Friday, 14 March 2008

My To-Read Shelf

Some people hoard food; I hoard books.

I cannot explain why I have a Depression bunker hang-up about hoarding books. It clearly has nothing to do with deprivation -- past, present or future. I wrack my poor brain for excuses, but finally I have it chalk it up to plain ole greed.

At any given time, I have a pile of books on my bedside table; another pile will be on the floor by the bed, with a third pile pushed under the bed. This drives my husband crazy. (On the other hand, I am driven crazy by his tendency to leave his clothing all over the bedroom in a semi-dirty, slightly worn purgatory between the laundry basket and the closet. So we each have our cross to bear.)

Despite the fact that I have a stockpile of books that I have been meaning to get to, I never leave a bookstore empty-handed or visit Amazon without filling (and emptying) a basket. The UK does a fine line in charity shops and I can tell you who sells books for about half the sticker price and who will do a three for £1 offer on a good day. Sometimes I donate books back, after I've read them, but not very often. Sometimes I loan books to friends, but my generosity is undermined by the blood oath that I make them take -- particularly if the loaned book is a favorite, which of course it is bound to be.

I faithfully read book reviews and constantly ask people for their recommendations. When we left Houston for England, the inevitable clear-out forced me to get rid of several years of stockpiled New York Times Book Reviews. This was extremely painful, as I was living under the illusion that I would eventually get around to not only reading the reviews in their entirety, but also ordering the books and reading them.

You know you are a book hoarder (lover) if you are susceptible to bookstore promotional strategies -- whether it is the attractively arranged feature table, the book recommendation by staff, or -- my favorite -- the buy one, get one half-price offer. Having always been a true believer in the maxim that you have to spend to save, I am a sucker when it comes to perceived book savings.

It is, of course, impossible to "catch up." A true book hoarder (lover) will never consider him or herself well-read. The true professional always dwells on the one that got away. Not the home-run, but the strike-out. Despite the fact that I have devoted 35 years to reading, I still haven't read all of the major authors, never mind the worthy runners-up. My Reading Hall of Shame includes the following noteworthy authors: J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Anthony Trollope. And I have books by all of these authors on my overflowing shelves! I do not deserve to call myself a bookworm; I'm just a worm.

It is, of course, impossible to catch up. The world of books is one of exponential expansion -- and this becomes even more apparent when you have children and become aware of the creative prolificacy present in children's and adolescent literature.

I can understand why some people just stick with the classics. There is still more good stuff than a voracious reader could get through in a lifetime -- particularly if you favor the verbose Victorians, as I do. But at least you have the comfort of knowing that nothing new -- and absolutely unmissable -- is going to be written. (Mind you, a "lost" manuscript is occasionally unearthed, but that is small beer compared to the challenges facing a person determined to stay au courant with contemporary literature.)

Even though I am always reading, I make fitful progress through my stacks -- never mind the library stacks. This is partly due to my penchant for rereading. One of my dearest beliefs is that all good books bear rereading -- indeed, they benefit from it. Not only is the pleasure ever-renewable, but with each rereading there is a greater chance of holding on to some essence of the book. If you have a sieve-like memory, as I do, you will need to reread your favorites as often as every two years, and certainly at least once a decade. Even then, you will be surprised anew at the pleasures of language -- that particular fingerprint of word choice, syntax, style and voice which makes every writer unique. You might also be surprised by the storyline -- (how could I have forgotten that?) -- or struck by new insights. As you grow older, the books don't change but your relationship to them does. Some books will suffer from one's growth as a reader and person; most will only improve.

REREADING: An illustrative example

Last autumn, the BBC did a marvelous new production of Jane Eyre -- with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens as Jane and Mr. Rochester. Sunday evenings were the highlight of my week for that heady, all too-brief time. Of course, seeing the film immediately made me want to revisit the book. It is the English teacher in me: I just can't resist the pleasures of comparing and contrasting.

Just to put this into context, I figure that I have read Jane Eyre at least 10 times -- the first being when I was in 5th grade and I chose it for my book report. (I will never forget my teacher telling me that a "nice" Beverly Cleary would been been a far more appropriate choice.) I have taught this book once, and been taught it twice. All of the other times can be chalked up to "comfort" reading . . . that need to go to a book you already know and love because you know you will get satisfaction and pleasure there. And yet, last autumn, the rereading of this old friend still surprised me. (If you've been reading a lot of contemporary stuff, 19th c. verbiage is always a bit of an adjustment.) I believe that all good books have durable characters; we love them because they are "real," and anything that is real is going to also be complex. The Jane and Mr. Rochester that I met as a child are quite different to the ones that I know now. And Bertha, who I once feared and loathed, inspires different emotions in a grown-up heart that has been desired and then spurned. (I defy anyone to read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea -- an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre -- and still see Bertha as nothing but the despised Madwomen in the attic.)

