January is the month for resolutions, for fresh starts, for trying to get things right. Mostly we focus on our bodies, trying to lose weight, get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sometimes we focus on getting better organized or being kinder. There is a list from an article in American Songwriter magazine that has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages of 33 resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote down in his own handwriting in 1942, full of very sensible advice to self, the 13th being “read lots good books.”
Just this week, author Walter Dean Myers was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy. He will be urging people to read good books, including, no doubt, some of his own dark and realistic titles, “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Monster,” “Bad Boy.” His is an urban, African-American voice writing gritty fiction that is far away from the wizards, dragons, English boarding schools and other recent staples of young people’s literature. But his own story, about how reading and then writing books rescued him from the violence and chaos of his environment, will surely resonate with many young people.
So the advice is to read good books, but the question is which ones are good for you? Someone asked Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet and he responded with a list of seven books, all available as free e-book downloads and all (except maybe the Bible) written by men:
The Bible, “The System of the World” by Isaac Newton, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.
Tyson is an astrophysicist and a very smart person, certainly entitled to his opinion — “If you read all of the works above, you will have profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world” — and it’s sort of cool that all those titles are available free for digital downloading, but it’s just one person’s list. And personally, I have gotten to the point where any list that excludes the half of the human race that I belong to is a list that I feel free to ignore.
One thing to consider about resolving to read more good books is that, like resolving to exercise more, eat healthier, be kinder, etc., one’s success will depend on some mental or spiritual ability, some kind of willpower or energy. When I am feeling energetic and strong, then I enjoy reading challenging books that force me to think in new ways. When I am feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I read easier titles. Resolutions might be a good way of reminding oneself of one’s aspirations. Is this the year I will start rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust — in French this time? Probably not. Nor will I run a marathon or lose 20 pounds. But perhaps there are some realistic aspirations I can articulate and accomplish.
1. Read more poetry.
2. Read more short stories.
3. Use my online Goodreads account to keep track of and share my reading.
4. Explore new magazines and newspapers instead of depending on familiar ones.
5. Read books aimed at different age groups and demographics.
6. Read aloud to children when given the opportunity.
7. Try to read some French and Spanish beyond menus.
8. Every once in a while, read at least one book I wouldn’t think I’d like.
That last piece of advice is the one that motivated me to pick up “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I am usually interested in the Man Booker winners but, for some reason, I’ve been avoiding Julian Barnes. Too English, too middle-aged, too refined, repressed — I don’t know, just not my type. But this novel, or novella at a scant 163 pages, was a revelation.
I must be careful not to give too much away, because it turns out to be a cleverly plotted page-turner masquerading as an elegiac memoir. More than one reviewer remarks that its short length is deceptive, because when you finish it, you will want to immediately reread it in its entirety. It is about aging, time, remorse, memory and history, about some of the very terrible things we can do to each other in our youth, about how we forget or make up stories so we can survive our middle age and how we can be derailed in old age by confronting what may be the truth. The whole book is unreliably narrated by a bald old man who is not especially sympathetic, but the elegant unfolding of the tale is mesmerizing, and it is a really good book. Exactly the sort of thing you should read if you are resolved to read some good books this year.
Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.