December 9, 2013
When I was in my second year of college, the poet and critic John Ciardi gave a lecture at my school. He was riding the popularity among both academic and general audiences of How Does a Poem Mean?, his textbook on how to read, write, and teach the genre. He was the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference then, and he must have been at the peak of his influence when he signed on to speak at a community college in central Pennsylvania that had to rent a hall to accommodate him.
A formalist and a traditionalist to the bone, he was a champion of the classics. I remember nothing of that night â€” not the poems he read, not who I went to the event with â€” except this. In talking about the way literature stays with us, how it takes us to places and times we cannot otherwise go, he said that whenever he wants to spend a few evenings on a whaling ship, he rereads Moby Dick.
Moby Dick is more than 600 pages, and I was, in that semester of my academic life, struggling, among all my other school and social obligation, to read it just once. I’m not sure I read it in its entirety, and though I would read about it from time to time, and prepare lessons on excerpts from it that appeared in the high school anthologies I was given to teach from, I would never read it through again, even though I still have it among my souvenirs. I remain impressed at the ability of anyone to take “a few evenings” to read a 600 page book, even a less dense and complicated one.
Because so many of my online friends are readers and writers, I’m seeing a lot of reading roundups. I marvel at the numbers some of my friends report: 40, 50, even 70 books in a calendar year. These are people who are employed full time, who have young children, who are writing their own books or publishing short stories.
Today I went through my journals and agenda book for the last year, beginning with December 1, 2012, since I started my new year on December 1, 2013, the First Sunday in Advent. I read story collections, but also a lot of individual short stories. I count them separately, and consider every ten such to be a book. The tally for 2013:
43 individual stories (count as 4 books)
4 story collections
That’s a total of 17 books. I read only 10 books in 2012, so at least I’m reading more. But I am not reading any nonfiction, and I’m reading poetry so haphazardly that I decided it was too hard to comb the pages and find the references.
That count of 17 books represents a 75% increase over my reading in 2012. Another great leap like that means that for 2014 I should read about 30 books. That’s the target then. 30 books, at least 5 of them narrative nonfiction.
Let’s get busy!