The end of summer inevitably means a scramble to get through the reading that I decided I was absolutely, definitely going to do this summer. Nonacademic things have taken an inordinate amount of my time and focus this year, so my list of reading-to-do-right-now is even longer than usual.
I’m producing documents for a tenure portfolio right now, which isn’t really the sort of thing I want to skimp on. And, since there’s also a fair mound of scholarship I’ve collected and have to read, think about, mine for bits and bobs relating to my own projects in process, and (in some cases) prepare for use in classes I’m teaching this fall, the list of primary texts I wanted to revisit has been once again pushed off to an ill-defined future point when there is time enough to sit back, relax, and read.
As I look over the list, I’m a little chagrined at some of the texts I haven’t reread in far too many years. As it happens, in many cases I know exactly how many years it’s been, due to a habit during my grad school years of putting a month/year date on many of my marginal notes and in a series of indifferently-maintained computer files. The original idea was to track my reading and help my recall of the texts. It did both of those things, but it also now works as a guilt-inducing record of how dusty many of my books have become.
I’d made a list of texts which, according to my notes, I haven’t sat down and read in at least nine years (“read” in the conventional, i.e. real, sense, meaning “began at the beginning and read through to the end,” not “read” in the far-too-frequently used “skim for my favorite bits or for the section I’m pretty sure proves a point I’m trying to make in class/in an essay/in a debate with my wife” sense). Here’s a sample of the Anglo-Saxon and British literature alone, in no particular order:
Walter Hilton: The Ladder of Perfection
The Pearl-poet: Patience, Cleanness, and St. Erkenwald (whether or not he actually wrote it)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I don’t know whether I’ve ever sat down and read just one iteration all the way through)
Julian of Norwich’s Shewings (one of my very favorites for picking up and reading excerpts from, but that’s come at the cost of not engaging with the full work in quite some time)
Winnere and Wastoure
Anything by Aldhelm
Anything by Bede except the Life of St. Cuthbert (I’ve dipped in and out of the Historia I don’t know how many times, but rarely for more than a few pages at a stretch)
Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (though I do sometimes reread the end of book Five on its own)
Havelok the Dane
various short poems, homilies, and prose texts
The actual list is much, much longer. Many of these were last read cover-to-cover in 2003 for my doctoral exams, which goes a long way toward proving what I was told by C. David Benson at a departmental gathering the weekend before my first exam: “The day of that first exam, you’re going to be the smartest you’ve ever been.” Which would have been merely an inspiring bit of pep talk, if he hadn’t paused to sip his wine and then add, “and, of course, it’s all downhill from there.”
I often dream of carving out a substantial period of time–ideally, an entire summer, crazy as that sounds–to tackle these and other texts again with a fresh mind. Even better, of course, would be to read some material I haven’t read yet…and no, I’m not including a list of those.