Well, I could probably talk about Jane Eyre for days. The Jane Eyre file in my brain is quite a large one, and is probably using some of the vital space that is needed to remember my daughter's play practice schedule.

However, I still need to get to my true purpose: revealing the TOP FIVE books on my to-read shelf. By submitting these books to the public eye, I feel like I am committing myself to the challenge of reading them. My reward is that I will no longer have to cringe just ever so slightly when I see them on my bookshelves; rather, I can gaze upon them with fondness and pride and perhaps anticipation for that delicious time when I will be able to reread them.

Call It Sleep -- Henry Roth
I begin with the book that has been longest on the shelf -- not the literal shelf, perhaps, but the shelf in my mental resolutions.

When I was in graduate school at Rice, I took an American Literature course covering that fertile creative period between the world wars. In addition to the list that we all read, we also had to do a more sophisticated graduate school version of the "book report" on worthy books from the time period which really weren't that well-known. Not overlooking the literary genius of Faulkner and Agee and Steinbeck, who we were also reading; but adding to them with a few dustier, less precious gems. My report was on Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley -- it seems like a turquoise to me. Has anyone ever read this book? It is wonderful; thinking about it makes me want to reread it.

Well, for some reason, the description of Call It Sleep made me absolutely wild to read it. I probably would have read it on the spot if I hadn't already had about a 500 page reading load per day. Here's one critic's description: "... no one has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." (Leslie A. Fiedler) Now who can resist that? Not so long ago, I read one of those articles in which a writer or famous person lists 6 or 7 books which have meant a lot to them. Call It Sleep was on the list and it reminded me that I always meant to read this book. Now I have a shiny new copy of it sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

The Cairo Trilogy -- Naguib Mahfouz
I am always resolving to read more World Literature. It is just way too easy to get bogged down in all of the splendid books that English and American publishers have to offer, and neglect the masterpieces of other cultures. If you've never heard of Mahfouz, I will just fill you in on the fact that he has won The Nobel Prize for Literature. (You may now flay yourself with all of those trashy paperbacks with which you've been keeping company.)

This book (actually three books, as the word trilogy suggests) has been on the shelf since autumn 1999. My family had just moved from Trinidad to England, and before we could even be stricken by the first bout of flu that we were to suffer from that grim, gray winter my husband was "offered" (semi-forced into) a job in Egypt. Being a reader, my method for psychogically preparing for this massive change was to immediately run to Waterstone's and buy several Egyptian masterpieces. Well, being me, I started with Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet -- four marvellous, not short, books which I had already read. (Slightly racy aside: When I was 21, I had a romantic friendship with a much older man. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee, or gin, and talking about books. He gave me the first Alexandria book -- Justine -- to read. I thought that it was marvellously sophisticated and profound. On reflection, these books don't wear so well. They are definitely best to read when you are a slightly precocious 21 year old living in a world capital for the first time.)

By the time I had plowed through the Quartet, the Egyptian trip was off. Sigmund went into LNG shipping instead, we eventually moved to Houston, and I never read Mahfouz.

The Golden Notebook -- Doris Lessing
This book also hearkens back to graduate school days in the early 90s -- when I was introduced to feminist literary criticism for the first time. I don't have any personal stories to offer up; but it's a book that I feel like I should read, and I've felt that way for a fairly long time.

When Lessing won her own Nobel Prize for Literature last year I suddenly started reading lots of articles about her; the more I knew, the more my interest in this book ratcheted up. But now I also want to read at least six other books of hers . . . see, this is what happens when you read reviews.

The Group -- Mary McCarthy
This one is for my Mother. It is a favorite book of hers, and she has often mentioned bits of plot from it -- perhaps as supplemental example for whatever conversation we are having at the time. There is a bit about breast-feeding that really sticks in my mind.

My Mother would often take to her bed to read -- maybe after a hard day; maybe just because she had a good book that she was dying to read. This maternal example goes deep, and now my children are growing up with a Mother who occasionally (or frequently) takes to her bed to read.

There is a family legend that my maternal great-grandmother used to escape to the outhouse with a good book. Apparently, it was the only place she could retreat to in order to achieve the peace and privacy necessary for concentrated reading. She was obviously able to overlook noxious smells . . . but then, I imagine that most Texans, pre-airconditioning days, did have this ability.

