I started my Unread Library project in July, 2010, and aside from a post here and there, I haven’t mentioned it since. Come to think of it, I don’t even think I explained the impetus behind the project! Last summer, right before we left for Lake Tahoe, I meant to stop for a few books, either from the library or from the bookstore. I also considered taking some of the many books I had laying around the house, but I wasn’t excited about the idea. Time got the best of me, and I was left with no choice but to pick from what I already owned. I brought Persuasion by Jane Austen, a book I had sitting on my shelves for over ten years.
I brought it to the beach and struggled with it a bit at first, having been out of practice reading classic literature and critical reading in general. I kept at it, mainly from lack of options, and decided to approach it much like I did law school. Back then, I couldn’t read a paragraph without a pen in hand. I underlined, marked, circled, and took notes along the margin of my casebooks so detailed there was little need for me to write out briefs (but I did).
For the first few paragraphs of Persuasion, hell, the first few pages, I used a mechanical pencil to underline while I read for no grander purpose than to slow down my eyes and mind enough to comprehend some of the text. Soon, my efforts were rewarded. Reading critically, it turns out, is like riding a bike.
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. –Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 1
I chuckled. That was funny. Even better, I caught the joke! Not long after that, I started to get into the story and the characters. I couldn’t put down the book I spent over ten years trying to read. And then, Captain Wentworth.
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. –Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 23
Hello there, big boy.
So I got to thinking, maybe there were other great books I was missing out on because I was afraid of the hard work it might take to read them, that the part of my brain I needed to read literature had long ago turned to mush. I decided since Persuasion was good, so might be many of the other books I had collecting dust. That didn’t stop me from buying a few more books in Lake Tahoe when I stumbled across a bookstore going out of business, but that’s actually part of the story. I bought those books on the condition they became part of my yet to be named Unread Library. A few weeks later, I pulled the trigger on my plan and committed to it here on the blog. It was the best thing I could have ever done.
My critical reading has improved. I’m not up to where I was in college, but I am close. Actually, maybe I am better because I have 15 years of life experience to bring to the table. I find that I am able to understand the themes from an emotional perspective as well as a critical one. I value more what I am reading because I can relate to it better.
I’m constantly inspired. Captain Wentworth, with all his impassioned speeches, ended up inspiring a number of posts here, as many of you know (here is the first). My Compositions series is in large part funded by the reading I do from my Unread Library. Notes for novel and short story ideas litter many of the pages, too.
I feel better about myself. I’m not a dumb girl, but as one of two stay at home moms in a large circle of professional women, I sometimes feel a bit…insecure. Reading literature makes me feel smart, or at least like I am doing something to better myself.
A little more than six months after starting the project, I have read 12 of the 45 books in my Unread Library. I’ve also read a few books off the shelf from the library and some I bought with birthday money, but for the most part, I’ve stuck to my shelves. Not everything I read from the shelf was fine literature, some of it was downright tawdry, but they were fun to read nonetheless. That’s something else I learned. Reading the classics is a lot like drinking a fine wine. There are layers and notes to the work, and the reading can have its own special procedure. All of that is to be expected and has its rightful place in my life but, I have to say, every now and then it sure does feel good to sit down and crack open a cold beer.