Why I Can’t Stop Attempting Impossible Reading Projects
For Every Book You Manage to Read, There are 1,000 You’ll Never Get To
A couple of months ago, I texted a friend of mine and told him I was considering reading every one of Shakespeare’s plays over the summer—just ploughing through them, one after the other, like seasons of Game of Thrones or a freezer full of thin mints. This was in early May. The weather was changing; I was feeling the thaw in a Midwestern kind of way. Around the same time, I met a friend for coffee, a poet, and she quoted Shakespeare thrice in a single hour (poets, right?).
On my way home it occurred to me that, other than for a college course I had mostly slept through and high school English classes I had completely slept through, I had never read any Shakespeare. At least not “for fun.” What kind of writer has never read Shakespeare, I wondered? A fraudulent one, first of all. And a shitty one, obviously. That was the bad news—that I was a fake and shitty writer who had never read Shakespeare for fun. The good news—the great news—was that there was an easy fix: read them all! I wanted my friend, whom I think of as my Shakespeare guy because he once claimed to have memorized a couple sonnets when he was a teenager, to tell me where to start.
“Ha!” he texted back. “Never gonna happen.”
“But pretend it might,” I wrote.
“It won’t, but sure. Othello. Or maybe Romeo and Juliet. Or one of the easy comedies. Something where you already know the story, so you can follow what’s happening.”
“Yeah” I said. “I might just read them in the order they were written. Bad idea?”
“What’s the first one?”
“Henry VI, Part II. Or Part I. Or Taming of the Shrew. Scholars disagree, apparently.”
“I give you ten pages, tops.”
A few minutes later he texted me this: “You know we’ve had this conversation before, right? You asked me the same thing a year ago and I gave you the same recommendations and you told me you were probably going to read them in the order they were written. How far did you get?”
Sure enough, the evidence of this failed and quickly forgotten attempt is right there on my bookshelf: a dozen or so Oxford Shakespeares arranged in the order I’d settled on a year earlier. Absurdly, I really had decided on starting with the second part of Henry VI. I picked it up to see how far I’d gotten and needless to say, it was not very far. Actually, needless though it may be, I can tell you precisely how far it was, because the page was earnestly dog-eared like I might come back to it any day now: Act 1, scene 1, line 100.
My friend texted one last thing: “btw ur obviously stalling in the planning because you don’t really care about the reading. Good luck!”
Very perceptive, this friend.
It will not surprise anyone to learn that this was not the first ambitious reading project I’ve conceived of and swiftly abandoned, nor that my reading history is in fact studded with such grandiose goal-making and goal-forsaking. Several times a year, I get it in my head that I’ve been reading small when I should be reading big, that there is a sequence of hard, fat books I need to work through, and entire canons of great writers that I should probably just read front to back before I can call myself a reader—let alone a writer. (Also, that I should teach myself another language, be a better person, make my own sourdough starter, wake up earlier, and eat less sugar.)
Last winter, while preparing for a long train trip across Europe and Russia—during which I would have, literally, full days with nothing to do but read—I spent far more time weighing the pros and cons of bringing a copy of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey with me than I did packing. The issue was not the book itself, which was obviously the only thing that made sense to read on an epically long train ride, but the heft of the hardcover and the space it would take up in my overstuffed backpack. And that I must have known, on some level, that I would never really read it, that I’d be dragging poor Odysseus halfway around the world in a dirty backpack for no reason.
I brought it anyway, and from the moment I left Portugal, all through Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Belarus and well into Russia, I thought about the book constantly—and eagerly. There it was, every time I unzipped my bag, huge and gorgeous in its unread state, shining up at me in its readiness to be read. Any day now, I’d think. Or more often: tomorrow. I’ll start tomorrow.
Somewhere east of Irkutsk, I finally dug it out and read the 80-page introduction. I studied the maps. I read the translator’s note. And then, fewer than 200 lines into the poem proper, I felt my eyelids droop, and I let the book fall over my face and take my nose into its gutter. The book blocked the sun while I dozed and dreamed in a dialect of ancient Greek that sounded a lot like Russian. I woke up feeling not only deeply satisfied with my effort, but absolutely free of any desire to ever open the book again, at least while I was on the train. My god, I thought, what was I thinking bringing this along? I had to laugh at myself. You never learn, do you? I repacked the book at the bottom of the bag, since I knew I wouldn’t be needing it any longer, and proudly put it on my Shelf for (Temporarily) Abandoned Books when I got home.“It will not surprise anyone to learn that this was not the first ambitious reading project I’ve conceived of and swiftly abandoned, nor that my reading history is in fact studded with such grandiose goal-making and goal-forsaking.”
