Life As a Reading Challenge, Chapter 2
A few weeks ago, I left a comment on a friend's post about a Thomas Hardy novel he has been reading. In his reply, he expressed surprise that someone who spent so much time reading YA (and MG) would have such insight into one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian Era.
He was just teasing, of course. (Most people, even friends, are typically reluctant to acknowledge my genius.) But he got me thinking about a certain "turning point" in my past, which I remember whenever someone makes some remark about my "low-brow" reading preferences.
It was the summer after I graduated from uni, and I was ready to read. Really ready--and in ways most readers never are. Had I not graduated with straight As in all my English Literature papers? Had I not won the Wai-te-ata Shakespeare Award in 2004 for getting the highest marks in that year's Shakespeare paper? (Just adding that tidbit so I pop up in Google searches!) Had I not been such a promising undergraduate that I received not one, but two letters from my professors inviting me to enter the university's post-graduate programme? Had I not managed to do all of that and still finish one year early so that I didn't have to worry about room and board for an extra year? It was more than an education; it was training. And at the end of it all, I felt that there was nothing in the world I couldn't read and get the best of.
It was with that modest mindset that I stood in my then-favourite bookstore, ready to pick out the first read of the rest of my life.
I had walked in knowing exactly what I wanted: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was one author I hadn't managed to encounter in any of the papers I had taken; and although I felt sorry that I wouldn't be reading him with an experienced guide, I still believed that I could manage handsomely on my own.
So I pulled a copy of Crime and Punishment off a shelf in the Classics section, and out of habit, started reading the first chapter in the store . . . And that was the most I ever got from it.
Whenever I tell this story, it is to respond to someone else's tale of "burnout." Uni gave me some of the best years of my life, and you have no idea how much I wish I could be a graduate student so that I could go back and do it over times ten to the power of infinity . . . but I guess two straight years of serious, intense reading took a toll I hadn't counted on. I found Dostoevsky completely unreadable. I'd read one paragraph, fail to understand it, have to go back and read it again, finally grasp it, and then lose it again after having to reread the paragraph after it. My mind was just mush.
It took a while, but I soon gave up, put Crime and Punishment back where I found it . . . and wandered over to the YA section . . . where I remained browsing for a much longer time . . . and which I left with my final choice for the day . . . The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares.
And I tell you this story now because I've just realised that it isn't over.
For years, I have unconsciously cast that summer day in the bookstore as a kind of irrevocable moment--one of those points of life-long significance that always comes before a fork in the road. On one side, there was "high-brow" reading, represented by a Russian novelist who has always come with the highest recommendations (Hi, Dauvit!); on the other, there was "low-brow" reading, represented by teen ChickLit that had recently spawned a movie starring four of Hollywood's hottest young starlets. (And where are those girls now, hmmmm?) But the more important consideration was that I simply could not read the first book--and frankly, didn't even want to--while the second book seemed like the most delightful summer read in the world.
And so powerful was that idea of an irrevocable choice that I don't think I knowingly read a single university-approved classic novel for years afterwards.
Which really should not have happened. For that fork in the road existed nowhere but in my own imagination, which must have also been really burned out. Reading is not about "either-or;" it is all about "both-and." "Grown up" classics and contemporary YA/MG can co-exist in one library--and on one book blog. And for 2011, I would like nothing better than for my two biggest Reading Challenges to reflect that.
They make an odd couple, but who's complaining?
My original plan was to finish at least twelve retro YA novels (one for each month of the year) and eight Victorian novels/short stories (one for each literary character in the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but now I'd like to even things out a little. This is one of my more challenging resolutions--and I bet I'll go nuts by the time we hit June--but I now commit myself to reading an equal number of books for each challenge.
Tomorrow, I'll have a post on my first Victorian novel up. We'll see what I can do about January's "old school" YA book.
Image Sources: a) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, b) The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares