Bookshelves #20

Bookshelf #20 keeps us still mostly in the neutral colors, but a rare and only approximate additional organizational scheme emerges here. These are mostly books of poems and/or books (poems, anthologies, and a couple of essay collections) written or edited by one of my college professors, who I looked to as a mentor (meaning mostly that I attended probably every single weekly office hours session he offered for the four or so semesters I studied with him). I like McFee’s poetry and his essays, however biased I may be, having also admired him as a professor.

The other thin poetry books are ones I’ve liked quite a lot. Chitwood taught at my university starting some time after I graduated and is buddies with McFee. Hudgins writes really great stuff. The Donald Hall book is full of feeling about his experience with the death of his wife, writer Jane Kenyon. Ferlinghetti is always fun (I heard him give a reading at my university some 24 years ago and it was marvelous and made me a fan, even though I never did have much of a thing for the beats in general). Wrigley writes these marvelous meditations (as the title of the one selected works anthology suggests), often involving animals (as the title of the other suggests). I don’t read a whole lot of poetry these days, but he’s a poet I can dip into at any time and feel good about, rather than, as I’ve often done, kind of shaking my head and wondering what is even happening here. Atsuro Riley I wrote about nearly 16 years ago here. The Oyster book I own because acquaintance and artist Matt Kish did the cover art and I wanted to support that. I dip into most of these books occasionally when thinking about trying to get back into reading more poetry, though usually I find that while these books are pleasing to me, most of the other stuff I run into is less so.

Nestled in among the poems are two books by David Foster Wallace, both well worth reading (but if you’re new to Wallace, start with the lobster book; his essays are often a good gateway to his work, and Oblivion has some especially challenging or abstruse stories in it that to my mind make it not the best starting point).

Evan Dara is a puzzle. Nobody seems to know if he’s real or if he’s some other author incognito. Many loved this book. I don’t remember much at all about it, though my Goodreads review tells me that I found much of it sort of annoying and the last 120 pages dazzling, and that it was one I’d likely want to revisit.

The Bright Hour is a memoir a college friend and classmate in my poetry classes in college wrote as she was dying of cancer. I’m biased because I knew her when we were young and have lots of positive memories of her early work and of her sensitive and nuanced workshop feedback, and the book thus feels a little personal to me, but I did think it was a beautifully written book. The little volume stacked on top of it is a chapbook she published a few years before her diagnosis.

Finally, there’s an Ondaatje book a colleague who loves Ondaatje recommended as a way of seeing a bit into some of the culture of Sri Lanka.

And finally finally, there are a few more poetry books stacked behind these, but none that I recall as being especially worth a mention.

Next up are two shelves of recipe books, which I may give only an appetizer-sized treatment of.

Bookshelves #19

Here we are in the dull neutral tones section of my bookshelves, pretty firmly on the home stretch in this series. Let’s start at the top.

Lethem is pretty strong in general, and this short book was clever and funny. I liked it, and since it wasn’t a stinker (as one or two of his have been for me), I kept it. Salt Houses was a lovely story, good by any metric but especially good for a first novel (and one of my favorite reads of 2018); I’d like to read more by Alyan. Lauren Groff has been ridiculously consistent and is one of my favorite living authors. The Monsters of Templeton Place was my introduction to her work — and a lucky random bookstore find — and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. Salt I have not read; it was a gift to my wife that somehow wound up on my shelves. Maybe I’ll read it one day! Native Son is one of those classic books you sort of have to read, and I’m glad I finally did. My brief Goodreads review read “harrowing and eloquent.” I imagine I’ll revisit it one day.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s posthumous last novel, and while it is very far from being perfect, it contains some of his best writing, and some writing that departs significantly from his other work. I’ve read it once or twice and false-started another time and will definitely reread it one day. Look a few spines to the right and you’ll also see Wallace’s posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not. I’ve not read this cover to cover, though I think I’ve read most of the pieces in some form or another.

Weird and Wonderful Words was a gift probably 20 years ago. Although I like this sort of book, I’ve not read this one cover-to-cover and likely never will, but it’s neat to have a reference handy.

I remember nothing about Ozick’s Dictation, but Ozick is a marvel, so I keep everything of hers I pick up.

