The Year of Checking Boxes

As I write, this year is not yet finished but I’m making certain assumptions that help me better set the stage for what I’m trying to say. One such assumption is that I will have finished The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls by New Year’s Day. I think it to be a fairly safe assumption because both books sit atop my bookshelf on this afternoon in October and I’ve been reading something like a book every 3-4 days for this year. So I hope you’ll forgive such small bends in the fiber when I say that this has been a year of checking off boxes.

I should start by saying that I wanted to spend this year writing fiction, cutting my teeth as someone who has never really done so seriously. Until December, I wrote exclusively nonfiction: essays and commentary, not a word of fiction. When I decided to make that my project this year, the two most important branches of that endeavor were never in doubt. The first was that I needed to write fiction. I’ve been absent from this space, haven’t submitted any essays to little online magazines, let my newspaper thing get a little behind, but I’ve been writing feverishly and without ceasing. In the last eight months, I’ve churned out hundreds of thousands of words of mediocre fiction. Only about four-thousand turned into a published story. It is what it is: such is the stuff of practice. 

The second part of my year in fiction was to read and I’ve been reading more than ever. As with the writing, I’ve always been partial to nonfiction and spent most of my adult life reading essays and tomes of Civil War history, political theory, and the like. So I wanted to read fiction –– but not just any fiction. At some point in February or March, while considering the prospect of finally fighting my way through The Sound and the Fury, I decided to make this a year of checking off boxes. I didn’t just want to read more fiction; I wanted to read the fiction that I’ve always been told I simply must read, but never have.

I wanted to read those books without which my literary friends claim life is something less than it can be, those books my high school English teachers said changed their lives but for which high school students simply weren’t ready, those books that show up on countless lists of the best or most important or essential novels of all time or this century or that. Michael Chabon wrote for The New York Review of Books that Ulysses and “The Dead” were masterpieces “without which life was something seen through a sheet of wax paper, handled with gloves of thick batting, overheard through a drinking glass pressed to a wall.” A friend once put Lolita on the table when he met me for dinner and told me it was the greatest novel ever written but “not for everyone.” I wasn’t sure that was entirely the way a great novel was meant to work but now I see what he means –– probably not for me. A friend at work read One Hundred Years of Solitude: “I just –– I just …” [looks up at the ceiling and puts her hand over her heart] “… feel like I understand so much more about life and death and happiness.” Noted.

In March or April, instead of The Sound and the Fury, I bought a collection of Faulkner’s first four novels (The Sound and the Fury being the fourth) and decided I start where he did and work my way up, try to pick up the same tools for reading his stories that he picked up for writing them. In the end, I finally knocked out the notoriously confusing masterpiece, understood it to the extent that the average reader ever does, and enjoyed it enough that I moved on to As I Lay Dying (which left me awestruck and gaping). So began my year of checking off boxes.

To that end I’ve read:

William Faulkner (Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, Flags in the Dust, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying)

Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway)

James Joyce (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, currently reading Ulysses)

Homer (The Odyssey)

Albert Camus (The Fall, The Plague, The Stranger, Exile and the Kingdom)

Saul Bellow (Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift –– though Bellow was not a new interest for me)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment)

Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking, Play it as it Lays, Democracy)

John Updike (Rabbit Run, numerous of his stories)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Collected Stories, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, not yet One Hundred Years of Solitude but it’s on the list)

Kurt Vonnegut (Mr. Rosewater, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five ––– though I’d read the latter before)

Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises ––– I promise. Check back with me later.)

Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita with Pnin and Pale Fire on the shelf)

So I haven’t been doing nothing. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve been doing that.

ReadingPeter Amos