Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A year of good .... reading AHEAD - revisiting my New Year's resolutions

Happy 2012!  Blogging vacations stave in my writing.  Last year, to cooper the writing barrel,* I uncharacteristically resorted to New Year’s resolutions.  What would happen if I revisited them?

1. “I vow not to write bad prose this year.”  What was I thinking.  See two resolutions down for the grisly results.  I remind myself that resolutions are aspirational.  I did what I could.  This resolution is promoted to 2012.

2.  “I’ll read Middlemarch.”  And I didTess of the d’Urbervilles advances to the #1 pre-20th century British literature most-famous-book-I-ain’t-read slot.  For some reason, this does not irritate me as much as not knowing Middlemarch; nor does my lack of significant Zola, or the Henry James perplex.  The resolution served its purpose and is retired.

3.  “Finish fewer books.”  Meaning not what I wrote but:  abandon more books without finishing them.  Accomplished, although a disadvantage of the practice is that I have trouble remembering exactly which books I abandoned.  My memory palace is built for completed books, it seems.  Promote this one, too.  Abandon even more books.  Abandon even better books.

4.  “Write about music more.”  Jane Austen’s songbook.  A passion based on Hans Christian Andersen.  Massenet’s Thaïs.  I actually wrote, and deleted, an entire additional piece about Thaïs, tracing the musical motifs, which was valuable to write and deadly to read.

I wonder why more people do not write posts like these.  The key, for someone like me with only basic technical knowledge, is to write about music that has a text.  The connections between opera and literature are particularly rich.  Opera is just theater.

So more of this, more, more!  Something about Richard Wagner, maybe, or Charles Ives, The Concord Sonata, say.  What else would be fun?

5.  “Write shorter posts.”  Another triumph!  This is turning into one of those humblebrags.  I have been aiming at 500 words and staying under 600 when I want.  Going over when I want, too, but that has been rare.

The great advantage of writing a serial is that I can advance the beginning of an idea and receive feedback, spurs, corrections, and taunts, often from comments, always from myself, which may well improve the next day’s writing.  One decent idea at a time, that’s enough writing for a sitting.

Last year’s resolutions post was exactly 500 words long (that is just a regular old brag).

Tomorrow: plans.

The Federal Art Project poster atop the post is borrowed from the Library of Congress.  It depicts, with uncanny precision, the way I bring books home from my own library during the long winter.

*  This metaphor is terrible.  The attempt to use a more original, vivid verb in place of “hurt” is not by itself so bad, but once I had used it I felt the need to continue the conceit, because I had now conjured the smashed barrel, and, well, the wreckage you can see for yourself.  And thus, I demonstrate what vacations do to my writing.


  1. I too have not read Tess yet, though it is sitting on my bookshelf along with Far from the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native. Perhaps a Hardy read-along is in order?

    Welcome back! I look forward to new posts, new books, and new ideas.

  2. Welcome back and Happy New Year! I look forward to knowing your plans.

    I didn't finish a couple of books this year myself. It felt like failure, but it also felt good. Paradoxical!

    I'm rereading Barchester Towers, by the way (preparatory for teaching it next week) and because of you I especially enjoyed "It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs Proudie" this time.

  3. How odd, those are exactly the 3 of the 5 most famous Hardy novels that I have not read.

    That readalong would be useful. We need to schedule it for [vague waving at the horizon] later, though. Summer, fall.

    That word "plans" over-promises. That'll just be a dang bookkeeping post, I fear.

    You know, I just thought of part of why that Trollope joke works so well. It's a signal to us, one of many, that the author is enormously enjoying his own novel. "Isn't this fun?"

  4. Happy 2012 to you too! I doubt I'll be reading "Middlemarch" this year, but I'd be more than happy if I could accomplish even reaching a 1,000 word limit on my own interminable posts, so if you don't mind, I'll try harder to adopt at least the spirit of that particular resolution. By the way, are you still expecting to cover The Book of Disquiet as part of the Portuguese challenge? I've just finished it - a marathon, but I'm at last over the finish line. It's been such a close daily companion for the last two months that I feel like someone dear has just died.

    Oh, and that poster image, despite the cozy winter reading nook promised by the hut in the background, makes me glad I live in coastal California.

  5. "Write shorter posts"? Surely not! Why give in to the Age of the Soundbite?

    I am all for writing more about music, though. As you say, opera is theatre, and there is no reason why we shouldn't write about it. I'm sorry you deleted your post on Massenet - I'd have enjoyed reading it. As for Wagner - bring him on! I can take it!

  6. Happy new year, by the way!

  7. I can only speak for myself - different writers need to follow different rules. For me, length encourages slackness, wandering, purely decorative adjectives, and trivial digressions. So I need the pressure - word count, limited time, a narrow subject, something like that.

    A really good soundbite is also known as an aphorism! If only I could write like Lichtenberg or La Rochefoucauld.

    I do think a little "Wagner as literature" project would be really interesting to do, and to write about.

    seraillon - I am glad you mentioned the Pessoa book. I will refer to your comment, which contains highly useful information, tomorrow. Short answer: end of March, more or less.

    One may wonder, examining the WPA poster, how those tall books in the foreground stay upright. The answer is that it is so cold that the books have actually frozen to the sled.

  8. Having only read two Hardy books, but having dated an Englishman enamored with them, I highly recommend F from the M C, and need to re-read Tess, which I hated enough at 16 to be shocked when I loved FftMC at 28.
    Oh, I'd like to put my new Portuguese novel on my STIR schedule. What month do you want? All are available at the moment.

