Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reading programmatically, Or The number is between 18 and 24 (not 42 at all)

I'm, I guess, a "programmatic" reader:I set myself a program of reading and work through it. For the longest time (from when I left university and until I was in my mid-forties, I guess) I was working my way through world history and the various sciences. Along the way I was reading fiction and reading relatively widely (comic books to great literature).

In my mid-forties, however, it occurred to me that when people said "well-read" they didn't mean "widely-read" they meant "these specific books." Fundamentally, the history of the British novel, the American greats (novels), and some poetry and drama from those traditions. So I did what is, I've come to recognize, typically me: I got books on both subjects ("British literature" and "American literature"), compiled a list and started reading. (I'm done my British list, by the way, and am up to the great Depression in my American list--I've read some American books after that but it's--from my point of view--spotty coverage).

While doing this I realized that I was being awfully narrow minded. That, in my mind, being "well read" should mean being well read in everything. This, I think, reflects my obsessive need to collect. I really like John Cheever because you can read everything he wrote: he's dead (there won't be any more), there's (maybe) five novels--most of them quite short--and a single collection of short stories. The fact that I really like his short stories and most of the novels is almost secondary to the fact that it's possible to read it all.

There are, I'm sure, lots of other things going on here. I like "to know stuff" so, when I hear about some tradition of writing that others read, I want to know about it, also. But another reason is that I probably have a form of autism calls "asperger syndrome." Among other things, it means that I'm cut off, to a certain extent, from appreciating other people's emotions--empathy is not something that is natural to me. Reading, especially reading fiction, helps to expose me to other people's lives. I do belief that "I am human so nothing human is foreign to me" so reading about others makes me realize how I am like others: from Oliver Twist to Adolf Hitler, they are all me.

So what does "everything" mean in this case? It turns out to mean all of the various genres (mystery, travel writing, sports fiction and non-fiction, young adult, etc.). It also means "world literature." The house swaps that Jan and I do are a big help here because it gives me a focus. When we went to Spain, for instance, I researched Spanish literature, drew up a list, and started reading my way through it.

The goal here (and I do have to have a goal--you can't just read for fun, apparently) is not to read everything in a particular tradition. But the goal is to get familiar with what goes on in that tradition: what books will people who like it have read, what sort of language do authors in that tradition use, what sort of things do these books talk about, and so on, and so on.

This leads to Vogel's Magic Number: You can get familiar with any writing tradition in 18 to 24 books (actually, you can probably do it in about 12 books but I do enjoy reading so that leads to a larger number: I'm indulging myself). You want, under this plan, to read
  • What I think of the "foundation literature"--the books that came before the genre was defined. For particular countries, that's the myth, legends, and folklore that people grow up hearing and that was the earliest oral tradition. That's probably one or two books.
  • Some of the "classics." The books that writers in this tradition read before they started writing, that are taught in school, that are considered the "great works" and were written before people started writing novels some time after 1800. That's probably another three to five books.
  • The classic novels written after 1800. That's probably another three to five books
  • A survey of the tradition's poetry, a survey of modern poets, and a couple of books by specific poets (typically, one dead and one contemporary): four to five books.
  • The "modern masters", the books written after 1930 that shook up the genre or were very popular: three to five books
  • What's being written right now. Some books by people who aren't famous (at least, not yet) or whose popularity is probably temporary: two to three books.
  • I try to find two authors that I like very much and read a bunch of their stuff (which means that I look for authors I like and have more than one or two books available). The goal here is to read four or five books by one author and two or three by another.
Adding up the low end, that's about twenty books altogether and, recognizing that I'll probably read at the high end in a couple of these categories, about twenty-four books in total.

So what do we see on the current "reading or read" list? Well, I'm still working through the 'young adult' tradition ("Why We Broke Up") and Irish literature from our house swap last year ("Mefisto"). I think that I'm nearing the end of the YA group but I've got a stack of Irish books I'm looking forward to (the complete works of Samuel Beckett!).  I read a bunch of Czech literature a ways back, am stockpiling books towards getting familiar with middle-European literature, and may well end up doing some reading around Jewish literature ("The Golem"). Poetry is on-going ("The Ring and the Book") though I can see that there might be an end there in the future. I'm also reading more American comic book writers after going on a spree of the Brits. Ed Brubaker being the author I've found that I like ("Coward", "Bad Night", and "Incognito"). I'm sporadically working on the American literature thing ("Tropic of Cancer") though it won't be until after I finish my Irish books that I'll return to that.

I also have a couple of "ongoing" program. I try to read about my country ("Scott Pilgrim"), especially about the prairies where I was born ("Grain"). I also try to be aware of what's being written right now though that doesn't show up on this list ("The Patrick Melrose Novels" from an earlier list and "The Bishop's Man" which will probably turn up on my next list). Even that is driven by a program, though: I get the magazine BookForum every month or two (five issues a year--what kind of schedule is that?) and read at least one book out of each issue.

And I do recognize that this sounds weird. But, for me, it is fun.

Reading or read

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