The tradition of setting goals – or resolutions — for the New Year goes back 4,000 years to the Babylonian civilization when people made annual promises to the gods in the hope of receiving good luck.
In 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar created a new calendar that switched from a lunar one to a solar, he set January 1 the first day of the year. He named the first month of his Julian calendar after the two-faced Roman god Janus, who could both look back on the previous year and look ahead to the future.
To celebrate the New Year, the Ancient Romans exchanged gifts such as branches from sacred trees and, later, coins imprinted with the likeness of Janus.
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According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about half of Americans makes some form of New Year’s resolutions each year. The most common ones are exercising, dieting and giving up smoking. We see the start of a new year as a clean slate in which we can set and accomplish new goals and reach new personal objectives.
Our favorite books for this New Year
Not surprisingly, many books deal with the subject of the New Year and with New Year’s resolutions. Here are some of our favorites.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Made into a movie in 1991 starring Renee Zellweger, Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel is written in the form of a diary that begins – you guessed it – on January 1. Bridget Jones is a 30-something single woman who lives and works in London.
Bridget contemplates and analyzes the idea of making New Year’s resolutions in this funny look at one woman’s struggles with her self-image and with fulfilling her own goals for a satisfying life.
Favorite quote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”
Middlemarch by George Eliot
If you have only read Eliot’s Silas Marner — or worse yet, read no Eliot at all – it is high time to rectify that situation. Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published in 1874, is filled with rich characters and interesting details about 19th century English life. Virginia Woolf once called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
What’s the New Year’s connection? Part of the book is set at a New Year’s Day party, and it contains Eliot’s keen and clever observations about people that are strikingly still true today.
Favorite quote: “We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.”
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Published in 2000, this fresh and original novel begins on New Year’s Day and follows the lives of two wartime friends — one is a Bangladeshi and the other is English — and their families in London. The book creatively explores the way chance and seemingly random decisions alter our lives.
The novel begins on New Year’s Day 1975 and finds its way to another New Year’s Day. You will enjoy the ride as you contemplate your own decisions and how they have changed your path.
Favorite quote: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
The Children of Men by PD James
First published in 1996, this dystopian novel is set on New Year’s Day the year 2021. It has been a quarter of a century since the human race has become infertile, and historian Theodore Faron begins his journal of humanity’s final days.
Faron’s gloomy outlook takes a turn after he meets Julian and her band of revolutionaries. This novel starts a little slowly but gains speed as it reveals much about the transformative power of hope.
Favorite quote: “Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast.”
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
This stratifying novel opens with its four main characters accidentally choosing the same rooftop for a desperate New Year’s Eve end-it-all plunge.
Hornby’s style creatively mixes humor and irony as we hear each character’s story in his or her own voice. This book, first published in 2005, makes for great New Year’s reading, since it deals with regrets and second chances.
Favorite quote: “Human beings are millions of things in one day.”
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Amor Towles’s first novel, which was published in 2011 and became a bestseller, begins at a New Year’s celebration at the dawn of 1938. We meet Katey Kontent, a young New Yorker whose life is about to dramatically change because of a chance encounter.
Along the way, we go through the twists and turns of Depression-era New York society.
Favorite quote: “It is a lovely oddity of human nature that a person is more inclined to interrupt two people in conversation than one person alone with a book.”
The Chimes by Charles Dickens
Our final selection for your New Year’s reading list is this charming, but not well-known Dickens novella. Written and published in 1844, The Chimes is subtitled “A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.” Dickens’s protagonist is a ticket-porter (or messenger) named Trotty, who is full of despair on New Year’s Eve. In a similar vein as the classic Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Trotty sees visions of what life would be like without him.
The Chimes is the second in Dickens’s series of “Christmas books,” which began with A Christmas Carol.
Favorite quote: “So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you!”