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.