This edition of The Inferno came out when I was in college. Its translator, Robert Pinsky, was going to be coming to my university to read his own poems and participate in some activities with the writing students at the school. I had never read The Inferno and figured it was as good a time as any. So I got the book and sat alone in my dorm room one night reading it aloud, I believe in one setting and until I was hoarse. It was good! I’m a dork! Maybe I’ll do it again some time.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti also came to my university a year or two before Pinsky did, and he and his work had a pretty big impact on me at the time. I didn’t go out and become a Ferlinghetti-ish writer (though I did then read a lot of Beat work), but I have always had a soft spot for him. He was a great reader.

The Moby Dick item is a game and not a book. It was a Kickstarter I funded, but of course nobody would ever play the game with me, and I don’t imagine it’s too much fun anyway.

Tom McCarthy is pretty much always worth a read, and I keep his books when I get them. I don’t remember much about Men in Space.

Gass sure befuddles me. He’s so dang smart, and I can’t keep up. Middle C was more accessible to me than some of his other works of fiction, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Still, I keep Gass when I buy him, out of a naive hope that one day I’ll be smart enough to read him properly. See also his Finding a Form a couple of spines over — I’ve read some but not all of these essays.

I’ve always wanted to like Donald Hall, since way back when I was studying poetry in college. A couple of grown-ups I admired pointed me to his work. And I liked some of his work (his gut-wrenching poetry collection Without also appears among my shelves). I just haven’t gotten around to this one yet.

Barthelme and Markson are sort of experimental writers, and I like that sort of writing in theory. I’ve read a lot of Barthelme’s stories but haven’t gotten around to his Snow White yet; I’m waiting for the mood to strike me. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a big important text for David Foster Wallace, and as I did with so many of the things I knew had influenced him, I picked it up many years ago. The Markson didn’t resonate with me, and as with Gass, I figure maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it.

Finally, there’s a collection of Pynchon’s short stories. I think I’ve read them and I think I felt meh about them (at any rate, I remember nothing about them). One day I may go back and reread all of Pynchon, and these’ll be worth revisiting if I do so.

Update: I had forgotten until months later (I’m adding this in late February, 2020) that lurking behind these books are some computery books, a Bible, a couple of other random things, and perhaps my the books I’m most ashamed of — several if not all of Ayn Rand’s major works (and some minor ones). I got these, predictably, when I was in my early 20s and ripe to be taken in by Rand’s thinking.

Bookshelves #18

I last did one of these bookshelf posts nearly a year ago. I’m back! I’m skipping shelves 16 and 17, which hold mostly cookbooks, most of which I don’t ever consult (so why do I keep them?).

Starting along the top, there’s a repeat. The Burned Children of America anthology lived in shelf #15 when I wrote that post, but I’ve since loaned it out and placed it back on this shelf because my system of shelving is a little imprecise.

I’ve meant for years to read Graves’s The White Goddess, and it’s probably part genius and part poppycock. I liked it a lot and wrote a brief review of why I liked it here. I doubt I’ll ever read it cover-to-cover again, but I could see visiting bits and pieces of it again from time to time.

I don’t think I ever finished Melville’s Typee, but one day I may. I generally keep Melville books.

Gaddis is one of my favorite authors, and I coveted this book of his letters for years before finally buying it last year. I gobbled it up and have already consulted it a couple of times as a reference when reading the Graves book above (Gaddis used it as a reference and even met Graves to talk through some ideas) and rereading Gaddis’s J R a few weeks ago. It’s a gold mine of info about how Gaddis lived and grew as an author, and it’s surprisingly readable.

I’ve read 2666 two or three times even though I really didn’t even love it the first time I read it. A lot of it is really rough going. Some of it is pretty compelling. It’s a translation, and I’m generally pretty iffy on reading work in translation. Still, I’ll bet I wind up going back to it sooner or later. I’ve written about it at some length in years past here and here (the latter link points to a catalogue of the novel’s dreams I kept for an online group read).

Inherent Vice is short but was not very fun. Still, I keep Pynchon and will likely wind up rereading most of his work one day.

Bertrand Russell was formative for me when I was in college. He was a mathematician and philosopher. I am neither and certainly couldn’t pretend to understand his work in mathematics, but the essays in this book are (as far as I recall — it’s been 15 or so years since I reread any of them) pretty digestible. It was Russell whose work helped me make some declarations about my own beliefs that were pretty hard to make when I was younger, so I think I’ll always have a soft spot for him.

