Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

December 26th, 2011 dawned, as mornings tend to do...but this day was different. It was the first day of the last week of 2011, the day I would pick up my last novel of the year. It was exhilarating, yet a little sad, as I approached the end of an era (if I can pretentiously use the word "era" to describe a one-year-thing). I had chosen Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I found fitting for reasons I'll get to in a minute. It was a short book. After the previous week's monster, Middlemarch, it was going to be a piece of cake to whip through the 250-odd pages. So as the birds chirped merrily and the sun's rays shone upon the "December 26" page of my page-a-day calendar, I did not pick up the book. Instead, I ate leftovers and stayed in my pajamas, because I was on vacation. Sort of. This repeated itself for five days. It was like an acute but unexpected case of senioritis, where the finish line is so close that you expect momentum to carry you through. Of course, on December 30th I realized that this book wasn't going to read itself, and what was worse, I now had only 48 hours to perform the literary equivalent of chugging a $500 bottle of champagne. Sorry, Joyce. But I did it!

After reading most of the book on December 30th, I picked it up again the next day but got distracted when company arrived. Then I was making food and conversing wittily until I realized that it was 11:15 pm and I still had a couple of chapters left. I sat down to finish, cursing myself for my completely typical procrastination, but in the end, it worked out. I had the privilege of reading the last page at 11:45, ringing in the new year with one of the best lines ever written still fresh in my mind: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."  I really could not have planned a better way to end 2011.

I saved this book for the end in part because it is the coming of age story of a young artist. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is a fictional version of Joyce. Through Stephen, we see Joyce's intellectual and artistic awakening. I wanted this book to close my year of 52 classic novels because, as the months went by, I saw that this year and all its accompanying blog posts have become a portrait of me as a young (-ish) artist. I look back on these posts and see my development as a reader, and I look through the notebook and computer files I've created this year and see my development as a writer. This isn't to say that I have now reached a particular stage and will remain static. Any portrait is only a partial portrait. But this is my partial portrait, and I'm pretty happy with it. A new year lies ahead of me, with a different reading strategy and new ideas to explore. When I look beyond 2012, I see the years before me like shining pearls on a string, waiting to drop one by one into my hand. And you, reader, have your own jewels to gather. Look around you. Greet your life with an open hand.

Happy New Year.

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