A Reading List

One of my main goals for Project Renaissance is to spend more time reading. I mentioned that I picked up a few books about reading to inspire me. I really like reading about other people’s views on readings – it always helps me remember why I like reading, and I need that inspiration to prioritise it with the limited amount of time I have available.

One of the books I picked up was Steve Leveen’s The Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life. This is a short little book packing a decent punch. It summarises various ways in which reading can play a bigger role in life, including tips for getting more out of reading and suggestions like using audiobooks and reading groups.

My favourite section was near the beginning, where Leveen talks about how to construct a personalised reading list. It can be a tricky business deciding what to read next – there are endless choices. Leveen has several suggestions, primarily focused around constructing a list of ‘candidates’ for reading, based on interests, recommendations, previous books you enjoyed, and other sources.

His suggestion is that by being more systematic about selecting possible books to read, we set ourselves up to always get more satisfaction from our reading choices, rather than leaving them to chance or whatever is sitting on the bookshelf at home. He says:

Having a living list of books to read is a critical part of getting the most from your reading life, and it must be your own list, one you create. This cannot be left to someone else. Not only will your list be far more likely to please you, but much benefit lies in making the list. That is where your adventure begins. (p.12)

This rather goes against the idea of reading lists like the one in Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, which prescribes a reading list in each of five genres. I can see, though, that a list like the latter is designed for a specific purpose – reading the classics – whereas Leveen’s ideas are broader, encouraging pursuit of reading in any area of interest.

Leveen suggests keeping lists under different headings corresponding to interests you have or develop. This lets you record books you hear about that sound interesting, pursue topics of fascination, and organise books into groups that follow on from each other. One of those lists could be the classics, or Victorian history, or stamp-collecting, or 19th century American fiction – anything, really.

It’s interesting to ponder what headings I could construct, so I had a look around on our bookshelves and a think about what topics currently interest me. I do want to read more of the classics, and I could see myself following a defined scheme, or just working my way through the shelf of classic fiction we have at home. As I mentioned above, my first trip to the library drew me towards books about books – I’m also currently reading The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack. I recently finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and was reminded how much I enjoy popular science books, so that would be a category. My fiancé brought lots of history books when he moved into the house, and I’d like to read some of those – they cover mostly British and Napoleonic history. I’m also interested in books about happiness, and want to follow up some suggestions in The Happiness Project and elsewhere on this topic.

It’s daunting, in a way, to start to plan out reading, but I can see how being more purposeful about it can produce more satisfaction. Having a plan is always good. I enjoyed Leveen’s little book, and will definitely bear in mind some of his ideas as I embark on getting more books into my life.

How do you keep track of the books you want to read?

Dancing the night away

One of the main goals of Project Renaissance is to give me a chance to explore some new interests and pick up some old ones again. I also want to challenge myself with new things. It’s easy, when life is tough, to just keep going, doing the same things without seeking out new opportunities and interests. It can be hard work to do that, and I think for too long I’ve been coming home after work, collapsing on the sofa for the rest of the evening, and then feeling vaguely upset with myself that another evening has passed without much happening.

Gretchen Rubin identifies this as the ‘atmosphere of growth’ in her First Splendid Truth of Happiness:

To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Now, to be perfectly frank, there was always something that bothered me a bit about how this is put. Maybe it’s because I’m British, but ‘atmosphere of growth’ sounded a bit – well, new-agey and self-helpy and too vague to really mean anything to me. But I do see the point – that is, that a life that is just coasting along, where everything is fine but nothing new or challenging is happening, is not going to lead to happiness (for most people, anyway).

It finally dawned on me that I’ve been unconsciously testing this theory for the last year and a half. After A. and I met, we started going to ballroom dancing classes together. Almost from the very beginning, it’s been one of the things I look forward to most in our week. That’s partly due to the hilarious teacher, and the other lovely people in our class, but it wasn’t until I reread The Happiness Project recently that I realised those aren’t what were making it such a source of fun for me. It was that I was learning a new skill, something that challenged me, not so much that I wanted to give up, but enough that I wanted, and could, get good at it.

In the last few months, we’ve also been taking additional private dance classes in preparation for our wedding. We’ve learned a fairly complex routine, and we’ve been practising all summer. It’s been the most fun I’ve had in a long while, and it’s because it’s a challenge. We really struggled with some of the steps to begin with, but now we can see how much we’ve improved. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I want to keep getting better with this new skill.

Gretchen says that there are three types of fun: relaxing fun (like watching a film), accommodating fun (like going to a party with friends) and challenging fun (like my dance class). The latter is the most rewarding, but it takes the most effort – you have to put energy into it, it can sometimes be frustrating, even upsetting – but because it’s challenging, it’s ultimately the most satisfying. Relaxing fun, which is probably the kind we all do most often, is easiest, because it’s the most passive, but it brings very little return – that feeling I had of being unsatisfied after an evening vegging in front of the telly.

