What literary challenges have you conquered?
Idly daydreaming in a soft chair, as is my wont, I began to think back this afternoon over all the books in my past. This in itself is a slightly pathetic activity. I might have recalled the women I’ve loved, the places I’ve been or the times I’ve been drunk, but, no, it was—as usual—books that came to mind. Sometimes I feel I haven’t led the right life.
This time, however, I began to list mentally the various works I am most proud to have read. In high school I marched through the first seven or eight volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” and the summer I was 16 I read Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” all the way to the end of the “Paradiso.” At Oberlin College I once spent most of a semester working my way through Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” in French. At Cornell, where I went to graduate school, I realized, with some amazement, that I had actually read all of “Beowulf” in Old English, all the B-text of Langland’s moralizing “Piers Plowman,” Chretien de Troyes’s “Yvain” in medieval French, and a number of daunting works in Middle High German such as Wolfram’s “Parzival.” Not least, I laboriously plowed through—albeit in an English translation—some 4,000 pages of Gregory the Great’s “Moralia in Iob,” an extremely detailed and fanciful commentary on the Book of Job.
Since then I sometimes feel it’s all been nothing but cake and ice cream. Still, I am impressed with myself to realize I pored over a score of scholarly books about the Bible to write a long essay on literary approaches to that sacred book. I really enjoyed the weeks I spent with the six volumes of Arthur Waley’s translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “Tale of Genji.” I do remember slogging through every page of Harold Brodkey’s relentless “The Runaway Soul” to write what I thought was a particularly good review, a delicate balance of admiration for Brodkey’s industry and despair at his book’s dullness. I’m proud and delighted to have enjoyed all of Casanova’s multi-volume “Story of My Life.” I’d happily read it, and “Genji” again.
Now, I mention all this reading with mixed feelings. Such energy I had, such ambition! Now I look around my bookshelves and wonder when, if ever, I’ll have a chance to enjoy all these books I’d really like to read. Sigh.
So, members of the Reading Room, what books have you been most proud to have read? What Everests and K-2s have you attacked and conquered? How old were you? Why did you choose these particular peaks of literature or history or science? Please share your thoughts and reminiscences.
— Michael Dirda