23 December 2016

Keeping Resolutions (at least the reading one)

By Art Taylor

Back in January at Criminal Minds, another group blog I've been a part of, I talked about the importance of New Year's resolutions and listed my own for 2016. As the year progressed, I've been better about some of those resolutions than about others: we fell down, for example, on the plans for our four-year-old son to plan and cook meals once every couple of weeks, though he does still enjoy helping from time to time (reminder: don't try to make resolutions for others), and the cats and I still have a testy relationship sometimes (because, you know, cats). But one resolution I did stick with was reading War and Peace—all 365 chapters, one chapter a day.

I've long been a fan of Anna Karenina—one of my favorite novels, in fact, and I've read the whole thing three times—but War and Peace had always seemed daunting. The first time I tried to read it, several years ago, I made some brief headway then lost momentum as other things got in the way. Eventually, I just moved it back to its place on the shelf. But when I discovered—a fluke—the number of chapters in the book... well, suddenly a plan presented itself. Bird by bird, as they say—or in this case, chapter by chapter. And since the chapters are so short (most of them), it couldn't take any more than a few minutes a day.

As it turns out, that's exactly what it took—not much more, even with the occasional longer chapter. I had both a hard copy of the book on my nightstand and then an e-book version, both on my Kindle and on my phone, which basically meant that I could fit in the reading whenever it was convenient: sneaking in a chapter first thing in the morning before the day got started or checking off that day's chapter late night before turning in; reading a chapter on my phone while I was waiting somewhere (including long, long stoplights); even reading an occasional chapter aloud to our four-year-old son when he was having trouble getting to sleep—and to his credit, he began to follow the characters and plot, asking at times for more stories about "that girl that everyone likes." (He did eventually learn that her name is Natasha, and he was as charmed by her as everyone else, it seems).

My point here may seem to be about time management—breaking down big projects into bite-sized pieces—but there was another lesson here. Many times when I'm reading a book, I push through it at a much stronger pace: some novel I'm reading for class, for example, or a book I need to review, deadline-driven in both instances. And even with the books I read for pleasure, I often find myself eager to finish them for one reason or another: enjoying the plot and rushing to find out what happens next; wanting to move on to other books calling to me (always a long TBR list); or just feeling like it's been hanging around the nightstand too long, and I simply need to get it done.

But my purposeful pacing with War and Peace forced me into a different way of reading. It's not just that I only had to complete one chapter a day; it's that I completed only one chapter a day—never deliberately moving ahead to the next, even if I suddenly had extra time or some greater interest in what lie ahead on the next page. (It seems, however, that I wasn't diligent enough in keeping track of my pace at times, since I've finished the book a week early—so likely I read a chapter in the morning and then another at night some days, forgetting to mark it off on my to-do list.)

In any case, reading at that  pace meant that I was immersed in War and Peace for longer than I've ever spent with a book. I lived with it—and in it—for nearly a full year.

I'm not certain that I can fully express how this changed my experience of it, though I did feel that I got to know the characters in a different way (so many of them in this case!) and that I inhabited the scope of the novel more fully by letting it expand in time, so to speak, in the time in which I dwelled inside of it. And the reading did become habit—to the point that I'm already feeling the absence of the book in my life, something missing now.

...which leads me to wanting to repeat the experiment with some other big book on my want-to-read list: Bleak House is tops there probably, and East of Eden too, one of my wife's favorites and one she has long wanted me to read. Or then, maybe, a big group of short stories read in deliberate progression: all of Chekhov perhaps or all the Father Brown mysteries or....

I'm just musing over possibilities now, of course—but also curious if others have every tried such a thing, to live with/inside a book for such a prolonged period of time, and which book, and what you thought of the experience. Looking forward to hearing your own stories in the comments section!


From one extreme to another, here's a much shorter bit of fiction as a free gift to readers of the blog: my story "Parallel Play" from the recent anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. It's not hardly a seasonal story (no tinsel, no gifts, no glad tidings, little gladness at all), but it might be just the thing for some cold, dark winter night ahead—since it's definitely one of the darker stories I've ever written, and one of the coldest too maybe. I've posted it on my own website here, and I hope you all might enjoy!


  1. That's genius, Art. That's what genius is– finding simple solutions to intimidating problems.

    Thomas Pynchon would be my bĂȘte noire. Maybe I'll land a copy and take your approach.

    Happy Christmas and thanks for the gift!

  2. Art, I like your approach to War and Peace. But, of course, it just sort of works out good for a chapter a day. As you may recall, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is my wall that's too hard to climb (right, Leigh?). I've tried two, maybe three times, and couldn't get more than about 80-100 pages in. But maybe some day I'll try again with your approach. But even doing that with this particular book might not work since it's so dense in so many ways. Maybe it's just a mountain too high to climb, though I rarely give up on something. If I was a giver-upper I wouldn't have tried three times.