Clean Code is a book I got through work years ago. I’ll never read it again (I don’t often write code anymore), but work bought it for me, so I’d feel weird about getting rid of it. It’s a good book, just no longer relevant to my work or interests. Tucked in to the right of Clean Code and only partially visible in this shot is a book called Kanban and Scrum, another work book about some light-weight project management methods.

I’ve read only two or three of Roth’s books. I want to read him because I understand that he’s important, but I’ve had trouble making myself sit down and read him. I liked Portnoy’s Complaint and felt meh about some other novel of his and meh or better about a collection of novellas or stories or both. I’ll read Indignation some day, I’m sure, as I will a few others of Roth’s that are tucked here and there throughout the house.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a book about the press tour David Foster Wallace made in conjunction with the release of Infinite Jest, which as has been noted time and time again in this series of posts has been one of the most formative pieces of literature for me. I’ve not yet gone back to this book, but it was very meaningful to me and I may one day. I wrote a review shortly after its release here.

I’m a sucker for anthologies and picked up the Joyce Carol Oates book I forget where I forget how many years ago, but I’ve never cracked its cover. Maybe one day I will. I know that as soon as I get rid of it, I’ll discover a pressing need to read something it contained, so I’ll likely hang onto it as a sort of talisman at any rate.

And finally, The Elements of Style, which in an earlier edition I was made to copy large portions of out by hand in a high school English class. There’s plenty of bad advice in the book, and I’ve read critiques of it that’ve seemed to hold water. I can’t recall a time I’ve gone to this book in the last couple of decades for any practical advice (for that I go mostly to Garner back on some of the earlier shelves). But it would seem kind of weird not even to own a copy of it, so this one’ll stay shelved forever.

Bookshelves #15

Here we end the penultimate row in my bookshelves series. Along the top there you see various and sundry notebooks I’ve picked up over the last few years for long-hand writing and a spiral sketch-pad I bought when briefly (and it turns out optimistically) thinking “I’d like to learn how to draw.” I don’t know why these’ve landed in this cubby, but they have.

The Burned Children of America is a short story anthology I got because it had a David Foster Wallace story in it. It also has several other good stories by well-known authors of Wallace’s generation like Saunders, Eugenides, Bender, Moody, Lethem, Lipsyte, and Foer, and it’s got one by Julia Slavin that really knocked my socks off.

I first tried reading Ulysses probably 20 years ago, and probably three or four times after that failed attempt, I started it and didn’t get very far at all past stately, plump Buck Mulligan. Finally, back in 2010, I led an online group read of the book and did make it through. I surely didn’t love every minute of the book, but I was glad to get through it at last, and though at the time, I said I didn’t know if I’d ever read it again, I suspect I probably will (and indeed have been feeling the itch a bit lately). This one I’ll hang onto if only to avoid sending my silly margin notes out into the world for others to read.

I don’t love this Moby-Dick children’s book, but I keep Moby-Dick books. I did read this one to my kids a lot when they were little.

I apparently misread Americanah. It read as a fundamentally sad book to me, but Adichie apparently laughed all the way through writing it. I think my misreading stems from my discomfort taking as comical the struggles of characters whose experience (and whose sense of humor about it) is so very far removed from my own privileged experience. Anyway, misread or not, I didn’t love it, but I do think Adichie is a fantastic novelist (her Half of a Yellow Sun garnered a rare 5-star Goodreads review from me and is one of my favorite reads of the last few years), and I’ll likely reassess this one at some point.

I remember nothing about Your Fathers…, but Goodreads suggests that I liked it quite a lot. I suppose I’ll look at it again some day.

When I was in college many years ago, regional author Alan Gurganus gave a reading that I believe was from Plays Well With Others, though I don’t recall whether the book had yet been published. I don’t remember loving the reading, but I did go out and read his well-known Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which I forget how I felt about. And at some point, I picked up this book, which I vaguely recall as being biting and sort of angry and sometimes probably a little boring and sometimes very funny. I’ve read a little bit more by Gurganus since and not loved it, but I would like to try this one again in the future, as I was still a pretty young reader when I last went through it.

