Excuses

Over Christmas I did not read much. And I did not write a column about The Once and Future King. This is that not-column. It is a bit silly.

 

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December is the cruellest most stressful month. Year’s Best lists loom, and if you’re not racing against time to finish your own list of things to read before January, you’re reading other people’s recommendations and adding to your own impossible task. Every year in late November I panic and start trying to schedule my reading for the coming month; this year I convinced myself that reading a book every evening would keep me on top of things. (I entirely failed to achieve this.)

This obsession with reading things on time is probably silly in the larger scheme of things, but matters a great deal at a particular moment. Thousands of books are published every year; a few dozen (more, depending on where you look) get talked about a lot. Very few of those books are destined to be enduring classics. To some this might seem like a good reason to read less, not more. But there’s a point at which reading, and talking about books, extends further than you and the page; it is to participate in a wider conversation (or several conversations, if your tastes are wide-ranging enough). If you don’t read the big books of the moment (and perhaps that moment went by a lot more slowly before the internet, but perhaps the conversations were also different) you may not need to read them at all, but you certainly will never get the chance to read them like this again.

And yet. It’s December, and it’s cold, and winter and all that comes with it (particularly Christmas) makes me want nothing more than to revisit old, familiar things—ideally from under a blanket. I have my Christmas reading rituals—books that must be read every year, books that must be read aloud, books that can only be read when it’s cold outside and I can fully appreciate the sheer indulgence of them. This year I’m away from home with access to only one of my regular Christmas reads, so I’ve gone and made a new one. I’ve abandoned all thoughts of a book a day; for the last few evenings I’ve been rereading, in tiny, joyous increments, T.H White’s The Once and Future King, a book that in my childhood felt perfect. (As an adult I can see it isn’t, but I only love it more for that.)

January is the proper time (assuming we’re all following the same calendar, which we’re probably not) for resolutions and grand ambitions. My new year’s resolutions are always contradictory and impossible; I vow each year to read more new things and more old ones, to read slowly so that I’ll have more time to do each book justice, to read more quickly so I can fit more in. More classics, more poetry, more bestsellers (because if one is going to write about books perhaps they should be the books people actually read). More rereads, because rereading is so often the best part of reading. In January I will look back on what I read in 2013 and I will inevitably be disappointed in myself.

But 2014 is some days away still, and while I could spend what time I have left desperately trying to do the impossible, I don’t think I will. January is for reckoning, and counting things and making resolutions and (inevitable, disproportionate) guilt. For now I’m going to enjoy the luxury of reading something I love, and tell myself that there’s some deep human urge behind all this, some need to retreat into a private space in the darkest, coldest days of the year and to warm ourselves with things we know and love, and to wait for spring.

It’s a better excuse than most, anyway.

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