Monday, December 6, 2010

A Personal Odyssey

More than a dozen years ago, I stumbled across a copy of Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan while I was in the little bookstore of my local train station.  I knew the author's daughter's amazingly literary work of medical anthropology, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down--but I had never heard of her father.  (I suspect that fact would have tickled her famous father.)  I skimmed a few entries in Papa Fadiman's book and was utterly enthralled.

As I boarded the train, I turned the first pages of Fadiman's book--and began to imagine actually reading all those books.  When could I start such a project?  "As soon as I finish my dissertation" was my first answer--but it soon became "As soon as I finish turning the dissertation into a book" and then "As soon as I have tenure."  Then there was a more long-term delay: I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

That baby is now eleven years old--a homeschooled violinist who loves fencing, brings great joy to his parents, and drives me bonkers as he begins his path into teenager-dom.  Luckily, like his mother, he lives for books.  Now that my son is old enough to spend long afternoons reading his own books beside me on the couch, the idea of making a "Lifetime Reading Plan" for myself--not following Clifton Fadiman's exact recommendations but certainly inspired  by his example--seems like a real possibility.

Over the last few months I have been making my lists and checking them twice.  What I have at this point are broad outlines of literature--ones that may change dramatically.  Although I have probably listed more than I will ever be able to read, I'm sure I'll wind up adding many more books as well.

My current lists fall into six general categories:

1. The Ancients--from Gilgamesh through the Greeks and Romans, ending with a purely literary reading of the Hebrew Bible.  Although I read both Homer's Odyssey and the entirety of the Bible (in a non-religious way) when I was in early high school, I read both of them without guidance.  I suspect that as a more mature adult, I might get something very different out of them now.

2. The Medieval Period--from the New Testament through Beowulf and Dante, Chaucer and Boccacio, and Don Quixote.  Again, although I've read bits and pieces of much of this literature, I've never read them seriously or completely.

3. The literature of the 17th and 18th Century--starting with Shakespeare (whom my 11yo son adores) and his contemporaries and continuing on to the beginnings of the English novel.

4. The literature of the 19th Century--starting with the Romantic poets and hitting the major novels of France, Russia, England, and the US.

5. The literature of the 20th Century--focusing primarily but not exclusively on English and American literature, including an increasing proportion of literature by women and by African Americans as well as the writers from the American South.

6. Books about Reading--including both personal accounts of the how reading matters in the lives of individuals as well as guides to reading the classics.

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My plan is to start reading chronologically--although you will see that in my current lists, my chronology is not exact.  Instead, I'll follow particular themes within that general structure.

There will be a few major exceptions to the even these basic chronological narrative, however.  One example will be my very next post this Wednesday--in order to participate in a blogosphere event.  There may also be exceptions if I get too crazy with the idea of reading yet another book from Rome, or one more poem, or whatever frustration I might feel at any moment.  In addition, I will plan on a few scheduled "vacation" periods when I will read and discuss whatever books I want to read--even if they are contemporary and unrelated to the period I am studying at the time.

I am looking forward eagerly to starting the project in earnest on the first of January.  Until then, I plan a few more posts in December followed by a brief holiday.  I hope to see you all soon!

*  *  *

Of course, this plan is going to last me a lot longer than one year.  To see other people's reading plans and challenges, check out the entries over at Weekly Geeks.

25 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, the comments to this post were all lost when I uninstalled IntenseDebates. My very sincere apologies.

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  2. Brilliant project-I did a flash back to around 1962 or so when I got my first copy of Clifton Fadiman's The Life Time Reading Plan-I no longer have that book but I have and still read in another edition-In fact I am reading one of the books on the list now-The Red and the Black-I look forward to vicariously following your project-one I began 45 or 50 years ago and I am still happily going on with the project!

    I just finished a great book about reading-The March Of Literature by Ford Madox Ford

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  3. I get more and more excited about this project the more I hear about it. I don't think I could take a similar odyssey myself, primarily because I had a wonderful class in college that basically did a similar plan. Our first 6-hour semester class focused on the ancients, greek and roman texts primarily. Then in the 2nd semester, we started with Dante and moved until modern times, covering everything from Descartes to Mary Shelley to Machiavelli to Kafka. It was a fascinating class and even though I learned tons from it, there are a lot of those texts (particularly in the ancient world) that I never want to revisit!! :)

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  4. Laurel CoronaDecember 08, 2010

    This is such a great idea! I wish you great success. If in your reading about the Greeks, you are interested in a different perspective on Homer, you might want to look into Margaret George's novel Helen of Troy, and/or my own novel Penelope's Daughter.

