Bookshelves #5

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.

Bookshelves #4

This is maybe one of the best sections of my bookshelves. The colors are lovely, peaceful, Springish, and some of my favorite books and authors pretty much by happenstance find themselves grouped here.

I’m a horrible phonetographer, so that top book, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, is partially cut off, but it was one of my favorite books I read in 2016, and she’s an author I’ll most definitely go back to. Lauren Groff too I was first exposed to in 2016, in a random purchase of another of her books that we’ll see later if this series makes it to shelf section #19. I liked Arcadia a lot too, and Groff is another author I’ll likely follow until one or the other of us is dead. I had never read much Oates, and I picked Wild Nights up at a library sale and loved it. These stories about historical figures really captured my attention, as did, apparently, a story of hers a few years ago in Harper’s. Late last year, I picked up her We Were the Mulvaneys from the library, and it was pretty close to flawless. Finally, in the consistently solid list of yellow/green books I read in 2016 by women, we have Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph. This was another random shelf browsing purchase, and one I didn’t anticipate liking all that much since it’s historical fiction about the wild west, neither of which especially interests me (my project was to expand my horizons and read things by not-white-dudes and get out of my usual reading habits, so this one seemed to fit). But the book was really good. She put me right there with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, and I liked it enough that just last week I burned through her Doc, which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

I’ve read two or three by Nicholson Baker now and really liked The Anthologist, though I may have liked The Traveling Sprinkler more, if only because it taught me about this really cool lawn watering tool I hadn’t known about and that’s such a beautiful metaphor for any number of things. Woe is I is one I’ve owned for twentyish years and never go back to, but it’s just the kind of nerdy, sort of subversive, book I like, and I’ve never wanted to get rid of it.

Above, I spoke of Ward as an author I would read more by and Groff as somebody I’d track for as long as she or I one draw breath. Upon reading all of David Mitchell’s early work, I held the same opinion of him. Cloud Atlas dazzled me on the whole even when some of its parts disappointed me (which disappointment I believe, to be clear, was by design), and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet was beautiful. I liked his other earlier work well enough. He has pretty much lost me starting with The Bone Clocks, though, which you won’t find on these shelves. Ever. If you sneak it onto my shelf, I will hunt you down and destroy you and those you love.

Tucked in beside Cloud Atlas is The Crucible, which I remember reading and liking in high school, though this is probably another one I’ve inadvertently stolen from my high school teacher wife, since I don’t know that I liked it enough that I figured I’d read it again 20 or 25 years later. Maybe it’s time, though.

This brings us to good old Thomas Hardy. Gosh I loved this guy when I was in college. I was a sucker for a ruined maid in a pastoral setting, I suppose. When I was 20 or maybe 21, I remember saying poetically to my mom something like (perhaps here slightly exaggerated, but honestly not by much) “I should think that I had been born in the wrong epoch and locale, dear mother, for I find these American brutes to be so dreadfully boorish and the modern times, with the telly and these so-called ‘compact discs,’ so woefully lacking in the culture upon which we few literates deign to survive.” So of fucking course I liked Hardy. I also read loads of his poetry and can still recite some of it by heart. I used to own a volume of his selected poems and a number of his novels, but I hadn’t read many of them in a long time. When I found this book of his collected poems at a library sale a few years ago for like a dollar, I couldn’t resist. A few years ago, I found myself leafing through the poems of this old curmudgeon of a poet well known for having a gloomy outlook on life and decided to start up a little humor/literature site offering the occasional poem text with a brief and sometimes silly or sarcastic and sometimes ever so slightly serious explication of or appreciation of the poem. I tired of it pretty quickly, though. If anybody wants to tag-team a resurrection of the site, let me know!

I forget how I learned about Lydia Millet, but I harbor a suspicion that it was via the lovely little lit magazine one story. I read a longish novel of hers about Oppenheimer and his cohort time traveling to more or less the present that I sort of hated, but this one I vaguely recall being kind of lovely and haunting. I don’t know that I’ll ever read it again, though upon a quick inspection, I see that I dog-eared a few pages, so it may be worth a closer look some other time. Sometimes I keep a book to remind me later that I’d like to check in on the author in a few years, and this is probably such a book.

