“Finishing one Henry James novel a week is like trying to chug a pint of Bailey’s Irish Cream a day,” a favorite professor declared when I mentioned the reading pace of another professor’s class. “You can’t absorb it, you certainly can’t enjoy it, you’ll never want to look at it again, and there’s just no need to do that to yourself.” He regarded it as a violence against the books and their author, too, to demand that a class read them at a pace that could only make them repellent.
My mentor’s advice saved me from Henry James, and Henry James from me. I still think of that day often, when my students gorge themselves on dense books they’ve put off reading until their school deadlines are imminent.
For that matter, I think of it some weeks when I face the deadline for this blog column and realize I’m still not ready to talk about Stephen King’s On Writing or whatever other nebulous notion for a post hasn’t quite coalesced yet. The more worthy a book is of patient consideration, the more likely we are to attach some kind of assignment, an artificial emergency, to it.
We’ve had some wonderful conversations here at Black Gate about best-of lists lately, as we do whenever a high profile best-of list comes out. Two contradictory (but equally visceral) responses tend to hit me simultaneously when I see a list like the ones that have been coming from Locus in recent weeks: I am a kid in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, overwhelmed with delight at how many delicious possibilities surround me, and I am a grad student all over again, having panic attacks in the bookstore because every single book I haven’t read is an indictment on charges of intellectual fraud.
My inner grad student wants to assign herself a reading list, pronto, because if she can just whip through enough canonical works with enough speed, the feeling of ignorance will surely go away. Surely. I can turn the inside of my own head back into a school, with all its school protocols in place. I can track myself, grade myself, chastise myself for falling behind, compare myself to my imagined classmates, and fret about what might go on my permanent record. I am far from being the only writer to respond to best-of lists in this way.
When Tolkien read William Morris, I doubt he did so in any hurry. When H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith were all reading one another’s work, I am pretty sure it was not with a twitchy anxiety about falling behind on the great universal syllabus. Someday I will finally get around to reading John Crowley’s Little, Big.
Yes, yes, it’s a pity and a shame that I haven’t read it already. What am I doing here, blogging in public, without having read Little, Big? But I hope that when I do finally come to that book, I can come to it with some kind of joy of discovery, and not with the shame and apprehension of a schoolgirl behind on her homework.