Wednesday, July 06, 2005

My Big Fat Reading Project

I am a maker of lists. I like to organize the things I do into plans and
programs. So when I found myself reading more than ever a few years back, I felt I needed a way to approach the vast body of fiction that I was
attempting to devour.

At first, I used what I call the Alphabet System. I stole this from Francie,
the main character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. (One of my all time favorite books, because it is the story of a girl in Brooklyn who rises out of poverty through reading.) Her habit was to go to the public library every day, take out a book and read it. She just started at the letter A and went on. This was a pretty good method for me because I
discovered many authors I liked (such as Richard Adams, Edward Abbey and Joan Aiken) as well as a few I didn't like (Kobo Abe and Alice Adams, to
name two.) I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing taste.

Then I started researching the whole American Literature scene and also
learning about current literary writers who had deeper things to say and
were thus not appearing on the bestseller lists. OK, I will admit, Oprah had
an effect on me. I also read a few biographies of writers and learned that
many of the best learned how to write by reading, not by going to college.

Finally, a few years ago, my sister sent me a book called Legacy, A
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence, 1997, Ohio University Press. She thought I should write my story and the story of our family, at least to hand down to our children and grandchildren. I had
another book I was using to get up to speed on modern fiction writers, The
Reading List, Contemporary Fiction by David Rubel, 1998, Henry Holt and
Company, and was working my way through the complete books of Toni Morrison,
Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and others.

One day I was surfing the web on all things about books and came across a
curriculum posted by a professor at some Southern college. It involved
reading the top ten bestsellers from each year, decade by decade and writing
papers on how books and literature were both a sort of report on culture and
an influence on its direction.

Suddenly it all came together. MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT. I would read the
top bestsellers of each year of my life and relate these books to what went
on in those years and how I was influenced by it all as I moved through my
life. So I printed out the bestseller lists which this professor had so
kindly put together and off I went. I was born in 1947, but I decided to
start my reading in 1940 to get a feel for the world I was born into. I also
added about 10 other literary books to each year.

I began this project exactly three years ago. I am now about half-way through
the reading for 1949. That means it has taken me three years to read ten
years worth of books. It is a looooong project. Could last me the rest of my
life. That is fine because I have discovered something about being a
middle-aged woman. My kids are grown, my music career flopped, my marriage
is 30 years old (it is good and he is my grand passion but I am really used
to him) and I need a project that gets me excited everyday and will go on
for years; that has new and unknown factors to look forward to each day;
that is creative.

I have learned so much from this reading: more than I ever knew I didn't
know about World War II; how earnest and wholesome people were in the 1940s;
that family was the true glue that held society together; that Christianity
made for bestsellers back then; that the war and the Industrial Revolution
and Communism/Socialism were all beginning to erode all those values and to
create chaos. It is a fascinating study made through fiction.

I read other things as well, which you will hear more about later. Sometimes
I just can't stand to read another book from over 50 years ago and go off my
plan to read the hot books of today. But I wanted to explain why I will be
writing about all these old books I am reading.


  1. What a superb idea for a reading project! I really love it. (And I also note with appreciation your comment about the good authors to be found in the letter A--as a big fan of both Joan Aiken and Richard Adams, I remember feeling as a kid at the library that they were at the top of the alphabet as an almost providential coincidence.) Best of luck.

  2. Okay, as per your instructions, I checked this post and got the details on your project. It's a great idea!

    Now, since I've always got to learn more, I must ask: where do you find the lists of bestsellers going back through the last century?