This shelf started with a bunch of really great women writers, and it’s ending with a bunch of old white dudes, mostly dead. Gaddis is one of the smartest, funniest, and simultaneously most serious writers I’ve ever read, and J R is one of those books that kind of tears down everything you know about how to read and makes you learn how to read in a new way. It goes from slapstick to existential frustration within a single line or two populated by three or four voices sometimes, and if you don’t love this book, you will almost certainly hate it. I reread it every five years or so. Gaddis claims not ever to have read Ulysses, but this is sort of the Ulysses of the mid-20th century, and I think he’s lying. I’ll skip a couple of books ahead in this shelf to Gaddis’s The Recognitions. It’s a book in part about forgery and in larger part about art (in various media) and I suppose about authenticity. There are parts of it I like a lot and parts I kind of want to do the “get on with it” gesture with my hand while reading, and it’s the book people tout as Gaddis’s big important book, but for me, J R is the one to read. I wrote a bit about it upon a reread a few years ago here.

Now we take two steps back to Gass (a great defender of and friend to Gaddis), a philosopher and historian and essayist and novelist who is mostly just too smart for me. I find him a bit tedious and didn’t love Omensetter’s Luck, though I intend to read it with a different set of life and literary experiences in a decade or so to see how it strikes me then. If I’m not mistaken, the voice in this book informed the voice David Foster Wallace used in a really fantastic story titled “John Billy.” Of the I believe three novels and one collection of essays I’ve read of Gass’s (with one essay collection in nightstand purgatory if I’m not mistaken), my favorite thing is a long beautiful sort of plains pastoral section in The Tunnel, which I’ll confess was otherwise for me a real kick in the nuts of a book (more on that, perhaps, if we get to shelf #10).

Next up is another Saunders book. I love his stories (though they can feel a little overworked) and keep all of his books and will one day do a big close reading of his whole body of fiction.

Finally, we have Moby-Dick, of which I have a number of incarnations scattered throughout the shelves. This is the recognized annotated scholarly text with hundreds of pages of historical and literary context and criticism, textual variants, etc., and it’s all really great stuff (the three Moby-Dicks, you say?). I organized an online group read and wrote (with others — these posts are not all mine) a lot about the book a few years ago here. I try every once in a while to make my family let me read the book aloud to them (they resist, the philistines), and there’s a kid book version (I don’t love it, honestly) that I used to make at least my kids let me read to them on my kids’ shelves, and I have a Moby-Dick tattoo and a lot of Moby-Dick art. It’s an important book to me, and I guess I’ll keep it.

Actually finally, tucked in the very edge there, is a yellow envelope containing a brief postcard David Foster Wallace kindly wrote back to me many years ago in response to a short letter I had sent him. There’s nothing of any substance in the message, but it’s something of a relic to me, given the influence his work has had on my way of thinking about and existing in the world, as discussed briefly in the notes for shelf #3 and elsewhere at sometimes significant length on the internet.

This shelf was a humdinger, representing in one form or another some of the most influential books and authors in my adult reading life, and pointing to some folks I hope to be influenced by and to continue appreciating new work by for years to come. Next up we’ve got more green and a fifth consecutive section of shelf featuring work by, about, or significantly influencing or influenced by Wallace.

Bookshelves #3

Now we come to the orange overflow and yellow shelf. Follow this shelf series here if you’re game.

I don’t remember the Jhumpa Lahiri book very well, though I read it just last year. I did dog-ear a couple of stories, so I must’ve figured I’d revisit them one day. A Lesson Before Dying is a good, important, difficult-to-read book. The Lester Bangs is a departure from the sort of thing I usually read. A lot of the pieces in it were meh, a lot were really funny, and here and there were really great ones. It’s not one I’ll ever reread all of, but I may go back to dog-eared columns here and there.

You Bright and Risen Angels is I believe the only Vollmann book I’ve ever finished, and I didn’t really like it. I’ll probably never read it again and should probably get rid of it. The Saunders was ok, but I keep Saunders, period. I haven’t read Five Skies yet but have heard good things about Carlson. The Marquez was pretty good (not as good as Solitude), and maybe I’ll go back to it one day.

Infinite Jest changed the way I live in and think about the world and validated the way I inhabit my own head. I’ve owned a couple of copies over the years, but this was my first, which I first read I guess 19 years ago or so, and which I’ve read cover to cover I believe 6 times, with a few partial reads scattered in there as well. I wrote a lot about it a few years ago here (other authors on the site used the same tag, so all those posts aren’t mine) and which I started to write about some more here as I reread a couple of years ago. Wallace has had a more profound influence on who I’ve become as an adult than probably anybody else. This book is definitely a keeper.