  9. Teresa has caused me to read all the Hardy I've read. She's purely right, of course. I haven't dared try Tess since I (like Sparkling Squirrel) hated it early, but I suspect I'd like it now.

    Looking forward to reading here in the New Year!

  10. SpSq - February. I want February. We can change that if something interferes.

    I have no particular interest in liking those unread Hardy novels. I just want to learn to read them well.

    My experience with Hardy's fiction (Casterbridge and Jude) is that he is the most bizarrely inconsistent writer in the English canon, careening from bad sentence to good and from inspired image to cliché. He is more than a little bit like Dostoevsky in this regard, and thus a great challenge for me.

    I note that both you and Teresa make free use, regarding the prose, of the B word. You are absolutely right about Hardy's real but underemphasized sense of humor.

  11. 1. Welcome back! I look forward to more of your posts, no matter their length.

    2. The only Hardy I recall reading is Jude, and well-compared to Dostoyevsky. I've enjoyed a few of his novels, but I keep not reading more of them despite ma femme's abiding love of him (she gives a hearty thumbs up to the newest translation of The Possessed, by the way). The same goes for Hardy; she's read all of him and I keep not following suit.

    I'm reading Chekhov's letters, and he's just picked up (in 1889) a complete set of Dostoyevsky. Messy and undisciplined seems to be the initial verdict from young Dr Chekhov.

  12. Chekhov and Dostoevsky are examples of opposing and perhaps incompatible aesthetics. Different valuations or ranking of these writers are not just a matter of taste, but of one's approach to fiction, one's ideas about questions like "what does fiction do well?"

    An ongoing resolution, as a critic, is to understand these different approaches as well as I can, the messy and undisciplined writers as well as the precise and elegant ones.

  13. He is more than a little bit like Dostoevsky in this regard, and thus a great challenge for me.

    Haha, so that's why I hated Tess! (No, no it isn't. I'm so encouraged that others also hated it at a young age, though I'm not so sure I'd change my opinion now. If you do read it, I might have to finally give it another go. I would sort of hate that.)

    An ongoing resolution, as a critic, is to understand these different approaches as well as I can, the messy and undisciplined writers as well as the precise and elegant ones.

    Sigh, always this. I am failing right now, with W&P. I should post on it this week so people can help me while I still have time left.

    Also. If you think you're writing bad prose, you should read some more blogs.

  14. Yeah, Chekhov says that all you need for a story is a man, a woman and a reason for them to be unhappy. He is always concerned with the proper and efficient grouping of narrative elements with nothing going to waste. Dostoyevsky on the other hand seemingly wants to include the whole of creation in his books, to wallow in the excess of life. My own prose is more like Chekhov's and I constantly prune away, but I do envy Dostoyevsky his loose, baggy novels.

  15. I know you don't care whether you like Hardy. I, on the other hand, like to like the books I read. This has nothing to do with sympathy. It has to do with enjoyment and understanding of whatever the book is providing me -- getting out of it what I'm meant to be getting out of it. The better reader I become, the more books I like. Or rather, the more good books I like. I still hate a whole slew of rotten ones!

    Nicole -- I quit reading Tess about 30 pages before the end, because I just didn't care what happened to her. She could have been cut up and packed in a lunchbox for all of me. I will probably read it again, but that intense indifference will be tough to overcome.

  16. Forget Tess. No need to care about Tess. The character to keep an eye on is Thomas Hardy. He's the fellow making all of the choices. And what, exactly, is he doing with all of that Schopenhauer? I am suspicious.

    I like to like the books I read, sure. But more than that, I like to read great literature, even books I don't like.

    Writing about Dostoevsky, a writer I strongly dislike, on Wuthering Expectations has done wonders for me. Really focused my attention when I read Karamazov a couple of years ago. I should test myself with more Dostoevsky soon and see how I do. Karamazov Week was not so shabby. I would love to be half as successful with Tess.

    nicole, I should definitely not read more blogs, no matter that follows that "if". I should read many fewer. I left what I hope is an encouraging W&P note, by the way.

  17. Hardy, I love Hardy, read virtually all of the novels (not sure I'd love Hardy the poet as much). If you read 'Tess...', make sure you get Hardy's intended version; one of the pivotal plot points is ever-so-slightly different...

  18. Tony, great, intriguing advice. I will be sure to read, or at least read about, both versions.

  19. Bravo. I like the bit about not finishing more books - especially as I grow longer in the tooth and begin looking over my shoulder for time sneaking up. I've decided that at this stage in my life I will read for pleasure and not scholarship (although I suppose there could be both). Looking forward to hearing about your plans.

  20. Not finishing aids pleasure and scholarship. With books in my field, I have no compunction about squeezing out the exact desired amount of knowledge and tossing the husk aside. Works of art have a different status, so I act like I must experience the whole thing. A good idea up to a point.

  21. Jenny, I think I might have liked Tess a lot better if she had been cut up and packed in a lunchbox!

  22. nicole, I couldn't tell you. Maybe she was cut up and packed in a lunchbox. I didn't finish the book, presciently on Tom's advice.

    I'm about to write what will probably be a longish piece on Lolita. "Like" is not the right word for how I felt about Lolita (passionate astonished bewonderment might be better), but I can see that deep engagement with characters and strategies that you abhor is very good for the brain.

  23. Oh good. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Write something about Dolly's class roster for me, will you, please.