I am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully. For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure. It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large. As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way. So here goes for 2016.
At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of. These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School. January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.
Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year. The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. Lots of blood and violence there then. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view. We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present. This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February. I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it. Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.
The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers. I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories. I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so. The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose. What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fiction as an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader. Has that changed over time? Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin? What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.
Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list. I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them. In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year. Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on. Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast? That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.