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?

11 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.

Your thoughts?