On reading: a random list

The physical library in 2012.

I’ve just finished entering my latest e-book purchases into my preferred library cataloging software, LibraryThing. Entering new books into the library brings joy, frustration, smug self-satisfaction, and fills me with an urgency for and desire to read. I’ve noted before my acceptance for “owning” books which I will never read, that in essence I spend minor amounts of money to reserve a book, for it to sit on my bookshelves real or electronic, to tantalize me and inspire me to read. But why?

Today I’ve 422 unread books. I suppose I’ll live another 20 years. That’s 21 books per year, and frankly I’ve disappointed myself with my slow pace of late. (On the other hand I’ve read 661 books on those shelves. I’m still ahead, right?) The combination of time remaining and still to be read has changed my reading habits. No longer do I tolerate and read mediocre books. I give them a suitable audition then cruelly call “Next!” to them. The definition of mediocre has changed too. No longer does this word represent quality, but rather suitability: perfectly respectable books which just don’t grab me get tossed aside. A good example is Ben Okri’s The Famished Road winner of the Man Booker Prize for literature in 1991. It purported to be the type of book I like, a meaningful fiction filled with magical realism. Yet it became tedious (likely by design) as I endured dream-chase sequences again and again. Finally, after a much longer audition than planned (four weeks), I read a plot summary and realized little of note was going to happen which I hadn’t encountered already. Goodbye, Mr. Okri. Thanks for the entertainment.

I’ve gone through a spate of this. Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation proved a sad disappointment after reading Burr and Lincoln, two other books in his loose series on American history. Though I peer dimly through the decades since I read Washington, D.C., from the same series, I remember it with admiration also.

I’ll use a random number generator to select ten unread books from my library to illustrate some points. But first let’s confess to liking some of the children less than others: books are categorized as “To read” but the ones I really want to read also sit in the “To read ASAP” category. Books to consider for my next read get special billing: “The Short List” whose members change with the whims of this reader.

Our first candidate is Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage by Robert Morgan. It interests me little. I didn’t purchase it (my wife did), it boasts of inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club–not a kiss of death, but smacking of the detraction of populism for sure–and, sadly, because it is a physical book. Nearly all of my books of interest now are e-books, a whole ‘nother topic for ‘nother day. In its favor? According to The New York Times, it’s a “Notable Book” written by a professor of English, and this blurb from the New York Times Book Review intrigues: “At their finest, his stripped-down and almost primitive sentences burn with the raw, lonesome pathos of Hank Williams’s best songs.” (Let us pause and thank the NYT Book Review for properly writing the singular possessive form of Williams.) Chances of being read before I die? Around 25%.

Book #2: A Handbook to Literature assembled by C. Hugh Holman. Another physical book, likely picked up at a garage sale in the 1980s. This is not an anthology of literature as one might suspect from the title, but instead a type of reader’s encyclopedia. In this digital age, virtually superfluous. The fact I own Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia kills any chance I would have of reading anything in this book. (Why is it still on my shelf?)

Book #3: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. It promises to dish out a history of all of “the world’s great tongues”. I remain equally an amateur linguist and student of literature. It sounds interesting but one must consider the reading menu. Chances I read it? About 25%.

Book #4: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion from the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, volume five. Intellectually I want to say, “sure, I’ve read Jane Austen.” In truth I never have. Just didn’t get assigned in college courses, didn’t break through certain barriers I had as a youth when I read just about anything, and now fights against so many more modern and personally relevant books. On the other hand, I’ve read books from the 1800s to great enjoyment. Why not Austen? I don’t know. We’ve got the entire six volumes of it, plus I snagged Sanditon as an e-book. The chance I’ll read this particular book instead of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility or Emma? Pretty much zero.

Book #5: Between Two Worlds (The Lanny Budd Novels Book 2) by Upton Sinclair. Tellingly, I react with, “Oh. That book.” Based on a well-written blurb once, I started collecting the entire 11-book series whenever one would be offered on sale. It seemed like a good idea. Not until I had all eleven did I read book one, World’s End. How disappointing. It made me want to cry or hit someone because instead of writing a story, Sinclair wrote a narrative about a story. Don’t tell me; show me. I’m still trying to figure out how this series could ever be considered as highly as it apparently was about 75 years ago. Chances of being read? 1%, based on the perception that “maybe book two is better than book one…even though I bailed on book one before I was done with it.”

Book #6: Antimony by Spider Robinson, a science fiction anthology of his short stories. I enjoyed reading his Lady Slings the Booze, but he has a tongue-in-cheek style of writing which is clever, not good. Watching someone settle for the easy, quick, and stereotypical would bother me now. The chances I’ll read a bunch of his short stories? About 10%.

Book #7: Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within by Janet Conner. It’s the first book here marked “to read ASAP” because it’s Amazon review quotes at the top, “I am a writer. Today I write.” This grabbed me when I couldn’t ignite this writing life. Now that I’ve done so (thank you, WordPress), I’m kinda turned off by this book. The author “discovered how to activate a divine Voice by slipping into the theta brain wave state…while writing.” Yeah, no. I’m out. And I’m dropping the ASAP designation.

We’re down to the final three contenders and nothing much to show for it…but here’s one at #8: The Ghost Road (Regeneration Book 3) by Pat Barker. The first book in this series, Regeneration, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Ms. Barker felt she had been typecast as a feminist writer so she undertook this trilogy about the First World War. It purports to weave history and fiction with doses of poetry, to throw real and fictional characters into the mix, and to address how war can be terrible yet valuable all at once. I’ve categorized it “To read ASAP”, and I’m looking forward to reading it, 100%.

At #9 we have…a quite intriguing book: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry: A Novel by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish by Henning Koch. This is another “read ASAP” book. In this book Backman imagines a “different” 11-year-old girl who connects only with her crazy grandmother. Grandmother dies, leaving letters apologizing to people she has wronged. The granddaughter carries out her grandmother’s wish to have these delivered and experiences the connection between real and fable, experience and stories. I made that up, obviously since I’ve never read it, but I feel as if I have in an abstract sense. I yearn to read the details which underpin this story’s arc. Chance I’ll read it? 100%

Here we are at #10: New American Short Stories 2: The Writers Select Their Own Favorites edited by Gloria Norris. I can tell this physical book has sat on my shelves for 30-35 years as I’ve moved nearly a dozen times. Will I read it? The chances are a bit less than 50% because I’m not a big fan of short stories anymore unless they’re illustrative of a great writer.

There you have it. As a 27-year-old I was challenged by a professor well past her retirement age to consider the judgment of time regarding the “greatness” of an author and of a work. I slowly came around to her idea as I put more years behind me–I know several works which smacked of greatness back then now seem merely good. That’s not to disparage them, but they seem embedded in their time, incapable of providing the illuminating experience which truly great works command. Some recent (past 100 years) authors exist there already: Jose Saramago, Carson McCullers, Italo Calvino, Lawrence Durrell, Jim Harrison, Ernest Hemingway, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to name but a few. Some contemporaries–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donald Harington, Hortense Calisher, Annie Proulx, Neal Stephenson, John Irving, and the just mentioned Fredrik Backman–must wait until the jury renders its verdict, likely not in my lifetime. We read, though, for our own enlightenment, our own enjoyment, and our own sense of needing to connect with more than we are.  We write for those same reasons. We need make few, if any, excuses for reading or writing the works which will do that for us.

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