(Re) Reading

Published 2008-07-16

Last week, I finished reading the entire Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series. (Yes, these are the books that Charlton Heston described as his favorites. I’m probably the world’s youngest Aubrey/Maturin fan.) I think this is the second time I’ve read the entire series beginning-to-end and probably the third time I’ve read most of the individual novels.

I began (re)reading the series last year immediately upon returning from China. So it’s taken me a year to read 20 books. I’ve read a few other books, too — The World Without Us, a couple of Stanislaw Lem novels, and a collection of Haruki Murakami short stories, for example — but this has been pretty much my sole reading project. (In my own defense, pretty much the only time I get to read is for about 20 minutes before falling asleep, and a little bit on weekend mornings.)

Re-reading the series kind of underlines how weak the later entries are. O’Brian’s writing and characterizations remained crisp to the end, but his plotting slacked a lot. I think he fell into a trap where he loved his main characters too much to hurt them. I lost count of how many times either Steven or Jack would lose their fortunes, only to have it returned (usually with almost no effort) about 30 pages later.

Also, a surprising amount of heavy drama (like the deaths of major characters) happens off-screen, or in a kind of flip manner. Again: O’Brian just didn’t want his principals (and perhaps the readers?) getting sad about the tragic loss of friends they (and we) have had for 15 or 18 books.

O’Brian died while working on the 21st novel. Number 20 left plenty of loose ends, but something feels vaguely wrong about reading what amounts to O’Brian’s outline just to tie them up.

So now I’m left without a big reading project. For the past five or six years, I’ve kind of grazed at my pleasure reading, which in my case leads to a lot of mental junkfood habits. (For example, for want of anything better to do, since last week I read Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home — a fine piece of literature but one I’ve surely read 10 times.)

So now, for probably the first time in life, I’m going to undertake a serious reading project. I’m going to read John Steinbeck’s entire oeuvre, beginning (fittingly enough) with his first and only work of historical fiction, Cup of Gold