Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." - Soren Kierkegaard

My dearest blog enthusiasts,

I must make a confession. I have been putting off writing this reflection post that I promised you. On the one hand, I felt as though there were so many things to say (perhaps Too Many things to say in one space!) and on the other hand, I dreaded the seeming finality of writing a closing post. This project has become very dear to me, and it seemed sad to close the book on it (GET IT? ha Ha. ha Hagh.) Aaaand, we're back.

The obsessive part of my brain also had me convinced that I had to read every single one of my posts, in order, before I could possibly accurately reflect on the entire project. And while I enjoyed reviewing the posts that I did, I floundered around #17 or #18, I think somewhere between Huxley's Brave New World and Joyce's Ulysses.

So forgive me for 'going rogue' from my own persnickety brain and writing this without reading each post in consecutive succession, but also for delaying the denouement. Neither was fair to you, dear audience, and both would stand in the way of my new blog project, 101 and Beyond (this is a link, for those of you lacking in tech savvy), where I will tackle a new set of one hundred books, this time of my choosing. [Update - 10.23.16 - I merged that blog with this one, as very few of my very few followers made the transition. So 101 and Beyond is on this same site - hooray!] Feel free to hop over to that blog to check it out, and join me for one, will you? I'd like it to be more collaborative, and the list is designed to feature classics that missed the first list (ahem, imho) as well as classics (or books that could at least loosely be described as such) that were written by authors underrepresented on the first list. Some examples include:
-- Classics by authors of color (particularly African-American authors, but this extends to Latino/Latina authors, Native American authors, international authors from countries other than Russia (sorry T, D, N, and B, no offense!), aboriginal authors, etc.)
-- Less 'conventional' classics, like classic graphic novels (as in featuring cartoon graphics, not the other variety - though that would be fun, too! ;))
-- Classics by women (no offense to Jane, Sylvia, Charlotte, Emily, Virginia, Mary Ann, Harper, Ayn, or the rest of the ladies repped on the first list, but let's be honest, (A) They're almost all white (we had Toni on there, and that is IT) and (B) a whole LOT of them are from Britain. Which is Great, no offense to our erstwhile colonial overlords, but let's EXPAND shall we? The world is way bigger than white America and Great Britain, and (C) Even with the excellent ladies who managed to squeak their way into the literary 'canon' that was this list (with fake male names if necessary (looking at you, Mary Ann/George Eliot)), there's nowhere near an equal representation, and the types of stories told can have a tendency to lack a modern woman's perspective.
-- Classics by queer authors, and/or about queer subjects (as in GLBT, not odd, though again, FUN!) -- we had a fair amount of latent tension here and there, and some light and mildly kinky gay BDSM in good ole' Proust (thanks, Marcel!) but other than that, Preeetty low in this category. And Proust was gay himself, but not even really out and certainly not out as a character. So there was clearly room for expansion in this direction, too.
-- Classics by politically repressed/banned/hidden authors - this might seem like an odd choice, but political repression still has a lingering effect on what makes it to our collective consciousness (hello, had Anyone heard of The Master and Margarita before I read it for the blog, other than my Yalie sister Diana?). So I'm throwing in some Rushdie, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, and works like Suite Française).

Perhaps at this point you are asking that classic follow-up question - WHY? Why should we expand the definition of the canon? Aside from my personal argument that the world is made up of millions of unique stories, and a wealth of stories should be displayed, esteemed, remembered, and read, rather than just the one that was the most powerful, or the most influential, or the most common, or the most privileged to be published, consider this note that I jotted down almost a year ago and left on my bedside table for when the time was right:

It is so important what we choose to write, but also most especially what we choose to read and revere. For the books we deem classics are the legacy we leave for generations to come. And our selection of these classics and what is and isn't a 'classic novel' determines not only what we choose to remember as a society but also what we choose to forget. So never stop reading, never stop evaluating, and never stop challenging what the world tells you you should be reading. 

Well put, past Meredith, Bravo! (pats self on back enthusiastically and high fives her cat)

Enough about the new project, now back to this one. A few thoughts, as usual in no particular order:

I started this blog six years ago. I was 23, working for Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, borrowing computers from roommates and friends to write my posts because I'd spilled something red and sticky on my own, and (little did I know...) about to become the owner of a delightfully rotund homeless calico cat. I was actively employed and engaged with the world, but I felt a hole in my life, as though a piece was missing, and decided to embark on a literary adventure.

Books had never failed me in the past. I remember gliding past beautiful chateaux in France on our family trip when I was ten and refusing to pull myself out of Narnia and tea with Mr. Tumnus to admire their majesty. I recall the ease of pulling a book into my lap from any room in our house, be it the bathroom, the bedroom, or the den. And I still feel the electricity of my Introduction to Comparative Literature class at Haverford, when I learned that a major existed wherein I could combine my love of reading books with my affinity for French and we collectively excavated the layers of meaning in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Why not try books again then, I thought?

There was also a deeper, and somewhat darker, reason for the project; a part of me wanted to reclaim my enjoyment of solitary reading. As I've mentioned multiple times on this blog, I suffer from anxiety, depression, and OCD, and when I started this project, my handle on my collective symptoms was not stellar. I led a happy and productive life, but struggled most acutely in times when I was truly left to myself. I am happy to report that over the course of the past six years, I have been fortunate enough to find an eclectic batch of therapists, spirit guides, and psychiatrists to help me parse out my own particularities, and find the right cocktail of medications to help me celebrate and live the best version of me. But I also found my way in the literature itself; I waged mental battle with books that I thought would be very hard for me to read, like The Bell Jar, which deals heavily with suicide and depression, or The Stranger (L'Étranger), which I was assigned to read when my mental health problems first came to a crisis in France. I came out of each novel not only alive, but thriving from the empowerment of survival, and excited to report about these struggles to my readers. The list, though somewhat contrived and arbitrary, put me face-to-face with my darkest demons, and allowed me to access the most vulnerable pieces of my soul.

