Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Audacity of Mutt

A Reading Experiment for 2010

Ever since I came up with the idea of the Annual Dickensfest, reading one Charles Dickens novel late in the year, every year, since 2000, I’ve been trying to come up with other challenges to propose to myself as a reader of literature. It may seem nerdy, and I guess it is, but on the other hand, when you’re passionate about doing something well, and you work at it long and hard, eventually you develop a desire to challenge yourself anew with the passage of time. You don’t get better at anything without raising expectations of and for yourself. I know that is how I feel about writing. Why should that not be the case also with reading? What’s the matter with wanting to become a better reader? In some ways, both Duke and I have been trying to do this for our entire lives.

But I like the challenges to have a point, not just to be challenges for the sake of having challenges. Dickensfest has a clear purpose, in fact several of them: 1) to become well read on Charles Dickens’ entire catalogue, indispensible for writers of fiction; 2) to continually observe and in fact study the art of writing novels from one of the greatest practitioners of that art ever to draw breath; 3) to celebrate the novel in general, and become immersed in long, rich, dramatic stories, of which Dickens was the great craftsman; 4) to learn about the past; 5) to entertain myself, which Charles Dickens was also always game for.

A while ago, I blogged about another reading challenge I was toying with imposing upon myself, which ran counter to the way I usually go about my reading. The idea of consuming a number of works in a row by one particular author, whose work merited the time commitment and the intense scrutiny, was appealing to me. Yet I never managed to even attempt my own challenge this year; I was too backed up with other books I wanted to read, and maybe was even a little intimidated by taking on so much of my author of choice, Herman Melville. Interestingly, though, Duke liked the idea so much he took it as his own, and not only that, he actually had the chutzpah to choose William Faulkner. And on top of that, whereas I had only entertained the idea, he actually delivered on it! If you don’t believe me, read his outstanding post on the four William Faulkner novels he read end-upon-end, and you’ve read Faulkner, you know this was no mean feat. An amazing reading accomplishment by Duke.

Partially inspired by that feat, and driven by some other motivators, I have now come up with a far more ambitious reading experiment that I will attempt to execute in order to make up for my earlier failure to complete the Melville exercise. In 2008 I was talking about trying to read anywhere from 4-5 Herman Melville titles in a row in order to bone up on his work and to increase my appreciation for a true American master whose books were grossly underappreciated in his own time. For 2010, what I want to try to do is take that idea and blow it up into a Ahab-like quest: to read books by, or about, Herman Melville EXCLUSIVELY throughout the entire year.

Am I nuts??? Probably! Normally I dislike reading even two books by the same author in a row, but to read only one author for an entire year (or about that author – criticism, biography, etc.) is downright insane, and I am sure I will have a tough time completing the journey. I get impatient to read other things even when I am reading one large book. So why do it?

Part of it is for the sheer challenge – so you might say some of the reason is for challenge’s own sake. Another reason, however, is that Melville is the kind of writer whose work merits close attention and whose genius has only become clear with the passing of time. After all, his best known work, Moby-Dick, furnished the entire world with a universally-recognized metaphor for anyone who pursues something obsessively. Not everyone has read the novel, but almost everyone with half an education knows what it means to have a personal “white whale”, or what it means to refer to an individual on an obssessive journey as a kind of “Ahab”. What a legacy for a writer to have earned. Many of Melville’s other works were visionary, well ahead of their time: he published a fantastical story in 1855 that basically pre-visualized robots ("The Bell-Tower"); his novel The Confidence-Man is a precursor to any story about a con-artist or huckster.

Other reasons I have for doing this are admittedly more abstract. But I got to thinking about where I am going to be in life in that year, 2010. I was born in 1970, and I started writing seriously in 1990. This means 2010 is my 40th year of living and my 20th year of “serious” writing, if any of my writing can be considered serious by anyone apart from myself. It’s an interesting time to do something different as a means of reflecting on where I am, how I got here, where I am going. And I find as I approach these two milestones that I feel a bit like a Melville character. I’m in the middle of some long struggles. I haven’t had the successes I wanted to achieve in some areas, and the true prize of my life journey, from the standpoint of my own vocational ambitions, remains elusive. I keep going after the dream of writing stories and books like it’s the only thing that matters, even though it’s obviously not the only thing that matters; it may not, in the end, matter at all.

In short, even though I am no where near his level of genius creatively, I feel a kinship with Melville. He struggled his entire life with debt, underappreciation, his own artistic visions, his desire to be understood. I feel that way about my own life so far. I’m not saying it hasn’t been happy. A great deal of it has, and I know I am a very lucky man. Nor am I saying my artistic aspirations trump other matters, such as family or spiritual ones, for example. But I am saying that my artistic life is incomplete at best. Melville seems like the right person to study for an aspiring writer arriving at this point and with these things to say about his own accomplishments.

Lastly, because this is how my mind works, to take on an ambitious reading project for me opens a door, however small, to the possibility of an ambitious writing project for the future. I would like to try to take on this challenge of reading Melville for an entire year, but it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t record my thoughts about it along the way, with the distinct possibility of someday gathering these thoughts together and writing about them. In other words, there may be a book in here somewhere. The idea of spending a year with Melville exclusively and then writing a book about that experience is not too far-fetched (see The Year of Living Biblically or Julie & Julia for just two examples), and may make for a very interesting and therapeutic experience for the writer and even for a potential reading audience. One never knows how far one’s ideas can go unless you go after them, follow them, see where they lead. It's true in life as much as it is in creative writing. I even have a pretty good title for the potential book in my mind, but I will save that for a later day.

So that’s my grand ambition, and I am going to try to stick to it. So far the only Melville books I have read are Moby-Dick and Typee, and I’ve read some of his short stories such as the aforementioned “Bell-Tower” and the famous “story of Wall Street”, as Melville himself called it, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. I have copies of Mardi, Redburn, and Billy Budd/The Piazza Tales waiting for me at home, as well as my copy of Moby-Dick, which I have long aspired to re-read. I also have a critical work entitled Melville: His World and His Work by Andrew Delbanco, and wouldn’t mind reading a full biography too if there’s one readily available. Other books I plan to read during the year but do not have copies of are White-Jacket, Omoo, Pierre or The Ambiguities, and The Confidence-Man.

I’m not sure how this project will effect other projects I have going, such as the writing of my novel, or the annual Dickensfest reading project, but time will tell. Normally I read somewhere around 40-50 books each year, so how am I going to fill up an entire year with just Melville’s work? Well, his books are big, and not very easy to get through, and then there’s criticism, and the idea of reading some books twice. So we’ll see how it all goes.

For now I just wanted to float the idea out there, if you will. Later on, after it goes underneath and runs deep for a while, I will have to set out after it on a vessel and chase it until I defeat it. Or it defeats me.

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