Monday, 13 March 2017

An ill-read man decides to get serious - by reading 25 books he really should have read, starting with "David Copperfield" and "Nostromo"

Six years ago, just after I'd joined a book group, I wrote this about my increasing inability to finish novels:
I appear to be suffering from a form of LADD (Literary Attention Deficit Disorder). I can smash my way through the first 60 pages of almost anything and be quite enjoying it – but when I pick it up the next night, I find myself utterly uninterested in carrying on (these I put aside and generally pick up again sometime within the next year, when everything sometimes snaps back into place). Is this common – or am I weird (I know my wife never, ever fails to finish a novel, even if she hates it)? My only conclusion is that I increasingly need my novel-reading to fit into a purposeful programme of some sort. 
I was right, of course, and the book group...

...certainly helped force me to read the books we had chosen. But I stopped attending the meetings almost three years' ago, about six months after my health took a turn for the worse, and since then, apart from two or three book reviews a year, I've been reading whatever takes my fancy. I've been using my CFS/ME/Lazy Bastard Syndrome/The I Don't Care What They Call It If They'd Just Find a Fucking Cure For It Virus as an excuse not to read all those novels I've been meaning to read for decades but somehow haven't managed to get round to yet.

Well, that's about to change. Everyone with CFS seems to suffer from unrefreshing sleep, a variety of sleep disorders (usually insomnia), IBS-style symptoms and the body (specifically the mitochondria in cells) takes ages to replace expended energy. Apart from those shared woes (whose severity differs widely from case to case) sufferers fall into three main categories: (1) those who suffer fairly constant muscle pain (2) those who suffer regular will-sapping bouts of brain fog, and (3) the lucky sods who suffer both (as well as all the other fun stuff, of course). I'm in Group 2: I get bouts of joint pain from time to time, but only for an hour or two after waking up, but my real affliction is brain fog - i.e. difficulty in concentrating. But here's the thing: apart from the occasional really bad day, I can always read. And because my sleeping patterns are deranged, I have plenty of hours in which to get my reading done. Apart from working my way through all of Shakespeare's plays, most of the major Greek dramas, The Old Testament, some Ovid, some Ancient Historical works, and a slew of conservative political books, I've spent an inordinate amount of time reading true crime and Golden Age detective fiction, neither of which require any effort. I reckon I've probably read enough books with titles like Who Killed Carruthers in the Conservatory? and Why Lefties Are Satanic to last me for a good while - so it's time to stop having fun and get serious. I don't want to turn up at the Pearly Gates only to be denied entry because I never managed to finish Bleak House.

I've already made a start by wolfing down David Copperfield last week, and I'm most of the way through Nostromo. As long as my health either improves or stays roughly as it is, I've set myself the task of reading 25 books I've either been meaning to read for ages, or have tried to read and given up (usually several times), or which I've assiduously avoided on the assumption that they'd bore and/or annoy me, and I've given myself a year to do so. Here's the complete list:

1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (adored it - well, most of it)
2. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (I found the first third almost unreadable - again - but it begins to grip after that)
3. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (I've always been dismissive of her, without having reached the second page of any of her novels)
4. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (got a hundred pages in last year, and was enjoying it, but stopped following a mini-crisis, and never climbed back on board)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (this has defeated me many times, because it strikes me as thoroughly unpleasant  - but I'm going to damn well finish it this year)
6. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (okay, bit of a cop-out, this one - but the thought of starting Ulysses yet again is just too depressing)
7. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James (I keep getting to page 20 and really must find out what happens after that)
8. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
9. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
10. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
11. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (never yet managed to get to the end of any Twain book)
12. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
13. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (I've read all of his other major novels, but this is the one I've always meant to read, without actually doing so)
14. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
15. Rabbit Redux by John Updike
16. Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1 by Naguib Mahfouz
17. Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow (I got stuck half-way)
18. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
19. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
20. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (or Blood Meridian)
21. Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne (couldn't make head nor tail of it at the first two attempts)
22. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (why can't I ever get through this obviously impressive novel?)
23. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (I loved Love in the Time of Cholera, but couldn't get into this one - worth another shot)
24. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
25. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (one more go - but this time, I must not fail!)