I firmly believe that the best method for turning your child into an enthusiastic reader is just to read in front of them as much as possible. Not only will they get curious and think you are on to something, but they will also think this is a perfectly normal way to wile away the time. I was extremely gratified to learn that research bears this theory out. (I picked that up when I was doing my second Master's degree in Reading.) Is there any greater bliss in life than receiving official justification for the behavior that you would have been engaging in anyway? Now I know that reading -- rather than being a selfish act that keeps me from actively engaging with my children -- is actually a GIFT that I give to them. Even more happily, I know that it is a gift that will keep on giving.

A Dance to the Music of Time -- Anthony Powell
This is the most recent book (books, actually) on the shelf. My dear friend Jenni gave it to me for my 40th birthday last January. I think that she found the title rather irresistible -- considering the occasion. However, I know that it is a novel collection that also means a lot to her. This collection is apparently a "cycle" of 12 books, but they are grouped in threes -- in volumes titled Spring, Summer, Winter and Autumn. I find that rather appealing, not to mention comprehensive.

If you've stuck with me this far, Dear Reader, I thank you. I realise that most people visit blogs for a quick laugh -- not an essay. But it is a subject dear, so dear, to my heart . . . and somehow I've just gotten carried away. If you are in the mood for more of the same, please visit this link to read the blog that inspired this one. I am particularly referring to the blog titled So Many Books . . . So Little Time, but they are all great. By the way, BSRH, I am halfway through The Lovely Bones . . . and I, too, have had Barbara Tuchman on my to-read shelf for longer than she deserves. So you see, even though my to-read shelf grows apace of my ability to keep up, I do occasionally make a glorious dent in it.


Anne said...

I hoard food AND books, but the former is beside the point. I love books. A well-filled bookcase is a pleasant sight, and frankly, mine are overflowing at this point (note to self: must find larger house, if only for the sake of being able to fit more bookcases). I, too, find it impossible to leave a bookstore without something in hand, regardless of the number of unread (or half-finished) books waiting at home. And there are many, especially from my undergrad days when physics classes took priority.

But I am easily distracted, and so instead of browsing my own (meager) collection when I finish a book and think, "next!" I am almost always enticed by something new: a recommendation from a friend, something that caught my eye recently at the bookstore, and so on. I have been on a David Mitchell kick lately--four books by the same author back-to-back, which unusual for me (and a testament to how enthralling I find him, if I couldn't be drawn away).

Bumper sticker seen recently: "Who needs drugs? I go broke buying books."

Anne said...

Oh! And if you ever find yourself in Chicago with a few spare hours, drive or take the bus down to the University of Chicago and visit the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore (in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary). It is rather labyrinthine and cave-like, and it can get a bit stuffy (especially in winter when the heat is on), but it is a book lover's dream. Their foreign language selection does leave something to be desired (except for their section of Loeb Classical Library dual-language editions, which is the most extensive I've ever seen), but one can't have everything, I suppose.

Jan said...

Hello Bee and good to discover your super blog.
Your reading stuff is impressive and makes my mouth water to get on with my own!!Yes, I loved "1000Acres" because it was brilliantly written( and I dont use " brilliantly" lightly..) and the plot( although King Lear-ish, of course) was stunning...
Libraries and bookshops vary SO much, are places I can "dwell" in for hours on end..

Bee said...

You have mentioned a phenomenon that I have noticed myself: the wandering eye of the fickle, greedy reader. I, too, am often jettisoning perfectly good books for the hot new thing that I've just purchased. Last week I was happily reading "Mr. Bridge" by Evan Connell -- a classic that has been on my to-read shelf for a long time -- and then I just jilted him to start "The Lovely Bones" because Brave Sir Robin had raved about it!

I don't know David Mitchell. I will check him out.

If only we could get the people of the world to read instead of using drugs! How many problems would be solved!! Just this week there was a fascinating, disturbing article about how the drugs trade is absolutely wrecking Africa. (As if Africa doesn't have enough problems.)

I love college bookstores! When next I am in Chicago -- no immediate plans, but one of my oldest friends lives there -- I will check it out. By the way, have you read "The Time-Traveller's Wife"? The main character works in a Chicago library, which is what made me think of it. It is a great read; really imaginative concept, and the characters are fascinating. I LOVED this book. (I heard some rumors that they are also making a movie of it.)

Jane Smiley is truly a genius -- also funny, which is a big plus in my book.

Because I wanted to hear about what my friends were reading -- or wanting to read -- I'm going to break into my email and share a few comments that might be interesting to the wider public. (I've not been able to convince my non-blogging friends to share on my blog. So "you" are being deprived of their input.)

