2012: More and less; or, something deep and maybe a little bit pretentious about slow reading

Before we lived in the internet age, I used to find New Year’s Day simply interminable. The last time I lived a life in which access to the WWW wasn’t pretty much constant was when I still lived in Halifax, in the late 90s. New Year’s Day, in all the years leading up to my defection to South Korea in 1999, were grey, cold days–days too grey and cold and comfortless to allow someone as wretchedly allergic to slush and damp as I am to even contemplate going outside.

So New Year’s Day was spent indoors, in my parents’ dim and insufficiently (for me) heated house, wherein I would try to read while simultaneously watching MuchMusic (for music videos were still broadcast regularly from that channel then). In reality, I was being bored to death and dozing repeatedly, and always unsatisfactorily, on the couch.

MuchMusic would, back then, release their announcers from perpetual bondage for the stat holiday and so  there would be no talking, only videos; this should have been enjoyable, for I have always loved (still do!) watching music videos. But because of the nature of the day–nothing opened, nothing to do, nowhere to go, a crushing lack of sunlight, not to mention the pains of the day after staying out much too late the night before for anyone over 17, really–it seemed to my tired and ennui-whipped brain that only one video was being shown, on an endless loop of hopelessness: U2’s “New Year’s Day.” I like this song; hearing it on the radio, even after all these years, pleases me. But the video was like a horrible projection of my first day of the year boredom and limp, directionless thoughts. Just blankness and cold and being uncomfortably red in the nose everywhere, forever.


Moving to sunny southeastern Ontario helped this, immeasurably. The internet helped, sure, but the sun! It’s so often sunny here in January. It’s cold today but the sun still blazes somehow; this makes more than a world of difference; it makes me like winter. It makes me like New Year’s Day. It makes me happy to be awake most of the time. Hubby and I began the New Year with shocking virtue and were at the gym by 9 am, having partied hard with some pizza and an extended viewing of Buzzfeed pages deep into the 12:30am range. I bet you had no idea what a wild life we lead over here. Don’t worry, you’ll soon become accustomed to thinking of me as a “party animal.”

Going to the gym was a good way to being the new year; and so, it turns out to my great delight, was beginning to read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. Though the prospect filled me with profound commitment-phobic anxiety, a few months ago I signed up, via an acquaintance on GoodReads, to a thing called “The Year of Reading Proust”–that’s right, 2013 will focus on reading the entirety of In Search of Lost Time. I had real fear about this; I’ve picked up Swann’s Way countless times in bookstores and always felt underwhelmed by its page 40 test results.

But somehow, it’s got me. I’m hooked. I didn’t want to put it down to come post, but I realized I’d forgotten to do a 2012 round-up yesterday and it would be too late, in the super-fast internet age, to post one on January 2. I don’t know what page I’m on in Swann’s Way for I’m giving it a go on my husband’s e-reader; and honestly, I don’t think I can hack it. I feel crazy not knowing where I am in the larger volume. I hate not being able to easily flip forward a few pages to see where the next chapter begins. I really hate not having easy access to the endnotes. Since I like the book so much in spite of these irritations, I imagine I’m about to drop too much money on a nice new set of the whole six-volume monstrosity. But at least then all the above will be moot AND I’ll be able to gaze lovingly upon the upcoming volumes as they sit in my bookshelf (something I do almost every day with various novels by Trollope, Mantel, Eliot, and Stephenson, to name just a few).

So, inexcusably long and barely related preamble aside, some thoughts on 2012. Of course, I must begin with the books. Friends, I read many fewer books this past year than I have in previous blogging years–50% fewer!! When I realized I was on track to read about 50 books this year (it turned out to be 51), I woefully lamented the loss of my reading panache, flourish, and mojo. I wondered if my brain had broken without my noticing. But then I realized that those years in which I read over 100 novels were also years in which I read only novels under 300 pages because I was in grad school and was afraid to commit to anything truly substantial for fear of having to abandon it for schoolwork. Now, fat Victorian novels are my preference–nay, they’re my readerly sustenance! And let me tell you, Middlemarch is very much longer–also more work and infinitely more satisfying–than South of the Border, West of the Sun (which is good, but).

