thing I like about this guy is he, like Joseph Epstein, is not afraid to go for the joke.  Private to Lifetime Reader: why did you single out two poets who teach at Emory?

I am not reading Kevin Young to be well read, or to check him off of a list.  Nor – what else am I reading – Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden (more fiction about artists) or John Crowley’s The Translator (fiction about Why Translation Matters).  Hugo, yes, and Dickens’ puzzling Christmas Stories, yes, although they are fascinating in their oddity.  Main entries or supplements to my ongoing Lifetime Reading Plan.  Epstein again:

There is also a danger: once begun, there is no end.  I myself would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a strong hunch about which will come first.


  1. I love your last paragraph!

    Kevin Young and I were in a poetry workshop together in college (taught by Seamus Heaney). He was a freshman at the time and already had an incredible voice. In fact, at least one of the poems in his book Most Way Home began in that class, I believe.

    Tretheway is new for me. I read her because my father loves her. I was thrilled to discover that she will be the keynote speaker at a small academic conference I will be attending this winter!

    Thanks for the best wishes as I begin this project. I know how silly it must sound and how constricting, but it doesn't feel that way to me at all since as Epstein says, one book leads to the next. For me (perhaps because I am a historian?) that process happens because of historical context and/or reference.

  2. One of the things that makes me love both Young and Tretheway (and Rita Dove) is their emphasis on historical connection and continuity. I didn't realize that both Y and T were at Emory--and I am so glad they work together. What a fruitful friendship that could be.

  3. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and thanks again for spurring on the Scottish reading. Just finished The Master of Ballantrae tonight, and indeed, it was 'A Winter's Tale'. Nice and dark. see you in 2011.

  4. Merry Christmas and I still hope that we get to read who you read over the holidays.

  5. I guess I tend to follow Epstein's suggestions--one book leads to another, one review leads to another, and so on.

    Being of Germanic origin, somewhat, I have this genetic predisposition to be organized. I make lists which I promptly ignore.

    I also belong to four face-to-face book groups which give some semblance of order to my reading: one is a classics group, one is SF, and two are mysteries. So, my schedule is simple: every month I read at least one classic, one SF, and two mysteries. That sorta satisfies my need for order and organization and it feeds my need to feel I'm in control.

  6. or would, if it were not for all of the other books one has learned about along the way


    And the thing about these huge books is, you know, I have read Les Misérables, I got through that huge thing (not that I didn't enjoy it!), but how much of it do I really remember? Do I actually need to re-read this massive book? That's not going to help the lifetime reading plan along its way.

  7. Lifetime Reader - not at all silly. I've done it myself. Similar list. Except with more Euripides - you really should have more - no, no, your list is great!

    Thanks again for the recommendations. I had actually read Kevin Young in various magazines, but never a book. Tretheway I didn't know. Funny that the Emory connection was just a coincidence.

    By the way, have you seen Young's poem "Cambrige Ode"? Lamenting the changes - was the Wursthaus really that bad ("where every visitor ate at first & cursed \ for hours after")?

    Marieke, glad you enjoyed Ballantrae. Love that duel.

    Nana - it'll all show up somewhere, I predict, even if it's a year late.

    Fred - some sort of balance is necessary, isn't it? Too many readers are not following from one book to another but instead flailing about, reading randomly. A little organization - not too much! - would do a world of good.

    nicole - Epstein includes this, from a letter by Evelyn Waugh: "It is very pleasant losing one's memory. One can read old favorites with breathless curiosity." Embrace failures of memory as a gift. Of course you need to reread Les Mis - in, let's say, forty years. Fifty.

  8. The Life Time Reading Plan comments took me way back to when I was 13 and I had somehow got a copy of Clifton Fadiman's book, The Life Time Reading Plan-I started out then reading some of the items on the list-Fadiman says if you find you cannot get into one of the selection dont work try it again in a few years-and reread-Gulliver's Travel's read at 15 maybe a comedy but years later it is something else-in the many years since then I have gone way beyond the scope of the plan but the funny thing is this month I read one of his 100 selections for the 1st time-The Red and the Black by Stendhal-I would say to those starting on the readlife type plan-read the great books as young as you can so you will have a real standard-

  9. Yes, I would agree that some sort of balance is necessary--explore writers whose works are intriguing and still leave room for going off on a tangent when something does come up.

