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Books I Still Intend To Read - annual report 2015

At the back of THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY is an appendix called Books I Still Intend to Read, inspired by Henry Miller’s identically-titled selection in The Books In My Life. Because this appendix was compiled two years ago – and by ‘compiled’ I mean thrown together in fifteen minutes at the proofing stage – I have now finished quite a few of the books I said I still intended to read at the end of 2013.

Here’s how things stand. The books I read from cover to cover during 2015 are in bold.

Appendix Three – Books I Still Intend To Read

The remainder of Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey [READ 2014]
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon [READ 2014]
Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
A House for Mr Biswas – V.S. Naipaul [READ 2014]
Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank [READ 2014]
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
Masquerade – Kit Williams
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters [READ 2014]
Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Tarantula – Bob Dylan [READ 2014]
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
Stoner – John Williams [READ 2014]
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
The second half of Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
The Man without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner [READ 2014]
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Bringing Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Stalingrad – Antony Beevor
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
The World as Will and Representation – Arthur Schopenhauer
Autobiography – Morrissey
Inferno – Dan Brown

Please note: I didn’t read only these eleven books in 2015.

The annual report for titles read in 2014 may be found here.

In keeping with what I explicity and repeatedly urged people not to do in READ Y’SELF FITTER, here are a few Strong-to-Mild Opinions about the Books I Intended To Read In 2015 And Did.

Infinite Jest – the temptation to write ‘quite good’ and leave it at that is a strong one, because a) despite a wide range of reactions while I was reading, from delight to boredom to rage and back again, ‘quite good’ accurately represents my opinion of Infinite Jest, or at least the mean average of those varied reactions, b) ‘quite good’ has a knowingly irksome ‘mostly harmless’ ring to it and c) anyone who makes it to the end of DFW’s infamous and enormous novel seems to feel compelled to have a Strong Opinion to show for their trouble; Infinite Jest must either be a masterpiece or a waste of time, about which the reader can then feel justifiably vindicated or aggrieved, as he or she prefers, and then say so – forcefully. Anyway, I read it in three and a half weeks in October and liked it and there we are. 7/10.

Fatiguingly clever; brilliantly funny; a 1079-page extrapolation of an idea Douglas Adams would have dealt with in a paragraph; an exhausting anatomy of addiction; a prophetic satire of American consumerism in the forthcoming Internet age; an exceedingly long pilot episode of Arrested Development scripted by Thomas Pynchon; NOT MORE SODDING TENNIS; all of these were true at various points while I was reading Infinite Jest. In the end and by the end, I felt I could only judge it as a novel after reading the whole thing, partly because the tradition of the Great American Novel was so clearly one with which David Foster Wallace was self-consciously engaged and partly because the reader can only see the grand design, if there is one, at the end of the book. As a gigantic warehouse for its author’s preoccupations, enthusiasms, footnotes and astounding facility for maximalist set-pieces, it very definitely deserves to be toured and even lived in for a month or so; as a novel, it felt to me like a magnificent failure – but I know this was the debate when it was published twenty years ago and has continued to be so ever since. Did Foster Wallace reinvent the wheel with Infinite Jest? Or by the end of the book, have the wheels come off? Either way, it will run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and RU.

Naked Lunch – quite good.

Love in a Cold Climate – read The Pursuit of Love several years ago as both it and Love in a Cold Climate are great favourites of Mrs Miller. Thanks to the TV adaptation from the early 00s, which has been viewed in this house numerous times, I was very familiar with much of the novel’s plot, its characters and best lines, in particular Uncle Matthew’s use of “damned aesthete” as the worst insult one can fling at someone. (I also own a very stylish matching shirt and tie combination inspired by one worn by ‘Boy’ Dougdale in this adaptation, like the damned aesthete I am.) I enjoyed actually reading the actual novel even more; subsequently read The Blessing, about which I knew nothing and which was wonderful. Nancy Mitford is a deeply amusing writer because she lets no one off the hook.