Next to Wallace is Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, which I false started on maybe 13 years ago and finally read in full two or three years ago. It’s surprisingly accessible and fun.

Julian Barnes is smart and writes well, and I’ll almost certainly look back over his work over time, so The Lemon Table stays. Tucked in next to that one is DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I have really mixed feelings about DeLillo. For example, I thought his Falling Man was terrible, and I rarely love any of his books, but then you come to one like Underworld that’s hard and sometimes a little uneven but that grapples with so much and is at times virtuosic, and you can’t discount him. This little book was evocative and kind of mesmerizing, and it had a really good payout for the time I invested in reading it.

I had meant to read Lethem for years and finally picked up a few books in 2015. By and large I think he’s great, and this weird, fun little book was a treat. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to it, but I’m not ready to part with it yet (I have a knack for selling a book back and then deciding a few months or years later that I desperately need to take another look, at which point I often enough buy it back again). I didn’t love Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (it’s the worst of his novels), but I keep Gaddis. The slender Moby-Dick title is a comic book version that a friend gave me many years ago, and I keep Moby-Dick. I used to group Moby-Dick books together on the shelves (as I did Wallace), but now I scatter them, each, like good old Ishmael, its own sort of orphan.

I rarely read nonfiction and even more rarely read nonfiction about work or business stuff, but I moved into a leadership position in my job a couple of years ago and picked up a few relevant books to read about teamwork, leadership, etc. Work Rules was interesting enough that I thought I might go back and read my scribbles and the things I had underlined from time to time (and I was right).

Finally, there’s Libra, which I may have read 15 years or so ago and sold back and forgotten and later bought back with a different cover. I forget. I do tend to nibble at DeLillo’s work, and I intend to read this one (again?) some day, though I’m not very excited about it.

Next up, the pale yellows and greens.

Bookshelves #2

For number two in my bookshelves series, we’re transitioning from red to orange. As usual, the top is stacked mostly with newer arrivals. The Vegetarian was so puzzling to me that though I didn’t absolutely love it, I thought I’d keep it around for a potential reread one day. A friend and colleague gave me The Jam Fruit Tree, which I read late last year to get some more background on the Burghers in Sri Lanka, and his sharing it with me was meaningful, so the book stays on my shelves. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was recommended by another coworker a few years ago and passed along to me through yet another coworker (we did a book swap). I didn’t love it but figure I should pass it along to someone else, or at any rate that it’s not mine to sell. I’ve owned this copy of Europe Central for years and never read it. I want to like Vollmann but have real trouble liking his stuff, so this is one of those mountains I figure I’ll climb one day. It sits atop the stack because I found it buried in my nightstand drawer recently, where it had sat for years.

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a pop history of the whaler Essex, which was sunk by a whale and figured into Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the slim dark red book at far left is his defense of reading Moby-Dick, which is a nice little read. The Morgesons is awful. I read it last year as part of a project to read non-white-dudes, and a professor I had spoken with at a community Moby-Dick discussion group suggested this and Beulah (not pictured) as good specimens. Given how dry The Morgesons was, I haven’t had that heart yet to pick up the other from the shin-high stack (in front of this shelf, on the floor) of things I haven’t yet had the heart to read but probably will. I’m not sure why I’m keeping this one. Speaking of tough antiques that it can be hard to get into, maybe 20 years ago, I read the first three fourths or so of The Brothers Karamazov before giving up and ultimately selling the book. A couple of years ago, I decided to try it again, finished it, and figured I’d keep it, as I’ll probably dip back in at some time in the next 20 years. The drama book is a textbook containing a number of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays, of which my favorite is The Knight of the Burning Pestle (which is basically like a venereal disease joke right there in the title). Before I failed to get into grad school for literature and went off to earn my fame and fortune working on the internet instead, I had hoped to study this stuff as my life’s calling, so I suppose it’s worth keeping a couple of inches of shelf space even though I rarely go back to the plays these days.

