I always feel as though I’m not reading enough, particularly during this pandemic, during which I’ve found it (apparently not a unique phenomenon) difficult to concentrate. When I do pick up a book (I read mostly fiction these days) even that simple act is fraught – should I choose a new book, a new author, or something I’ve neglected in my reading history? I consider myself woefully under-read, and – a tad unreasonably, I admit – have no right to call myself a writer until I’ve engaged with every celebrated author in the history of the written word.
For instance, a few summers ago, it was Alice Munro; I plucked her hardcover collection Friend of My Youth from the sagging bookcase of a bed-and-breakfast where my wife and I were staying; duly and predicably impressed, I read her My Best Stories. Last summer, it was John Steinbeck; I checked off Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden. This summer it’s been – a bit perversely given the pandemic – Samuel Beckett, starting with his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. I sampled all of these folks in University, but felt I hadn’t given any of them their due, although I still feel that way. I don’t think I’ve read the oeuvre of any author, except maybe for the great Nathanael West (best known for The Day of The Locust) but his literary output – he died when he was 37, in a car accident just one day after the death of his close friend F. Scott Fitzgerald – was, though tremendously influential, fairly small.
I’ve also read all the stories of Flannery O’Connor, as well as her novel Wise Blood, though I’ve yet to get to The Violent Bear It Away, which protrudes from my bookshelf like an accusation.
And, oh yes, full disclosure for any of you who might be thinking – jeez, this guy is reading way more than I am – I am retired, so scarcity of time is no excuse.
As for new authors, it’s overwhelming, even when one restricts oneself to Canadian titles – recently I’ve managed to sample Shashi Bhat (The Family Took Shape) Catherine Graham (Quarry), Lauren Carter (This Has Nothing To Do With You) Seyward Goodhand (Even That Wildest Hope) and Anakana Schofield (Bina). All of these were rewarding and are highly recommended. But after each plunge into the contemporary, I feel lured again by the old, the classic, all the work that is sort of veiled round by a mist of shame. I guess that my reading will always be attended by low-level guilt, but perhaps this is a necessary thing.
John O’Neill’s stories have appeared in Prairie Fire, EVENT, The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, and The New Quarterly. He was a finalist in the 2014 HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, and his short story collection Goth Girls of Banff is forthcoming from NeWest Press. John lives and writes in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto. Visit John’s website at joneill237-blog.tumblr.com