Now that I’ve recognised one source of challenging fun in my life, I want to get more, even if it takes more energy. Crafting, reading (when it’s done actively, rather than passively – more on that soon), maybe picking up my violin again – these could all be ready-made sources of more challenging fun for me. I just have to seek them out, and overcome that initial pull to the more relaxing thing.

That’s all for this week – I’ll leave you with a taste of the sort of thing that I’ve been enjoying!

More books please!

I used to read all the time. As I child, I was a fast and voracious reader. I would sit on my bed and devour every book I could get my hands on. Raised bilingually, I read a lot of German children’s books, like Michael Ende and Erich Kästner, alongside C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett and Tolkien. I loved reading, and it was usually the first thing I said when someone asked me ‘What do you do for fun?’ I took an English Literature AS Level (we read Wuthering Heights and Othello) until I abandoned it for other subjects in my A Level year.

Since university, though, my reading has taken a downturn. Don’t get me wrong, I still read. Pullman, Patrick Ness, Suzanne Collins (loved the Hunger Games), more Lewis, Guy Gavriel Kay, Isaac Asimov and more. I read a lot during the year I lived in London and had an hour-long commute twice a day – I got through seventy-four books that year. But notice the authors – lots of fantasy and science-fiction, not so much literature.

In fact, I’ve very rarely tackled any of the great classics. Sure, I’ve read Austen, Dickens, Brontë (Jane Eyre was a revelation in my teens), even some Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina). But I’ve always been nervous of the classics, as if I don’t have the necessary tools to read them.

Fact is, I read mostly for pleasure, late at night, to wind down. Not the time to be exerting my brain, normally, and I often feel like this type of reading wouldn’t let me do credit to great literature. The classics need attention and patience and time, and so often I feel like I have none of those.

Then, a couple of months ago, I found Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had in our library. This is a guide to how to read classic books – the method by which you read, annotate, summarise, and analyse. This is how great books can enrich your life, I felt, but it demanded commitment, and I shied away from it. I couldn’t possibly commit to reading all of the books on the WEM list (as it’s known) – could I?

There are people out there doing it, of course. I’ve found a couple of blogs chronicling the journey, and it is so tantalising. That’s what I would like to be doing. Or something like it.

I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue that course of action, and I do have to consider carefully the time I have. Yes, Project Renaissance is designed to help me take on some goals and tackle long-put-off projects – but not at the expense of sanity and having time to eat and sleep. Still, I can’t quite resist the temptation to at least consider how I could tackle some great literature.

In the meantime, I want to read more, full stop. I popped into our central library at the weekend, and picked up a great little book (sitting next to The Well-Educated Mind on the shelf of books-about-books) that I recommend to anyone wanting to be inspired to read more.

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!, Vintage Books, 2011

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, Vintage Books, 2011

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! is a collection of essays by famous authors and literary folk, including Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jeanette Winterson. Each of the authors talks about what reading means to them. There is so much gold in here about the pleasures of reading, but I think my favourite one so far is Tim Parks philosophical essay on Mindful Reading.

The excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive now, intensely mentally silently alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now. (p.73)

How perfectly put! That’s what I want – to engage my mind, all of it, in the intense purpose of having a conversation in my mind with an author, perhaps long dead, and finding out what they thought about the world, and what I think about the world.

The logistics of making time for a reading project still elude me – suggestions welcome – but more reading generally? More books in my life? Yes, please!

Why blog?

This isn’t the first blog I’ve started. Like many of my computer-savvy generation, I’ve had an online presence for a long time, and I’ve been reading blogs since they first arrived on the internet scene. 

My previous blogging attempts have been patchy, for one reason – there was never a good focus for what I wanted to achieve with my blog. I thought long and hard about whether it was worth starting another one, but here I am. (And no – I won’t be subjecting anyone to my previous efforts!)

Why? Two main reasons: the first being accountability. The work that I envision for myself over the coming months as I embark on the various areas that make up Project Renaissance isn’t going to be easy, and I know I’m going to feel a lot of resistance to some of it. I’m committing to a posting schedule (three times a week, and no less, though maybe more) and I hope that will keep me going on this path. 

Secondly, I want a chronicle of this journey. I want a place to write about my thoughts, because writing helps me think. I want a place to put all the ideas, questions, research, experiments and conclusions I find. And I want to talk to other people interested in similar things. 

Last of all, this blog is in itself one part of my project. I’ve always admired diarists, letter writers, thinkers who have chronicled their journeys. I’m interested in the practice of writing as a tool for self-knowledge, and I want to experiment with what stretching myself and committing myself can do for me. 

Here’s to keeping to a schedule, hopefully providing some interesting content, and some good conversations!