The rules of new year reading: pick a long novel, make sure it’s ‘difficult’, no swearing at dense paragraphs

Donald Clarke: Endless novels from the 19th century and earlier are there waiting to eat up the pre-Easter gloom

I recall a distinguished cultural commentator some decades ago being asked if she had read Finnegans Wake. “I have so much else to read first,” she said regretfully. “I have yet to finish Proust in French.”

That feels like the ultimate New Year Reading Project for someone not raised Francophonically. Ulysses can go to hell. The professionals embark upon 3,000 pages written in a language that is not their own. One can only tip a chapeau towards the assumption that everyone else around the table had read À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in English. The original would, it seems, come to us all in the end.

Then again, that class of highbrow no doubt regards the New Year Reading Project as unspeakably bourgeois. You know the sort of thing. Some people elect to give up alcohol. More than a few declare they will finally tackle the Great Novel that, purchased years before, has been frowning accusingly every time they get within gobbing distance of the bookshelf. Moby Dick may be surrounded by dozens of broken backs, but the tellingly smooth spine on that volume is the only thing you see. It stares forward like Robert Walker in the tennis sequence from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. All the other heads wag backwards and forwards with the hurtling ball. Just one looks straight through your retina and into your brain.

Everything about the New Year Reading Project is suspect. Embarked upon in the same spirit that neighbours bring to learning the cello or giving up smoking, the enterprise is seen as an arduous task that will “do you good” in the end. If you were reading for fun you wouldn’t class it with other resolutions such as cleaning mysterious filth from the leaking cistern. There is a horrible sense that literature is taking on the quality of self-help. If I get through this painful experience my mind will be toughened just as my body is sharpened after a week running up boring hills. When all this over, I can get back to Colleen Hoover or James Patterson or, better still, nothing at all. Stupid reading.


And yet. There are worse ways of groping through the opening murk of another miserable year. It’s not as if anyone became a worse person by reading Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. If you are going to take on a New Year Reading Project it is as well to get the rules straight.

First, the novel in question should be properly long. It is hard to put a precise lower limit on this, but I am saying nothing shorter than 600 pages in a standard paperback. The volume should be sufficiently heavy that, when it is windmilled over your shoulder in frustration, there is a reasonable risk of anyone behind suffering visible bruising. So, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (a trifling 542 pages in my Penguin edition) will not do at all, but the same author’s Middlemarch (896) is comfortably in the zone.

Second, the book should be capable of sustaining accusations of “difficulty”. Moby Dick has lots of hearty action, but those long sections describing the biology and social habits of whales certainly edge it into abstruse territory. As they place knuckles over the subclauses that intrude upon endless, unbroken sentences, readers of Proust – in either the original or translation – will surely admit that the prose doesn’t exactly zing like PG Wodehouse. Dickens is too much like good fun. Middlemarch has enough moral introspection to qualify.

Third, the book should have a reputation. What use is it boasting about some paving stone that has yet to be established as a challenging classic for the ages. Endless novels from the 19th century and earlier are there waiting to eat up the pre-Easter gloom: Tristram Shandy, The Brothers Karamazov, Clarissa. The rise of modernism and postmodernism in the last century has provided a veritable arsenal of suitable candidates. Ulysses exists, for Irish readers, alone in a distinct cordon of guilt. But the pointy-headed Americans offer less chewed over alternatives. If you can tolerate its popularity with avant-garde cheesemongers from Brooklyn, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest has lost not one of its 1,079 trying pages since publication in 1996. Less tainted – and, hooray, more difficult! – are Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s monumental The Recognitions. Those guys were really working for the project.

Now, you are set. Wearing extra jumpers to compensate for your commitment to lower fuel bills, stopping occasionally for the raw hemp seed your diet allows, allowing yourself no swearing at the denseness of paragraphs, you can masticate your way towards vernal literary righteousness. It worked for me. I have, of course, read every book mentioned above. In the original Dutch, Latin or French where appropriate. I glow with so much virtue I need no lights on my bicycle. Happy new year.