Here we are at the end of the first row of my bookshelves series. To say that there’s some foundational stuff in here would be an understatement, not only in terms of my own reading tastes and trajectory but in terms also of English literature and even of western civilization.
The two Wallace books bookending the shelves should come as no surprise to you if you’ve been with me so far. The most brightly colored book in the batch is an anthology (of which I am generally a fan, though I tend to go for story anthologies) edited by Wallace, with a great intro and some excellent essays. I’ll jump ahead again to Wittgenstein Jr. since Wallace’s first novel had a bit to do with Wittgenstein the philosopher, so there’s a weird, random tie between the two. I didn’t love Iyer’s book (but I liked it) and I think I kept it because it was kind of a puzzle for me that I thought I might like to try again some day.
Now we’ll backpedal to the Melville, which I picked up cheap a long time ago. Generally when I buy Melville, I’ll keep Melville. I have conflicted feelings about Barth. I love what he does, but I think he usually is pretty tiresome about it and tends to go on for way too long. This is surely the case for The Sot-Weed Factor, which is at times hilarious but is also annoyingly long and uneven. I’ll probably read it again one day anyway, though.
The Orwell collection has some really good staples in it that I go back to every once in a while, and the word origins book I’ve owned for years. I don’t open it frequently, but I know that as soon as I decide to get rid of this book, I’ll be desperate to look up a word the next week.
The Golden Bough I bought in college because T.S. Eliot mentioned casually in a footnote to The Wasteland that this multi-volume landmark work of anthropology (my copy is abridged) would make a nice primer for understanding his own poem, which I found pretty galling. Still, I was curious about the source material, so I got Frazer’s book and read about half of it. It’s fascinating but pretty dry, and boy does he ever just dump a relentless load of observations on you. My son recently mentioned that he had started up a game of “The Fisher King” with the neighborhood kids (none murdered, thankfully), and I asked him where the heck he had heard of such a thing. It was apparently part of a Doctor Who episode we watched at some point, but I took the opportunity to explain Frazer’s book (whose raison d’être was basically to get to the bottom of the weird fisher king myth, which had no basis he could find in Western mythology) and read some of it aloud, which was of course received about as well as you’d expect. Anyway, it’s a neat reference to peek at from time to time.
The Yearling I bought a year or so ago after reading Watership Down to the family and thinking that another animal book would be appealing, but when my daughter figured that the deer probably dies and said she wasn’t into it, so I’ve put it aside for now.
Finally we have the good old Norton English literature anthology that goes from the Romantics and up into Modernism. I don’t often go to this one, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of it. This was the textbook for my first literature class in college (at a time when studying literature hadn’t occurred to me as a thing I might like — it was to fulfill a requirement), so even if I don’t love all the work in it, it’s kind of a landmark book for me, and every once in a while, one does want to go back and browse through some notable Wordsworth, so why not keep it on hand?
The next compartment of my shelves brings the transition from green to blue, where I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that there are more books somehow connected to Wallace and Melville.