And if I really can't face one or more of the above titles,  I reserve the right to swap it for one of the following (as long as they're roughly the same length as the book they're replacing):

 Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky
Tess of the D'Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann  O'Brien
The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Wish me luck, and I'll report back.


  1. I'm feeling smug because I have actually read (and finished) about two thirds of your list - but I must make a start on the other ones. To cheer yourself up after Madame Bovary, try reading a short story by Woody Allen in which Mme B turns up in his New York hotel room, discovers Bloomingdales and other shops, collars his credit cards, and refuses to go home.

    1. I'll definitely seek out the Woody Allen story - I suspect I'll need a laugh!

  2. Good luck with the list.Kerouac is a bit of a surprise given your past comments.

    1. I didn't realise I'd ever made comments about Kerouac, southern man. I've got a good way into "On the Road" several times, and it just felt terribly dated, especially as we now know the dangers of a wonderfully liberated, cool, drug-fuelled existence. But I will make a genuine effort to set aside my feelings and try to give Kerouac (who does sound like he was a really useless shit) the benefit of the doubt. Who know? I may wind up loving it!

  3. Oh yes-read six of 'em-Huckleberry Finn twice.

    1. Got stuck into it last night, after finishing Nostromo. I couldn't get on with Tom Sawyer, but I'd always meant to give Huckleberry Finn a try after a friend told me it was the one book he read every year. I can see the attraction.

  4. I have always found Joseph Conrad fascinating [from memory I think I have read 4-5 of his novels, but not Nostromo] because he first visited England when he was 21 and then mastered the language to publish his first novel when he was 38. I wonder how you learn a foreign language and then go on to become one of the great writers in that language? Nabokov did the same [he published his first novel in English when he was 42]. It is odd that they should both have come from Russia [Conrad was Polish, but came from the Ukraine ].

    Please consider also Robert Louis Stevenson. I had never read him until a few years ago and was captivated.

    Virginia Woolf? Do yourself a favour and give that seedy Bloomsbury gang a huge swerve.

    1. What I found odd about Nostromo was that, for once when reading Conrad, I didn't get the sense of foreignness - i.e that I was reading an excellent translation - which I certainly got from The Secret Agent, which was written later. Perhaps it's because, while there are several English characters in Nostromo, it's set entirely in South America, and Conrad's foreignness is most pronounced when he's writing about England. (I got a similar impression when reading Lolita, especially during the cross-country journey, staying in motels). But then the foreignness is marked in every other Conrad novel and short story I've read, all of which were set in exotic locations - partly style, partly his attitudes. Anyway, Nostromo was magnificent: for one thing, it sort of explains South American politics.

      I've read a few Robert Louis Stevenson novels and short stories. I finally got round to Treasure Island during the BBC's Big Read campaign years ago. I've always meant to read Kidnapped. Terrific writer.

      I've got to read at least one Virginia Woolf novel to justify sneering whenever her name is mentioned - or maybe I'll turn into a fan. Unlikely.

  5. Your remarks about Conrad got me thinking. The film version of his novel "Outcast of the Islands" [1951] with a distinctive British cast [Richardson, Howard, Hiller and Morley] and director [Reed] had a very odd European feel about it which seemed to extend to the cinemaphotography. Morley's relationship with his prepubescent daughter was very disconcerting. An odd masterpiece which I stumbled upon on Talking Pictures.

    There are three English actors [George Sanders, Leslie Howard and Laurance Harvey]who are "foreign" to a degree, but who come across as typically English [at least to me]. Perhaps you need to be English to spot any clues to the contrary?

    Whenever I think of Ms Woolf I always get an image of Nicolle Kidman and her ludicrous prosthetic hooter. The Schnozzle Durante of English Literature?

    1. Are you telling me that Schozzle Durante was a suicidal lesbian? Once more, I've been kept in the dark.

  6. While on the subject of foreign writers it would be interesting to hear of your views on Don Quixote.
    I used to own a magnificent old volume of this superb work with prints based on El Greco.

    1. Yet another classic I've avoided until now. Maybe next year...