  10. Yes, I somehow seem to forget that there is (probably) so much time. Good plan. And have a lovely Christmas!

  11. The Clifton Fadiman Lifetime Reading Plan, 1997 edition. 133 entries, many with multiple books, so I don't know what the actual count is. Mostly essential, a few kind of odd.

    Lots of fine lists at that site.

  12. In the original 1960 edition of Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan there were, if my memory serves, about 100 selections-a very few of his original selections have not stood the test of time but most are spot on-in his preface in 1960 he says he intentionally left out Asian works as he could not relate to them-he is crazy for Emily Bronte-putting her right after the real giants-he wanted to include Gibbons and Pepys but he feels they are too long-one could do a lot worse than take this book as a guide to your reading of the best of world literature-he says the super learned do not need his list and academics will scoff at it-

  13. The super learned needed lists to become super learned.

  14. I still like to read lists of best books-sometimes I do laugh when you can see the list maker is trying to include contemporary works to make his or her list seem less staid-the longest work listed by Fadiman is Proust's work-

  15. Merry Christmas! Thanks for getting me to read Carlyle. Have a wonderful break. I hope the New Year is filled with lots and lots of good books.

  16. Sorry not to spread holiday cheer, but it might be a good time for us to do some Paul Revere-ing on the Internet–today the FCC is passing down the first of the Net Neutrality rulings. Al Franken on HuffPo (scroll down middle column there) says we should be outraged, and he doesn’t usually exaggerate. The Internet should not be headed toward corporate blogs buying the fast lane and the rest of us stuck in slow.

    Not sure where to make our voice heard, by emailing the White House or maybe the FCC page with How To Make ECFS Express Comments? It might be good if non-corporate websites had a community way for us to alert each other when something important like this comes up. Please consider passing it on.

  17. Stefanie, thanks - Merry Christmas to you, too.

    Shelley - no poltics here, no politics! Or no 21st century politics, just 19th century and earlier.

  18. As a lark recently, I toyed around with the idea of mapping out/predicting my next 50 reads for an end of the year blog post. Didn't go through with the idea for a # of reasons, one of them being the absolute terror I felt when I saw what would have to be cut out from my list of the next 50 books. All of which to say that I think Epstein's idea of having at least one "time-tested and officially great book going at all times" + your idea to maintain some kind of reading plan seem like sound hybrid advice to me (of course, I'm not sure Les Mis would be the work for moi). Anyway, belated Merry Christmas and early Happy New Year to you, Amateur Reader! Your blog brings me a great deal of pleasure, so I hope the reading gods are kind to you again next year. In the meantime, I selfishly look forward to your return from vacation. Cheers!

  19. Oh dear, I'm afraid I mostly flail. And here I've been calling it whimsy. So much more appealing. Hmm. Still: your last quotation (which I love) tells me I'll never plug all the gaps in the dyke and find myself in Holland at last. Why not plug at whimsy rather than according to plan, as long as the holes are all there to be filled?

    (Block that metaphor!)

  20. Oh, and merry Christmas. And happy new year. I'm very glad to be back reading your blog again.

  21. Just dropped by to wish you a Happy New Year, but as ever, find a most intriguing post. I have a taste for the junky - it says more about our culture, in more obvious ways, than much Great Art. But I also love Great Art, for all the usual reasons. I can't read politically, for the look of it, for the gaps and the must-do lists. I can only follow my inclinations, but like you, they do often lead me to some wonderful places. And to a few cul-de-sacs as well - it wouldn't be an experience without the gamut of responses!

    Looking forward to seeing what next year brings you, in both planned and serendipitous ways!

  22. Happy New Year, everyone!

    litlove - We all have a taste for junk. The salts, fats, and sugars are so delicious. So we have to learn to resist. I'm pretty good at resisting the literary junk, not so good when it comes to doughnuts or pop music. But none of that makes it onto Wuthering Expectations!

    Jenny - welcome back. Very interesting to read about your Francophone African reading. How'd the class go? I'm not so sure that PhDs can really flail - when you get interested in something, you know where to look for more. The flailers are the ones who would like to read more Books Like X, but have no idea where to find them.

    Really, the good thing about the plans and lists is that they map out the territory. They don't tell me what my next 50 books will be (gulp!) but what the likely candidates are if I want to swerve over to, say, contemporary Spanish-language novels, as I did last year for no reason I can remember except that the books were neato. Aira, Bolaño, Vila-Matas, I'm forgetting somebody. I read until I was sated. It was not systematic, but I knew, and know, where to go for more.