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Literary Resolutions For the New Year

Last year, I gave the traditional New Year’s resolutions a literary spin by resolving to become a better reader in 2011. Now it’s time to take stock. Did I keep my promises? And what should I resolve to do this year?

1. Lose weight. I pledged to make 2011 the year of my big switch to e-galleys, freeing myself of the mountains of paper weighing down my shelves and cluttering my apartment. Alas, this didn’t go as smoothly as planned. I signed up for both Netgalley and Edelweiss, but my electronic requests for review copies were often unanswered or (bizarrely) denied. A call to a publicist will often get me a physical galley the next day, but at the moment I have two Netgalley requests submitted last week that have yet to be confirmed. If it’s going to continue to be this much of a hassle, I might have to stick with paper.

2. Exercise (my mind) more. I pledged to expand my reading horizons in 2011, branching out of my literary-fiction comfort zone, and on the whole I was pretty successful. Sure, I wrote a number of pieces on subjects I’ve touched on before, like Art Spiegelman’s Metamaus and Elisabeth Gille’s memoir of Irène Némirovsky (her mother).

But I also wrote about the movie Bridesmaids, the NYU Hawk Cam, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook and Hurricane Irene, a new book of supposedly feminist sex photography, and the relation between Occupy Wall Street and “Mad Men.” Next year I hope to find more—and more unexpected—ways to draw connections between books and life.

3. Learn a new (literary) language. I pledged to devote more space to work in translation. Alas, here again I did not quite live up to my ambition: the only non-English book I reviewed was Gille’s, though I devoted another column to the work of Amos Oz and Irmgard Keun. Part of the trouble here, I think, is that there’s pressure to make web writing immediately relevant in a way that foreign-language literature (almost by definition) isn’t. A column about Bridesmaids is going to get more page views than one about a Croatian novelist, no matter how great that novelist might be. But resigning myself to the status quo is no solution either.

4. Break my bad (reading) habits. I pledged to stop trying to read with one hand on my laptop and another on my phone, and to create at home an airplane-like reading environment free from distractions. Unfortunately, I continue to struggle with devices that compete for my attention. (No one has yet developed the app that will incinerate my phone if I check it too often.) Part of the problem is that it’s hard to create a peaceful space in a New York apartment, where the WiFi is always on and we’re all jammed on top of each other too much of the time. Plus, I have an eight-year-old son who likes to call meetings of the “Reading Club,” meaning that we all pile on the couch with our books—sweet, but not exactly conducive to deep concentration. Here’s a truly crazy idea: to turn off the modem for a few hours each day to create an interference-free reading zone.

5. Spend more time with family and friends. I pledged to stop reading in a vacuum and talk more about books with people I know. As part of this effort, this year I joined Twitter, and it’s been far more valuable than I expected in bringing me in touch with other writers and readers. The transition was made easy in part because I have “real-life” friends already on Twitter who were happy to draw me into their conversations. But I’ve enjoyed meeting new people as well, especially readers of TNR and readers of my book. After I wrote in a column that the spread of e-books means that books matter less as physical objects, a reader sweetly tweeted me a photo of my own book on her bookshelf. And fans of Shirley Jackson, a biography of whom I’m currently writing, have reached out to tell me they’re looking forward to my book.

Where to turn but Twitter for new resolution ideas? A few suggestions I received:

* Read more non-fiction (this one comes from the most avid fiction readers).

* Read more poetry.

* Read 100 books each year.

* Stop skipping pages in the name of “expediency.”

* Avoid Amazon and buy from indie bookstores.

* Read more books you already own.

* Don’t waste time on books that aren’t worth finishing.

* Read all the books on your to-be-read list.

And here are my personal resolutions.

1. Read the same poem every day for a month. One friend mentioned on Twitter that each month she chooses a poem and reads it every day that month—inspiring me and two others to try it too. It reminded me of an artist I once read about who each day paints the same water glass on a white table in a white room. I was fascinated by this project and wondered if there might be a literary equivalent. Reading the same poem every day for a month seems similar, if less obsessive.

2. Read a best-seller every year. When Bookforum asked me this year to write a piece about the history of American best-sellers, I was intrigued but a little stymied—I haven’t read more than a handful of recent ones. Looking at best-sellers past convinced me that even if their prose isn’t up to literary standards, they have something important to tell us about the mood of the moment. Plus … they’re fun.

3. Read more of my kids’ books. My children are eight and six, and I still read a book of my own choosing to them before bedtime—in the last few months, we worked our way through D’Aulaires Greek myths and a couple of the All-of-a-Kind Family books. But I often don’t read the books they choose for themselves, from the Catwings series to the ubiquitous Harry Potter. Both are both avid readers and love to talk about what they’re reading—why am I missing this opportunity to explore it with them?

I’d love to hear your literary new year’s resolutions—in the comments section or via Twitter. Happy new year to all the readers!

Ruth Franklin is a literary critic and a senior editor at The New Republic.