Bookshelves #9

Well here we are at shelf number 9, nearly halfway through the series. This one is a pretty heavy duty one.

Riding along the top there we’ve got a famous essay collection by Wallace that contains a couple of my favorite essays (the cruise ship one that so well describes despair amidst the trappings of pleasure and the state fair one). Then we have a short story collection that is mostly kind of so-so but that does do a pretty good job of dramatizing how easy it is to try to appear to be a good person while actually being quite a bad person. It’s really honest, nasty stuff that struck a chord with me when I read it as a young man. Generally I don’t recommend Wallace’s short stories to people, and of his several story collections, this is the one I’m least likely to recommend stories from.

I didn’t love Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, but it was fine, and I’m keeping Barnes for probable further study later.

I love this collection of Byron’s work. I bought it cheap at a used book store back in college, when I aspired to one day own a big collection of old and rare books. I don’t suppose it’s too rare since I was able to afford it as a college student who sold his plasma for booze money, but it was published in 1905, which is old for my collection. The pages are pretty brittle, and I don’t often actually read it very often (did make it through a fair bit of Don Juan 20ish years ago), but it is one of the books I really just like owning as an object.

I first tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow probably about 15 years ago. I don’t think I got past about page 2. It just didn’t grab me. I false started a few other times, once even getting about halfway through before giving up. Finally, a few years ago I led an online group read of Gravity’s Rainbow that forced me to get through the book. Or maybe I had managed to read it once already by then and this was a reread. I don’t remember. At any rate, I’ve now read it I believe three times fully, and though it is in many ways a really awful, ugly book, it’s also a real work of genius that runs the gamut from inducing a gag reflex to making you laugh aloud to making you roll your eyes to making you feel real sympathy for some of the characters. I figure I’ll read it once a decade or so from here on out.

I didn’t love Chimera, but that’s my way with Barth, whose books I keep even if I don’t love them.

A person who contributed to one or two of my online group reads wrote Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, and I tend to keep books by people I know or sort-of know. Coincidentally, that author happens apparently and independently to be friends with a college friend of mine who recently died and who has a memoir about the last year or so of her life coming out soon. I’ll keep that one too.

We saw Peter Heller back on the blue shelves. His The Painter is really good, and I’ll keep reading his books until he pulls a Mitchell on me and starts writing stinkers.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall I read as part of the Tournament of Books a couple of years ago. It ticked a number of my boxes and seemed like a pretty solid first effort, so this is one of those books I kept maybe to read again some day but mostly as a reminder to revisit this author when he publishes more.

I didn’t much like Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, though I feel guilty for not liking it, as it’s supposed to be foundational. I’d like to give it another try one day, though, as sometimes it’s just not the right time for a book. Well, this is probably a very right time in the world for this sort of book but it wasn’t the right time for me.

Robert Pinsky came to my college when I was a junior studying poetry writing. He was really great — gracious with his time, earnest when he spoke, personable (at a dinner I was lucky enough to get to go to, I landed a seat at his table, and he talked warmly about his grandkids and was generally charming and full of stories), and really just all-around inspiring. He was then the poet laureate of the U.S. if I’m not mistaken (or maybe he came to that a little later, or a little earlier — I forget), and he had a thing for reading poems aloud. So I developed a thing for reading poems aloud, and for example one evening I sat in my dorm room and read his translation of Dante’s Inferno aloud to myself (sipping liberally from a big tall cup of vodka and Mt. Dew, if I’m being entirely honest). I also printed out copies of a bunch of poems that I thought merited reading aloud and carried them around with me. Pinsky gave a really great public reading at the university, and I very vividly recall his reading of the poem “Impossible to Tell,” which is a really great poem. Otherwise, at the time, I didn’t have a great deal of affection for his poems, but I sure liked the man, and his voice, and his presence, and his influence over my approach to poetry as a thing best done aloud. This (then) new and selected poems of his, titled The Figured Wheel, is inscribed to me (something vague and not actually all that impressive or personalized like “Good luck with poetry”) and so is a thing I value given how I valued my little distant interactions with him. It’s been I guess about 20 years now since I tried reading it, so I should probably give it another shot with the benefit of a little more age (though also with a much reduced interest in and patience for poetry). The program that brought Pinsky to our school was one that offered senior honors students more access to the visiting poets. Only a handful of juniors were allowed to go to a workshop and later a dinner in his honor, and I didn’t win the drawing or lottery or whatever, which was a little devastating. My professor (who fills about half of shelf #20) came to me at some point saying he wasn’t going to be able to go himself and giving me his slot, which was, I suspect, basically an act of charity on his part, for which I was and remain most grateful.

The Southern Critics is a little book of criticism and history I believe about the agrarian poets of the early and mid-20th century. My sister-in-law gave it to me years ago, and I’m sure I read it then. I haven’t read it since, but I may one day, and I hang onto this partially as a little souvenir of a burgeoning shared interest in literature that that sister-in-law and I have since continued. In other words, I feel a hair sentimental about it, to the extent that I do sentimental.

There’s plenty of Delillo’s work that I don’t love, and there’s probably a solid 400 pages of Underworld that I could do without, but there’s also a lot in this behemoth that does the trick for me, including some fun stuff about outsider art and one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read in a long intro describing a day at the baseball field. I’ll probably read this again in the next 20 years. It’s another that I false started a time or two before actually finishing it.

Finally, in an inversion of the “books shoved in on top of others” pattern, I’ve got a huge art book tipped sideways on the bottom. I read maybe 20% of it a few years ago after picking it up cheap I forget where, but I’ve forgotten most of what I read. I like art (what a stupid, broad statement) but don’t know much formally about it, so having a book like this that I can go to every once in a while to fill in a knowledge gap is helpful, if sort of infrequent given what a pain it is to get the book out and return it to the stack.

So, on the whole, a really solid shelf with yet more foundational stuff on it. It’s a doozie, and #10 will be too, so stay tuned.

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