U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Wishing You a Resolute New Year

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

“New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.”
-Charles Lamb

Today we seem to be of two minds about New Year’s resolutions. Some take them, and make them, seriously.

Others mock them, citing Twain’s description of our “humbug resolutions,” which we make only to break: “Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever.”

The two approaches run deceptively parallel. Implicit in the self-mockery is admission of not only our shortcomings in general but a very specific shortcoming: our inability to carry out our resolutions. Thus, the individual mocking our tendency to make resolutions we have difficulty carrying out might, next minute, take out pencil and notepad to start a list for 2013 after all, which is headed, “1. Carry out my New Year’s resolutions.”

Below I’ve provided links to three pieces whose New Year’s themes I thought played in an interesting way on this strange blend of hopes and ambitions, on the one hand, and humility and human limits, on the other.

As the old year comes to a close and a new one begins, the season of introspection can yield some fascinating reflections and I’d like to share three I have particularly enjoyed reading this year. They touch on topics of common interest here, from reading and learning to…obsessing over reading and learning. What makes them so much fun is the unpredictable yet earnest twist they offer on the old pieties. Their resolutions? To know less. To read less. (But rest assured; for all the right reasons, including to be more open to learning and read for quality not quantity.) And, naturally, to drive across the country in a van going to used bookstores and visiting friends–and reading just for the fun of it.

Michael Bourne’s “My New Year’s Resolution: Read Fewer Books” (for the Millions) makes a nice companion piece to “New Year’s Resolution: Be (A Little) Ignorant” by Boston Globe writer Carolyn Y. Johnson. And Michael Dirda’s “Dreamer’s Tale: Resolutions for the New Year” (in this month’s American Scholar), is a nice reminder that we can really begin our voyaging anew anytime–whenever we might resolve to–and the van never even has to leave the driveway.

Even Mark Twain might approve.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Elisabeth,

    I looove that Twain quote. That said, I’m a New Year’s resolver. I don’t know precisely when it started for me, but New Year’s has long been a time to reflect on the year (what went right and, more importantly, what went wrong), reassess my long-term goals, and reevaluate my short and medium-term objectives in relation to reaching those goals.

    On your articles, I’ve long been a fan, per Bourne’s article, of reading fewer books and reading the few read better (hence the 7-part post on Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book). My goal was to read 60ish books last year, and my grand total was embarrassingly fewer than 60 (less than 20, sigh). That’s partly because I want to Read! rather than “read.”

    I would looove to follow Dirda’s dream hitting all of the nation’s second-hand bookstores. That sounds like heaven on earth. As for Johnson’s article, I’m contemplating that in relation to politics. I think I need to be a little more ignorant because, well, sausage-making isn’t always that interesting (or productive).

    – Tim

Comments are closed.