The 2015 reading list

Sometimes one reads to see what one is thinking – sometimes to see what others are thinking – and sometimes one should read to find out where one is….

As you may have already guessed, cats read when we aren’t looking in order to understand and control our species better… (image courtesy

For 2015 I’ve decided to change the pattern of my reading list adventures and split the list into two segments. The first of these will be a tour of what used to be called “world literature”: great works by authors writing in a language other than one’s own – in my case, English. The second half of the list will focus on authors from North Carolina primarily, the American South generally. My slogan for the year will be “Read globally, then locally,” I suppose.

For the first half of the list I will be in the hands of translators for the bulk of my reading (I read, speak and write French, and I plan also to learn Spanish – at least conversational level – this year, but most of my reading choices are in languages other than those). So as part of my series of essays on these works I will make observations – informed or not – about the quality of the translations I encounter.

So, to the list.

First, two outliers. These are books I had already decided upon before fixing upon the “global/local” idea:

A) The Guns of August – Barbara Tuchman. The fine historian and wonderful writer Tuchman (I have long been a big fan, especially of A Distant Mirror, her wonderful review of the 14th century that shows us that the 20th was not the only calamitous century) explains the beginnings of WWI and describes the early, violent clashes that Germany won – and that led to the stalemate and horror of trench warfare. I got this book for Christmas and am nearly through it. Essay forthcoming shortly.

B) The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop – Edmund S. Morgan. Like the William Bradford work from 2013 and the book on Jamestown from last year, this work examines America’s colonial past – this time by looking at the great Puritan John Winthrop. I’d picked this book up before I changed my reading plan, so I’ll read it – anyway, I love colonial history and literature….

Now, for the global part of the reading list:

1) Works – Horace. I bought this at a library sale (I am always surprised when libraries sell books). It’s a late 19th century century volume translated by a Cambridge don and covers the odes, verse epistles, satires, and the Ars Poetica. I’ve read a few of these things in more modern translations. Looking forward to this, a prose transliteration.

2) The Saga of the Volsungs – Unknown Norse poet. A tale of love, vengeance, greed, and jealousy. The Norse hero Sigurd’s story is directly related to the other Norse sagas. This is one of the Icelandic tales.

3) The Ink Dark Moon – Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu. These are love poems translated from the Japanese and written by two women of the Heian Court of Japan sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries.

4) Love and Time: The Poems of Ou-Yang Hsiu – Ou-Yang Hsiu. These are poems by an official of the Sung dynasty in China in a Pound influenced translation. Ou-Yang was strongly influenced by Confucianism. Expect lots of imagist verse….

5) The Niebelungenlied – Unknown Germanic poet. The German national epic tells the story of Siegfried, the tragic hero, and his vengeful wife Kriemheld. Like any great epic, it is two separate tales thrown together. But they’re both great tales, so there’s that….

6) The Mabinogion – Unknown Welsh poet. This collection of Welsh legends and tales has the first mentions of King Arthur. It also has some of the other great Celtic tales.

7) The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen. This rowdy and ribald picaresque novel examines – and satirizes – the Thirty Years War through the eyes of a character named Simplicius, the spiritual ancestor of Candide.

8) Grimm’s Fairy Tales – The Brothers Grimm. The classic children’s stories are also examples of German Romanticism – and the basis of operas, ballets, and all manner of other works.

9) Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works – Denis Diderot. The lesser known of the  great French philosophes is a brilliant satirist and thinker – just like his more well known contemporaries Voltaire and Rousseau. It will be a pleasure to read his work again.

10) Prose Tales – Alexander Pushkin. The great Russian poet and writer is a marvel and should be read by everyone. I plan to relish re-reading these works.

11) A Hero of Our Time – Mihail Lermontov. Heavily influenced by Byron, Lermontov’s tale of a moody, disillusioned Russian aristocrat whose urge to live life at the edge will remind one of Werther – and that moody poet mentioned above.

12) Pere Goriot – Honoré de Balzac. Balzac’s heart breaking tale is both a wonderful early example of realistic style and a cautionary message for both parents and children.

13) Rosshalde – Hermann Hesse. Hesse’s novel is a sort of 20th century German version of the story of Siddhartha, a story he’d later tell in its original Indian setting. The disillusionment with wealth and luxury and the need for spiritual fulfillment…

14) Corydon – André Gide. I’ve read some Gide (Strait is the Gate, Les Caves du Vatican, L’Immoraliste) and look forward to this interesting argument in defense of alternate sexuality.

15) Joseph the Provider – Thomas Mann. My familiarity with Mann’s work (Tonio Kröger, Death in Venice, Doctor Faustus) – as well as the influence of the last of these on my own work – made me curious to read something from his favorite work.

16) Kristin Lavrandatter: The Wreath – Sigrid Undset. I’ve admired Undset’s work and read some excerpts from her magnum opus. For this reading list I will examine the first of her trilogy of works on medieval Norway.

17) All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque. What many consider the greatest of all anti-war novels. Should make an interesting counterpoint to my reading of Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

18) The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata. The Japanese Nobelist’s first novel translated into English is a study in the struggle between desire and reality told through the story of a frustrated older man who realizes that his youth is gone.

19) Under the Banyan Tree – R.K. Narayan. Narayan is considered a master of telling the stories of ordinary Indians. Like Chekov, Narayan gets at the essential elements of the human condition.

20) The Words – Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre’s autobiography (of his childhood) – should be a hoot.

21) Treasures of the Night – Jean Genet. Genet, a sort of Bukowski of French poetry, simply came on my radar. I’ll give it a shot.

22) Group Portrait With Lady – Heinrich Boll. I was torn between re-reading this and re-reading the Gunter Grass novel, The Tin Drum. This won the coin flip, though I can’t complain. Both are fine writers – if depressing in that German, German way….

23) Baltasar and Blimunda – Jose Saramago. Portugal’s winner in the Nobel sweepstakes gets a look here. This novel, set in 18th century Portugal during the Inquisition, this novel offers an interesting look at the conflict between religion and technology.

24) The Temple of the Golden Pavilion – Yukio Mishima. Mishima, the brilliant, obsessive, self-destructive Japanese novelist offers a tale about – you guessed it, obsession with perfection. He is a great writer – and crazy. Gotta love him.

25) Steps – Jerzy Kosinski. The controversial novelist’s second book won the National Book Award. That’s reason enough to be dubious. And interested….

26) A Sorrow Beyond Dreams – Peter Handke. As we all know, I am an admirer of Handke, and this is one of his finest works, a meditation on his mother’s suicide that is as wrenching as it is pitilessly honest.

I also have another outlier:

C) The Tale of the Genji – Murasaki Shikibu. Sometimes referred to as the first novel, this tale of medieval court life in Japan is a Christmas present I likely won’t be able to ignore.

That does it. I’ll write about the “local” part of the list later in the year when I get there.


3 replies »

    • I have Stephenson in my “Outliers” stack. At some point during the year I’ll tackle him. I picked up the “Cryptonomicon” – but it’s a biggie, so I will probably use the gap between the end of the global list and the beginning of the local list. Look for an essay about, say, May-June….

      • Don’t do Cryptonomicon. It’s a really good genre work, but it won’t illustrate the point I’ve been making. Ideally you’d tackle Quicksilver and the rest of the Baroque Trilogy, but if the heft of Cryptonomicon scares you three books that are even longer might not be what you’re after.

        Which brings us to Anathem