Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by M. F. Corwin, who tweets as @eudamonis. Corwin, a person of mystery, currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
M: How can one talk about one’s entire year of reading?
E: Well, that’s why you keep a list, right?
M: That’s just a list of books finished.
E: …and of course there’s more to reading than finishing books.
M: Yes. There are the books abandoned, and the reading done but not completed in the year.
E: There’s no shame in not reading to deadline.
M: Why would the end of the year be a deadline? The calendar’s arbitrary; reading’s continuous.
E: To a point. Anyway. What books didn’t you finish last year?
M: A lot! Two that stand out are Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds and Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray, both of which I’ve been reading slowly, because I’m not quite ready to leave them behind.
M: For the Barton, it’s the combination of the clever conceit of organizing a memoir around onomatopoeic vocabulary with the keen analysis of culture shock and the tenderness towards her younger self, towards all younger selves. For the Arsenyev, well, it just pushes a lot of buttons. It’s Siberia, so that’s inherently interesting, but there’s also the pairing of naturalist observation with early twentieth-century exploration and adventure after the Russo-Japanese War. It doesn’t hurt that it has some background for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala and was translated by the guy who wrote that book on Siberian owls.
E: Did you read the owl book?
M: I tried, but the tone was too close to a Peace Corps memoir, a sort of magazine slick. Good in its way, but not what I wanted from it.
E: What other books didn’t you read last year?
M: That’s a really important question – for me at least. The books I didn’t (or don’t) read have a huge impact on the books that I choose to read and/or finish, although the relationship can be complicated.
E: What would be an example?
M: Well, I meant to reread War and Peace last year, given that I found a collection of the Oxford World Classics hardcovers of Tolstoy while looking for butter knives. [Ed. – Like, in your house?] I was planning to read his works more or less in order, and War and Peace comes surprisingly early.
E: Just to address what is clearly a side point: Are all of your book purchases failed attempts at housekeeping?
M: … hm. Probably. But, as you say, not important. I was reading Tolstoy’s early short stories and got kind of stuck on the Sevastopol stories, which were really fascinating: keen observation, a brutal eye for military matters, and the veneer of cheap morality really showing some deliberate wear. It got me wondering about the background to War and Peace; obviously as a historical novel, it’s somewhat different, but it made me want more context. I’d already been interested in reading The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, as it had been translated by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees during their Russian kick (which also led to The Book of the Bear, which in turn was part of what convinced me to get around to Marian Engel’s Bear [Ed. — Oh, that sounds interesting], although they are not at all related); I had heard, perhaps erroneously, that Avvakum’s style in some ways influenced Tolstoy’s. So I read that, in a more recent translation, which I didn’t quite care for, though the introduction was very firm about its authenticity.
E: And then?
M: Well, that led me to Janet Martin’s history of medieval Russia, which is a very decent introduction and confirmed my opinion that I needed to get to know a bit more history before I could get back to Tolstoy. I picked up some books that seemed like they might be relevant (Kollman’s The Russian Empire 1450–1801 and Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire, 1801–1917), but before I got to those I felt I really needed to know a bit more about Lithuania, because it just kept cropping up in Martin’s book. So I read a history of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and it was tremendously illuminating.
E: How so?
M: It was one of those wonderful moments when one, as a reader, has the opportunity to see how perfectly ignorant one is. [Ed. — Would that more of us thought this way!] An entire vista, previously unknown, appears with all of its possibilities. Not just an unknown vista, but an entirely unimagined one, a rich field of arguments in every footnote. It’s deeply satisfying to read something that does not confirm one’s suspicions, not least because one did not know enough to have any.
E: So did you get to the Russian history books?
M: Not yet! I mean, I could go through the same sort of scenario with other books I didn’t read: Duras, whom I keep trying to work myself up to liking [Ed. – Same! Speak truth to power!] (which led to Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, and the Léger trilogy published by the Dorothy Project) or Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding (Hamann, Gadamer’s Enigma of Health, and Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary). Sometimes when I try to rev myself up to read something I get distracted – and perhaps the distraction is more interesting than the intention. Like I was working through Shakespeare’s plays last year as well, and I rather wonder if I might not have had more fun with the project, as a project, if I had allowed myself to be distracted from it, about it, more. There’s always a pleasure, though, in rereading something familiar from high school that will stand up to (and reward) attentive rereading – like putting on a mental bathrobe that one has had forever only to find it much finer than one had remembered. The same thing kind of happened in reverse while rereading Civilization and Its Discontents: I had the uncomfortable sensation of (re)discovering the forgotten source for some of my mental furniture, which was a bit embarrassing.
E: Are these distractions always just a way of sneaking up on a reading project?
M: Sadly, no. There’s a lot of the magpie, too. Someone will mention something on Twitter, or there will be a sale from Rixdorf or Open Letter or pretty much any small or university press, and, well, I am easily distracted. Or perhaps I was just ready to be distracted.
E: What was the best distraction you encountered last year?
M: Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and Idée Fixe, without a doubt – charming without being cloying. I picked them up at random on my first trip back to Powell’s since the start of the pandemic and, even though I had previously disliked the dialogue form, they led me to rethink my position.
E: So, when will you be rereading War and Peace?