Saturday, December 14, 2013

My New Year's Resolution is Inspired by a Customer's Stray Comment, and Also a Book of Course.

I’m happy to say that visions of six inches of snow did not seemingly affect our business too much today. Unlike last weekend’s blast, which left us with more snow than was predicted, this weekend’s snowfall was not as strong as the original forecast, though it was still slippery.

I ran into our friend Kelly, who mentioned that in 2014, he was hoping to get back to reading a book per week, as he’d fallen off track in 2013. It was funny that he brought this up, as I was also already thinking of new year’s resolutions as well, and yes, mine also involved reading. I don’t expect read any more books in 2014 than I did in 2013 (I’m projecting it will be about 75 altogether) but I am imagining a slightly different assortment. I’m imagining what it would be like to fill in literature holes. A classic a month? A focus on a particular author? Can it be possible?

For these crazy thoughts, I place the blame squarely on John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature (Yale), the newest in a series of primers that have previously covered history, science, and philosophy. I wasn’t planning on reading this, but after our rep John talked it up at rep night and Jane featured it at the Woman’s Club, I started including it in my own presentations.

The more I talked about it, the more I thought, “Maybe reading A Little History of Literature is the next best thing to actually reading all the books. For Sutherland, literature is not just written records, particularly before the printing press. He begins with myths and epics, both oral traditions, and then covers mystery plays and Shakespeare. Chapters are devoted to movements in fiction, poetry, and drama, such as the romantics, the empire builders, the dystopians, and the magical realists. Folks like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Woolf get their own chapters.

By now, you’ve probably guessed that the true title of this book should be A Little History of English Literature. While Sutherland does cover some American movements, and goes international with the magical realists (not just the Latin Americans but Gunter Grass too) and counts the Prix Goncourt among the major prizes, this is first and foremost about the United Kingdom. Many counties get one mention, such that China, Japan, India, Portugal, Italy, and Canada are checked off respectively with Mo Yan, Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, Italo Calvino, and Margaret Atwood, respectively, and Atwood just gets props for her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale.

One thing I can say about this work is that it does highlight a number of woman writers, not just Austen and Woolf, but the Brontës; Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Toni Morrison, and most notably, Anne Bradstreet, the first American novelist. Anne who? I do indeed have holes in my knowledge base.

But what of Ernest Hemingway or Edith Wharton, and Saul Bellow’s only mention is his putdown of developing cultures in his Nobel acceptance speech. In general, the further back Sutherland goes, the less I know, and thus the more I appreciate his recaps. Do I need an explanation of how book clubs work? No. Do I need an explanation of Chaucer? Yes. Fortunately, a good amount of Sutherland's survey is more of the latter than the former.

So this is the great thing about giving A Little History of Literature as a gift. It only made me more aware of my literary shortcomings and made me want to broaden my horizons. So now I’m making my reading list for 2014, and it’s including things like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Can I work another day in a bookstore without having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Can it be five years since I last read Charles Dickens?

I bet I can do it, at least for January. I’ll let you know how I do at the end of the year.

No comments: