I tried the first few pages of The Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin, but it starts with a talking stone that wishes to be alive, and having been immersed in the work of a modern Irish playwright for some weeks, I'm not quite ready for yearning stones who are granted wishes by wandering monks. I'll get there, but not today. It promises to be a sort of Romeo and Juliet story crossed with Peyton Place, but set in China in the late 1600s. Could launch into Alain de Botton's On Love, but don't think I'm ready for something smooth and chatty, either. And then I looked at the bedside table and realized I've had Tales of H.P. Lovecraft out of the library for six weeks. It's overdue and unread except for two attempts to read the introduction. Mistake. It has to go back now and I have to pay the fine and feel shame, double shame for keeping it so long without reading even a single page of it.
So, to start the shame brigade now, let's turn to the first paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu." Even I know this is some sort of classic story. Cultural icon and all. People go nuts for it. It begins like this:
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, Is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
Yikes. OK, it stays here for one more day. I'll read this one story and then pay a slightly larger fine tomorrow. Shame abated. New book discovered. Problem solved until tomorrow.
THE EXERCISE: Make a reading list for the year. Stock it full of quirky old books, the kind that were best-sellers 50 or 100 years ago, but now gather dust in the library. Pepper it liberally with bulky classics, if only so you'll have something to read next year when you start this list again. The list should include some biographies, but try to pick people who lived very badly and had lots and lots of sex and preferably at least one addiction. It should include one book from a genre you think you hate (hello, horror) and one book from a genre you would like to know better (did someone say poetry?). Add some history, but fun stuff (In the Heart of the Sea), a book about a new discipline (science, opera, math), and several imports (Sacred Games). And then ignore this list, when necessary to read or re-read something that makes your heart beat faster (Winter's Tale, The Woman in White, Jane Eyre).