I had never read Watership Down until we picked it up as a family read a few years ago. I had always assumed it was some sort of naval adventure based on the name (though that actually doesn’t make sense either). I loved it. It’s so well imagined and just awfully well put together. I recently suggested a reread to my family.

Tristram Shandy was a real labor. I read it as part of reading a series of sort of foundational frame tales a few years ago. Yes, parts of it are hilarious, but it’s also just so very tedious and annoying that it was a real labor for me to get through. I tend to retry the hard ones, though, so I imagine I’ll go back to it again some day.

I have a probably irrational antipathy for Jonathan Franzen. I thought The Corrections was reasonably well written, and I really hated Freedom, which just felt ham-handed and improbable (though in the realist tradition) and dumb. I didn’t read Purity because by the time it came out, I had read enough of Franzen’s other work and read enough things about him that I just didn’t really want to be connected to more of his work. I think that if his books really did the trick for me, I could put the antipathy aside, but I really just don’t think the work is all that good either. I’ve never read this earlier book of his, but I hang onto it just in case I brush this chip off my shoulder one day and decide to give him another chance, as I’ve heard this is a good one (but I mean you hear that about all his books).

Tom McCarthy generally writes things that tickle some fancy of other of mine. It’s been a bit since I read C, but I vaguely recall it as sort of Pynchon-lite in its treatment of war, technology, and spiritualism. I’ll generally try anything this guy writes and think of him as somebody to maybe revisit overall one day.

Ah, Mencken, what a troll. I first encountered him in a Southern literature class in college, and I bought this anthology of his work a few years later to get a broader sampling. I’ve never read it cover-to-cover, but it seems like the kind of thing I might dip back into from time to time for topical readings.

Next time, I’ll do a carriage return to the next shelf of cubbies, which features some good books but also a bunch of cookbooks that I won’t likely go into detail about and a mysterious background layer of books that hides some of my deepest shames.

Bookshelves #14

I started this bookshelves series as a way to force myself to write a post a month, but I’ve wound up with other things to write about, so I’m lagging a bit. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to say something useful in June about Pride Month, but I’m having trouble articulating what I want to say, so for now, here’s shelf number 14.

For many years, I had intended to read Proust, and finally this year I picked up Swann’s Way, which I did not love. I imagine I’ll go back to it one day, so I’m keeping it on the shelf for now. Bastard Out of Carolina was a gift and a really good book. Donna Tartt is consistently good. The Goldfinch actually probably isn’t even my favorite of hers, but I’m sure a sucker for books that touch on the art world, and I can surely imagine going back to several of her books one day, this one among them.

I don’t know why I hang onto A Hog on Ice. It’s one of those weird little word nerd reference books that I’ve never actually read but but I also don’t like to get rid of because maybe one day (inevitably the day after I get rid of it), I’ll have cause to look up a phrase. The book purports to give the origin stories for colloquial phrases, but they’re in no discernible order, so as a reference, it’s not actually all that useful. As a bathroom book, it might be ok. The internet has likely rendered the book obsolete.

Carver writes one heck of a short story, and I dip back into his work occasionally. Where I’m Calling From is chock full of good ones.

Ozick I keep on principle. I forget the details of The Puttermesser Papers, but I find her work consistently smart and satisfying.

Signifying Rappers I own because I used to fancy myself an aspiring owner of all works by Wallace. It’s ok as a book, I guess. Farther along in the shelf, you’ll see Everything and More, another Wallace book that to me was so-so but that I keep because maybe I’ll read it again some day and in part because once I’ve bought Wallace, I don’t get rid of Wallace.

Arranging your bookshelves by color has its downfalls, as I was reminded this weekend when I purchased a copy of Frankenstein for my daughter’s summer reading for next year’s schoolwork. I was fairly certain we owned a copy already, but I was looking in the blue and black sections of my shelves and overlooked this slim pale volume. So now we own two copies (the new one has a black spine).

I haven’t read DeLillo’s Players in many years and don’t remember liking it much when I read it, but I tend to keep DeLillo, thinking that one day maybe I’ll dip in and do a study of him or reread everything at least.

Evangeline is lovely, and I reread it every so often (I’m way overdue for a read). I also have this poem in the beautiful two-volume Longellow collection back on shelf #7, but this one makes for more convenient reading.

