There are some big books that have been sitting on my shelves for a while, just waiting for me to get around to giving them the time and effort they deserve.
I’m not intimidated by big books. I’m fine with reading them. I mean, this year I read a 600 page biography of Thomas Cromwell, the 750-page The Mirror and the Light (twice), and I’m in the midst of The Lord of the Rings, which is, according to my centenary edition, 1172 pages (not counting the index). Why have I not read those poor tomes languishing on my shelves? I have no idea.
So the plan for 2021 is to just do it.
I’ve picked one big book for each month (and I’ve already written them down in my 2021 planner) and even if I’m reading only twenty or so pages each day, the goal is to finish the big books that have been languishing on the shelves for the longest period of time.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Once upon a time, I was discussing something with my Italian Renaissance art history professor when she made a Paradise Lost reference. I didn’t understand and when I told her I hadn’t yet read it, she looked confused and said, “Why do I keep thinking you’ve read everything?” And I still haven’t read it. But that changes in 2021. Paradise Lost, that immortal poem about the biblical fall of man and the struggle between God and Satan that ranges across Heaven, Hell, and Earth.
Metamorphoses by Ovid
One of my best friends in high school raved about this work, and while I’ve read sections of it, I haven’t read it in its entirety. But in February, I plan to read this epic Roman poem that links the classical Greek world to that of Ovid’s Rome, in the age of Augustus.
The Decameron by Boccaccio
I heard about this book All. The. Time. during my Italian Renaissance art history classes in college, and yet I never managed to read it. It is a collection of one hundred stories told by ten young men and women in a villa outside Florence in the wake of the Black Death that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351.
Tale of Tales by Giambatistta Basile
A friend and I saw the film Tale of Tales in the theater in 2015, and we both loved its incredible, visually-inspired weirdness. After that, I found a copy of the book the film was based on at my favorite used bookstore downtown. It is a collection of Neapolitan stories, and contains some of the earliest versions of stories like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.
Njal’s Saga by Anonymous
One of the greatest of the Icelandic Sagas, it examines both thirteenth century Icelandic society, and human relationships as a whole, dealing with loyalty and family, law and violence, and the inability to control the hottest of human emotions and the consequences of actions committed when one’s emotions are heightened.
The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore by Anonymous
I bought this book the last time I was in Iceland, so it’s been on my shelf the least amount of time of all of these books, but I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time. Compiled in Iceland around 1270, The Elder Edda is a collection of the oldest Norse myths and legends, and tells stories about Odin, Thor, Brynhild, and the cruel historical figure of Atli the Hun. It is one of the main sources we currently have of pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs, religion, and– to a degree- history.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Set during the New Zealand gold rush in 1866, The Luminaries tells the story of young Walter Moody, who is seeking his fortune when he comes across a group of angry men who are up in arms due to a series of strange events. A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to kill herself, and a secret fortune has been found in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into this tapestry of mystery.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
I have a friend who is both a sailor and a reader, and we enjoy trading book recommendations. This is one of the books she recommended to me because of the story, the writing (in translation), and the accuracy of the sailing parts (which she would know, given that she has worked on ocean-going sailing vessels and historical, three-masted ships). We, the Drowned is a generational story about a family of sailors who find adventure and disaster on the sea and spans the world, from Denmark to American Samoa, Tasmania, and Russia.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
In sixteenth-century Istanbul, the sultan has commissioned a group of the finest Turkish artists to create a great book devoted to the glories of his rule. But the Sultan wants the book done in the European style, which is dangerous for the artists given that figurative art is forbidden in Islam, and so the ruling elite cannot know about the book. Panic erupts when one of the artists disappears, and the only clues can be found in the unfinished illustrations.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Lucy Snowe, a fictional version of Charlotte herself, flees England and a past tragedy to become a boarding school teacher in a little seaside town in France. There, she watches the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and the coquettish Ginevra Fanshawe. But Lucy cannot avoid her heartache forever, and her past pain catches up to her. In spite of her trials, however, Lucy presses on to try to make a life for herself on her own terms.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
I read Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus, for my English 350H- Faust in Western Literature class in college, and it was fantastic. Mann’s take on the Faust legend combined John E. Woods’s brilliant translation made this a book I couldn’t put down. I’ve owned The Magic Mountain for years. Time to get to this book, which uses a Swiss sanatorium as a microcosm of Europe in 1914, a continent that doesn’t yet realize it is sick and on the on the brink of disaster.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
In this magical realist tale, New York City is buried under the snow and long nights of an unusual winter when Peter Lake, an orphaned master-mechanic, attempts to break into a remarkable and strange mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thought the house was empty, it turns out that one young woman was home– Beverly Penn, who is dying. Their romance will prompt a series of strange events, and Lake will find himself driven to do impossible things like stop time and bring back the dead.
This, I think, is an eminently do-able list of books. They’re not all terribly long, but as far as I can tell, they’re dense works. Not exactly quick weekend reads. And that’s fine. If a story is good, I don’t mind if it’s long.