  3. Hi, Leigh and Paul -- Thanks for the comments here, and interesting that you both mention Pynchon! I've long been a fan of Crying of Lot 49, have read it several times in fact, but some of his longer books... I'm daunted as well. (I haven't even managed V., I'll admit, though did read and enjoy Inherent Vice.)

    There is something that's just too appropriate about a book that's already set up at a chapter a day, and I obviously I wonder how well it would work to artificially set up a certain number of pages a day with another book.... Pynchon's density, though, might actually be easier to take in those bite-sized chunks, leaving time to digest and reflect on shorter pieces before diving in again..... I don't know.

    Good luck if either of you try it--and let me know how it goes!

  4. Congratulations on your anthology story.

    As for long books, I do think there are times in life when you are up for really long works. I tried Proust several times before, voila, the whole thing was possible. And immersive!

  5. Art, I'm with you on War and Peace. I've tried it at least twice before and gotten bogged down a few hundred pages in. But your approach sounds good, so maybe I'll try that.

    I've never made it through Gravity's Rainbow, either, but I liked V and adore The Crying of Lot 49. And Bleak House is one of my favorites. I come back to it every few years, along with The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim. This coming year, I want to re-visit The Sound and the Fury, too.

    One downside of being an English teacher for so long is that there are certain books you feel you "must" read, and that often drowns the enjoyment in a sense of duty. I suspect that may be part of my problem with War and Peace, and I've never tried Anna Karenina. There seem to be times in your life where certain books speak to you, and you have to be ready to hear the call.

    Janice, I've never really thought about Proust. Maybe this year for him, too.

    What other "great books" should be on our lists?

  6. Thanks, Janice and Steve --
    I'd actually thought of Proust as well, so appreciate that mention! And Steve, Brothers K is another one I've started and then stopped; the Grand Inquisitor was tough to get through/past. Never read Lord Jim either, but admire Conrad, and actually have The Secret Agent on my TBR list right now....

    You're right, Steve, about teaching changing things--reading as duty. It's sadly rare these days that I read something purely for pleasure. I miss it!

  7. Congratulations on finishing War and Peace, Art! Maybe I should try your approach with Ulysses. I made it about halfway through in college and then stopped--not because I wasn't enjoying it, simply because the press of things I HAD to do became too demanding. Ever since, its bulk has kept me from trying again. But if I gave myself a year--well, maybe. I'll think about it. In the meantime, happy holidays and a good new year!

  8. Way to go, Art! I've read War and Peace, and it is great - but I still prefer Anna Karenina. On the other hand, I've never read any of Thomas Pynchon. Maybe someday...
    I have done the chapter a day thing with some long books, and I find it easier to do on the Kindle than with a real book in my hand - with the actual book, I have a tendency to break down and gobble for a while. Then stop. Then gobble.
    Does Infinite Jest have chapters?

  9. Art, maybe that immersion theory of yours is why I have been dawdling when I'm supposed to be finishing a short story I want to enter in a contest next month. I love the characters but could never use them in another story, for several reasons. Of course it is possible I'm just lazy.

    I loved V and The Crying of Lot 49. Never read Tolstoy, never went to college. On my daughter's recommendation I tried to read Infinite Jest but disliked it intensely so I stopped. It seemed to be all about tennis & movies, neither of which I like very much.

  10. Books I've tried to read multiple times (but failed because I couldn't force myself to continue) include Dune, The Hobbit, and The Da Vinci Code. I won't be trying again with anyone of them. With so many books out there that I want to read, I no longer will try again and again to read something simply because I should read it. More power to people with stronger perseverance.

    And I've never tried to read a chapter a day for a year or a month or whatnot. While it might take me sometimes weeks to finish a book because I'm busy, if I have the time, I like to finish books quickly, for no other reason than it makes me feel like I accomplished something.

    Good luck with your 2017 reading challenge, Art, whatever it ends up being. I'm gearing up for my own challenge, she says cryptically, and a challenge it will be.

  11. Thanks, Bonnie, Eve, Elizabeth and Barb — so much appreciate the comments here!

    Bonnie, your point seems right: Some of these big, big books, while enjoyable, still seem daunting, and it's easy to lose momentum when other things call for attention.... which brings me to Barb's comment: I'm certainly not recommending folks read books just because they should; I certainly don't. But there are books I'm curious about, drawn toward, feel like I learn from (both as a reader and as a writer), and yet size or complexity can offer challenges; I think the approach I took with War and Peace not only let me finish it but also helped me to appreciate it more, which was a nice surprise.

    And speaking of not reading things you don't want to: Elizabeth, I can't stand David Foster Wallace myself; don't blame you for dodging Infinite Jest!

    And Eve, like you, I prefer Anna Karenina--a book I'd be glad to reread again anytime. Really one of the great reading pleasures of my life.

  12. Elizabeth, if you happen to catch this, there are Russian short stories to kind of kick-start Russian lit, but I suggest a novel, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. It's a good read and moving.

  13. Thank you, Leigh, & Velma for letting me know the message was here ;-)


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