In general, graphic novels and comics don’t do a whole lot for me. I find them annoying to read (which, to be clear, says more about me than about the form). I do try to get out of this mentality from time to time, and a few years ago, a few people had suggested Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, or The Smartest Kid on Earth. I read and enjoyed it and will almost certainly read it again some day. I’ve heard good things about Ware’s Building Stories but haven’t ever yet managed to work up the gumption to try it out (it sounds more annoying even than trying to visually parse graphic novels).

Portnoy’s Complaint is hilarious. With Roth recently dead, I suppose I ought to go and read a lot of his stuff, though I resist for now because I imagine him to be pretty far afield of the more diverse sort of reading I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years. I’ve read a couple of others of his and have several others lying unread around the house.

I sort of hated Vineland, but I hang onto Pynchon with aspirations of doing a reread of the whole body of work one day, and maybe one day I’ll appreciate it (I hated Gravity’s Rainbow my first few abortive and probably my first full time through it too, and it grew on me, so maybe this one will too). Against the Day was surprisingly enjoyable and, for Pynchon, easy. I keep it in part because I keep Pynchon and in part because I’d like to read it again one day for enjoyment (rather than as medicine, which is sometimes how Pynchon goes down for me).

And finally, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness is great. I like her work a lot. Every story has this feeling of having been bolted together just perfectly, and even when they’re a little dull, they feel so well constructed and often enough have this little central darkness to them that it’s hard not to admire Munro. I’ll read and reread her forever, and it’s good to have a collection I can pick up and leaf through when the mood strikes me.

Bookshelves #13

Well, it’s been a while since I shared a bookshelf snapshot. For any newer readers, the idea here is that I’m trying not to keep books unless they’re meaningful to me or are things I’ll likely reread. Every once in a while, the books have a neat story. I’m slowly cataloguing them all, whether they have good stories or not. My shelves are organized roughly by color. Here we are in shelf cubby number 13 (of 20), transitioning from very dark covers to the more neutral tones.

Riding along the top there is a book I got for work and didn’t like very much. The author fancies himself a maverick but seemed to me to mostly just be kind of flakey and annoying.

My kids wore out the copy of The Hobbit we had had for years, so this is a newer copy. I read Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns a long time ago in college and found it kind of so-so. Her In Country was much better, if with less of a carnival appeal to it.

Barth I have perpetual mixed feelings about. Giles Goat-Boy is hilarious and smart and never-ending and really uneven, like pretty much all of Barth’s long fiction that I’ve read. I’ll likely dip back into it someday.

I read the Baldwin essays and liked a couple of them but was less interested in the rest. I imagine I’ll give the ones I liked another read someday, so for now I’m hanging onto it. I recently read one of his novels and felt very meh about it.

Lethem is pretty consistently good, or at least aligned with my tastes. The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorites of his.

The Southern literature anthology was the text of a class I took in college, and it’s chock full of good stuff, and of less good stuff. I revisit things in it from time to time and generally tend to hang onto anthologies. I’ll skip quickly to the next book, A Handbook to Literature, which is an earlier version of the copy that made an appearance in shelf #6. This copy happens to’ve been my mother’s. A professor of mine was the editor of the more recent edition that I used in college.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is magnificent and very much worth keeping to reread later.

I never finished Pierre, though I reckon I’ll read it one day. I also didn’t read A Whaler’s Dictionary all the way through. It’s more of a commonplace book than a thing you sit and read. It’s got some neat entries in it. I picked it up a few years ago when doing an in-depth read of Moby-Dick. It’s a nice book to own, and one that I’d be surprised to find in my local library.

I keep Pynchon, so V remains on the shelf. I haven’t read that one in many years and didn’t love it when I did read it. I can see myself trying it out again, though I’d be more interested, as I think about it just now, rereading one of his others.

I never finished The Savage Detectives. I’ve read Bolaño’s 2666 a couple of times and had been told that this one was also a really good book, but I lost interest maybe 2/3 of the way through and never got back into it. One day maybe I’ll try again. It’s that sort of negligent optimism that keeps me hanging onto this one.

