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!
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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.