On Reading (Part One)

Any faithful reader will by now recognize in me a habit to read rather a lot of one thing at a time. This had lead to some interesting observations for me, a sense of immersion that is powerful and attractive.

In the end, though, as a general strategy, I found it lacking. Long binges of single authors left me tired, and unwilling to pick up the next book. As a researcher, it was a fine system. As a reader, less so.

I recently saw an article, somewhere on this great wide internet, in which a media writer explained how they chose what tv shows to watch. It was part of their job, and they needed a system. The writer (and I have lost the original reference – mea culpa) linked back to a writer who used a similar system for reading. I was not amused.

However, the longer I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make, as I ran out of things to read and the will to read them. I decided to give it a try.

Essentially, the system is this: One reads (or watches) one book (or show) from a list of categories, until one book from all the categories has been read, at which point, one starts over. Its simple, arbitrary, and quite flexible.

I started with these categories:

Contemporary non-fiction

Classic non-fiction

Contemporary fiction

Classic fiction

Horror/suspense

Sci-fi/fantasy

Detective/genre fiction

Food Writing

How-to/self-help

I’m nearly finished the first round. This time, I’ve read On Writing by Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes by King, As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (a Kennedy biography), Cooked by Michael Pollan, Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I’m planning on reading Walden by Thoreau, but my detective fiction is still up in the air.

I’m happy with the system thus far. It helps push me out of my comfort zone, and already some themes are emerging. I look forward to round two.

How do you choose what to read, Gentle Reader?

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On Doyle, Sherlock, and the BBC

Inspired in part by rumour that John Milton blinded himself by reading every book known in his era, I’ve recently set out to read in chunks. Big, unwieldy chunks.

So my modus operandi these days tends towards reading groups of works in their entirety. Anyone who knows me has likely heard of last year’s consumption of all (or very nearly all) of Stephen King’s short fiction. A big, unwieldy chunk of Stephen King.

There is something to be said for reading really shocking amounts of work by the same author. Patterns, themes, and voice emerge, and one becomes incredibly intimate with them. Authors revisit old ideas, either for better or for worse, and the reader gets to revisit them as well, in light of the intervening intertextuality of the entire corpus. Although I didn’t read King’s short fiction in order, I’m not sure it matters, and it might be better that I didn’t.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, of course, is a good choice for this type of reading. Conveniently, the popularity of his stories ensure that ‘complete works’ collections are easy to come by. And as a character, he is immensely popular right now, in no small part due to the recent BBC series. Also, my fiancée is a fan, and likes to use me as a sounding board for her own ideas, so it helps to be informed. I’ve read worse for lesser reasons.

The best thing about marathon reading of the Holmes stories is the subtle surprises. A serious student of Holmes might think me odd, but as a casual Holmes reader, the whole taken together was a bit of an eye opener.

Immersing myself in the literature allowed me to divorce myself from the rest of the portrayals that have accrued around Holmes as a character. You can’t entirely forget these, but all Doyle all the time certainly helps. Doyle’s voice and intention really come to the fore. I had no idea Holmes was as funny as he is, nor that we were ever granted a point of view other than the good doctor’s. Indeed, later stories give the reader access to the mind of Sherlock himself. I was also surprised to find how little role Moriarty has in the stories as well, appearing only once, although mentioned briefly a few other times. I’m still not sure I understand the appeal of the character, or why he is so important to latter presentations of Doyle’s work. He clearly had his impact on Holmes, but less so on the reader. This reader, in any case.

All this is especially important given the popularity of the recent BBC adaptation. It’s a wonderful series, and they interpret the corpus in interesting ways. I watched them first with only a passing knowledge of the canon, and my appreciation of them has deepened now that I’ve read more.

The eBook version of the complete works that I got my hands on happened also to include Doyle’s Tales of Terror and Mystery. I had had some vague notion that Doyle must have written something besides Holmes, but I had not idea just how different some of these stories could be. Many treated similar themes, but some where positively Lovecraftian, and I was thrilled by the Poe-like ‘The New Catacomb’. Late 19th and early 20th century horror has become increasingly interesting to me of late, and finding it where I wasn’t expecting it was awfully nice.

There’s a certain joy to reading all of something, I suppose. I’ll allow that not all of everything ought to be read, but Holmes (and King) work well.

What say you, reader?