There are many books on that shelf: A dozen Philip K. Dick paperbacks; miniature libraries on the history of the Jews and the state of Kansas, another on the life of Jesus; six volumes of Lewis and Clark’s journals; collections of Le Guin and McCarthy and McPhee. I want to be clear: it’s not that I don’t like these books, or that I don’t enjoy the brief time I spend with them. Books that I stop reading because I don’t like them—that would be a whole different essay. It’s simply that I can’t help it; these reading projects are fevers that have to run their (often very short) course. I always begin fully intent on finishing and stop fully intent on, someday, starting again. It’s only with a moment’s distance that I realize the unfeasibility of what I’ve tried to do, how, in the words of my astute friend, it was never gonna happen.
It’s not just the length of the book (or books) that renders the reading impossible, though page count helps. For an impossible read to be truly impossible, the time and place have to be just right. And by just right, I mean totally wrong. When my friends and I drove a U-Haul from Kansas City to New York, for example, I brought along a Signet Classics edition of Don Quixote with print so small it was impossible to read whenever the truck was moving. In a motel somewhere in Ohio, I read the introduction plus 30 pages before patting myself on the back for making it as far as I did and chucking that thing in the back of the truck with the rest of my stuff. A few years later, I spent the weeks leading up to my first trip to Paris whittling a list of potential books down to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The heptalogy, which probably took two decades to write, clocks in at just over 4,000 pages; I was going to be in Paris for three days.
In Berlin one spring, I made it my mission—god knows why—to comb the bookshops for a copy of Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis, a 1200-page history of the city that weighs as much as a brick in paperback and a cinder block in hardcover. Those were wild, energetic days, hoofing it around Berlin, holding up a picture on my phone and asking store clerks if they’d “seen this book” like a boy looking for his lost puppy. When I finally found a copy after two weeks, I skimmed the jacket I’d already read online, decided it was too late to start, and put it back for someone else.
I’ve dipped into War and Peace twice: once when I was walking across the French Alps in 2015 and again on a boat from Russia to Japan last April. At the time of this writing, I’m just getting to the war part.
If you’re picking up on a pattern here, you’ve caught on far quicker than I did. What seems obvious, in hindsight, is that my ambitious reading plans are very often paired with ambitious travel plans. This make sense. Both are, for me at least, complex and byzantine modes of procrastination that involve list-making, daydreaming, and a great deal of aspirational thinking. They are activities I can really sink myself into without putting very much on the line other than time. They are what I do when I don’t want to do the work—namely the work of careful reading and writing, the work of settling down and growing up.
It seems they go hand in hand, reading and traveling. They scratch the same itch: an impulsive, erratic, and impatient curiosity—a desire to hold the entire world before your eyes and to swallow it whole at the same time. To achieve one or the other on its own is difficult; to do both at once is, of course, impossible.
There is, finally, at the bottom of all this, the depressing and solid math that says that for every book you do manage to read, there are 1,000 you’ll never get to. And for each one of those, there are 10,000 more you’ll never even hear of. Certainly then, 30 lines of Shakespeare here, 50 of Homer there, a few chapters of Tolstoy and a smattering of whatever else I can get my hands on, whenever and wherever I feel the feverish impulse to do so, seems better than the alternative. Right?
And anyway, the buildup is most of the fun: the research, the pre-reading of essays, reviews, and introductions, the buying of books. That is, the anticipation—which Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel rightly calls “an instrument of simplification and selection.” “The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress,” he writes. “They cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.”
With absolute clarity, I can imagine myself having read all of Shakespeare. But when I try to conjure an image of myself reading all of Shakespeare, my mind simply jerks ahead to the end, like a corrupted song file or broken PowerPoint presentation. Still, I dream of one day getting to that final line. I’ve even peeked ahead at how it goes: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”