Bookshelves #12

Here’s another humdinger of a shelf. Riding along the top there, we’ve got yet another edition of Moby-Dick. I’ve never actually read this edition, but it was a gift and I don’t really feel great about selling or donating a gift. The last time I remember doing so, it was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and my sister-in-law, who had purchased it for me from my wish list, busted me. I really wanted to like Lowry’s book because people whose opinions I respected liked it, but it just didn’t do the trick for me, and I was in the middle of a purge of a couple of hundred books to make room for things I did value as literature (vs. as gifts). Anyway, I’m keeping this one.

Next up we have The Decameron and Don Quixote, which I read together a few years ago during a period of reading frame tales (stories within stories). The Decameron is full of bawdy jokes and is sometimes boring and sometimes hilarious to the extent that a book about aristocrats escaping the plague by leaving the city behind to go out into the country and tell one another moralistic and sometimes bawdy tales can be. Don Quixote is also really funny (if sometimes a bit tiresome) and is one I’ll likely reread in a decade or so.

I forget where I heard about Wickersham, but I picked this book up without really knowing what to expect. I didn’t love its first story, but on the whole, the stories wound up being really good, really well done. I kept the book as a reminder to read more Wickersham later.

This shelf holds two by Nicholson Baker — The Traveling Sprinkler and The Fermata. What an off-beat character the main guy (Paul Chowder) in these novels is. He’s kind of delightful and kind of an asshole. The books give us his childlike view mixed with I guess a bit of depravity (especially in the latter book). I liked Sprinkler in part because it taught me what a traveling sprinkler is as a real thing in the world (and what a neat thing, full of possibility for metaphor). I think there’s another in the series of Chowder books, but I forget whether I’ve read it if so. I’m sort of mesmerized by Baker’s easy-seeming style. I should probably get rid of these and read them, if ever again, from the library.

I’m a bit of a Pynchon junkie. When I read Bleeding Edge, I thought of it as the most accessible long-form Pynchon to date. This of course means that it’s not really full-on Pynchon, which is sort of disappointing but also sort of a relief. I keep Pynchon, so even though this one didn’t knock my socks off and I doubt I’ll ever read it again, on the shelf it remains.

I was talking to a friend just recently about Ozick. She’s somebody whose name I learned by reading interviews with David Foster Wallace, whose talking about the stuff he read or admired has informed a lot of what I’ve read over the past two decades. I’ve read five or six books by Ozick now, and they’re almost always really good. They don’t pack much of an emotional punch for me in general, but they’re just well written and so very smart, and I read her in part because I figure that reading smart stuff will make me smarter. To my friend, I likened Ozick to Alice Munro in terms of like the simple and matter of fact correctness of the way her stories are put together and narrated, but like Munro writing in a way more informed by academia than about the lives of Canadian women. I don’t remember a lot about The Cannibal Galaxy in particular, but in general I’m keeping and will plan to reread Ozick.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a brief biography of David Foster Wallace. I wrote a bit about it here. I keep it because I keep Wallace’s work and ephemera.

Finally, we have Richard Powers’s The Time of our Singing. I haven’t read this book in over a decade, but when I read it, I remember finding it really marvelous. This was at a time that I had been reading a fair bit of Powers and finding his work disappointing. He was regarded as sort of a wonder boy of literary fiction, but I thought his books were contrived and awkward, and it seemed often enough like he maybe hadn’t ever actually met or spoken with a real human being for long enough to be able to write one convincingly. This book was such a nice change. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say whether it was actually beautifully done or was just a relief after so much other bleh work I’d been reading by Powers (a stomped toe being a sort of relief after so many kicks in the nuts). In any case, it’s one I’d like to try again sometime.

In my next bookshelves post, we’ll transition from blacks and grays into beiges and whites, with of course a few of the usual suspects lined up.

Bookshelves #11

Here we are starting the second half of the bookshelves series, and it’s a bit of a dud, or perhaps it’s fitting, as a few of these I’ve left only half-finished.

I like Mark Twain but haven’t read the one here. I think I got it at a library sale of old books many years ago. One day I’ll get around to it.

I put The Brothers Karamazov down about 700 pages into it maybe 20 years ago, and two or three years ago decided to see if I could read the whole thing with a critical eye. I could! I picked up this biography of Dostoevsky by a historian whose work on Dostoevsky David Foster Wallace (of course) wrote good things about. It was a very readable book, but I ran out of time to read both this tome and The Brothers Karamazov simultaneously and on a bit of a deadline, so I stopped 200 or 300 pages in. I like to think I’ll go back to it some day.

