A-list, B-list, C-list

Mark Medley, literary editor of the National Post, agonizes over the impossibility of catching up on the classics and keeping on top of new books in his column in the Afterword today.

I can certainly sympathize. I can’t keep up with anything.

Every year I start with a fairly modest goal of reading one book per week. For 2012, as for virtually every other year since university, I’m going to fall short. The only years I’ve hit the target have been when I’ve focused on reading plays, rather than novels or works of full-length non-fiction.

I’m sure I could reach my reading goal, but I have a growing list of other obsessive targets each year. As a playwright, I try to keep reasonably current on who’s doing what on stage. Although this is nowhere near enough to keep my on top of everything, in a city that is reputed to have more theatre per capita than anywhere else in Canada, I try to average one play per month throughout the year, not counting the 12-day theatre blitz each summer at the Fringe Festival.

I could probably see more plays, but I also try to get out to literary readings, both to hear what my peers are producing and make connections in the literary world. I hope to make it to one of these per month as well.

My keeping-up-with-culture goals would all be relatively easily attainable, but I’ve got other obsessive targets too.

I have the kind of physique that, combined with a sedentary job, pale complexion and round head, can easily turn me into a Pillsbury Doughboy, so I usually run for 50-60 minutes per day, unless I bike, ski or hike instead. This was a good year for biking, since we had a dry summer and warm fall, so I was aiming to hit 2,000 km on two wheels (I missed by about 50). I try to get out on skis a dozen or so times per winter and usually aim for at least 100 km over the season. Our family holidays usually involve some kind of hiking (which means I can’t rely on beach reading to help me get back on my book-a-week schedule) and since my son reached the age of 12 he and I have done at least one backpacking trip per year, so I try to hit at least 100 km in hiking boots. Two years ago, when I began getting in shape for a long backpack on the Appalachian Trail, I added weight-training and core-strengthening to my agenda a couple of times per week.

Holidays are another occasion for list-making. Last February we backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (American national parks visited, lifetime: five). In the summer we spent a week in Churchill and two in Yukon and Alaska (bear species seen in one year: three; Canadian provinces and territories visited, lifetime, 11; U.S. states: 13; Canadian national parks: 20). 

Competing with holidays, the gym, running, theatre, and readings is the guitar that I take out of storage every few years with the pledge that “This time, dammit, I’m going to keep at it until I can actually play this thing.” And of course building up any kind of musical ability takes regular practice: say, a half an hour per day.

Crap, and now I’ve started a blog, initially as a one-time expenditure of chronological resources to help promote my novel. But once you start a blog, you can’t just abandon it, so you need to update it at least weekly. There’s another couple hours per week.

And all of these goals are nothing compared to the 1,000 words a day I should be writing on my next novel or on the short stories I’ve started sending out to literary journals. (Words written for new novel: 9,217; words written for new short stories: 11,815; word shortfall based on 1,000-per-day target: 343,000).

This list-making and goal-setting is probably unhealthy. It’s an approach to life that guarantees anxiety and feelings of failure and is based on the joyless pursuit of a number, rather than appreciation of experience. There’s probably a self-help book about this. I should put it on next year’s list.

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