2018: The year of reading books that are older than me

I’ve started a program of picking a constraint every year and striving to make half the books I read satisfy that constraint.  This year it was to read books that came out before my own copyright date, 1971.  Here’s the 2018 reading list, with links on books I blogged about:

  • 20 Dec 2018: Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
  • 3 Dec 2018:  Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays, trans.) (161-180)
  • 24 Nov 2018:  The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 15 Nov 2018:  The Fiancée, and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (Ronald Wilks, trans.) (1904)
  • 19 Oct 2018:  Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
  • 7 Oct 2018:  Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-53)
  • 6 Oct 2018:  Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier.
  • 15 Sep 2018:  Mind and Matter, by John Urschel and Louisa Thomas.
  • 6 Sep 2018:  A Spy In Time, by Imraan Coovadia.
  • 1 Sep 2018:  Cat Country (貓城記), by Lao She (William Lyell, trans.) (1932)
  • 10 Aug 2018:  Maigret and the Headless Corpse, by Georges Simenon (Howard Curtis, trans.) (1955)
  • 31 Jul 2018:  Before The Golden Age:  A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (Isaac Asimov, ed.)
  • 26 Jun 2018:  Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.
  • 20 May 2018: “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,” by Wang Ming (1956)
  • 10 May 2018:  The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (1958)
  • 1 Apr 2018:  Indoctrinaire, by Christopher Priest (1970)
  • 28 Mar 2018:  Riots (Problems of American Society series), Anita Monte and Gerald Leinwand, eds. (1970)
  • 14 Mar 2018:  The Surprising Place, by Malinda McCollum.
  • 9 Mar 2018:  99 Variations on a Proof, by Philip Ording.
  • 18 Feb 2018:  How To Leave, by Erin Clune.
  • 10 Feb 2018:  The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman.
  • 27 Jan 2018:  Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)
  • 20 Jan 2018:  The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard (1962)
  • 19 Jan 2018: Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy at the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915 (Peter Maresca, ed.)
  • 10 Jan 2018:  The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  • 4 Jan 2018:  Why Men Fail, Morris Fishbein and William White, eds. (1928) (second post)

Society is Nix and Before the Golden Age are slight cheats: both books came out after 1971, but they anthologize material written well before, so I decided they counted.

One of my goals in doing these theme years is the idea that a whole year spent in a part of the bibliosphere I mostly skip will broaden my reading habits permanently.  Maybe?  I feel like this list has more translated works than I used to typically read in a year, and maybe I can credit the 2016 theme.  But only 5 of these 25 books are by women, so my 2015 theme is maybe not doing its work.

Other notes:

Best of the year:  A lot of the theme books were good, but this year, for the first time, none of the theme books really excited me enough to enter my idiocanon.  I should have reread some Edith Wharton or something.

What I learned from the project:  Based on two examples, 19th century novels in English care a lot about the difference between how men should be and how women should be (I think contemporary English-language novels are still like this) and the plot is often driven by sums of money and questions about how they will be distributed (I feel like contemporary English-language novels are seldom like this and I wonder why not?)

Based on Wieland I think the prose style of 18th century English is just inevitably always going to be swampy going for me and I probably won’t push myself harder to read more.   It was pretty metal, though.  Wieland and Bleak House have spontaneous combustion in common, something you also don’t see much of in contemporary English-language novels.

The Dud Avocado was truly funny and reminded me that people actually wrote and published books in the 1950s that were quite sexually frank.  I thank whatever librarian at Sequoyah knew the book and put it out on the front table so browsers like me would see it.

Biggest disappointment:  The Drowned World is a super-famous and canonical SF novel and I just thought it was bad.  A few well-done set pieces but doesn’t really function as a novel or as science fiction.  If you were going to read Dangerous Visions-era SF with a similar title I would recommend Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World instead; he maintains the level of high mind-changing weirdness that Ballard only occasionally touches.

Outside the theme:  Four contemporary books I loved.  Malinda McCollum’s The Surprising Place is an anthology I’ve been awaiting for years.  The old stories are as great as I remembered.  The new stories even greater.  Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity is a concept novel (interlocking narratives ranging from the 16th century to the 25th) which shouldn’t work at all but kind of mostly does.  Many beautiful lines.  Sort of Cloud Atlas meets (T. Coraghessan Boyle’s) World’s End if anybody but me cares about those two books.  Erin Clune’s How To Leave is a very very funny take on living in Wisconsin and only gradually coming to grasp that you don’t live in New York.  Reader, I blurbed it!  I first met Elisa Gabbert as a commenter on this blog.  She  is great on Twitter.  So it’s not surprising she is great at pocket essays.  But it is surprising, happily surprising, that her small-press book The Word Pretty got noticed and raved about by the New York Times.  Sometimes the system works!

Old stuff I meant to read and didn’t get to:  Rereading The House of Mirth.  Reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End which I have often started but never finished.  Ditto The Man Without Qualities.  I was going to read more classical stuff but never even got to the point of figuring out what to plan to read and not get to.  Just in general I think I spent too much time in the kiddie pool of the pre-1971 20th century, a period I’ve already spent a lot of time reading.  After all, when I was a kid, there wasn’t much else.

6 thoughts on “2018: The year of reading books that are older than me

  1. F says:

    Always interesting to see what you are reading. Just curious: on average, how much time do you find to read per day? Sadly I’m quite a slow reader, so get through very few books these days.

  2. JSE says:

    I mostly read in bed before going to sleep. That isn’t very much time, maybe 15-20 minutes a day? So when I actually make a lot of progress on a book is if I’m on a plane or something.

  3. Stiofáin says:

    Got bored of His Dark Materials?

  4. F says:

    I’m impressed!

  5. JSE says:

    No! I’ve read them already. Re-read the first one because my son was reading it. I’ll read the next new one when it comes out.

  6. eriehl says:

    What’s the 2019 constraint?

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