I had heard that Flaubert was the quintessential stylist, and so what better way to read this classic than en Français? That turns out to be difficult if you don’t really know much Français. I tried a few years anyway, with a translation app on my phone to help me quickly get a handle on vocabulary I was missing. It was tedious and frustrating, and maybe one day I’ll try again (in English if not in French), but here we are three books into the shelf and I’ve completed not a one of them.

The Whale I read a few years back along with a bunch of other secondary material when leading an online group read of Moby-Dick. This one is obviously mis-shelved down here among the black books. It was a nice read. I don’t know if I’ll go back to it, though, but I hang onto it just in case, since as soon as I get rid of it, I know something will compel me to read Moby-Dick again and I’ll regret the loss of this secondary source.

DeLillo I tend to keep, figuring I’ll do some big completist type survey of his work some day. I read Mao II a few years ago and was I think so-so on it.

The Swerve was neat — a rare bit of nonfiction that I picked up in part because when I saw the title, it made me think back fondly to my old college class on Milton (my professor introduced me then to the concept of swerve).

This edition of Heart of Darkness is illustrated by Matt Kish, who also illustrated the Moby-Dick we saw on the last shelf. It’s really lovely to look at, and it was fun to see some of the ways in which he departed in this book from some of the themes and gestures so prevalent in his Moby-Dick art (though some of those remain).

I forget what I thought of the Eggers book. Probably I thought it was Eggers-ish, which is to say maybe a little too cute and proud of itself but also with something worthwhile in it. I think I recall that a friend sent me this book (his own copy) and didn’t want it back, and it’s not super clear to me whether I’m to cherish it as a gift or send it out to someone else in the world to enjoy. I suspect the latter.

And finally, Look Homeward, Angel. I grew up in North Carolina, though not in the mountains that Wolfe writes of. Wolfe is celebrated at UNC, which I attended. I remember seeing in some museum or pamphlet about him while I was in school there a photo of him standing beside knee-high stacks of paper that made up, I believe, this book. I should love this book, but I’ve twice now started it without finishing it. I don’t remember that anything has particularly turned me off to it, but I’ve just petered out for one reason or another. On a trip for work recently, I watched the fairly recent movie Genius, which tells the story of Wolfe and his relationship with editor Max Perkins. I enjoyed the movie, though I can’t imagine why they picked Jude Law to play Wolfe, and it made me want to try the book again. Maybe the third time’ll be the charm.

Bookshelves #10

The Tunnel is a enough of a kick in the nuts that I had to put it first in the list so that I could have the rest of this shelf to recover. What a horrible negative ghastly vitriolic book. I don’t even remember how it ended. I had to give it a couple of tries before I could make myself slog through it. But there is this one blessed section about the dustbowl and a grasshopper plague that is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I’ll keep the book for that alone. Also there’s one page upon which the words are arranged to look like a cock and balls (take that, George Herbert), which makes me giggle. There’s other good stuff too.

Stacked up sideways on top, we have Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which I enjoyed a lot. I think Tartt is maybe a rare talent, so I’ll keep reading her and keeping her work. The Makkai book I was ambivalent about. This is one I’m keeping so that I can remember to check out her later work.

Speaking of ambivalence, let’s look at Danielewsky’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book and a frustrating book in much the same way that Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is frustrating, in that some of it is kind of terrible. I’m a sucker for literary gimmicks, but I tend to prefer mind-fucks to like weird typographical tricks. Still, there’s something kind of neat about some of the stuff this book does. I predict that I’ll try it again in a decade or so and will scoff at it and never think about it again.

John Milton? Who’s that guy? This book set me back $80 about 20 years ago, and a lot of it is dull as ditchwater. But one of my best professors in college was my Milton professor. He did this thing where he would just sort of hover outside the classroom until it was time for class to begin and then he would sort of run into the room and start talking at the same time and it’d be 50 minutes of ramming smart shit into my head. I admired the heck out of this guy, and I think I did some decent work in his class. I liked Milton’s Comus and Renaissance drama in general enough that I intended to study the stuff of this period as my life’s work, but it didn’t work out. I’ve thought a lot lately about maybe rereading at least Aereopagitica, though probably I’m too addled with age and 21st-century mind-numbing work experience to get much out of it. Anyway, this book, and that class, were formative for me. I learned in college that I’m a terrible reader with a terrible memory, so I had to reread things two or three times to make them stick, so I probably managed to read Paradise Lost 4 or 5 times in a semester. I guess a side benefit is that 20 years later, I can still recite the first 15 or 20 lines of Paradise Lost from memory. That’s practical.