Ginnie, a writer/teacher from MD says:
The guilty, unread books just next to me here at my bedside are Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreem, Wild Women by Autumn Stevens--I have read some of that--it's little biographies of trend-setting women (many of them Madames) in history. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban --"Mom, you're only on book 3???" , A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating, a kids' book called Stick up for Yourself! , Mystery Schools, a book of poetry by a colleague of mine, Bruce MacKinnon, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald, and Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success. That's only the first pile.

I guess you learn as much about a person from the books they intend to read but don't as you do from what they're actually reading!

Jocelyn, an Int'l School teacher living in Cairo, says:

Just last night I attended our book club monthly meeting - in Dhaka I was part of an excellent group and when two of us arrived in Cairo at the same time last year, we started something on similar lines here. We have 6 interesting, bright and articulate women who have quickly become close and intimate. A month ago we read Khul Khaal which is a set of stories about five Egyptian women in the 1980s and covers topics such as their daily lives, status, circumcision and deflowering! Did you know that the official statistics show that 95% of Egyptian women are circumcised? Anyway, this has led to much discussion, research and some good conversations with Egyptian friends who we feel we can approach on the matter!

This month we read Eat Pray Love and all found aspects of her journey that they could relate to.
We have read one of the Naguib Mahfouz each year and will complete the trilogy next fall! We also read Justine and had a fabulous day in Alexandria - fast train at 7am in the morning - tracing places mentioned in the book and serendipitously bumping into his daughter Penelope!

Ginnie (American), Jocelyn (English), Jenni (English) and I had a small, but select (!)book group in Trinidad back at the turn of the century. They are all great readers and women who I admire. Jenni, if you are reading this, we want to know what you are reading!

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

Loved, the Time Traveler's Wife. I read the last 50 or so pages just weeping like a baby. I hope they do the film well.

My own "to read" list is just down right embarrassing.

Busy, busy, I'll come back later.

Anne said...

Yes, exactly! I'm currently (theoretically) in the middle of four or five books, although I haven't touched some of them in weeks or even months. It's a little embarrassing.

I've not read The Time Traveller's Wife, or most of the other books mentioned by your friends by email, but they're going on my "to get--or rather, to choose from--next time I'm in a bookstore" list. Thanks for the recommendations! I keep said list on my phone, so I'm almost never without it when I might need it. Of course, half the time I forget that I have it, or I'm just in the mood for something else, so I pick up an entirely new book. Ah well, nothing wrong with accumulating more books, right?

Cloud Atlas is my favorite
one by David Mitchell, and it's the one I read first. I can't wait to go back and read it again--in fact, I almost started over as soon as I finished it the first time around. Ghostwritten, his first novel, would also be a good place to start.

Jocelyn said...

Bee - I will join you on a blog as well as an e mail!
Why is it such a pleasure to share book titles with others, to recommend as well as to discuss opinions about a book both have read?
Whatever the reason it makes me happy to hear your recommendation of The Time Traveller's Wife - I thought it was so clever and so touching and for a long while it was my favourite gift and recommendation.
Have you read anything by Edward P. Jones? He has written a lot of short stories but The Known World is a full length novel and quite remarkable. I have his next collection of short stories All Aunt Hagar's Children by my bed on my 'list'. He came to speak at our school in Dhaka and described how he had created his characters in The Known World for over ten years before he put them on paper. As a result he knew them so well and the reader definitely benefits from that.

Lucy said...

I have to admit that since blogging entered my life, my consumption of books has slowed down, and the 'to be read' pile builds up. Oddly though, I find as great an urge to re-read as to find new things. I do read more poetry, on and off-line, than before though, which is a silver lining perhaps.

In my twenties I ate slept and breathed Doris Lessing. She should have got that nobel prize at least thirty years ago but rather blew her credibility with the Canopus in Argos series, dabbling in science fiction and Sufi thinking ( without winning approbation in SF or Sufi circles either). I loved Shikasta and the rest of the series, but I'm not sure I could take them so seriously now. The Golden Notebook was so familiar to me, I read and reread it, read all it's constituent notebooks separately, read it backwards... I don't know if I would again, but I think I'd recommend it still. I did enjoy reading her autobiography last year.

Jane Eyre we read as adolescents at school and I remember being intensely involved in. I tried to read it again a while back but stuck. A revelation to me a few years ago was Villette. A real slog, spending all that time in that melancholy woman's head in that hostile Belgian town, but when I finished it I couldn't stop thinking about it, or more than that, I was living in it, for about a fortnight. It was something like being in love, only not quite so jolly.
Middlemarch I am boring and evangelical about; that really is one that I can keep coming back to and looking at from all different angles. the cast of characters being so large, there's always someone to notice you hadn't noticed before, and get to know again better!