The Summer Book – as discussed in TYoRD the Moomin books were some of my favourites when I was growing up. Yet despite owning a hardback copy of The Summer Book for almost twenty years, well before it was republished to great acclaim by Sort Of Books, I had never read any of Tove Jansson’s adult novels or short stories. I think I’d started The Summer Book twice before in fact and failed to engage with it. Anyway at the third attempt I finally got it and went on to read The True Deceiver and Sun City (Jansson’s yet-to-be-republished second novel), as well as a chunk of the big biography of Jansson (thank you Will Grozier) and Moominvalley in November, which I’d read several times as a child but not since. I liked all these books very much, particularly The Summer Book, but my favourite remains Moominvalley in November which, save for the presence of Hemulens, Fillyjonks etc, is written in precisely the same register as her adult work and is characteristically funny, melancholy and unique. How fortunate to have had such a magical writer as a companion, on and off, for forty years.

Masquerade – two people spotted Kit Williams’s picture book Masquerade in this list and very kindly sent me copies of the book. Thank you to Louise Richardson and my father-in-law. I read it in twenty minutes. Then in a spirit of due diligence I read it again. In fact I read each donated copy of Masquerade once to make things even and fair. The book reminded me of the gatefold sleeve of a 1970s pomp-rock orchestral suite for children, such as The Butterfly Ball or something like that. Setting aside the ‘buried golden hare’ element, Masquerade is a very peculiar bestseller and reminded me of a documentary I watched a few years ago about Kit Williams, which is on YouTube and which I recommend if you want to see the sort of paintings he’s been working on since then and which the popular mnemonic NSFW barely covers.

Middlesex – quite good. Have I read enough American cult novels yet?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – although parts of this seemed rather dated to me e.g. the 80s post-modern ‘this is me, writing a novel’ stuff and the erotic #content incorporating a bowler hat, which was reminiscent of an Athena poster, the final sections of this novel were so intellectually rigorous and deeply moving that I feel churlish pointing out the two aforementioned very minor and debateable flaws. So ignore me and please read it.

The Woman in White – I was reading Finnegans Wake at the same time as The Woman in White so in my memory the two will forever be linked. Totally preposterous, hugely melodramatic, Highly Coincidental Entertainment. Great.

A Brief History of Time – my old university friend Ian, a mathematics whizz, found A Brief History of Time in the appendix of TYoRD and when I was visiting him in November, suggested that I probably had no intention of reading this particular book, which was entirely correct (see last year’s annual report for proof.) So I did read it, ashamed. I found it hard going at times and had to read several chapters more than once but by the end felt I had had a tour of vital scientific ideas I really ought to have understood before now. So thanks Professor Hawking and thanks Ian. (In fact I was already familiar with many of these advanced scientific concepts via Doctor Who, Star Trek and, of course, Douglas Adams’s books; plus a grounding in sci-fi nerdery meant I was able to spot a mistake near the end of ABHoT to do with the film Back to the Future, something about which I was so pedantically pleased I immediately felt ashamed again. So it goes.)

Life and Fate – this sat on our shelves for nearly twenty years. I finished it feeling I must read it again and much sooner than that. Many of the themes and characters only come into focus slowly over the course of its 900 pages, as Grossman intended. Again, certain chapters and passages will stay with me forever, especially those set in the camps and in wartime Stalingrad. A remarkable novel which for all its deliberate concordances with War and Peace could be read with no knowledge of Tolstoy whatsoever.

EDIT: this doesn’t really do justice to Life and Fate. Actually none of these blurbs really do justice to the books in question do they? But this blurb doesn’t even do justice to how I felt about the book while I was reading it. I think what I admired most was the control within it, the authorial determination to get the lived experience of an entire nation down without flinching. Again, please read it.

Inferno – much to the irritation of several readers, I failed to tackle a second Dan Brown novel like I said I would – and initially claimed I had done – in TYoRD. Humour is so subjective isn’t it? No. Anyway, this is another book I read in December while working my way through Finnegans Wake. (Be assured I’m not going to attempt another Moby-Dick vs The Da Vinci Code-style comparison between the two here.) I can report that I enjoyed Inferno very much. Dan Brown deserves much credit for inventing a genre of which he is the master: Dante for Da Vinci, Florence for Paris, killer spike-haired lady for killer albino monk, and so on. And I found Inferno a cut above The Da Vinci Code too; clearly a lot of work went into it. Plus without giving the ending away, the plot twist in the final 100 pages is one of the most over-the-top, audacious, morally equivocal and just plain jaw-dropping things I think I’ve ever read. The chutzpah of it!

Anyway, Inferno represents a farewell to The Year of Reading Dangerously, a book and project which has occupied ten years of my life. I have started writing something else. See you in ten years time or fewer or less.