Life Is Too Small Without Books
Literature Expands Our World: My Classic Novel and Memoir Goal for 2024
We can learn a lot just by living. Experimentation, observation, and reflection teach us what works and what doesn’t, what to embrace and what to avoid. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that’s enough.
Why Literature Matters
“Why,” asks philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her book Love’s Knowledge, “can’t we investigate whatever we want to investigate by living and reflecting on our lives?” The answer is straightforward. “We have never lived enough,” she says.
Our lives are too specific. Born in a certain place at a certain time to certain parents with certain traits and certain prospects within a certain society and certain subcultures—it all conspires to deny other possibilities. Our perspectives are hemmed and constrained by the very factors that define us. We live in a box.
We can never experience enough or learn enough to know enough. The answer to our limits? Nussbaum says we need fiction. “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial,” she says.
Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling. . . . Literature is an extension of life not only horizontally, bringing the reader into contact with events or locations or persons or problems he or she has not otherwise met, but also, so to speak, vertically, giving the reader experience that is deeper, sharper, and more precise than much of what takes place in life.
We need to breach the box. “We demand windows,” says C.S. Lewis in his epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. “We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” Literature provides access to those other perspectives.
Nussbaum quotes critic Lionel Trilling who calls the novel “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination,” one that “most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs us in our human variety and contradiction.”
Lewis highlights the moral dimension as well. “Every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity,” he says.
Novels provide temporary leave of our specificity, an escape from the enclosed space of ourselves, the prison of our peculiar psychology. Literature necessarily brings us into the lives of others. If only for a few hours, we can appreciate their motivations and values; we can see what drives them, inspires them, and repels them. We can take the place of someone radically different than ourself and engage the world as that self.
It’s no wonder Stephen King referred to books as “portable magic.” In 2023 I committed to reading and reviewing twelve classic novels; in 2024 I plan on prolonging the spell. I’m also going to expand it.
My Classic Novel and Memoir Goal for 2024
My desire for fiction? That it transport me to different times and places and transpose me into the experience of people dissimilar to myself. This year I’m looking for more aspects of the American experience—hence authors like Fitzgerald, Walker, and Cather. I’m also looking for perspectives that either bridge it or extend beyond it—hence authors like Hua, Eliot, and Ngũgĩ.
Fiction Plan by Month
January: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
February: Alice Walker, The Color Purple
March: Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
April: Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha
May: Chuang Hua, Crossings
June: Willa Cather, My Àntonia
July: Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
August: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat
September: Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
October: Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
November: George Eliot, Middlemarch
December: Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
I appreciate your feedback on the original suggestions. I settled on Warren after several upvotes in the comments, switched O Pioneers! for My Àntonia, and am girding my loins for Middlemarch. It’s also worth saying this list represents the minimum of my possible adventuring; like last year, I’ll probably add some classic novels along the way.
But this list represents only half the goal. What Nussbaum, Lewis, and Trilling said about the novel certainly transcends fiction. That’s why I’m also including classic memoirs this year. Here’s my 2024 reading goal stated in full:
Read twelve classic novels and twelve classic memoirs in 2024 and share a review of each every month through year end.
If our radical specificity constrains our perspective, then seeing through the specificity of others can broaden our view. Like novels, memoirs allow a momentary annexation of experience, a borrowed sense of the world. I read and enjoyed several in 2023: Sly Stone’s, Esau McCaulley’s, Wayétu Moore‘s, and Mary-Alice Daniel’s. I’m eager to add to that list in 2024.
Memoir Plan by Month
January: Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
February: Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
March: Richard Wright, Black Boy
April: Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
May: Tété-Michel Kpomassie, Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland
June: John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
July: Stephen King, On Writing
August: Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
September: Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
October: John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
November: C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
December: Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Some of these months are cross-referenced with my fictional selections for natural—and possibly unnatural—pairings. And I’ll likely add a few extras along the way. For instance, I’m planning on reading journalist’s Dogging Steinbeck in tandem with Travels with Charley. I’m also thinking of pairing Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with Douglass, and Annie Dillard’s Writing Life and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird with King’s On Writing.
These, among others, will be my windows for 2024. I invite you to look through them with me month by month. And if you’d like to set a reading goal for yourself, here’s a bit about how to do it, following the SMARTER framework I used in formulating my goal above.
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