Upon non-paranoid reflection, I have to say 2012 was one of the most satisfying reading years I’ve ever had. Maybe the most satisfying. Getting to know the Victorians in my own leisurely and mostly uncritical way has made me a tremendously happy reader. Having stormed through Ian McEwan’s Solar (pub. 2010) in the last few days of 2012, I was reminded of why I love the novels of the 19th century–the patience and detail with which authors such as Dickens, Trollope, and Eliot create their fictional worlds. Their books read like the authors had time to think about these things; like there wasn’t something to distract them. I can linger over such books–and want to!–because it seems like the authors lingered over the writing of them (a pleasant fiction in the case of Trollope, of course, but clearly this is more about ways of thinking or looking at the world). The details matter in Victorian novels.

I am being unfair, of course, to suggest time and patience and detail don’t matter, en masse, in contemporary fiction. But like I said, I just finished Solar. And even though I can objectively recognize that McEwan is a truly gifted prose stylist (I loved On Chesil Beach), I couldn’t help but wish that there was more to it. It seemed empty, the characters flimsy paper dolls inappropriately gussied up in beautiful words. Unsatisfying, in other words. But certainly not among the year’s most disappointing reads. Speaking of which, I should probably get to the point.

Favourite books of 2012

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is, without question, the best book I read in 2012, and quite possibly in my life. It is a truly extraordinary piece of art. As when I read it, its gorgeous immensity is too much for me now and I can’t say even one intelligent thing about it. The distant but worthy runners-up:

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

The Dogs and the Wolves, Irene Nemirovsky

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

The Sound of the Waves, Yukio Mishima

Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope

Troubles, J.G. Farrell

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

The Odd Women, George Gissing

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

The Scar, China Mieville

Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens

Damn, so many good books in 2012! Not a total win though.

Least favourite book of 2012:

Birthday, Koji Suzuki

The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aaswany

Vaudeville!, Gaetan Soucy

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (the horrible flip side to Middlemarchian brilliance)

2012 wasn’t only about reading, of course. I ate a lot of good food. A LOT. But I wasn’t as adventurous as I wanted to be and have fallen well off my “try every food possible” wagon. I will try to resurrect this in 2013. But at least there was the pie-luck!

As for the non-food and book related aspects of 2012, it was a tough one in many ways. Moving and going through months and months of home renovations, while absolutely first world problems, still really do suck the life out of one. I fell behind in blogging; just as importantly, I fell behind in and got out of the habit of reading others’ blogs–two things I hope to be much better at this year.

As for 2013, I’m still nervous about making large reading commitments out loud and so I won’t say anything beyond my promise to really give this Proust thing an honest shot. But I do have other, somewhat ambitious plans…which you will likely hear about only if it looks like I’m going to succeed. Or, to be more honest maybe, my reading plans are generally almost as mysterious to me as they are to anyone else and so there’s no point in predicting; I’m no Cassandra, not even when it comes to dealing with my own bookshelf.

One final thing: last year, I obsessively created a Google docs spreadsheet listing all the unread books I owned. I think it sat at a daunting 215 or so. And while I bought books this year even though I vowed not to (What can I say? The mind is willing, but the mind is also weak), I still had a net reduction and the still obsessive list is now sitting at 187. Progress. But still so much to look forward to as well.

Happy New Year’s, to all and to each!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Tony says:

    Yep, big books are the best; in fact, I’m thinking of rereading ‘War and Peace’ soon to counteract all the short J-Lit I’ve been reading (and to give me time to catch up on reviews…).

    Proust sounds good for 2013. I’ve only knocked off two so far, so I doubt I’ll get very far this year – my French ain’t what it used to be 😦

    1. Colleen says:

      French ha–that’s what translators are for. 🙂

  2. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t Swann’s Way good? I’ve read it twice, once in the Moncrief translation and more recently in the Lydia Davis translation. I liked Davis better. Good luck getting through all of Proust. As you know I am planning on reading Guermantes Way. Maybe we will end up reading it close to the same time.

    1. Colleen says:

      Yes, it is really, really good! I’m surprised. And obviously relieved. If we do end up reading the same Proust at the same time, we should do something awesome together for our blogs or something. That’s the extent of my excellent idea at this point.

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