Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Readalongs I wish someone else would organize - Cuban literature, August Wilson plays, and many more

The glory days of book blogs were full of “challenges.”  I hosted several: Scottish literature, Italian, Austrian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, always limited to the 19th century and earlier to keep the scope manageable.  The idea was that I read a lot, while others were invited to join as they found useful.  I found every one of these “challenges” to be highly useful, intellectually, meaning I read a lot of interesting books and learned a lot about the literary tradition.  Plus every time I attracted new, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers to the blog, people who did not necessarily care so much about Victorian literature but were excited about one of these other traditions.  I have even met some of these people in so-called real life.

So I occasionally think of some kind of readalong that would be exciting to me and I would hope to others.  Who knows, maybe someone else will want to borrow one of them.  I would happily read along with any of them.

My most neurotic idea is to read the ten most important American books that I have not read.  Beloved easily tops the list academically; To Kill a Mockingbird popularly.  The Woman Warrior, Ceremony, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, like that.  In 2017 or so I looked up, in the MLA International Bibliography, the 20th century American works most cited in academic writing.  I had not heard of Borderlands/La Frontera, a pioneering work of Chicana literature, I am told.

This one is a bad idea because it is too much about me, about what I happen not to have read.  Who cares.  But I would sure feel well-read if I did it.  Temporarily well-read.  That feeling never lasts.

Better ideas: contemporary plays.  Or within the last fifty years.   Or just read 21st century plays. Say ten or a dozen plays, once every two weeks.  They would mostly be American, British, and Irish, just based on the availability of texts. 

I have been testing this idea.  In the last year I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan (a Geeek adaptation), Cherokee Family Reunion (2012) by Larissa FastHorse (interracial family comedy) , The Ferryman (2017) by Jez Butterworth (family comedy mixed with The Troubles), and The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (2019) by Ishmael Reed (a surprisingly gentle lecture).  Enough to see there is a lot to enjoy out there. 

Shakespeare is the center of the English tradition, yet contemporary plays seem increasingly distant from any literary discussion I see.  I do not know why that is.  The playwrights seem to be doing their jobs.

An obvious readalong would be to work through August Wilson’s ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and so on.  This one practically organizes itself.

My preference, though, is to work on a tradition, not an author, often one about which I know little. I thought about a year of reading Caribbean literature, meaning islands; the United States is a Caribbean country.  Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Dany Laferrière, Maryse Condé, for example.  Wouldn’t that be interesting.

Poking around, I soon saw that Cuban literature would make a great readalong on its own.  Something like this, one book per month for ten months:

First two novels by Alejo Carpentier, maybe The Kingdom of This World (1949) and The Chase (1956) on the basis that they are short.  I have a prejudice that readalong books should mostly be short.


Paradiso (1966) by José Lezama Lima

Hallucinations (1966) by Reinaldo Arenas, although his memoir Before Night Falls (1992) is the more obvious choice

Three Trapped Tigers (1967) and A View of Dawn in the Tropics (163) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Cobra (1972) and Maitreya (1978) by Severo Sarduy. Do these ever sound weird.

Everybody Leaves (2006) by Wendy Guerra, or Revolution Sunday (2016), or both.

Plus a poetry month to try Dulce María Loynaz or Nicolás Guillén.

Lots of strange, baroque books.  Sounds fun.  Since I drew up a plan, I might as well provide it.

I would like someone else to organize a readalong of postwar Italian literature, of Hungarian literature, of Sanskrit classics, of Arabic poetry, of contemporary American poetry, for that matter.  I suppose I could not join all of these, really.

The August Wilson plays, though, that is a sire thing.  You just have to decide on the order.  Easy.


  1. You know what you must read?
    The Tale of Genji.
    And Hong lou meng.

  2. I have read Genj, but not the other book. Iwant to reread Genji soon, and will look for Hong Lou Meng.

    1. Hong lou meng is known as Dream of the Red Chamber or The Dream of Red Mansions or Story of the Stone in English.
      Which translation of The Tale of Genji did you read?

    2. Remind us which Genji translation you recommend, please! I have the bad abridged early one.

    3. Royall Tyler's is said to be the closest.
      It's also a bit more difficult to read, but you can see my blog posts if you're confused about who's who.

    4. I have read the Seidensticker translation abnd another which is two volumes, but can't put my hand on it at the moment. I shall follow your advice for a reread in the New Year. I have the Tyler on order.Could you please recommend a translation of title " The Dream of the Red Chamber" ?

    5. For that one, there are only 2 complete English translations: the consensus, from what I've read is that the one by David Hawkes & John Minford is smoother, the one by Gladys Yang & Yang Hsien-yi is more faithful but less readable.
      The Hawkes & Minford one is titled The Story of the Stone.
      I don't speak Chinese but I am Vietnamese and a large part of Vietnamese vocabulary is Sino-Vietnamese, so I read it in Vietnamese translation and also looked at the Hawkes translation, and blogged about certain changes that he made.

    6. All my blog posts about it are collected here:

    7. Thanks for the link, it us most helpful. I have ordered the one you suggested zs smoother. Thanks so much for your help.

    8. No worries. Hope you enjoy the book.

  3. Many people like readalongs of big books. The structure and page count goals clearly help many people finish the big books.

    But I think a good readalong consists of lots of short books. The goal is coverage.

    I'll read Genji sometime after that dive into Sanskrit literature.

  4. I would love to hear your thoughts on Wilson Harris... I read Palace of the Peacock a year or two ago, and it was strange but left an impression. (Alas.. I am too over-committed as it is to arrange a readalong.)

    "Shakespeare is the center of the English tradition, yet contemporary plays seem increasingly distant from any literary discussion I see. I do not know why that is. The playwrights seem to be doing their jobs."
    This made me chuckle. I love plays but not Shakespeare as much (treason, I know!)...

    1. P.S. Did I ever tell you that your review of Malicroix was the beginning of my and a friend's Reading the World challenge? We started with Bosco, and we're still going, over 2 years later. :)

  5. I do not remember you mentioning that. Now nice to hear it. It is like I did a good deed.

    An advantage of hosting, or joining, a readalong is that I feel responsible for writing something, which is a pain but useful in many ways. If I just picked up a Wilson Harris novel now, I likely would merely read it. No one would know my thoughts on it, possibly including myself.

  6. I would definitely follow and comment on a readalong of plays but I hardly ever blog any more. I have been reading more plays this year, especially Shakespeare which I started in 2020. I say reading but I actually prefer listening to them on audio when I can find them. I've tried reading Shakespeare but it's much easier for me to listen and there are a lot of really good readings on digital download that I love. I've also listened to a lot of Noel Coward plays this year and I just finished Arcadia by Tom Stoppard which is just wonderful.

    1. Speaking of listening to Shakespeare, have you listened to the Anton Lesser's Hamlet? It's wonderful.

  7. You remind me of my other great readalong idea, or two others, the Not Shakspeare Readalong, which would either be of Shakespeare's English contemporaries from Marlowe onward or of the great French and Spanish and Italian playwrights, Lope de Vega and Corneille and so on. Say 20 plays, one every two weeks (a weekly schedule feels like a stretch with these).

    Someone should do this.

    Some of the performances you are hearing must be amazing.

    A real-life friend who read along with the Greek plays did a complete Stoppard read-through the year before. Another good idea.