Shakesyear: The Introduction!

(This is the first draft of the introduction to the book. No doubt it will change not once but many times as we proceed . . . .)

This is the story of how I read the works of William Shakespeare within a year. “But why?” I hear you ask. “Why read all of Shakespeare in a year? And why, oh why inflict a book about it on the rest of us?”

You have a point. First, of course, there was the girl who blogged about cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook in one year. Then there was the guy who wrote a book about reading the whole Encyclopedia Britannica in one year. The girl who lived according to Oprah’s advice for a year. The guy who didn’t shop for anything but food, including toilet paper, for a year. The guy who read the whole Oxford English Dictionary in a year. The girl who knitted a sweater—one sweater—for a year. The guy who lived according to the precepts of the Old Testament for a year (oops, hold on, that’s Britannica Guy again). The girl who passed as a guy for a year. The guy who read the Harvard Classics in a year (there’s a lot of this Extreme Reading, as I call it, going around). By the time you get to the girl—hot, blonde, and British—who went without sex for a year, the shark is pleading “Don’t jump me again!” only to be jumped by Dave Holmes, the guy who was blogging about his year of reading books by people who spend a year doing something, until the girl who went without sex for a year finished him off. Your questions deserve an answer.

The answer to “Why Shakespeare” is easy: shame. I was living in New York. I went to museums, theater, and concerts. I listened to National Public Radio. I’d seen numerous Shakespeare productions. I thought I was a pretty cultured guy.

And then, I lost my job. To help ward off depression, I turned to P.G. Wodehouse. (Hey, it worked for Hugh Laurie. Has anybody ever gone wrong following Dr. House’s advice?) The exploits of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster made me laugh as always, but they also reminded me that Wodehouse is supposed to have read all of Shakespeare every year. Every year? How did he find the time in the middle of writing ninety-six books? I took my Shakespeare down from the shelf and counted up. I had read about half the plays, without managing to write even one book. I thought I was literate; in truth I was a schlub. There was only one solution: I too would read all of Shakespeare in a year.

But reading wasn’t enough for Wodehouse, so it couldn’t be enough for me. A book about an ordinary guy reading Shakespeare would meet a need. So many people think they hate Shakespeare, when really they hate the high school—and college—teachers who taught him badly. I used to be one of those people and it took decades before I realized the truth. So many more, even NPR listeners, need convincing that Shakespeare isn’t homework. Was there really not a book that would speak to both these audiences? That would show how Shakespeare isn’t just a bunch of half-remembered quotes from high school (friends, Romans, countrymen, to be or not to be by any other name, yadda yadda yadda forsooth), how vital he remains in the age of 140 characters? Where was the book the guy in Dead Poets Society would have used, the one that could kindle a love of Shakespeare to last a lifetime, the one I wish somebody had given me in high school?

It was waiting to be written. And I was the one to write it because I had a foot in both camps. Reading all the plays in a year seemed the perfect hook. Yes, this was Extreme Reading, but with a big difference. All the other Extreme Reading books struck me as the intellectual equivalent of a hot-dog eating contest. They weren’t books you would read if you actually wanted to learn something, and their task was emphatically not something you might actually want to do. A book about all of Shakespeare’s plays would be another story.

I felt like Saul on the road to Tarsus. Like him, I would answer this call to duty. I would tell how I read the plays against the backdrop of my life, its triumphs, its disasters, its comic misadventures. There could even be an exciting race against the clock to provide narrative tension. Even better, by the work’s very nature, Shakespeare promised to be an inexhaustible fount of the life lessons so essential to Extreme Reading books, so that at the end of the process I could reflect on how profoundly my task had changed me. Julie Powell had her Julie-Julia Project. I would have the Shakespeare Project!

And so I did it. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays between May 15, 2009 and February 9, 2010 (taking until March 6 on the poems). But as I sat down to write my book proposal, some unpleasant reflections were thrust upon me.

First, while I was reading, the whole do-something-in-a-year genre jumped the shark. As if Dave Holmes and the girl who gave up sex for a year weren’t enough, this snarky blog post provided a template:

Each of the books, I’ve realized, follow a similar formula. How hard could it be? OBSERVE:

Step 1: Pick random-ass, deceptively unique-yet-wholly-relatable thing to write about.

Step 2: Write about how great it is, and how your soul NEEDED this.

Step 3: Uh oh! Crisis of some sort! Will you finish on schedule? Do you need to? DO you WANT to?  Is it worth [insert sacrifice here]?

Step 4: RALLY, YO! You get it done in in time!

Step 5: Talk about the life lessons you’ve gained from this yearlong experience.

It was hard to take Extreme Reading, especially Life Lessons Derived from Extreme Reading, at all seriously after that.

But maybe that was just as well, since the longer I continued with the Shakespeare Project, the more firmly convinced I became that the very idea of reading Shakespeare as a source of “life lessons,” whether you read for a month, a year, a decade, or a lifetime, was disastrously wrong. Hadn’t Shakespeare himself even mocked the idea, by putting fatuous generic advice into the mouth of that old fool Polonius? Neither a borrower nor a lender be, indeed.

But if teasing Life Lessons for White People out of Shakespeare was the wrong way to go, we’re back to where we started: why read Shakespeare at all? To paraphrase Italo Calvino’s answer to the equally silly question “Why read the classics?”: because reading Shakespeare is always better than not reading Shakespeare. But here is the start of a list:

  • Above all, Shakespeare is entertaining: playful, funny, dirty, exciting, a master of narrative: for example, he invented the romantic comedy in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream;
  • He gives us powerful emotions: for example, check out the end of King Lear;
  • He gives us deep insights into character;
  • He raises big questions without being didactic;
  • He creates incomparably powerful effects with language, usually in the artificially limited framework of verse patterns;
  • He challenges us to understand him and to think for ourselves;
  • He stretches us, and the more we stretch the more we get out of him;
  • He welcomes everyone and everything. A contemporary called him “our English Terence,” referring to the Roman playwright best known for the phrase “Nothing human is alien to me”—a motto that Shakespeare could well have adopted;
  • Put all this together, and—he’s dangerous. He challenges you, the reader, to be as open and receptive, as focused and alive, as in-the-moment, as he is; to set yourself free.

These were the “life lessons,” if any, that I learned during my year with Shakespeare. Nothing so simple as being able to ask WWWD, or What Would Will Do? And pull out a couple of pithy aphorisms; like everything you read, only much more so than almost anything else, Shakespeare changes how you look at the world in ways it takes a whole book to explain.

All this rethinking led me inexorably to one conclusion. Once was not enough. My first tour gave me my bearings. It would take a second year with Shakespeare before I could say what the first one meant. The fruit of that second reading is in your hands: fifty chapters, one for each of the thirty-eight plays that constitute the Shakespeare canon as it’s now agreed, and twelve thematic chapters that introduce groups of plays. Like any good Extreme Reading book, it has my life in it too, but not so much the time I spent reading Shakespeare as the time that got me to where I was when I realized I needed to read Shakespeare, the lived time that made me the person who responds to him the way I do.

This is not the story of some incredible feat. You can do what I did. If I inspire you to make the effort, that will make me very happy. If you do it, that will make you very happy. Trust me on that one.

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