Completist Aspirations

The few unmitigated pleasures of my graduate education have been the occasions when I was forced, by my own procrastination or the surreal requirements of my program, to drop everything and immerse myself in huge, demanding bodies of literature. I did it for my Master’s comprehensive exam, for my Doctoral comprehensive exam, and for my dissertation. From the delicious hope that precedes a daunting project, to the sensation of tremendous assimilation that comes in the middle, to the truly gratifying sense of repletion and accomplishment that follows it—I can’t recommend the experience enough. It’s probably hard to believe if you’ve never done it: but I bet you’d surprise yourself. The pleasure of it surprised me.

What I would like to do is arrange one month a year, for the rest of my life, in which my primary objective is a completist reading project. (Actually one of my favorite realistic fantasies is to book passage on a month-long container-ship voyage during which I would do nothing but complete one of these reading projects, journal, and contemplate the sea.)

This is a list, without commentary, of authors whose works I would like to read in the order they were written and in their entirety, each over the course of, say, one coffee-fueled month. In these ideal reading retreats of mine I would include extant letters and journals: just a complete and massive immersion in the totality of words written by the author in question. I’ve read a book or two by each of the authors listed, but all the books of none, and always in random order.

  • Aristotle
  • Stanislaw Lem
  • Honoré de Balzac (perhaps 2 months!)
  • Edmund Wilson
  • Edith Wharton
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Mark Twain
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Arthur Schnitzler
  • Clarice Lispector
  • Rosa Luxemburg
  • V.S. Naipaul
  • David Hume
  • Colette
  • Thomas Mann
  • Naguib Mahfouz
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Karl Marx
  • Samuel Johnson
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Goethe

Have you any completist aspirations, dear reader?

20 thoughts on “Completist Aspirations”

  1. There are entire catalogs of small presses I would love to read in their entirety such as Seagull Books or Open Letter. But it would take more than a month. This is a nice idea and a great list!

  2. I am not a completist. There are writers that I like to know that I always have a supply of unread books on hand—Bernhard, Walser, Lispector, Bohumil Hrabal. I want to fill in gaps with one or two works by writers I have not read at all, others I would like to read more deeply (Coetzee is one, Beckett another), but at this point in my life I feel a greater desire to read widely and not feel I have failed if I have grown away from a writer I once loved (Naipaul for example) or a genre I used to enjoy.

  3. I am a completist by nature and like nothing more than a chronological immersion into a single writer’s work. Kafka, Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch, Houellebecq, Coetzee, Kierkegaard, Quignard, Ballard, Sartre, Beauvoir, Sebald, Max Frisch: to these I’ve devoted extended blocks of time, roughly equivalent to a month. Letters, journals, short and long stories, with especial interest in the minor works; there is nothing quite like this sort of project, but to do this on a long container-ship voyage is to raise the bar. For most on your list, sadly, a month is rarely sufficient, perhaps three?

  4. A month’s solitary confinement at sea once a year sounds great. I would love to reread Gaddis with letters/essays etc. I would also like the pressure to have to write about it. Who else – Bainbridge; Böll; Bolaño; Oe; Spark; Hardy; Faulkner…… Where are the contact details for a maritime employment agency?

    1. Oooh — Gaddis. I should have had him on my list.

      It turns out you’re not allowed to just work your way across an ocean these days. (I definitely looked into it.) Unions and so forth. Makes sense really. But it does mean that, while considerably cheaper than the monstrosities we know as luxury cruises, the only way to actualize this fantasy properly (that I know of) will involve forking over a few thousand dollars. And I suppose if one *were* working, the reading and sea-contemplating parts of the fantasy would be right out.

  5. Yes, I do have aspirations, I just posted about them on my blog. A bunch of people are doing this project in a year-long capacity… I don’t even know if a year is enough, it depends on who I choose! For now I’m seeking debut novels (not always the easiest to find) and when one grabs me, I’ll start the project. I’m starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  6. Some of those writers would work better than others. Fitzgerald would be pure joy. After a month of Scott, though, I fear I would see nothing but his flaws. Similarly, however much I love Twain, boy – it would be like a month of eating nothing but bacon.

    How’s your German? If you have German, there is no such thing as completist Goethe. In English, it’s probably doable.

    1. “Nothing but bacon.” Ha!

