On this New Year’s Day, a holiday given over to ambitious plans for the coming 12 months, let’s pause and salute the patron saint of plan-happy readers everywhere, Clifton Fadiman.
Fadiman, who died in 1999 at age 95, was one of the most popular American intellectuals of his day, helping to establish the Book-of-the-Month Club, editing the Encyclopedia Britannica, serving as a book editor of The New Yorker, hosting a radio program called “Information Please,” and crafting erudite, witty essays for Holiday magazine.
But every Jan. 1, American bookworms should remember Fadiman for a special reason. In 1960, Fadiman published “The Lifetime Reading Plan,” his list of the world’s greatest books, along with brief essays about why they mattered. The list included everyone from Confucius to Jane Austen, Boswell to George Bernard Shaw, Edith Wharton to William Faulkner. A revised “Lifetime Reading Plan” appeared in 1997.
But the contents of Fadiman’s guide was perhaps less important than its promising premise – that one’s reading life could be planned and that it could be charted as diligently through the decades as a farmer, consulting his almanac, might plot out the planting of his crops.
By the close of each December, many readers see how illusory plans for reading tend to be. For most of us, reading doesn’t follow design but caprice. We read what friends give us as gifts. We plunge into what we happen to find at the bookstore or at the neighborhood rummage sale, or on the forgotten shelf of a vacation cottage. The sheer serendipity of reading, its indulgence of chance, is, in fact, one of the great pleasures of a life in books.
But Fadiman helped remind us that in reading, as in dieting or career advancement, it sometimes helps to have a few goals, too.
Which is why, like more than a few bibliophiles, I find myself making some reading resolutions each New Year’s Day. Lacking Fadiman’s ambition, I won’t plan my reading for a lifetime, but I will try to pencil in a handful of good intentions for 2014. Most of my resolutions involve books I can see near my bedside, bought but unread, and stacked as high as kindling near the window. They’re a mix of recent and vintage titles that caught my interest – and might attract yours.
I resolve to finish “More Scenes from the Rural Life,” the most recent collection of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s marvelous musings on country living from The New York Times. I will read “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell because his books about the workings of human psychology never fail to surprise me. I will read “Magical Journey,” Katrina Kenison’s new memoir, because her earlier one, “The Gift of An Ordinary Day,” was so good. I will read “Sightlines,” a new collection of essays from naturalist Kathleen Jamie, because there’s so much music in her prose. I will read “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning,” the late poet Laurie Lee’s memoir, because his writing always stretches my idea of what English can do. I will read “Fauna and Family” by the endlessly funny animal enthusiast Gerald Durrell because I want to laugh more in 2014. I will read “Flush,” Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, because full-length accounts of the lives of cocker spaniels don’t come along that often.
This is the year I will finally finish “Following the Water,” a nature book by David M. Carroll that keeps getting buried under the snowdrift of literature in my house. I will read “The Letters of Flannery O’Connor” because friends have been bragging about it for ages. I will read Stanley Fish’s “How to Write A Sentence” because every passionate reader should try to be a better writer, too. I will read “Tell About Night Flowers,” a collection of Eudora Welty’s gardening letters, because Welty is my writing hero.
Will I finish reading all of these books in 2014, or even half of them?
But New Year’s Day is a time to dream big. Clifton Fadiman, were he still around, would tell us that this is so.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”