The Snowball Effect

I wandered Barnes & Noble today, randomly browsing but also to keep abreast of the Shakespeare cottage industry.

As Warren Buffett will tell you, the “snowball effect” aka compounding — as in interest — can work for you and against you. With me, secondary sources (as noted previously) are a mixed blessing. I love ’em, but that love affair can get out of hand. So far, I’m doing my best to steer clear, but unofficially my appetite for certain titles is growing.

I already have Isaac Asimov’s brilliant guide to the plays, as well as Harold Bloom and others. I won’t go into details now, but my wishlist is expanding like Santa’s waistline: the Ackroyd biography, Frank Kermode’s Age of Shakespeare, the DK Essential Shakespeare Handbook, the Oxford Companion, Shakespeare’s Philosophy by Colin McGinn and Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber.

Don’t worry, those of you who plan on reading with me. I’m not about to saddle you with outside reading material. Call it extra credit if you like… though I doubt in all honesty that I’ll have the time to get around to much of it myself.

I want to, mind. But if you add that to the task at hand, it becomes rather overwhelming. If considered in a certain light and from a certain distance, the whole thing might seem preposterous and I might not even begin. What purpose would that serve?

Part of me is afraid, I guess, that this year will seem unfulfilling if I leave all this background material on the table. It’s not enough to have read Shakespeare, if you can’t make much sense of him and just muddle through. I would prefer to get to know him like a good friend — as much as one can say that of a staggering genius, of course, but to at least come away with the feeling that each play is within my grasp.

You can’t conquer the Louvre in one trip, and I’m afraid that’s just the way it has to be. I learned long ago on a trip to the Smithsonian that there was no way in hell I could survey the whole damned thing and come away with any meaning — that the better alternative was to pick out certain works and camp in front of them for extended periods. If all you’ll ever have is one whirlwind 3-hour journey, well then you make the most of it and be grateful. But it’s best to clear the air here and now that I in no way expect this year to be exhaustive, even if we manage to read each and every play in the canon.

As Harold Bloom might put it, Shakespeare is a universe. And for a universe, an entire lifetime would not suffice!

I already wish I were devoting myself exclusively to this project, and wonder why I did not risk that level of commitment. Then too, like the majority of you who pop in here, I have a life (sort of) that has to integrate with this fool’s errand.

My requirement for any outside sources — just so you know — is that it be informative and engaging at a reasonably popular level. I abhor scholasticism when it leads to pomposity and Lord knows there’s enough of that.

A lot of this is experimental, but this much I can say going in: the plan is to read each work fresh and to ignore the towering criticism that has accumulate in the 450 odd years since the Bard was born.

If that doesn’t cut it, I’ll call for help. Feel free to provide suggestions of your own and to add comments as we work our way through each text. It may feel at times like we’re reinventing the wheel but so be it. Higher authorities will always be there if you so choose.

Reading Shakespeare on your own is one of those tasks in life that — I’m assuming — you never forget. Like climbing Everest. Swimming the English Channel. Sailing solo around the world. Only less hazardous to your health, I hope.

But we’ll soon see.


3 Responses to “The Snowball Effect”

  1. Linda OReilly Says:

    I just got the Marjorie Garber book. Between Garber and Bloom there’s a lot to think about but I’m going to get the Ackroyd book as well.

    Uh-no. Snowballing….

  2. Linda OReilly Says:

    …and I just watched the Ian Holm/Patrick Stewart Hamlet. It was good but I’m going to get the so-called ‘definitive’ performance by Olivier & see what I think about that.
    I’ve seen Branaugh’s and I’ve seen Mel Gibson’s, which was really not bad at all for popular viewing.
    Everytime I read it or see it or read an analysis of it, the play becomes a richer story and experience for me. And now this year of reading all of Will’s work. Snowballing indeed.

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