On a more practical level, I did a few other things over the course of this blog. I found out I have sleep apnea, wore a Darth Vader mask for a while, came to hate the Darth Vader mask and threw it under my bed, and decided that coffee and a reasonable attitude toward 'sleep hygiene' would be a more appropriate approach at this juncture. I took the LSATs, applied to law school twice, got rejected from law school twice (166, you're useless to me now!), decided law school wasn't the right fit anyway, and got a Master's in Public Policy from Georgetown. I moved from Philly, to DC, to Philly again, and then to the far off land of New Hampshire, famed for its foliage, fisher cats, politics, peepers, and large tick population. My cat, Suzy Chubsters, got older (and decidedly rounder) but no less adorable. I got four tattoos, three of which are literary themed, and one of which is quite large and dedicated to this blog. I also lost the thirty-five or so pounds I put on during my time in AmeriCorps, worked to create a healthier lifestyle for myself, and, geeknerd/non-athlete though I will always consider myself, I signed up for and successfully ran a 10k. Oh, and I have been fortunate enough to navigate my way to several incredible institutions (DCPS, Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia encore une fois, and now Breakthrough Manchester at the Derryfield School) and eventually to a job that I love that helps put young people with few resources on the path to college and inspires slightly older young people to pursue careers in education or simply explore and experience the issues related to educational equity (and inequity) in this beautiful nation of ours.

I have changed and grown immensely, but in the same token, I am pleased to report that I am, at my core, the same. I am a girl who loves books; books that come in many sizes and shapes, books that take you from Maycomb County, Alabama to the Grey Havens, to the Spanish Civil War, and everywhere in between.

This blog never 'took off', so to speak, and at its peak, had maybe a thousand views in a month. But that intimate group of readers allowed me to share this project and reading journey with the ones I love most in this world - my close friends and my dear family. My grandmother, Doris Lyon Rose, was my most devoted fan, and despite the fact that she remembered being a little girl who lost her shoe the night that Lindbergh landed in Paris, she managed to turn on her computer, connect to the internet, and open her email to access my 'blob' as she accidentally referred to it. She dutifully read each of my posts and wrote careful, thoughtful, and intelligent responses to each one, asking probing questions and touching on expansive themes. She was a very great reader, and an amazing woman, and I will always cherish our last conversation before she passed. She asked me what I was reading, and when I told her the next post was on Huckleberry Finn (#25), she asked me what my opinion was on new versions having the 'n-word' censored out, and reminded me to think critically and often about challenging issues such as that one. The rest of my family gave me gifts of books, read along with me, and even staged dramatic readings of my latest selection on long road trips. My solitary sojourn became a shared investment in our communal love of literature.

And for those of you who feel that fiction is nothing more than a collection of fables, let me remind you of a few pertinent details:
- (1) I, and my fellow reading enthusiasts, have the empathy thing on LOCK.
- and (2) "Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

In thinking about what this means, allow me (again) to defer to past Meredith, who wrote this down a few months ago, on the flipside of the note mentioned earlier:

In the end, it doesn't matter if the stories they tell are true, because these stories, these fictions, outlast the events of their origins. A great novel like Beloved leaves an imprint on its readers, and that imprint has the power to shape and inform the collective memory of what slavery means to America's history and America's present. It is often not the plot of a story that strikes us in later years, but the intricacies of romance or the relationships between family members that remain surprisingly relevant decades and even centuries later and worlds apart from the authors who penned the words. 

I approached each book with the knowledge that I would finish it (barring death, of course, or some unlucky accident of the brain) and this shaped the way that I came to read. Each book was a conversation started that demanded to be finished; I could walk away for a time, but never permanently, and this meant that I became acquainted with all kinds of books and all kinds of characters, some of whom were old and familiar friends (like lovely Anne with an 'e' Shirley and fierce Dagny Taggart) and some of whom were peculiar, not socially accepted, or downright dislikable (ahem, Humbert Humbert, good ole' Raskolnikov, and mopey Meursault). I learned to see the beauty in brevity and a string of quick, piercing sentences from Hemingway, but also the power of lyrical prose from V. Woolf, J. Steinbeck, and Monsieur M. Proust. I toyed with my own post structure to mimic the authors' playfulness with the idea of 'normal' and categorized in primes to please Christopher Boone and indexed my entries to honor my Zemblan king.

I was often struck by how touched the protagonists were by books themselves, and what an important role they played in saving or re-ordering their lives. From Davy (Trotwood) Copperfield's book refuge in Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, to Proust's YBN who refused to restrict his reading to Sundays, to Elizabeth Bennet's 'substantial improvement of her mind by extensive reading', or Montag's discovery of the 'something there' in books, the 'big takeaway' I have earned from this project is that same life-saving, dramatic discovery of the deep, resounding, personal and permanent impact of literature.

As usual, I'll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes that perfectly encapsulate my feelings as I draw this blog to a close.

From the ingenious gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha:

"There is no book so bad that it does not have something good in it." Each classic may not have earned a place in my hall of favorites, but each one brought me to a better understanding of myself and of the world.

And from Scout, daring daughter of Atticus and sassy sister of Jem:

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." When I started this blog, I thought I might have lost reading forever. And it was at that moment, and in that trial, that I realized the immensity of what reading means to me. This blog journey has been a challenge, a gift, and above all, a triumph.

May you all find, rediscover, or enrich your experience of literature, and may you find the same solace, beauty, and inner peace that I did as you find the wonder in words.

"Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night."