Over a year after posting my final review of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and about a dozen years after my first post on this blog, I'm finally here to post some thoughts on my whole Two Hectobooks Experience.
First, we need to go all the way back to the spring of 2009. I'd just finished my engineering degree, and I didn't have a job. Now, engineering school, for me, was a long slog of lots of homework and very little else, including reading and writing for pleasure. At the end of university I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands, a ton of self-discipline and time management skills, and no idea what to do with any of those things. I was reading a lot of blogs and online comics, and I naively decided that I, too, could play the online content game.
I have no memory of my initial discovery of the Modern Library Top 100 Books of the Twentieth Century List (aka The List). In retrospect I could've picked some other list, one that included books in translation, or books from other centuries, or books from the genre I'd gravitated to most throughout my life up to that point, i.e. science fiction. But I think the narrow focus of The List had its own appeal, plus it allowed me my hook, which is to say that I wanted to explore classic literary fiction as not just a layperson, but someone trained in STEM.
Somehow I thought I'd be able to read a book and post a review every single week, with the added twist of snarkily reviewing 100 Harlequin category romance novels in the mix. This was a bold, ambitious project to take on, and I had no idea what I was signing up for.
My romance snark soon got me in hot water, and I did some soul-searching and rejigged that half of the project. It also wasn't long before I encountered some Top 100 books that I didn't like, and/or that I simply couldn't finish within a week. Because the most important thing happened, which is that I found a full time job. My mission became a sort of homework project once I started working. I hadn't expected this, for whatever reason, and I admit I'd hoped that I'd have an audience following and encouraging me after some time had gone by.
Anyway, I'm not going to cover the entire blog experience exhaustively. I read books from The List, and I wrote reviews for about 11 years. When I started, I was an early-20s unemployed engineering graduate, upon today's posting I'm a mid-30s non-practising engineer with an uncertain career trajectory. I had zero inkling, back when I started, that the project would take so much time, or that things would end up as they have. I had no doubt that I'd eventually have a dedicated following for this blog and my writing. I had no doubt that I'd get my P. Eng. as soon as I had enough work experience.
And let me also say that I had no idea what kinds of books I'd end up reading, and how my feelings about them would evolve, and the kinds of tastes and preferences that I'd discover for myself. Wallace Stegner! E.M. Forster! Edith Wharton! Willa Cather! W.S. Maugham! There were some high highs, that I'm certain I never would've come across if not for The List. There were also some low lows, the lowest of which being of course Finnegans Wake.
The List has a lot of flaws that I've written about more or less extensively over the years. The most obvious is its heavy favouring of male authors, with 112 books being written by men (including some trilogies and series) and nine books being written by women. Another thing that I don't think I ever complained about quite as much, but which has nevertheless always bugged me, is how heavily The List favours books written in the first half of the 20th century. The average publication year is approximately 1939, with only two books being published in the 1980s, and none in the 1990s. And finally, at least for today, there is the English and American dominance of The List. I can think of at least a couple of Canadian novels that could easily hold their own against some of the duller American ones. Or, like, Nostromo.
I'll also admit that it's not possible to create a list of only 100 great 20th century novels without any gaps at all.
So all that being said, was my decade plus long self-imposed homework assignment worth it?
The answer, with about a year's worth of perspective later, is a qualified yes. I'm glad I started it, and I'm glad I saw it all the way through to the end. I'm glad that I didn't abandon a commitment I made to myself, even when it occasionally felt annoying or too time consuming or useless. There is, however, a small but, which is that I wish I hadn't committed to finishing every book.
However, in taking a closer look at that "but," I think the fact is that learning the lesson of quitting a book is something that wouldn't've happened without doing the project exactly the way I did, and so that's valuable, too.
Reading all of the books (including the altered romance novel half of the project) has turned me into a different kind of reader. I'm more critical (which one could argue is both a blessing and a curse) but I'm also more conscious of theme, of character, of prose, and of the kinds of stories that I value, in comparison with what may or may not be part of the so-called canon. I've also learned how to recognize the difference between a high effort, high reward reading experience (a la Studs Lonigan or even, dare I say, Ulysses) versus a high effort, low reward reading experience (I'm looking at you, V.S. Naipaul). There's no reason to be afraid of the former, whereas the latter should be avoided at all costs.
I think the project also really emphasized that reading is the thing for me, the activity that I love most above all others, and that I need to always protect and value my reading time.
To wrap up, I have some stats. I started reading for this project on December 27, 2009, with The Magnificent Ambersons. I finished on September 20, 2020, with Pride and Prejudice. I read 76,003 pages specifically dedicated to this project, spanning over 2.08 hectobooks (not including the old reviews that I pulled out of my archives while I contemplated how to handle the romance novel side of things. This is the 677th blog post published.
And now, at last, what's going to happen next?
Well, this may be the last post.
Over the past year, my life has obviously been a lot different, and not just because of running out of List books and living through a global pandemic. I've been feeling a major need to simplify, to focus on spending more of my time on things that I really enjoy and less on things that I feel obligated to do. And blogging has felt mostly like an obligation and very little like a joy. It's been an extra step that I have on top of other things. I don't think I want to do it anymore.
I'm planning to take a one year hiatus of no posts at all. If I miss it, I'll consider coming back. If I don't, I won't.
Prior to deciding to put things on ice, sometime last year, I'd wanted to at least tie up some loose ends (my Classics Club efforts, Saskatchewan is A Thing, Board Member Bios, some other promised posts that never materialized, ...) but all that is extra, and I don't feel the need to finish it right now. Again, if I find myself longing, halfway through 2022, to wrap all that up after all, maybe I'll come back and do it.
But this is all part of what I learned from the project. Reading through The List and writing my reviews was high effort and high (personal) reward. Forcing myself to continue adding extra work to my life simply to say I left nothing undone, extraneous to the original mission? That's high effort, low reward.
If you did, somehow, start reading this 12 years ago and are still reading it today: hello, goodbye. If you're discovering it at the end, I hope you enjoy whatever else you may browse through. And to anyone and everyone who's ever taken the time to read my words in this tiny spec of internet, thank you so much for whatever time you gave me.