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  5. I love the structure you've given your project, though I myself would never be able to stick to it. I'm too much of a restless reader! Your lists are a great resource for my own classics project, though, and I'm very much looking forward to your posts as you start your journey.

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  6. I keep telling myself that if I totally freak out at the order, I'll let go of it. The project will still be a success. So glad my lists might be helpful for you. Much is missing--and they are too long at the same time--but I figure they'll be my starting point.

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  7. Amateur ReaderDecember 08, 2010

    My experience is the lists only grow longer. One book leads to another. But then boundaries also somehow suggest themselves, so it all works out.

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  8. It's nice you have so much variety from which to pick and choose, though! Also good to have a Plan B, just in case Plan A gets too intense. When I was compiling my own list, I started to realize the sheer volume of important texts out there -- it's positively overwhelming!

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  9. ClassicBookwormDecember 08, 2010

    Sounds great. I haven't read Fadiman's book but I've heard about it. I've read a couple along those lines but I'm always interested in another perspective. If I may suggest something about the Bible, I wouldn't just read it as literature, since it really was not intended as such. Religious books should be read more like philosophy than literature, even if they employ literary forms. Really they are their own category of book and should be treated as such.

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  10. Classic Bookworm:

    Thanks. Fadiman is a great read--quirky and opinionated, down to earth and pretentious, charming and witty. At the very moment you've had it with his pretentiousness, he turns around, makes you laugh, and reminds you that he has only written his book because of his love of and enjoyment of literature. I highly recommend it.

    You've got a point about the Bible. Thinking about it as philosophy is a nice way to think about it. But I'm worried that no matter how I talk about it, I'll be stepping on a lot of toes and offending almost everyone. I certainly don't want to do that.

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  11. Chris at ProSeDecember 08, 2010

    I am so stoked to go through these with you! I went nuts this years reading all of these classics. There's still a few I haven't read yet too, e.g., The Epic of Gilgamesh. Awesome list!

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  12. I cannot believe I never commented on how much I love your plan. I want to join you on some reads, but I am not sure if I will be able to. Such an ambitious plan!

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  13. Iris--I'd love to have you join me for any book. The list of what I'm planning to discuss when will always be on the sidebar. Thanks for your comment!

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  14. I just picked up a copy of the Fadiman book. I look forward to rounding out my reading list!

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  15. Beverly: Wonderful! I would always love to have people who are reading along. If you ever want to do something together, let me know.

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  16. I love your idea of a reading plan. I just decided to follow your blog so I can see what you are reading and so I too can follow along at times. I've never heard of Fadiman's The Life Time Reading Plan -- I'll be adding it to my list of books to find. I've been really getting into reading my classics, so your blog should be a great one to follow.

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  17. dragonflyy419: Glad to have you here! I'd love folks to join me for any books they'd like to. I hope you can find Fadiman and enjoy his quirky take on literature as much as I do.

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  18. Hi. I've started a similar reading plan based on Great Books of the Western World. I'll be keeping an eye on your blog and wish you every success.

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  19. James: How wonderful! I am finding so many bloggers who are interested in reading the classics. I look forward to hearing more about your project. If you are ever interested in reading something together, please let me know and perhaps we can work together.

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  20. Great plan for a blog! I have a blog devoted to books about books, and I've recently written about several books about the great books. (Clifton Fadiman was under the tree for me, so he's coming soon.) David Denby's book about going back to Columbia to redo his great books course was one of my favourite of the year.

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  21. Which version of Clifton Fadiman's book did you fist read?

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  22. Nathaliefoy: I'm looking forward to reviewing Denby soon. His experience sounds like so much fun! Your blog sounds fabulous.

    Mel U: I first read the third edition but now own the original as well.

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  23. Terrific & deliciously ambitious plan. All the best!

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  24. Hello - could I also commend Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris? It's a little and short book of essays and similar on books and the joy of books - I think it might be a good addition to your books about reading and would keep you in the same family (!).

    There's a particularly good essay about the thoughts and negotiations you have to undergo as you decide whether and how to merge your book collection with your partners' shelves. It's gently funny and really struck a chord in me about how big a commitment it is... not quite sure what it says that we're still a household with lots of duplicates!

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  25. Joann NewburyJune 17, 2013

    You really have a lot of thing you like to do in your life. So, how’s the dissertation research writing coming? I think it would be a good idea to finish it off as soon as possible so that you can start your personal odyssey and write about what you like. Anyway, keep us posted. I would certainly like to read your work.

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