Once I began taking my reading more seriously, I decided there was value in reading certain books together that they may add context from one to the other. History books alongside historical novels for example. When I get around to reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I will no doubt reread Jane Eyre first. Ditto for Foe and Robinson Crusoe. Some years ago, I did something even more ambitious and devoted a year to a ‘Russian phase’ and read some of the great Russian classics alongside some non-fiction books on Russian culture and history. It was a worthy experience that I would recommend and may even repeat myself one day.
The problem with this approach is that it can easily snowball. How many books should you read together in order to create context and awareness of subject? Where do you begin and where do you end? I say this because, if there is a theme for my 2017 Reading List, it is that I feel as if I am juggling many balls in the air!
On my 2017 list are…
Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh
The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Woodlanders, by Thomas Hardy
Genius, by James Gleick
Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
Shahnameh, by Ferdowsi
Ancient History, by JM Roberts
Only thirteen books, which sounds unambitious, but some of them are monsters! Three are over 800 pages, another five comfortably over 500 pages. By my standards it is going to be a challenge.
One of the balls I have been juggling is an interest in books of philosophy and religion. In recent years I have read some works of Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. This year the closest I come to that thread is Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great which I have had hanging around for too long.
Another I have been juggling is my reading of works of Indian history, literature and authorship which may continue to the end of my life. This year I tackle Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. As I understand, it is only partly set in India, only partly featuring Indian characters, so it is mostly part of my Indian phase due to its authorship. It is also a bit of a case of killing two birds with one stone as it also fulfils my aim to read a trilogy or a series every year. Or three birds, since no Booker Prize winner made my list this year, unfortunately. The first book in this trilogy, Sea of Poppies, comes the closest having been shortlisted in 2008.
A new one I have tossed up is my reading of two writers most associated with Victorian Realism – Hardy and Eliot. In 2016 I read Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. In 2017, I continue with Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Woodlanders.
I aim to read at least one book of science each year. This year I will make do with James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman; Genius. Like the Hitchens book, it does not quite fulfil what I want for this genre but it has been hanging around unread for a long time.
I also aim to read at least one book of non-biographical history each year. This year that will be a monster – JM Roberts’ Ancient History. As I understand, it is a revised first-half of the work that is considered to be Roberts’ masterpiece; The History of the World. This Ancient History is one of those books that must be categorised as ‘other’ – too many pictures and too physically wide to be categorised as just a hardcover book, too wordy and far too thick to be considered a coffee-table book. Visually, it is stunning; the pictures included are immensely impressive. I imagine a lot of history writers would wish a publisher would give them a mandate to produce a book like this. If reading it is as impressive an experience as it is physically I may have to get its companion; Modern History.
One thing I have dropped was the aim of working my way through some ancient or classical epics. Homer is relatively easy to get through. Not enough of Gilgamesh survives to be troubling, or even particularly interesting. I gave up early on The Bhagavad Gita, I might try again one day, perhaps via The Mahabharata. And I need to try again with The Arabian Nights. This year I will attempt the great Persian Epic, The Shahnameh.
Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook do not represent themes I am juggling, just books that I have had around a long time and ought to get around to. That being said, I have pretty high expectations for both.
Wild Swans is a book I kept neglecting to buy. There was a time it appeared on every bookshop’s list of their patron’s favourites. I kept passing it by, thinking I’ll get around to it sometime. Then I met my wife and she already had a copy! So I’ll be reading my wife’s well-worn copy this year.
A few years ago we had the pleasure of hearing Jung Chang speak, meeting her and having our books of her signed. It makes me wonder though. I now have a fair few books on Chinese history or by Chinese authors. I wonder if by reading this book I will be throwing a new ball in the air.
Overall, I think it is a good list. Among the non-fiction there is history, biography and opinion. Among the fiction there is a mix of classics and contemporary literature. What there is a lack of is any easy reading – it looks like a tough list!