Suttree is a really difficult book. I remember having to read the first 5 or 10 pages several times to get much out of them. The word that has always come to mind when reading this book is “lush.” McCarthy has such a great vocabulary, whether he’s writing about pampooties or the chaparral or good old humble Knoxville, as in this book. I like McCarthy generally, and this one I keep because it’s about the place (albeit a different place than the one I really know) I’ve called home for nearly two decades now. A few years ago, a bar opened in town named Suttree’s, and I went there a fair bit until the night I discovered that it had been discovered (there was a line down the street), which didn’t fit my mostly reclusive temperament.

The next two slim volumes are one about Wallace and one by Gaddis. I read the Wallace book long ago but don’t remember anything about it; Burn is considered a scholar. Gaddis’s Agape Agape I don’t remember much about, but Gaddis is Gaddis, and I suspect this one’ll mean a lot more to me as I get older and older, as it is (if I recall correctly) sort of a dying yawp of a book based largely on Gaddis’s ruminations on the player piano as sort of a weird avatar of the crisis of easily reproducible or mechanized art and, in its obsolescence, probably of death.

Speaking of kicks in the nuts, there aren’t many people I don’t know (other than, say, Trump and company) who’d I’d line up to cock my big hammy leg back and sock really hard in the nuts, but Franzen is one of them. I don’t think he’s a particularly good writer, but he’s lauded as one of our greats. He writes in this contemporary realist mode, but his realism is terrible. He’s humorless (or when he tries to be humorous, it generally fails to land), and I’m not sure he really understands what it’s like to be a hu-man being. He and Wallace were sort of competitive friends, and it’s hard for me to imagine, based on what I’ve read of Franzen’s fiction and his of his public persona, that Wallace could have derived much value from the friendship or the competition. I thought Freedom was really awful and haven’t managed to make myself read Purity yet. The Corrections wasn’t terrible; there was some ok stuff in it. Still, I can’t muster much more than casual disdain for Franzen. A few years ago, there was a news item about a guy who stole Franzen’s glasses briefly (I believe they were later returned). I feel like Franzen probably deserved it and probably also deserved the kick in the nuts the opthalmological purnoiner failed (short-sightedly?) to deliver. I reckon I’ll read this goddamn book again one day in any case. There’s something not awful about it amid its awfulness.

If you’ve read many of my posts bout the nine shelves preceding this one, I’m sorry, and I also know that you know that I’ve got a thing for Moby-Dick. I tried to read it to my firstborn while she was in utero, but my wife ridiculed me just a few pages in (to her credit, it is awfully weird to read a book to a belly, and it is perhaps all the weirder to read to a belly a book such as this). So, it’s an important book to me. I’ve written about it (more about art about the book) on this blog here, and a lot more (with others) about the book itself here as part of an online group read I led a few years ago. This book is a really beautiful book containing an illustration per page from the artist’s edition of the book. When I was conducting the group read a few years ago, I found the art book (inspired by Zak Smith’s similar project around Gravity’s Rainboow — see shelf #2) and reached out to artist Matt Kish, who was very kind to respond and write some posts for my site. We’ve been in touch off and on since, and I have a tattoo based on one of his drawings, and he did me an unnecessary but nice courtesy by mentioning me in the acknowledgments of this beautiful collection of his drawings. So I guess I’ll keep it. I see his art every day in seven framed pieces of his original artwork that adorn my office walls, and I have a few bookmarks (I collect these) that my wife commissioned from him that I’m afraid to use for fear of messing them up (though I use them anyway — carefully).

Finally, we have The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My son picked this out from somewhere (I forget where), and we shortly thereafter discovered that it had some pretty explicit T&A stuff in it that we weren’t quite ready for our then-8-year-old son to be exposed to. I mean what, Moore, not super appropriate for children?

Thus ends row two of the shelves. I fear that shelf #11 will be a disappointment by comparison, but there are plenty of good books yet to come.

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.