A new year, a new decade. The month of January—named by Julius Caesar after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings—is a time for looking backwards and forwards. Perhaps that need to look back and reflect was the germ of the first new year’s resolution.
It’s hard to stick to resolutions, but with the help of books—and their inspiring characters—we can find motivating (and okay, some not-so-motivating) ways to keep those promises. Below are twelve common new year’s resolutions and the twelve books to read to help you keep them.
Resolution: Travel more
Book: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Planning your next trip? For inspiration, look no further than Axl and Beatrice in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The aging couple walk across the scenic plains of Old Anglo-Saxon England, scale mountains, take ferry rides, and make friends along the way. The only downside: much like dealing with modern airports and overbooking, there’s only room enough for one of them on the return journey home.
Resolution: Make a new friend
Book: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Sometimes new friends are found in the most unlikely places. Like, say, during a scavenging mission on the furry flank of a gargantuan flying bear named Mord. For Rachel, one of the few human characters in Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, a meaningful (and chilling) friendship is made with the “hybrid of sea anemone and squid” she peels from the sleeping Mord’s body. The unlikely friendship changes Rachel’s life—and the lives of everyone else.
Resolution: Listen to more live music
Book: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
You know that new sound you’re looking for? In our over-Spotified lives, live concerts are a great way to discover bands and artists you may otherwise overlook. Take Scotty Hausman in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goonsquad. Scotty’s historic performance—raw and unflinchingly candid—is one for the ages. Keep your ears perked for that next new sound. You won’t want to miss it.
Resolution: Find a new hobby
Book: Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; translated by Natasha Wimmer
Who knew the Italian master Caravaggio had such a wicked backhand? In a tennis match between the painter and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, Álvaro Enrigue not only explores in Sudden Death the history of tennis, but the history of European colonial conquest. The metaphysics of the novel are striking, invoking the type of fictional and hypothetical interplays between historical figures seen in Milan Kundera’s fiction (think Beethoven and Goethe in Immortality).
Resolution: Use social media less
Book: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Giving up social media is almost as difficult as reading the six volume, 3,600 page autobiographical novel My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s novel challenges the reader, not only because it’s very long, but because it lacks a linear narrative. But that said, the novel does beg readers to pause and consider the value of the written word—a helpful reminder in a world that demands our constant attention and that we stay connected at all times.
Resolution: Cook more/eat out less
Book: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Not every meal needs to be cooked at a Michelin starred restaurant to be grand. As Boy Novak notes in Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: “… [at] the candlelit table you’d try and imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making … your food turned to sawdust in your mouth.” Eating at diners and lunch counters throughout the novel, Boy discovers that a home-cooked meal surrounded by others—however emotionally messy—provides the sustenance and comfort she craves.
Resolution: Read more
Book (short story): The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
The librarians of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel may take issue with this resolution. They endlessly try to find meaning in a limitless collection of books, convinced a singular truth exists. Taken to its extreme, the task of reading can be as dispassionate as it is dulcifying. Borges, himself a paradox—a blind librarian—explores the depth of the human imagination, as well as the shallowness of finding vindication in it.
Resolution: Join a club
Book: The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch
A doctor, lawyer, painter, economist, and historian walk into a bar. No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke. In Leo Damrosch’s The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, a group of remarkable personalities and minds do just that. Through historiographical research, Damrosch recreates late eighteenth-century Britain through the lens of “the Club,” the group that met weekly at a London tavern to discuss enlightenment-era fodder.
Resolution: Get a pet
Book: Death and the Penguin by Andrei Kurkov
Pets can ease stress, offer companionship, and add levity to any living space. Levity is just what unfulfilled writer Viktor Zolotaryov needs more of in Andrei Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. Relegated to writing obituaries after his creative writing career hits the skids, Victor’s only solace comes in the form of Misha, the pet penguin he rescues from a penniless Kiev zoo. Kurkov’s novel, timely as ever, measures the lengths a person will go to keep such a relationship alive.
Resolution: Exercise more
Book: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
As we learn through Chuck Palahniuk’s narrator in Fight Club, occasional exercise can be both cheaper than therapy and a gym membership.
Resolution: Learn a new skill
Book: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Let’s say your 2020 doesn’t begin how you want: your best friends betray you, you’re thrown into jail for a crime you didn’t commit, and your fiancée finds someone else. What’s left, aside from befriending your prison mates? Like Edmund Dantes in Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo, you can learn a few things. Five or six languages, modern medical practices to rival even the best doctors, and oh, the location of a hidden treasure to make your personal assets rival the wealth of most small countries.
Resolution: Quit smoking
Book: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Lemon drops. Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins simply enough with its protagonist, the recently unemployed Toru Okada, listening to Rossini on the radio and making spaghetti at 11 o’clock in the morning. As a slew of troubles ensue for Toru— a missing cat, a missing wife—Toru never turns to former vices. Apparently for the former smoker, a pocketful of lemon drops is enough to take the edge off.
Jordan Foti Gulino is the Features Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. He is a poet, essayist, and translator based out of Chicago (and sometimes Greece). Follow him on Twitter at @fotakigulino.