I have not read The Inkling by Fred Chappell, but I did go listen to him at a poetry reading when I was in school, and a very young Chappell taught my mother English at UNCG. I forget how I came by this book, but I’ve always meant to read it. It’s not inscribed to my mom or anything, so I suspect it’s not hers and that I just found it at a book sale sometime. This is a weird one because I attach no sentimental value to Chappell or to the book in particular or to my mom’s brief overlap with Chappell, but the book nevertheless represents some sort of tie between my mom and the studies that were so important to me at a time when I was certainly growing more distant from her, so while I don’t ever think about the book or really any of what I’ve just said, when I think about getting rid of the book, I decide not to.

The short story anthology satisfies my penchant for such anthologies. I generally like Zadie Smith’s work and will probably read White Teeth again one day. Half of a Yellow Sun was the best book I read in 2015 (and the best I’ve read since, an among the best I’ve ever read), and you should read it. I think this copy of The Canterbury Tales belongs to my wife. I haven’t read a significant number of the tales since high school but was reading “frame tales” a few years ago and had intended to go back to Chaucer as a purveyor of them, so I must’ve stolen this one from my wife at the time.

The Broom of the System is an obvious keeper for this fan of Wallace. It’s certainly not my favorite of his books, but I do have a fondness for it. I loaned out my first copy many years ago and never got it back, so this is a replacement whose spine I haven’t cracked. The Zak Smith book is a book of illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow, one for every page. It was an art project a few years back that inspired Matt Kish’s similar Moby-Dick project (more on that when we get to shelf #10). Some of the art here is really neat, and some is I suppose profane (as of course is much of Pynchon’s novel). I walked through this book page by page the last time I read GR a few years ago, and it was neat. Finally, in this little postmodernish section of the shelf (not so shelved by design), we have a slim book by John Barth that I have not read but intend to. I tend to like Barth more in the abstract than in his particulars, but I haven’t read much of his shorter work, so maybe the shorter particulars will do more for me.

Next up, we move into the yellows!

Bookshelves #1

I’ve always sort of collected books. I’d pillage library sales and buy things from the used book store that I thought surely I’d read some day. They’d sit in a big teetering pile on my night stand for a while, and eventually I’d read them or shelve them. We moved into a new house about a decade ago and I had to do a big book purge, which sort of broke my heart because I liked the ownership of these objects, and I suppose I felt a sort of pride at owning what seemed like a fair lot of books for just a normal bookish person but not like a professor or real collector to own.

A couple of years ago, I moved my home office from our bonus room to a downstairs living room that we installed some doors on. It was a smaller space that we had been using as a toy room, and it was nice to move the kids’ mess upstairs and out of sight and to make a nice office space that would also allow me to showcase some of my books. We installed some nice built-in shelves in the bonus room for the kids’ books (which now rival and probably surpass my diminished collection in number), and I decided to confine my books to the usual nightstand pile and a single 5×5 Ikea shelf that serves as my backdrop when I have video chats with coworkers.

This meant doing another purge to make all my books fit, and though I thought I’d mind it, I now apparently am (mostly) over the ownership of books as objects, unless the specific book is one I know I want to keep for reasons other than the abstract desire to own books. This means that mostly my bookshelf now represents the things I really and truly do intend to read or reread, the things I have read and hold dear, and a few things that for whatever reason I can’t let go of. (It also means that I buy a lot fewer books, which is good for the old pocketbook. I went through a period last year during which I’d go buy $100 worth of books more or less at random, and not necessarily want to keep any of them, or be able to sell them back for much at all. As a result, I’m using the library a lot more, which can be frustrating when I can’t find stuff I want but which also imposes a kind of neat constraint on what I read.)

You’ll note that the books pictured above are all reddish. I had long sorted my books mostly randomly anyway (with little pockets here and there for poetry, say, or for a collection of books by the same author), and when I moved into the new office and knew my books would be my backdrop for the many video chats I do, I thought I’d make them lovely to look at. So they’re arranged rainbowishly, and the pictured compartment is at top left as you face the shelves. On nearly every video call in which a person I haven’t chatted with before sees my bookshelves, they comment on the shelves, and I get a nice jolt of pleasure out of the inquiry. I thought it’d be fun to do a series (if it doesn’t peter out) in which I consider the books in each of (or at least each of the more interesting) compartments. This’ll be number one in the series.

