Id quoque, quod tenetur, per manus exit et ipsam, quam premimus, horam casus incidit, volvitur tempus rata quidem lege, sed per obscurum; quid autem ad me, an naturae certum sit quod mihi incertum est?
—Seneca (Epistulae Morales, 101.5)1
In the past, I haven’t been particularly strong on reading rules and systems for my yearly reading; oh, I make grand plans, but I usually get bored or distracted before following through: I like to have the ‘freedom’ to change course (without bothering to consider that, as such rules are freely chosen, I also have the freedom to pursue them). Rules and structures are grand, however, when one does not want the bother of making decisions; if they are cages, they also provide the opportunity for one to rest against the bars.
Enmeshed. The unexpected reading project of the year was Gilgamesh; I read four translations, two at a time, at a rate of a Tablet per day. I paired Sophus Helle’s version with Stephanie Dalley’s, and Andrew George’s2 with the version by John Gardner and John Maier, and then followed up by reading the other texts included in collections by Dalley and George. I could not, having read all four, select a favorite. They all offered different things and thus worked beautifully in concert. It was an interesting experience, to take a poem already polysemic and repetitious and to go through it slowly (if not attentively). I tried to do something similar with Beowulf in 2020, but that project was less successful, in part because, well, Beowulf is, um, not as intrinsically interesting or ‘other’ as Gilgamesh, but also because the supporting material (introductions, notes) was generally less interesting. (Curiously, I did find a preferred translation for that: the 2013 edition by Meghan Purvis.)
Stoic. The unexpected balm of the year, the happy coincidence of reading the right book at the right time was, for me, Seneca’s Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius. I had read bits and pieces of Seneca before and had generally felt a slow simmering scorn for his apparent hypocrisy (brag about living off figs and dry bread all you like – that’s probably easier to feel good about when you have multiple estates you can visit). Graver and Long convey more of his charm – by turns coach, clown, and crank, Seneca’s shifting tone would be familiar to anyone who had to chivvy someone petulant (including oneself) out of a bad mood or into something against their inclination.3
Structured. I began the year with a few projects I wanted to pursue in my usual sideways-sneaking manner – finishing my project of reading Shakespeare’s plays and spending more time reading books that I had purchased long ago but hadn’t read. It is always a pleasure to reread The Tempest (full fathom five) and an ancient indulgence in Verso’s ebook sales was nicely (if belatedly) rewarded by Fredric Jameson’s book on Raymond Chandler. I also settled back into the habit of a morning book: The morning book should be somewhat serious, easily divisible into chunks, and also reward concentrated attention. Seneca’s letters were a success there, and Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books was another, and The Qu’ran; the Gilgameshes were also morning reading.
Ambivalence. Some projects don’t go anywhere, no matter how much one wants them to. The biography of Schopenhauer seemed just as happy to be sitting on the shelf as to be read and, sadly, George Eliot’s journals are pretty quotidian. I also lost patience with Boswell’s journals after the two volumes I read in 2021 – ditto Byron’s letters; I might get back to Byron as he shows some self-awareness in addition to self-absorption (although that could be a matter of genre, letter vs. journal), but poor Boswell is a lost cause.4
Yarkonyng. As much as I would like to be able to plan even part of my reading in advance, the thought spurs a sensation of obstinance (‘disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things’, as it were). No matter how often I reread Epictetus, the inclination to swerve remains. That, I suppose, is one of the dangers of reading for pleasure.
- ‘The very thing we are grasping can slip through our hands, and the moment that we are seizing can be cut short by chance. There is a regularity to the flow of time, but ourselves are left in the dark. What can I make of nature’s uncertainty if my own affairs are uncertain?’ (trans. Margaret Graver & A.A. Long). [↩]
- Sadly, not the two-volume critical edition – just the humble Penguin. [↩]
- Éric Chevillard’s The Valiant Little Tailor was another perfectly timed book, but one that doesn’t fit into the untidy structure of this essay; so, too, Eduardo Berti’s An Ideal Presence, Violane Schwartz’s Papers, and François Jullien’s In Praise of Blandness. [↩]
- Just because something lingers on my currently reading list for a while does not mean it is a matter of ambivalence, however; I am enjoying Tynyanov’s The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar and S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches so much that I am going through them at a pace so slow one could almost say I am not reading them at all. [↩]