So many books, so little time!

Brave Sir Robin Hussein said...

So many books . . . .

I am currently trying to chip away at my "to read" list.

I have started Nostromo for what seems like the tenth time. I'm sure it's less than that, but . . time, time, time . . . .

Cloud Atlas is on my list, and of course Ulysses is on the shelf, mocking me, pointing and whispering every time I pass by. I keep meaning to read A Prayer For Owen Meany



oh, and look here.

Bee said...


I so happy to see you here! I have missed you these many years of sporadic attempts to keep in touch.

I could write an essay on all of the things you touched upon; but I will try for a haiku or a tone poem:
Eat,Pray,Love -- my beach read in Antigua last year; the most perfect beach read, ever. Loved it.
Justine adventure in Alexandria -- how delicious; how jealous am I!
Female circumcision: thank you for this info; and have you read Alice Walker's take on this issue in Africa? does anyone else think that the AIDS problem in Africa is causing us overlook female circumcision? They are connected, in some ways. I mean -- the attitudes toward female sexuality and what is owed the man.
I don't know Edward Jones; will try to remedy this. You have much worthy multicultural input for those of us stuck in the sticks -- U.S. or American!


You have stiffened my resolve on Lessing. As for the others, you make me want to read Villette and Middlemarch again. They are books for a lifetime, aren't they? Thanks for visiting me. I love your poetry websites.


I haven't read Nostromo either. Need to tackle Ulysses again; what a coincidence as I am in an Irish mood today. (see new post)
Thanks for film update! I like the casting of Rachel McAdams a lot. I just wish we could all go and see it together. The summer I was reading that book I had my awkward teenage cousin come for a long visit. That book was about the only thing we truly, wholeheartedly, bonded on (through?over?)

BTW, all of you who came to my overflowing bookshelf -- please check back in a few days for my Booker Challenge!

sandy said...

I'm so weith you on the stickiness of books, once they're yours you just can't let them go - most impressed that you can give them back to charity shops, even the Dick Francis seems glued to the shelves though I've tried to get rid of it several times. I have, however, found a new and less space expensive form of the addiciton now - audio books for download. They all slot neatly onto my i-pod and sit there all cleared away but ready to be pounced upon. My favourite at the moment is by the glorious Toby Stephens (for whose wickedly arch Rochester I notice you shared a liking)reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I found it on a site called which has some really good stuff.

It really helps with the floor/shelf space...

Lucy said...

Dear Bee

I would love to read Jeanette W. on Ted Hughes! I didn't see it as we don't get a paper and I only read online if someone prompts me. So e-mail me the article or a link to it at lucy dot kempton at wanadoo dot fr
Looking forward...

Bee said...

Sancy -- loved your phrase the "stickiness" of books. I must admit that I don't get rid of many. And my children are just as bad. They are massive rereaders as well!

I had a big crush on Toby S. after Jane Eyre. I thought that he did an excellent take on Rochester!

Lucy -- the Winterson/Hughes was a free poetry guide. I will email you the paragraph I particularly like.

k said...

LOVED that production of jane eyre.

see "definitely maybe" there's a lovely storyline in it about jane eyre.

i bought "the group" at a book sale years ago. i just loved the cover with all of those fantastically coiffed 60's ladies.

bakerina said...

You would have the grandest laugh if you ever came to our house -- sorry, our three-room apartment -- for a visit. We have so many books that we ran out of shelf space long ago, and are now building little cairns of books all over the place. We keep sending boxes to our storage locker, and yet, the cairns never seem to get smaller. (One day they will, though, and if you *did* come for a visit, we would actually have the room to host you. :)

I am thrilled with the writing you are doing over here, Beth. It's such a pleasure to read. I loved your last e -- and the timing of it! ;) -- as well. I've been longing to write you a propa letta, and I will. I'm knitting some stuff for a baby shower, simple stuff but lots of it, and it's putting my time management skills to the test. Was it Melville who said "O Time! Strength! Cash! Patience!"? Amen, brother.

Bee said...


Did you ever get around to reading "The Group?" Or do you just enjoy seeing its retro cover on your bookshelf?

I am thrilled to see you here! I just knew that you would be a book hoarder; I would have bet my last dime on it.

Hopefully your next home -- and it looks like a change of address could be on the cards! -- will have lots and lots of built-in bookshelves and you can bring all of your children home from the storage facility.

Any letter you send is a letter that I would love to read.

I don't know that Melville quotation, but I might just paint in on the wall of my study.