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August 16, 2006

It is out of necessity that I read excessively

(My frequent ramblings upon reading rendered into a vague coherence)

Bookishness has gone hardcore, if the broadsheets are any indication. John Allemang reads a book a day in The Globe and Mail and Jane Smiley is tackling one hundred novels in The Guardian. This year I also decided to read a little less leisurely, set a goal of 200 books read in 2006, and since then it has occurred to me that these reading marathons might be the literary equivalent of competitive eating. Champion eater Takeru Kobayashi devours fifty hot-dogs in twelve minutes and I wonder if my reading goal is similarly excess for the sake of itself. Six months in, however, I have found something to be said for taking reading this seriously.

Merely tracking my reading habits has been worthwhile, revealing patterns I would not have otherwise noticed. That I am clearly too prone to leaping onto bandwagons of the just-deceased, as indicated by the appearances upon my list by Muriel Spark and Jane Jacobs. I note further, the gender imbalance in my author selection— by May, I had only finished one novel by a man, assigned for a class no less. I realized that my library was saturated with recent works by Canadian women in particular. That it is a miracle that I’ve managed to read anything at all from abroad.

A record of books read has proved practical to have on-hand. (I am not alone in such obsessive documentation. The writer Annie Dillard has kept a list entitled “Books I’ve Read Since 1966”.) My list has distinguished stories and characters, long after I’ve scanned the last line and slammed the book shut. One day I was straining my mind one day to remember who had left her umbrella on an omnibus and upon reference to the list, of course, I realized that Virginia Woolf herself had done so, in the fifth volume of her diary, back in March. From the list, I realised that Grace Paley’s short stories in February were what had made Jane Jacobs’ New York so familiar when I encountered it in May.

The list also serves as a diary, of sorts. Upon reference, I remember reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty just after New Years, or devouring Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly on a bus ride to Ottawa during Reading Week. I recall the rainy day I read The Accidental by Ali Smith in its entirety, while I should have been doing my homework.

And what of the marathon itself? After nearly eight months, its most profound impact has been quite simply that I have read a lot of books. I rarely watch television or movies, and I always carry a book in case a reading opportunity suddenly arises. Admittedly, I’ve become a bit stupider socially and accounts of how I spent my weekend are often concerned with the adventures of fictional people. But I bet I’ve read a book lately that is relevant to any conversation you might wish to engage me in. These days, so attuned to reading, I’ve come to approach the world a bit like it is a book, interspersed with details to be noticed and facts to be learned.

Of course, the problem with any marathon is how fast the scenery flies by. So quantifying books threatens the quality of their readings, which is why I embarked upon The Great Summer Rereading Project. I have devoted my reading this summer to becoming reacquainted with books I read too long ago and have forgotten, books read too quickly and not adequately absorbed, or books I read when I was too young to understand them.

I started with Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which I first read at fourteen years and probably missed the point of. I’ve since revisited quite a few others, including Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby and In The Skin of a Lion and each was so different from what I remembered. What was once romantic now seems trite, the dull is illuminated and strange endings make sense. Rereading has been an exercise in self-discovery. I’ve also enjoyed deciphering my marginalia, and finding lost treasures between the pages, like the two dollar bill stuck inside The Robber Bride.

I am aware that there is probably fault to be found with such systematic reading. Is it an affront to its very leisureness to render reading such a chore? Surely a book is to be savoured. As with the competitive eaters, are hardcore readers testing limits that really need not require challenge?

But then again, any media consumption is a serious business, if the exhaustive cataloging of TV guides and the emergence of Personal Video Recorders are any indication. Music lovers obsessively compile playlists from thousands of tracks. Blogs punctiliously link to the corners of the universe. One could spend a lifetime reading magazines produced in a single week and the internet is bigger than the sky. And there is no business more serious than book reading.

In addition to the overwhelming number of wonderful books being published all the time, a reader has to contend with all the books published for thousands of years previously— the classics, the obscure, and the still-to-be-discovered. It is out of necessity that I read excessively. My list of books-to-be-read will always be longer than “Books I’ve Read Since 2006”. The sole problem with my reading marathon is that life is too short. And so however long mine stretches, I shall fill it with books.

3 thoughts on “It is out of necessity that I read excessively”

  1. PatrickMH says:

    Sounds like your skiing with some skill down an avalanche. I’m trying to ignore it, which is difficult, but possible.

  2. PatrickMH says:

    Nice entry–by-the-by.

  3. Kerry says:

    Thank you. And I mostly avoid the avalanche by being sort of uninterested in any book that is more than one hundred years old.

    Have fun at SOAP!!

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