there was a book I went into my year of book reviews with the intention of reading.
I am not much on the general notion of 'classic' or the concept of The Literary Canon, because many of the finest and happiest reading experiences of my life have involved books which are totally orthogonal to those concepts, and the whole thing just seems limiting and limited and liable to cause Harold Bloom-related Oedipal issues (I am looking at you, Lev Grossman). That said, I am also a person who reads literary criticism for fun, and if you do that, there are books you wind up reading because they get mentioned so often. And there are books you wind up reading because writers you respect love them and think they are brilliant and/or entertaining. And there are books you wind up reading just to see whether you are right that they would be a total waste of your time. And so on.
One of the things that had been bothering me for some years before I started my book-a-day project was my almost total lack of acquaintance with what is mostly described as classic and what I would describe as frequently-critically-referred-to Russian literature. If it comes into your mind when I say 'Russian literature', I hadn't read it. I blame the Library Lady.
You see, when I was maybe eleven or twelve, I went to the library, as I did once a week when someone would drive me, and I happened to pick up a copy of Anna Karenina and began leafing through it. It had just about caught me when the Library Lady happened instead. I don't believe she worked there; I think she was some sort of volunteer, but she was there pretty frequently, and my usual practice when I saw her was to duck into the very back of the stacks and lurk out of her range of vision, because she had extremely strong beliefs as to What Young Girls Should Read, and they were not in any way related to my own beliefs on the subject. (Or, fortunately, my parents' beliefs on the subject, which meant she had no real power over me and was just extremely annoying.) So she came over, and she saw that I was holding Anna Karenina, and something happened which I had never experienced with the Library Lady before: she enthused.
She talked about how she had read Anna Karenina when she was just my age, and it had changed her life, and it was the perfect book for a young girl's secret heart (or something equally nauseating), and I would just love it when-- and then she described the entire plot of the entire book, in excessive detail. Including the ending. Blow by blow. And I stood there politely nodding, and trying to look for a way out of this, but there didn't seem to be one, and then she personally marched me over to the checkout desk and had the (not insane) library lady there check the book out to me, and I put it in my bag, and when my father and I were leaving the library I put it back in through the book slot and from that day to this I have neither read Anna Karenina nor ninety-five percent of the things that could be properly and according to popular opinion called Russian Literature.
That five percent is because I went into my year of a book a day intending to change that. And specifically, there was one book I meant to read, the book that critics refer to probably the most of all Russian novels, the one I had my sights on all the time I was reading and reviewing and really delighting in The Master and Margarita and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Viktor Pelevin. The book Ursula Le Guin insists is the greatest novel ever written, and I love and respect her as a writer and her critical opinions, and this statement of hers catches at me every time I reread The Language of the Night.
In short, I was going to read War and Peace.
I do not think this was a ridiculous ambition. I read Tristram Shandy in a day quite early on, and while it left me punchy and mentally reeling and basically high, I finished it and I was able to write about it. I finished Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear in a day a bit later on, which is pretty well brick-sized, and I have on multiple occasions at other times in my life read Les Miserables in one sitting, because there never seems to be a good stopping place.
So time wore on, and all of a sudden I had about a week of reviewing a book a day left, which really crept up on me. I had a lot of books I had said I would read for one person or another or planned out in other ways, and I realized suddenly that the next day had better be War and Peace or I wasn't going to fit it in. Spent some time on the internet looking up critical opinions of translations, decided the Constance Garnett sounded like a reliable old warhorse, walked over to the library and picked it up. I got up early the next day and everything. Took the book to the nearby park which has tables-- it was a beautiful morning-- gazed at the cover in some intimidation for a moment, and.
It turns out that in order to read something at the speed I am accustomed to consider normal, I need to be enjoying the book on some level. Any level. It doesn't matter what. It has nothing to do with complexity, it has nothing to do with length, but if I am to read without the sensation of walking through thick and sucking molasses there has to be something I like.
As opposed to merely respect.
Three hours later, at the close of the first hundred and fifty pages, I had a terrible headache, a collection of empty soda bottles, and the thought running through my mind: it's as though somebody turned Les Miserable inside out and made it horrifically misanthropic. Gah. Epic, epic levels of pervasive depression. Brilliantly written, gorgeously conceived, subtly argued epic meditation on the fate of all human vanity and the pointlessness of war and I felt as though I were hitting myself over the head with a brick.
Six hours after that, I'd gone home as darkness approached, built up a truly ridiculous collection of empty soda bottles, hit something approaching my stride although still in slow motion, had barely passed page five hundred, and was in a state of what I can only describe as hysteria. I had timed the rate at which I was reading, and the book was not going to finish until, if I read all night, about two p.m. the next day. It just kept going on and on and doing the thing Tristram Shandy had also done to me, where every time I turned around I'd miscalculated where I was and there were another hundred pages more than I thought, and I kept having way more book left than I expected. Except that Tristram Shandy, being an existential joke, is entitled to do that sort of thing, and also I hadn't minded. This, I minded. The problem was, I was hating it more every page, and I couldn't tell whether that was the book itself, or the knowledge that I had to get through the damn thing, or some combination of the two. My respect for the novel only grew with my hatred, because it just kept getting better and better and more and more dislikable.
I didn't have anything else lying about to read and review that day which wouldn't require any brain. Everything I had left to read was complex and my entire brain had been swallowed by this novel which I was starting to believe actually hated me on a deeply personal level. I didn't want to fail at my project in the very last week, but what choice had I got if I couldn't just fucking finish War and Peace? It felt as though it would be an invalidation of my entire year's work. (It would not have been, but did I mention the hysteria?) By this time we had gotten to pacing, ranting, and crying while reading.
At this point B., bless him, informed me that I was visibly hurting myself and this was not going to go on any longer. He removed the book from my person. I asked him what in hell I was going to read today, dammit, in that case, and he said that Thrud had left a single-volume manwha for me the last time she'd been in town, and that he didn't know whether she'd intended me to review it and he'd thought it might be a birthday present, so he hadn't given it to me yet, but here it was. After some argument, I realized that I was going to be totally impossible to be around even to myself until we had disposed of the War and Peace question one way or the other. I read the manwha. It was fine, not great. I cried a lot afterward in bitter frustration. Reviewed the manwha the next morning when I could think again, went back to the library, returned War and Peace, and got some less difficult things to read so I could cope with the next couple of days. It took a while for the crushing sense of defeat and humiliation to wear off, and it took a much longer while for the sense to wear off that the book had made some kind of existential point about the pointlessness of all human action by using me as a demonstrative device. This, from a philosophical point of view, sucked, but I am now just about reconciled to the fact that I finished the whole ridiculously huge self-imposed reading project anyway and people really liked it and it is just fine.
There are many things in the world that I can do, some of which are quite amazing, even to myself. I can read and review three hundred and sixty-five books in one year.
I cannot read War and Peace in one day. There is probably somebody out there who can, but it isn't me.
I have not finished reading War and Peace, and I don't know whether I'm ever going to finish it. Honestly, I am pretty okay with that. Sometimes these things happen.
Yes, I am still pretty bitter about the whole experience. You will notice it has taken me eight months to write about. But I did want to write it up because, well, it was a pretty major part of the whole project, in terms of emotional weight. And I wanted to remind myself: it's okay to admit that I can't do something. Even something I desperately wanted to do. It does not reflect on what I actually did. That feels important. And I guess it's one of those things one learns from a giant, year-consuming project. If I only learned the things I expected to learn, there wouldn't have been as much point, now would there?
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