11-11 reading challenge

The private stacks in the basement of the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC. Photo by my wife and super-librarian, Jennifer Snoek-Brown.

A friend of mine mentioned recently that he’d heard too late about the “10-10-10” challenge, in which readers committed to reading ten books a month for the first ten months of 2010. I heard about it too late, too — I heard about it through my friend, in fact — but I wouldn’t have participated. One hundred books in a year is an insane goal, I think, even for dedicated readers. Undaunted, my friend decided to issue himself and anyone willing to play along a new challenge: “Rodney’s 11-11-11” challenge. The language is mercifully open to interpretation, so I’m not sure if my friend plans to read 121 books by the end of November (I know I won’t!), but his write-up of the challenge intrigues me: “Read eleven books from eleven different categories over the next eleven months. Pick your own categories […]”

To me, this means I can skimp and simply pick eleven new categories and read one book a month, a different category each month. But it’s the definition of those categories that intrigues me the most. Part of the challenge, as I understand it, is to read in areas you don’t normally attempt, which is exactly how my friend and several other brave participants are taking that rule.

For my part, I plan to take up areas of reading I keep wanting to get into (or get back to) but keep putting off or setting aside for greater interests. I will devote each month to a different category and will commit to reading at least one book from each of the eleven categories. I’ll also remember that if I find myself without a book and don’t know what to read next, I’ll choose something from one of these eleven categories. So, with those rules in place, here are my new reading areas — my syllabus, if you like — for the coming year. And please, dear readers, if you have any suggestions for books in any of these categories, leave a comment! I need to start building a reading list, and I could sure use your help.

[UPDATE: As I read books in these categories, I’m linking the category headings to my reviews. Click the headings for more info!]

1: Australian fiction

This past year, at least four different people have mentioned that I need to start reading Australian fiction. The way they describe it — hard, irreverent, violent, bitterly realistic — has me deeply intrigued, because it sounds like it’s right up my alley. So I’m looking for some good Aussie authors — and this one I’ll need a lot of help on, people, because I’m utterly clueless here.

2: Literary journals

This might be a bit of a cheat, because I read a fair number of lit journals already. But I could always read more. I think this year I’ll try to commit to reading at least one issue of one new lit journal every month, and see how things go from there.

3: Memoir

I used to love a good autobiography — still do, really — but memoir is a different creature at heart, and for some reason I just don’t pick these up as often as I ought to. I’m suspicious of them, I think, like they have some kind of insidious agenda. A lot of them do, so I’ll be staying away from celebrity “memoirs.” But a good, insightful account of a moment in someone’s life? Those are often gold, and I feel like I need more of them in my reading life. Plus, I know a few people who read a LOT of memoir and can guide me toward some gems.

4:  Poetry (classical European)

Poetry is a huge area I need to read a lot more of, which I mentioned in my post on last year’s reading list. So it gets four categories all to itself. Why not lump them all together?  Because poetry is a multifaceted world, and the poems of, say, 19th-century Japan are wholly unlike the poems of, say, early-21st century Chicago. They don’t just follow different rules — they live in different universes. They really are separate genres.

I’ll be starting with classical European poetry because it’s an area that’s always been hit-or-miss for me. I tend to love a handful of poems and feel utterly indifferent toward the rest, which is why I’ve mostly given up on it. But there are a LOT of great poems out there I’m missing out on because of that indifference, so I’m hitting the books and boning up.

5: Poetry (contemporary)

I have a handful of good friends who are great poets, but whenever I try to talk about their craft with them, they inevitably start rattling off names I’m utterly unfamiliar with, or book titles that came out in the past few years that I’ve never heard of. I love contemporary fiction (and even this I often feel behind on), but contemporary poetry is practically an alien world to me. I must rectify this soon.

6: Poetry (modern French)

Back when I was studying French as an undergrad, my professor, the delightful Madame Pickard, gifted me a book of modern French poetry both in the original and in translation. It is a fantastic volume, and I still enjoy picking it up and thumbing through it from time to time, so I think I’ll seek out more. If I’m brave, I might even try a few in the original French — my own French has degraded inexcusably, and it’d be nice to start refreshing French reading abilities.

7: Poetry (world)

Some of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever stumbled across have come from Africa, from Asia, from Central and Latin America. But I confess I’ve only ever stumbled across them in magazines or anthologies. It’s time I make a more direct effort at reading whole books by these poets.

8: Russian fiction

I adore Chekhov, but until recently, that was the extent of my experience with Russian writers. Then, a little more than a year ago, I picked up my first Dostoyevsky. It was hard to get into it and almost as hard to get through it, but it was well worth the effort, and it’s awakened a new thirst in me. Bring on the Tolstoy! Bring on the Nabokov!

9: Southern fiction

This used to be a major reading area of mine, and it’s still one of my major academic interests. Why, then, has so much of my Southern fiction lately worn the name “Cormac McCarthy” on the spine? Clear the kudzu, folks — I’m diving back in.

10:  Westerns

As much as I love Southern fiction, for some reason I’ve avoided the Westerns. I suppose some of McCarthy’s novels count, but that’d be all I’ve ever picked up.  I’ve never read a single book by Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour. Not even Elmore Leonard. How did that happen? We’re talking about the Great American Mythology here! I’m currently reading the memoir of Elmer Kelton, at my dad’s recommendation, and so far it’s pretty good. I’ll probably start my Westerns with something by him, but I’m definitely going to make time for some McMurtry too.

11: World fiction

This is an area I’ve always been sorely lacking in, though it’s not for lack of interest. I’d originally called this “ethnic fiction,” but that’s such a strange term, rooted in the white-centered perspective of everyone as an “other.” Aren’t we all “ethnic”? So, even though “world fiction” is almost as problematic, I’m using it instead. What I’m looking for is more work in translation, fiction by authors whose first language isn’t English and who, ideally, aren’t of European descent. I might start with recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey. I’ve been fascinated by him since I read his Nobel acceptance speech from 2006; I should have picked him up by now.

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