Must-Reads, Ongoing Personal Challenges

On the twelfth and final day of My Twelve Days of Challenges, I’m bookchatting about what I affectionately but determinedly call my Must Reads. The current year’s are listed here and there will be links to archived lists in the future.

1. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-67)
2. Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855)
3. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

Snapshot of Canlit I’ve Missed, 1994:
4. Elisabeth Vonarburg’s Reluctant Voyagers (1994) Trans. Jane Brierley (1995)
5. Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms (1994)
6. M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets (1994)

7. Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936)
8. Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstones (1959)
9. Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995)

Newsy Non-fiction:
10. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997)
11. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)
12. Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing (2009)

In June, I was halfway through my Must Reads, but I had skillfully left the hardest bits (including the non-fiction) to the end. I struggled with The Value of Nothing, beginning in the summer, but restarting last month before finally concentrating on it solidly enough to finish.

And i’s no exaggeration to say that I was reading War and Peace for the entire year, as I’d begun it the year before. But I lost the thread of the story in May and it sat for a good while. Finally I rented the BBC miniseries (with Anthony Hopkins) and watched enough of it to feel as though I could settle back into the book without rereading.

Then I came across this snippet from 1001 Books and I realized that I was doing it just like that: reading like a rite of passage instead of reading for the joy of the story. Here is what the editors had to say:

“Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of those few texts – James Joyce’s Ulysses is another – that are too often read as some kind of endurance test or rite of passage, only to be either abandoned halfway or displayed as a shelf-bound trophy, never to be touched again. It is indeed very long, but it is a novel that abundantly repays close attention and re-reading.”

It suddenly felt as though I’d done the book a grave disservice. I suddenly wanted to reread it without an eye to finishing it, with only an eye to reading it. I was reminded of the experience I’m having now, shared with a reading friend, of reading Dickens in its original serialization. It really does change the reading experience.

So I’m counting this novel read as my rite-of-passage Must Read. But I don’t know if I’ve really read it. And I do think I’ll keep it in mind as a reread. (Certainly keeping those Russian names straight will be easier on a second reading.) But, until that time, here’s a token quote for war and one for peace:

“Stepping back into these explicit conditions of regimental life, Rostov felt the delight and relief a tired man feels in lying down to rest.”

“Remember one thing, princess: I hold to the principle that a girl has a perfect right to choose for herself. I give you complete freedom. But remember one thing: your life’s happiness depends on your decision. Never mind about me.”

And one for the universal commentary on humanity that brings so many people back to Tolstoy, whether for rite-of-passage reading or pleasure:

“It was as though the thread of the principal screw which held his life together had worn smooth. The screw would not go in or come out but went on twisting round in the same groove without catching, and it was impossible to stop turning it.”

Do you have Must Reads? Do they keep you focussed or do they terrorize you?