      I do have German, but I only deploy it to order schnitzel and pedantically argue about philosophy. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read easily in anything but English. So I guess I’m saved from the Goethe mountain…

  7. Lovely idea! I think I want to be a completist but am in fact too wayward or promiscuous a reader. I guess I want to be Anthony but am really more like Joe. So perhaps destined to be dissatisfied with myself as a reader? I think Tom’s right, though, that some writers would be better for month-long binges than others. I love the Lawrence idea, of course. But my choice would be Zola.

  8. Yes. Gerald Murnane. During the last three years I have read and reread almost all of his books. Itching to reread them again. Very strange experience to find the one writer like this after 40 years of reading. Next up could well be Gabriel Josipovici.

  9. I do not have this completist gene. It’s a curious phenomenon and I always worry for Anthony when something piques his interest, as the same amount of reading would kill me. I have developed deflector shields to resist temptation.

    Perhaps the gene is related to our lives in the civilisation of the book and to what Blanchot says about the book indicating an order that submits to unity (“the Book”), and that we seek to contain the unity in our head, or at least our notebook. Whatever, I am content to let haphazard inspiration guide me.

    1. That’s a highly relevant bit of Blanchot. (Do you recall by any chance where he writes about it?) I know that my completist urges, as well as various horrible systems of note-taking I’ve tried out in the past, are attempts to hold the unity of things in my head or in a notebook, an Hegelian aspiration to the personal encyclopedic conquest of what can be known or thought together. I’m still often tempted by an urge to rehearse the content of the books I’ve most recently read when I take long walks, as if forgetting the unity of those volumes will somehow rob me of the work I put into them. What a sad, silly concern… But I’m coming more and more to think that such efforts to gather and hoard totalities is not only impossible and absurd, but also that it stands as a barrier to more important and fruitful ways of puzzling over texts. Thanks for this thought-provoking comment. Three cheers for haphazard inspiration.

      1. Blanchot writes about it in the ‘Note’ at the beginning of The Infinite Conversation – page xii. I think too of a passage at the very end of the same book in which he thinks about the first one to write:

        “What he left behind was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less – a subtraction of matter, a hollow in relation to a relief. Then what was it? A gap in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by this non-absent absence, but without knowing anything about it. And there was no second reader…”

        Which makes me wonder if the motive of the completist is for literature finally to disappear so that gap can be closed or instead for literature finally to reveal itself.

        #fileunderpretention

        (I should add that I saw this post in my RSS feed and thought it was new today and only noticed it was from January after I’d commented.)

  10. i am a completist 🙂 in fact i am a double completist, for once i read everything i read it again. even in the nasty old foul demon language german. here’s a lovely compoundword for completist activity: gesamtausgabenlesen. i’ve read everything by bachmann, hoelderlin, hans blumenberg, hans henny jahnn, proust, all nietzsche and others can’t really recall. too many. i did that not for the totality or amassing, completist reading endeavours for those reasons are entirely counterproductive, it was just i wanted to remain in the company of their words, so needed to read all. it was (is!) infatuation, not accumulation. and now i read it all again, just like schopenhauer said how one should treat his world as will, to read it twice. or thrice. whatever next 🙂

  11. I really like this idea. I am definitely a completist, but it is a lot easier to be a completist for ninenteenth century women writers (who are my favorite people) than for some of the writers you mentioned. There should be dispensations to only be a completist in only of the one the genres that certain writers wrote in. I would love to be a completist in Dr. Johnson’s non-fiction, but there are certain forms of torture I would prefer to endure rather than having to read through all of his novels and poems.

  12. I’ve adopted a completist mania for just two authors, I think: Joseph McElroy, Paul Metcalf. To a lesser and more manageable extent, W.G. Sebald (excepting his ample body of criticism – just the novels & After Nature, all of which I read twice). Part of the pleasure of pursuing all those odds & ends was discovering the many off-the-beaten path works those authors mention and cite in their work & in interviews. In fact, in this way a completist reading project can easily open a door in another direction, other desiderata & soon-to-be favorite authors, leading to further questing, interminably onwards and outwards…

  13. Yes, with flowerville, my completist urge is simple infatuation. Through some writers, I discover a way of looking at the world that complements or contrasts in some way with my own, and I want to explore it through a body of work.

Your thoughts?