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January 10, 2012

A Friendly New Year: On Reading and Resolutions

I am fortunate enough to spend my Christmases with some friends who live in a small town in Pennsylvania. Their location is so rural that deer occasionally wander up to stare at me as I sit on the deck with my morning coffee, and that snow actually stays on the ground, deep and crisp and even, rather than turning in minutes to citified slush. A lifelong New Yorker, I am charmed to the bone.

I’m also a passionate cat-lover, but I am delighted to spend time with my friends’ big, boisterous dogs. My Jewish soul is thrilled by the decorated tree, piled with presents wrapped cack-handedly in Walmart’s shiniest. (And my Jewish soul was profoundly ticked off this year, when the tree proved “too much of a bother,” and was replaced with a listing jade plant hung with a handful of ornaments. BRING BACK THE DAMN TREE!) All in all, my few days in Pennsylvania offer, every year, the most wonderful vacation from my life.

This year, though, it wasn’t the tree or the dogs that provided the most profound reminder that I was not in Kansas anymore: It was my friends’ twenty-three-year-old son. Or, more specifically, his unrelentingly sunny disposish. (“He’s always been like that,” says his mother. “When he was little, he’d come running into the kitchen and say ‘I had THE BEST DAY!!!’ I’d ask what had happened and the answer was always something like he had found a pretty pebble.”) New Yorkers, we’re not like that. We regard cynicism as our birthright, and tend to think of happy people as being too dumb to have discovered self-loathing.

Isaac is far from dumb, but he does seem to have missed that lesson. He and I were discussing Christmas music – in particular, my irritation at the ubiquitous Little Drummer Boy – and he said he had a real hate on for John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas.” Why? “Well, think about it,” he said. “ ‘A very merry Christmas, and a happy new year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.’ That’s the lyric, right? But it’s stupid. Who’s afraid at Christmas?”

This sentiment startled me, since Isaac is obsessed with horror movies, and axe-swinging Santas do tend to dominate the multiplex, this time of year. It seems to me that those films are all about being afraid at Christmas.

But then incredulity spun me into a coughing fit. “Wait a minute,” I croaked. “Are you trying to tell me that at New Year’s, New Year’s, you don’t…you don’t have any sense of self-recrimination about the past twelve months? You don’t look back and beat yourself for all the resolutions you broke and the goals you didn’t meet?”

He beamed at me. “Nah,” he said, and then he went to forage for leftovers.

I was in awe.

There is nothing I can do to be twenty-three again, nor to be the sort of person whose day is made by a pretty pebble. But Isaac did put me in mind of a conversation I had with one of my bookstore customers about New Year’s resolutions. A friend of his, he said, had gotten fed up with the annual self-flagellation, with the way a sense of failure can kill a festive buzz. Furthermore, said my customer, this friend had asked why our resolutions seem almost always to be about making our lives smaller – no more cigarettes, no more red meat or ice cream or martinis, no more sleeping in, no more watching the Saturday marathons of “America’s Next Top Model.” All those pleasures, major and minor, that we are determined to cut out of our lives. Suppose, said this friend, that we resolved instead to add something to our lives, something we would enjoy.

I was fascinated, listening to the Story of the Friend. “Did he do it?” I asked urgently, as though inquiring into the health of Little Nell. “Oh yeah,” said my customer. “He had always wanted to work with wood, so that first year, he took a class at the community college, and he made, I dunno, a jewelry box or something. And he just kept building his skills, now he has a full workshop in his basement, and he makes really beautiful furniture. And every year he does something else, you know, like he learned conversational German, and he and his wife do ballroom dancing.”

I love this idea very much, the idea of resolving every year to expand our lives. Maybe New Year’s resolutions should be about things we want to do, rather than about things we want to have done.

And that thought, in turn, brings me round to an essay that Laura Miller wrote for Salon a little more than a year ago. The heart of the essay concerns her response to National Novel Writing Month. At the risk of inviting hate-mail, I’ll say that Ms. Miller’s words have for me the ring of truth, and that the phrase “The last thing the world needs is more bad books” rings particularly loudly. But what really excites me about the essay is the bit at the very end, where she talks about a reader’s “challenge” (in the sense that NaNoWriMo is a writer’s “challenge”). The numbers involved seem pretty daunting to me, especially since I have no interest in coming up with yet another thing to feel bad about. But the gist is terrific: Read books you wouldn’t otherwise pick up.

I learned a long time ago that if I’m not enjoying the party, it’s ok to leave, so if I’m not enjoying the book, I’m not going to keep reading. But I do want to give it a fair shot, since this “challenge,” this resolution, is about pleasure, yes, but pleasure I have to work for. The famous Friend was not instantly a wizard at woodworking. So, with the goal of expanding my life in enjoyable ways, I’d like to resolve this year to read in some or all of the following genres:

  • 20th-century poetry
  • Middle Eastern history
  • Latin American history
  • Science
  • Adult fantasy (I don’t mean swords-and-sorcerers porn, only that the book should not have been written for the YA market)
  • Mathematics
  • African fiction
  • Middle Eastern fiction
  • Military history
  • Sports
  • Theology

I have not delved, not even a little bit, into any of these areas before, and the idea of doing so is actually a little scary. But I pledge to offer occasional updates, and I pledge to be honest, even if what I have to report is that I’m a total weeny. If you have any titles to suggest in those areas, I would love to hear about them. And if you feel like designing your own list for your own resolution, bring it on!

I still want, of course, to lose weight, be more forgiving of my friends and myself, respond more quickly to emails, and clean the litter box more often. The usual stuff. But there’s wanting and there’s resolving, and this year, my resolving? It’s all about the books.

 

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5 Responses to “A Friendly New Year: On Reading and Resolutions”

  1. Anonymous January 11, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    Comments are welcome about this post and anything felonius.

  2. Anonymous January 12, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Comments are welcome on this post and on anything related to books, reading, mysteries, and things felonious.

  3. Jane Schlubach January 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    The superb Middle Eastern history I assign in my courses for Bard is Marshall G.S. Hodgson’s three volume The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization.

  4. Maggie January 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Thank you for these recommendations, Margaret. I picked up “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and….not my book. I may be seriously blinkered by the fact that until very rcently I lived about 15 blocks north of the World Trade Towers site, and watched the whole thing out my bedroom window, but….not my book. Though I must tell you, I have never understood the point of “book clubs,” since I didn’t get why anyone would want to discuss fiction, rather than read it for pleasure. But with this book, for the first time ever, I really wanted to discuss it with someone. 

    I remember loving Milly many years ago; I’ll give her another try. And I’ve never heard of Kathleen Norris, so I’ll add her to my list.

    Thanks again

  5. Wade Ogletree February 16, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    Interested in your future felony, “The Innocent Spy”.  Not only did you whet my appetite for the book in particular, but you echoed by feelings about the thriller genre in general.

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