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.

What I’m reading 221019

After setting aside three works to which I did not measure up, I’ve picked up a tried and true author (for me), Jose Saramago. Two days of reading Journey to Portugal has set my world aright. Fine writing will out, and regardless what others may say, most works are not fine. In this book’s case, exquisite writing offsets its meager “plot”. But I’m only into its beginning pages; perhaps it develops in time.

the thousand-track mind

Volumes in the Schuyler House, Albany, NY. September 2004.

I’ve just been perusing my library. (I curate it through LibraryThing, not GoodReads or the like. It’s an obsessive need to categorize every ‘thing’. I have mentioned this before. ) I’ve periodically jettisoned books which I presume I will no longer want, yet approximately 1500 books remain. Of these, 422 are unread. Another couple dozen are in various stages of being read: books I put down but mean to pick up again; books which are anthologies of marginal interest; but mostly books which are collections of works by favorite authors of which I have read but one of the works.

More importantly, of those 422 books, I have tagged 72 of them as “to read ASAP”. So, one in six. I do not read quickly. I subvocalize which slows down the reading pace but makes it more enjoyable for me. I don’t subvocalize when studying because I get bored with required texts no matter how interesting. It’s amazing how quickly you can work through a nonfiction text when you are just trying to get the gist out of it. This actually is the reason I rarely read works about sociopolitical topics. They state their case in the first few pages and one can just scan the rest of the work to see the supporting arguments–it only takes 15-30 minutes. But back to the library, and my point…

Due to this subvocalizing habit, I (sadly) read only 12-20 books each year. Books which are “good for me” but not written well take longer because late in the evening when I am most likely to read, they fail to capture my interest. Then too, my devotion to computers and smartphones has rewired my brain such that I expect instant gratification from a book. I generally have a rule to read at least 50 pages of a book before bailing on it. With Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum I gave it 100 pages since it was so incredibly long. (And I’m glad I did.) Lately I’ve had to increase all books to 100 pages because I lack the focus I once had. Right now I’m reading The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. I was ready to bail after 50 pages, but now I’m into it and will finish. But so what? There are those 422 books…

When I peruse the titles of those books, particularly the ASAP list, I want to read them all. NOW! The next book in Donald Harington’s collected works? Absolutely! Lawrence Durrell’s semi-travel-oriented work Prospero’s Cell? I must! “I can’t finish his autobiography without reading what he wrote at that point of his life!” Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy? I’ve been waiting years to read that! But what about the nearly one dozen unread books I have by Jim Harrison? Or the half dozen José Saramago books which I haven’t read yet? And how about what is likely the final book of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I will ever read? What about all those one-offs that sound so good, which friends have recommended, which critics laud, which any literate person would have read by now?

I need that Matrix thing plugged into the back of my head to enjoy them all, NOW, before my literary ambitions explode within me. I need a thousand-track brain. Except…

Just because there are 422 books representing perhaps as many as 35 years’ worth of reading at my tortoise-like reading pace, and just because I have but 20-25 years remaining on this mortal coil, why should I worry about checking all those books off of the list? Isn’t there joy in the anticipation of pleasure? Doesn’t it heighten the overall enjoyment?

Some highly literate person, a writer and reader–I cannot bring his name to mind nor find it in my books–had just moved to a new house in Paris. The move consisted mostly of boxes and boxes of books. One of the movers asked, “My goodness, have you read all of these books?” And his reply was perfect:

“Of course not! That’s why they’re there.”

For us, the literate and always-reading, an optimistic, pleasurable future is measured in the books we’ve yet to read. As with so many things in life, not jumping to a hasty decision to read them as soon as we hear about them has helped us to avoid the casual, gee-I-wish-I-hadn’t-done-that feeling which marks the impetuous commitment romantics make with each new date. The elderly professor who guided my Junior Colloquium gently disabused me of my first choice of study for the colloquium: “Well, Steinbeck is an acceptable choice, but don’t you want to choose an author whose reputation is undisputed at this point?” This was 1982. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. I was 28 years old, and I didn’t understand that my advisor had actually lived through the events described in Steinbeck’s book. She had been about my age when Steinbeck published it. We settled on Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Discourses. I’ve taken her lesson to heart. Works which speak to generations, which command respect, which make a forceful commentary on human existence need decades to be sorted out.

I could whittle down the list to an acceptable number for the remaining years I have left, leaving a bit of room for books which enter my universe day to day. But I don’t want to “tidy up my affairs” before the end of my life. I want to leave a messy, tangled knot of good intentions and half-finished projects, and that includes my reading list(s). I want on my deathbed to say, “shit, I never got to read…..!” followed by an explosion of titles. I would like the names of these books to be whispered with urgency as I expire. I want to be still in the process of living.