This is a really good compartment. You can typically tell when I’ve acquired a book in the last year or two because it’s shelved horizontally rather than vertically. Here we see Erdrich’s The Round House, which I got last year and liked enough that I wanted to keep it. I got the Morris dictionary way back in college when I was really into word origins, and it’s fun to dig into every once in a while. I think I learned of Jodi Angel from a One Story story, and I liked this collection enough that I figured I might reread it some time. I’m not enamored of the Boswell book on Wallace, but pretty much anything pertaining to Wallace I keep; a few years ago, this one would’ve been shelved with a linear foot or so of other books on or by Wallace. I keep anything by Saunders because I figure that one day I’ll do a big study or something on him, so Civilwarland makes the cut. I learned about Garner many years ago via Wallace, and when I got his dictionary of American usage as a gift a while back, I sat down on the spot and read about half of it as if it were a novel. Look out for his more comprehensive guide (my new go-to for usage questions) when we hit the blue shelves. Coover, as one of the parents of postmodernism, is somebody I figure I’ll keep coming back to, though this is the only book of his I own. I don’t love all the stories in it, though a couple are doozies. I keep anything by Gaddis (postmodernism, plus he’s just so very good, though this collection of essays is kind of meh). I’m a sucker for short story anthologies but haven’t read the one pictured here and should probably get rid of it to make room for the Erdrich. I do mean to dip into it one day. I haven’t tried to read Lord Jim since I first stalled out in it maybe 20 years ago but figure I will one day. I should ditch On Beauty because I didn’t really even like it, but I figured that it was probably my fault and not Smith’s that I didn’t like it and that I should reread it one day after getting around to reading Howard’s End, so on the bookshelf it stays. I’m a sucker for a Norton anthology and do actually dip back into the various of these anthologies we own every once in a while. And finally, Alice Munro — what a near perfect story writer she is; I know I’ll go back into this collection later.

That’s it, installment one of potentially 20 (the bottom row of my shelves mostly contain things that aren’t books). I might decide it’s too boring or too tedious to even write these things much less to read them, so we’ll see how far I get.

Kindle Teasers

Although I generally prefer paper books, I have had various and sundry Kindles over the years. I do like how I can highlight a section or do a quick word lookup as I’m reading. My latest Kindle is a Paperwhite, which comes in a couple of flavors — one with ads on the home screen and that costs a little less than the ad-free one. As long as ads aren’t popping up while I’m reading, they don’t bother me too much, though I really think that with access to a whole lot of my recent reading history, Amazon could do a better job of trying to show me books I’m likely to want to purchase. I guess they’re just showing ads for the books whose authors bought the most ad impressions. I’ve found some of them so laughable or terrible or confusing that I’ve begun to sort of like them, and when I see an unfamiliar new teaser that’s a hoot or a puzzler, I’ll read it aloud to my family and ask if I should invest in the book. So far I’ve purchased none of them. A recent sampling follows.

 

‘”I’d have my nose broken every morning if it meant spending the rest of the day with you,” Avriel admitted in his painfully nasal voice.’ This one has a certain sleazy charm that I’d maybe be taken in by if my legs weren’t already so tired from running through the speaker’s dreams all night. It’s hard to know if the closing words in this quote are self-parody or not.

 

“Their lives collided for a reason. Was it only by chance or was it destiny?” Maybe it was fate or happenstance or through some purpose. At least it wasn’t clichéd.

“A beautiful women [sic]; a black widow, meets [sic] an arms trader who wants a secrete [sic] device from an engineer that [sic-ish] needs money. A volcano creates a tidal wave.” This book’s got everything! (Accept apparentley; an edditor.)

“Did people ever wonder… Why water lily’s leaf is shape [sic] like a heart ? [sic] And you will find the magical answer right here in this unforgettable tale .” [sic] I’m not interested in poking fun at what seems very probably like English as a non-native language here, and I’m actually sort of interested in the origin story this seems to point to, which could make a neat little tale, but it’s hard not to be shocked that there are zero editorial standards applied to the ad program. If Amazon is going to let people try to peddle their books, it seems like everybody benefits if there’s just a tiny bit of editorial work as part of the ad placement process. On the other hand, I guess I’d be pretty steamed if I bought a book based on a nice grammatical ad and the book itself was written as this ad is written, so there’s something to be said for truth in advertising. I do think there’s almost a sort of cruelty at play in letting this kind of thing through, though.

“You may claim to understand me but just when you are at the climax of your sureness, you may also be disappointed. Bon Voyage. Christopher Flier.” I hate when I’m disappointed at the climax of my sureness.